Hong Kong passport security row

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Concern is being expressed by Home Office officials over the security of passports to be issued in Hong Kong next year which will provide visa- free access to Britain.

These concerns are linked to a brewing scandal in the colony over the sudden resignation of Lawrence Leung, the former Director of Immigration who negotiated a deal with the Chinese authorities under which what will become known as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) passport will be produced by Hong Kong's largest pro-Peking publishing and printing house.

It had been thought that the printing contract would go to the De La Rue passport-printing plant in Dunstable, or possibly to the former De La Rue bank note factory in Hong Kong, now owned by the colony's Monetary Authority.

However, at the end of last year, Mr Leung travelled to Peking, where he reached an agreement for the new passports to be made by the Hong Kong Commercial Safety Printing Company, which has no previous passport- making experience. The concern centres not on the ability of the company to make international-standard passports, but on the level of security in their distribution.

This is particularly a problem for Britain, for not only has it announced that SAR passport-holders would be given visa-access for a trial period of two years, but the Foreign Office has been actively encouraging other countries to accept the document and provide equally relaxed entry rights to Hong Kong residents.

When John Major announ-ced the visa-free arrangements last March, he was met by a storm of protest from Conservative MPs worried by an influx of Hong Kong residents. Fears were also expressed over the administration of travel documents issued by a Chinese- controlled government.

Hong Kong's government insists that an influx is unlikely, and had been saying that there was no reason to be concerned over the printing of the passports. However, the administration is severely embarrassed by suggestions that the new passport may get into the hands of persons who are not entitled to hold it.

At least one Commonwealth country is understood to have made strong representations on this matter because it was led to believe that the new passports would be produced in the same way that existing Hong Kong travel documents are produced, and not by a company which is closely linked to China.

Hong Kong legislators are poised to start an investigation into the circumstances of Mr Leung's sudden decision to take early retirement, which came into force overnight rather than the customary period of 12 months. Using parliamentary privilege, some legis- lators have aired allegations about Mr Leung which have appeared in newspapers.

He was well-known to have unusually good contacts with the Chinese authorities and was accused of passing information to them which would have damaged the security of dissidents and members of the civil service who have secretly applied for British citizenship.

The Home Office said production of the passports was a matter for the Hong Kong government. However, a spokes- woman said: "As far as security goes, the British immigration services have the best record in the world for the detection of fake travel documents."