As published in The Daily Mail:
Postcode lottery for passport delays: Officials ordered to target 100 postcodes for extra security checks – but other areas escape scrutiny in attempt to clear backlog
Passport chiefs are targeting 100 postcode areas for fraud investigations as they tackle the backlog which hit hundreds of thousands of families, it has been revealed.
Staff at the Passport Office have been ordered to give extra scrutiny to applications for travel documents for children from districts on the watchlist.
The agency, which is part of the Home Office, aims to focus its investigations on suspect areas as officials struggle to clear delays affecting more than 360,000 people, according to insiders.
Staff at the Passport Office have been ordered to give extra scrutiny to applications for travel documents for children from districts on the 100-postcode watchlist.
Critics said the ‘postcode lottery’ was unfair on innocent people who could face delays just because of where they live.
More than 40 of the postcodes are in London, and others are in Manchester, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Nottingham, Leeds and Brighton.
Many have high ethnic minority populations.
Other areas targeted include the historic market town of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, Tidworth in Wiltshire – a garrison town with, a survey said, the country’s most desirable postcode areas – and Andover, Hampshire.
In May and June, thousands of families’ holidays were ruined by mounting chaos at UK passport offices. Staff are so overwhelmed they are struggling to issue travel documents in time.
There were reports of holidaymakers being advised to pay up to £55.50 to fast-track passports, guaranteeing they arrive on time.
Unions said the agency was in crisis because of job cuts and office closures.
Tory MP David Davis said it ‘sounds like a deliberate postcode lottery’ caused by ‘lazy thinking’
Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to intervene after it emerged that more than 360,000 applications had not been processed within the three-week time limit.
The policy emerged in a document titled Confirming Identity Examiner Processes that said officials handling applications for new passports from the 100 postcodes should complete ‘additional checking’.
That could include contacting the countersignatory – the person who has agreed to confirm that the application for a child’s passport is true and accurate.
Fraudulent applications can use the name of a dead person to conceal a traveller’s real identity or rely on fake birth certificates or stolen forms.
Offenders wishing to conceal their identity include fugitives and terrorists. They may hope to illegally enter the UK or avoid deportation, commit financial crimes or get involved in drug or people trafficking.
Tory MP David Davis, a former shadow home secretary, said: ‘This sounds like a deliberate postcode lottery. It is lazy thinking to save money and save resources. Doubtless there are an awful lot of non-fraudsters living in those areas whose service should not be altered by this policy.’
Professor Richard Webber, an expert in the use of postcodes to identify trends, said: ‘This seems to me an example of a postcode lottery. Targeting of this sort might make sense for avoiding the waste of government resources. But it is important that the service that citizens receive shouldn’t be adversely affected by where they live.’
Mark Serwotka, the leader of the PCS union which represents Passport Office staff, said: ‘Rather than this sticking plaster approach of basing decisions on what is a potentially discriminatory postcode system, the Passport Office should agree to sit down with us to talk about the resources they need to provide a full and proper service now and for years to come.’
A Passport Office spokesman said: ‘Preventing and detecting fraudulent applications protects the public and, in the case of child passports, safeguards children.
‘All applications are subject to a number of security checks. No one factor alone will determine the outcome of an individual application, a range of evidence is considered and taken into account.
‘All checks are carried out in accordance with UK law. Procedures have been subject to a full equality impact assessment prior to introduction but remain under review.’