Passport Agency in security blunder

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THE PASSPORT Agency was forced to make an embarrassing U-turn last night after being accused of relaxing security checks on passport applications to reduce a huge backlog.

A leaked memo reveals that officials were issued with a list of checks which were no longer to be carried out, in order to speed up the processing of applications. The decision prompted fears among immigration officials that it would lead to an increase in the number of forgeries being obtained by criminal gangs.

Last night, the Home Office said that the Passport Agency had reviewed its position and agreed the new system could be "misinterpreted as a relaxation of agency security".

It said the new measures were being withdrawn with immediate effect.

The backlog in the applications occurred after the installation of a new computer system at the agency's offices in Liverpool and Newport, south Wales. The system, which followed a public-private partnership contract with Siemens Business Services, was intended to meet targets of 30,000 passports a week but the current output is only 23,000.

In the memo sent to regional managers last month, the Passport Agency's operations director, Kevin Sheehan, said eight security shortcuts should be "immediately" implemented because of "reduced output" following the introduction of a new computer system. The shortcuts, which related to the manual security checks carried out by agency officials, included the acceptance of applications accompanied by only photocopies of marriage certificates. Mr Sheehan also advised that any counter-signatories who omitted to say how long they have known the applicant "should be given the benefit of the doubt".

The memo, reported tomorrow in Computer Weekly magazine, stated that "the widest interpretation" should be given to counter-signatories in deciding their status.

Photographs that were not accompanied by the correct wording from a counter- signatory should still be accepted. Mr Sheehan said the new system was designed to "attempt to increase output" but should only apply to cases where "there is no significant doubt about the identity of the applicant".

In response to the memo, George Ryan, the manager at Liverpool, the Passport Agency's largest office, said the measures would "increase the risk of fraudulent passports slipping through the system".

John Tincey, of the Immigration Service Union, said relaxed security checks would quickly be exploited by those involved in illegal immigration scams and other criminal activity. He was particularly concerned about the agency's willingness to accept photocopied identity documents. "Photocopied documents have no value whatsoever. With the quality of photocopying equipment available, it is so easy to produce forgeries."