Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from the Home Office


  1. In his letter to the Home Secretary of 14 January 1998 Mr Archy Kirkwood MP asked the Home Office for information on the collection of embarkation data and the control of birth certificates in connection with a follow up enquiry into child benefit fraud which is being conducted by the Committee. This memorandum has been prepared in response to that request in conjunction with the Office for National Statistics (ONS). ONS have responsibility for the civil registration service in England and Wales.

  2. The passages in the memorandum on the control and security of birth certificates reflect much of the work recently undertaken by the Inter-Departmental Identity Fraud Forum. The Forum, which is chaired by the DSS, includes representatives from ONS, the Home Office, United Kingdom Passport Agency, Immigration and Nationality Department, General Registrar's Office, (Scotland and Northern Ireland) DVLA, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DfEE. The Forum has been asked by Ministers to:

    (ii)  look into how birth certificates fit into best practice used within Departments and

    (iii)  look at methods for strengthening procedures.

  In addition to the measures that have already been set in hand to reduce fraud involving birth certificates, and those that are proposed, the Forum will continue to play a key role in monitoring future progress, and identifying and tackling any issues relating to identity fraud.

  3. As the Department of Social Security is providing a separate memorandum for the Committee, detailed reference to DSS issues has been omitted from this paper.


Immigration Service procedures relating to people leaving the United Kingdom

  Legal powers

  4. The Immigration Act 1971 only empowers an Immigration Officer (IO) to examine any person seeking to embark from the UK so as to determine if he is a British citizen and, if not, his identity (Paragraph 3(1), Schedule 2). The IO may also require the presentation of a passport or equivalent document. (Paragraph 4(2), Schedule 2). But the IO has no express powers to prevent departure.

  5. The Immigration Service has recently reviewed the role of the embarkation control with a view to reconfiguring it in such a way that its own costs are reduced, but its value to the police and other agencies who directly benefit is enhanced. A Ministerial statement on 16 March announced changes to the way the control will be operated. In essence, the Immigration Service will move away from the current routine control of departing passengers to develop a targeted intelligence-led approach. The following paragraphs provide an outline of the previous system and the factors which provoked the imminent change, which will be phased in from early April.

Purpose and Effectiveness

  6. The original objective of the embarkation control was to record the departure of all persons subject to immigration control so that, in principle at least, efforts could be made to track down those who were not recorded as having left. In the days before mass travel it may have fulfilled this purpose quite effectively, although it has never been completely comprehensive (for example, there has never been an embarkation control between the UK and the Republic of Ireland under the "Common Travel Area" arrangements).

  7. By 1970 the numbers were such that it had become impractical to attempt to match all landing and embarkation cards. This proved to be the case even when the system of recording arrivals and departures was computerised in 1980. Efforts have therefore been concentrated on recording a relatively small number of arrivals. In the main these cover passengers coming either as visitors about whom the IO has some doubts (but not sufficient to warrant refusal) or for longer term purposes such as students, au pairs and work permit holders. To give an idea of the scale, only about 15 per cent of all arriving non-EEA passengers are given an embarkation card to complete and hand to the IO on departure.

  8. The system has rarely been used as a means of identifying and tracing people who have "overstayed" because people in such circumstances are unlikely to reside at the address given on the landing card; intelligence and denunciations are much more effective enforcement tools in this area.

  9. In February 1994 the previous Government took the decision to withdraw the embarkation control in respect of those passengers travelling to other EU countries from locations where that traffic could be easily identified—which in practice means ferry ports and small airports. Since then the arrangements have been extended to all EEA countries. The result is that the Immigration Service now operates an embarkation check in respect of around 60 per cent of departing passengers only. What is left of the control therefore serves no purpose in proving a reliable record of departures.

Resources consumed

  10. The embarkation control consumes a significant amount of resources. For example, in the calendar year to 31 December 1997, 7 per cent of the Immigration Service Ports Directorate operational duties were deployed on the embarkation control compared to 11 per cent on asylum related work. The cost of the embarkation control to the Immigration Service Ports Directorate is around £3 million per annum.

  Why not have a comprehensive check-in and check-out system?

  11. Work done in 1994, to assess the additional costs likely to be associated with a more comprehensive embarkation control, estimated that the IT cost would be about £66 million over a 10 year period. Assuming that the base figure has not changed, the cost at today's prices is likely to be in the region of £73 million. (This assumes a 2½ per cent uplift each year but makes no additional provision for the growth in passenger traffic—around 5 per cent per annum. The likelihood is, therefore, that this figure understates the real costs.)

  12. There would be additional running costs, including an increase in staffing costs for ports of about £7.2 million annually. Even with an investment of this magnitude no system would be totally comprehensive because of the Common Travel Area arrangements with the Republic of Ireland. A more comprehensive check-in and check-out system would provide a larger information base on overstaying but would not help in tracing the offenders. Potential offenders either give false information or move on after arrival. The value of such a system for the after-entry control would, therefore, be limited. There is also the important consideration that a more comprehensive system would involve additional delays for arriving and departing passengers.

Home Office involvement in Operation Rattle and any subsequent activities (see DSS memorandum)

  13. The UK Immigration Service is aware that, notwithstanding its negligible immigration value, the embarkation control has been of some help to the DSS in identifying child benefit fraud. Indeed, where possible, the Immigration Service has occasionally diverted resources from its core activities to assist the DSS on a number of related initiatives (including Operation Rattle).

  14. The re-structured control which will operate from early April onwards will not include routine departure checks. Increasing passenger workloads and diminishing resources have also meant that the Immigration Service no longer has the capacity to devote staff to non-immigration core work in the way it has in the past. It remains willing to assist the DSS and other agencies as appropriate, in response to targeted intelligence.


  15. In the UK there is no single universally held document that can be used to verify identity. Birth certificates are often used as a key document by Government agencies such as DSS, the United Kingdom Passport Agency (UKPA) to help verify the identity of people born in the United Kingdom. But birth certificates cannot be solely relied upon. User organisations must also have robust procedures in place to confirm that a person is who he/she purports to be. If a birth certificate is used as part of this process, it is necessary to ensure not only that any certificate submitted is genuine, but also that the information it contains relates to the person who produces it.

  A description of current registration procedures

  16. Since the inception of civil registration in 1837, its primary purpose has been to protect the individual by making it possible for anyone to see what has been officially recorded about a birth, death or marriage. This allows challenge of incorrect or deliberately false information given to the authorities.

  17. The registration process also assists society in the prevention and detection of crime. Registration means that births, deaths and marriages of people are subject to public scrutiny so that their existence is acknowledged, their freedom or otherwise to marry made clear and the reasons for deaths formally recorded. In relation to civil law the information contained in registers is of legal standing, for example in determining age or family relationships between people. Any person is entitled to see the publicly available indexes to the civil registration records held by the GRO (part of the ONS) or the GROs in Scotland and Northern Ireland. A person is entitled to buy a certified copy of any register entry. In Scotland the public have full access to the register pages, not just the right to buy an extract of a particular entry which they have identified from the index.

  18. In recent years, steps have been taken in England and Wales and Northern Ireland to tighten the application procedures for copies of entries. But however secure the issuing process, it is impossible to guarantee the secure handling of certificates after they have been issued. In addition they contain no corroborating features to link the document to the holder, such as photograph, signature or other identifier. They are not, therefore, proof of identity and a warning to this effect has been included on all birth certificates printed since 1991 (1993 in Northern Ireland). Nevertheless in the absence of any general UK identity document or register they are an important part of Government Departments' identification processes.


  19. Health Authorities are notified (by hospitals and midwives) of all births which occur in their area and they in turn notify registrars of these births. Registrars, who are statutory officers appointed by local authorities, follow up births notified by health authorities which are not registered and vice versa. The very rare occurrences of fictitious births are notified to DSS.

  20. There is a statutory requirement, generally on the mother, to register locally a live birth in the United Kingdom. The date and place of birth of the child and its name and sex must be supplied, together with information about the parents, and these are entered in a Register showing the date on which registration takes place. A birth certificate is a certified copy of, or extract from, such an entry in a birth register. There is no such thing as "an original birth certificate"; all are, in essence, copies of the original information held in the register. "First issue" certificates is the term used for those issued within six weeks of a birth, to distinguish them from other certificates issued at a later date.

Issue of certificates

  21. Birth certificates are issued both centrally and locally and applications may be made in person or by post. ONS and GRO(s) also offer a telephone ordering service. In England and Wales certificates are issued by ONS in London and Southport and by some 1,800 local registration offices. In Northern Ireland, certificates are issued by the General Register Office (GRO) in Belfast and local registration offices within District Councils. In Scotland, certificates are issued by GRO in Edinburgh, as well as locally by about 350 local offices.

Application process

  England and Wales and Northern Ireland

  22. Any person is statutorily entitled to have a certificate of any entry identified in the public indexes. An application form used for personal callers to the Family Records Centre (FRC) and GRO (NI) doubles as the processing document. This was redesigned in 1991 (1993 in NI) to put hurdles in the path of dishonest applicants. It has no statutory standing, but may be used as evidence in criminal proceedings.

  23. The applicant must sign the form and provide the following details:

    —  whether the certificate relates to his/her birth and, if not, the relationship of the applicant to the subject of the certificate;

    —  the reasons for wanting a certificate;

    —  full details of the birth in which he or she is interested, including the date and place of birth, and the parent's names. As some of the details requested cannot be obtained from the publicly available index of births this information, when considered in conjunction with the answer to other questions, provides an indicator as to the honesty of the applicant.

  24. Any application form purporting to relate to the birth certificate of the applicant or a close relative but which does not contain all the details of the birth, will raise suspicion. Applicants for certificates of births less than 50-years ago who are unable to supply this information are asked to explain themselves to a senior member of staff, and to produce evidence of their name and address. The majority of certificates issued for events more than 50 years ago are required for genealogical traces and the additional information may not be known.

  25. Applications for death certificates are covered by similar procedures.


  26. In Scotland, legal tradition regards official registers (e.g. land registers as well as birth registers) as open public documents. This is mirrored in Scottish practice permitting full access to the birth register pages for scrutiny, not just giving customers the right to buy extracts of any particular entry. For this reasons no local or central application forms are used in Scotland for birth certificates since the information required to complete it, is in the public domain and would be available to any fraudster. As there is no administrative reason for an application form in Scotland, to introduce one would be an unnecessary burden on those requesting certificates.

  Evaluation of level of fraud

  27. By its nature, we can never be absolutely certain of the exact levels of fraud based on identity misrepresentation. However, some key figures are presented below:

    —  Identity fraud detected by the United Kingdom Passport Agency (UKPA) is around 0.05 per cent of the total applications made (4.9 million in 1997-98). This is equivalent to around 2,600 fraudulent cases annually. The majority of these cases involve recently issued birth certificates. Instances of certificates issued in a deceased identity—Day of the Jackal—are in a minority. Figures can fluctuate between years but since the abolition of the one year British Visitor's passport at the end of 1995 UKPA have noticed a small increase in detected fraud. The figure for undetected passport fraud necessarily is unknown but UKPA think it is very low.

    —  Identity fraud accounts for only a small proportion (less than 1 per cent) of fraud against the DSS. Most fraud involves customers misrepresenting or failing to report changes in their circumstances.

    —  Although IND do not keep statistics of the number of birth certificates used fraudulently a recent investigation into nearly 40 suspect applications for Certificates of Entitlement to the Right of Abode established that four individuals (some 10 per cent) had claimed to be someone else by providing UK birth certificates for infants who had died shortly after birth.

Types of identity fraud

  28. The types of identity fraud involving birth certificates include:

    —  Fictitious identity—where someone fabricates details and in doing so uses a counterfeit or stolen blank certificate form. False identities set up in this way may be based on UK birth certificates and other documentation, or may involve certificates issued (or allegedly issued) in other countries.

    —  Using another person's identity—unlike fictitious identity, where the key details are fictitious, this fraud involves real people and can include the use of "genuine" certificates/documents in respect of someone else. This type of fraud can be broken down into two categories:

    —  "Day of the Jackal"—where someone uses a birth certificate (and/or other documents) to impersonate a person who has died (usually in infancy). In most cases no other records (other than registration records) will have been created for someone who died in infancy, therefore this type of fraud tends to be difficult to uncover.

    —  "Piggybacking"—where someone uses a birth certificate (and/or other documents) to impersonate a person who is still alive.

  Analysis of actual cases of recently issued birth certificates supporting fraudulent passport applications suggests that "piggybacking" is more prevalent than "Day of Jackal" fraud.

Fraudsters' Methods

    —  a person may apply for a birth certificate from a UK register, with the intention of using it fraudulently;

    —  a stolen or counterfeit blank birth certificate may be completed with false information;

    —  a fraudster may use a birth certificate (and/or other documents) provided, inadvertently or not, by someone else.

  Plans to make changes

  29. A range of improved procedures have been adopted over the last few years by issuing departments ONS, GRO (S) and GRO (NI) and user departments, DSS, the Home Office IND, and the Passport Agency to combat identity and birth certificate fraud, and many more are in the pipeline. The effectiveness of these improvements will continue to be monitored closely. These include:

    —  increased awareness amongst Government departments of the problems relating to establishing identity and identity fraud;

    —  setting up an Inter-Departmental Evidence of Identity Working Group (now Inter-Departmental Identity Fraud Forum) to co-ordinate and monitor action across Government Departments;

    —  the introduction by ONS of a redesigned application form for personal callers applying for birth certificates at the Family Records Centre, which puts hurdles in the path of dishonest applicants;

    —  ONS and GRO's establishment of databases containing the serial numbers of missing blank certificate forms, and the supply of this information to user departments so that they can check any certificates submitted;

    —  ONS supplying guidance to other Departments on how to spot counterfeit or bogus certificates;

    —  DSS introduction of a number of measures to detect, prevent and deter benefit fraud based on misappropriated identities, including the fraudulent use of birth certificates.


  30. To reinforce the measures already adopted the following improvements are now underway.


Printing of Certificates

  31. For the year 2000, ONS plans to enhance the security printing and design of certificate forms to combat counterfeiting and tampering. The new certificate form will also include a more prominent warning that its not evidence of the identity of the person presenting it. GRO(NI) will follow these developments. In Scotland, GRO(S) similarly will be considering additional security features, and will also include a more prominent printed warning.

  32. ONS also plan to develop a computer system to process and track certificate applications made centrally. The system will highlight birth certificate applications posting a high risk of fraudulent use, such as multiple applications from individuals or relating to the same entry. The design would need to complement the systems and checking procedures used in other Departments.

Extending certificate application procedures to local registration service

  33. As the current application procedures used by ONS place hurdles in the path of potential fraudsters applying for certificates centrally, ONS will discuss with local authorities and registration officers the introduction of similar procedures locally. At the same time ONS will raise the awareness of the local registration service to the fraud problem.

  34. In Scotland the indexes to the registers of births, deaths and marriages are already held on computer. Thus it is already possible to provide other Government Departments on line with information. GRO(S) stands ready to liaise with any Department seeking to make use of this procedure for checking purposes.

Exchange of information

  35. ONS and GRO (Northern Ireland) plan to include warnings on the application forms stating that the information they contain may be passed to other Government Departments and law enforcement agencies.


  Making use of new technology

  36. United Kingdom Passport Agency (UKPA) plan to replace their current computer system at the end of 1998. (For all applicants this will allow amongst other measures, additional checks on the missing birth certificates database).

Requiring long rather than short birth certificates

  37. Short birth certificates do not show all the details contained in the register (e.g. in cases where a name is changed within 12 months of the date of birth no reference is made to the earlier certificate). UKPA are considering whether first time passport applicants should be required to supply a full birth certificate.

Further checks where "recent" birth certificates are submitted

  38. As most fraud occurs on first time applications supported by recently obtained birth certificates, from applicants in the 18 to 40 age group, UKPA are considering the case for introducing a requirement for examiners to seek additional evidence information in these cases as a matter of course. This might include:

    —  utility bills relating to the applicant's address and showing the applicant's name;

    —  other original documents in the name of the applicant (e.g. school certificates, tax bills which might in turn be subject to further checking);

    —  information to enable checks with credit checking systems;

    —  checks against death records.

Learning from other countries

  39. The next Four Nations Passport Conference (USA, Canada, Australia and UK) to be held in September 1998 will have determination of identity as its main agenda item, and UKPA will subsequently disseminate information on good practice to the Inter-Departmental Fraud Forum.

Monitoring, Risk Management and Deterrence

  40. The effect of these measures on levels of identity fraud will be jointly monitored by ONS, the Home Office and DSS. Monitoring the frequency and nature of identity fraud will be used to further management of the risk of identity fraud. Most of the work implemented and in hand to combat identity fraud aims to detect or prevent it, e.g. data sharing and back-room checks. Preventative, detective and enforcement work all have deterrent effects, particularly when reinforced through publicity and presentations.

  Analysis of the circumstances of the case of Mr Sunday Afolabi (see DSS memorandum)

  41. For the circumstances of this case see the DSS memorandum.

  Effect on procedures of Afolabi case

  42 There is no evidence that Sunday Afolabi fraudulently used the identities of deceased children in a Day of the Jackal style operation. In this case the fraud revolved around the forgery of genuine birth certificates, which were meticulously altered by changing the children's names.

  43. ONS are proposing to take further steps to reduce the risk of counterfeiting and tampering by enhancements to the security printing and design of birth certificate forms. These should be in place within the next two years.

  44. Child Benefit Centre have security measures in place to prevent claims for fictitious children including database and security feature checks and equipment to detect altered certificates. Further information will be contained in the separate memorandum submitted by the Department of Social Security.

Immigration aspects of case

  45. Afolabi was issued with a visitors visa in 1989. In 1991 an application was received for leave to remain on the basis of his marriage to a person settled here. He was granted leave to remain until July 1993 and then indefinite leave to remain in August 1993. Afolabi has been recommended for deportation by a court. This recommendation forms part of his sentence. Afolabi has appealed against this conviction and the court's recommendation will be considered in the light of the outcome of his appeal.

  Afolabi is thought to be one and the same as:


  On 22 November 1988 at Croydon Crown Court, Owoyele was convicted of conspiracy to defraud and sentenced to two years' imprisonment. He was deported for this offence under section 3(5)(b) of the 1971 Act on 8 June 1989.


  Okesokun has been known to IND since 1979 and to have made a habit of using false identities for passport abuse and various methods of fraud. He has been removed as an illegal entrant on a number of occasions.

  46. If it is proved that Afolabi has used these other identities it is clear that he is a determined fraudster. There are measures in place to detect illegal entry in false identities but these are not foolproof. For example, the Suspect Index computer system provides every immigration officer working at control points with a database of the names, dates of birth and nationalities of people with adverse immigration histories. It also contains details of lost and stolen passports. The system is fast in operation and can contain many aliases for an individual.

  47. Whilst the Suspect Index would hold details of all identities used by Afolabi, it would not pick up a new identity unless the number of the passport held had been notified as stolen. If an immigration officer at a port of entry was suspicious of a person's identity it would be open to him to fingerprint the person. The fingerprints could then be checked against police records.

Home Office

May 1998

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1998
Prepared 29 September 1998