UK Home Secretary David Blunkett is set to publish his draft national identity card bill, and according to weekend reports is expected to announce a new offence of possession of a false document, maximum penalty ten years in prison, as he does so. This plugs a major hole in UK law, we are told by the public prints, because "It is currently not an offence to possess a false document unless it has been used in the commission of another crime" (The Guardian)
The Graun goes on to tell us: "Ministers believe it will make it easier for the police to catch criminals at an earlier stage. Someone found at an airport with a suitcase full of forged passports could be prosecuted for that alone", and other papers take a similar line (e.g. The Sun: "Under current laws, prosecutors have to prove those caught with false identity papers were also planning or had committed other crimes.") But exorcise any images you were getting of some weird liberal la-la land where kindly bobbies hand back your fake passport to you, and customs officials close your suitcase full of false passports and wave you through with a cheery smile, because it's not true.
A cursory study of the facts leads one almost inescapably to the conclusion that the 'ten years for ID fraud' headlines are being deployed to help Blunkett present a tough on ID fraud, tough on immigration stance in order to improve the reception of his ID bill on Monday.
The current position is as follows. If you arrive at Heathrow with a suitcase full of false passports, you will be charged with Having a False Instrument, contrary to Section 5(2) of the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981 (example). Or if you're caught running a passport factory, you will be charged with conspiracy to make forged instruments (example). Penalties are not what you'd call trivial - in our second example, the organiser received five years in prison plus the threat of another three if he did not pay the authorities £200,000. Defendants were (as is usual in these case, subject to a confiscation hearing to identify and seize any ill-gotten gains.
The position as regards individuals holding false documentation is particularly interesting, because this is our second draconian crackdown in ten months. Prior to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 fraudulently obtaining a passport was dealt with under the Theft Act 1968, but one problem perceived with this was that although high penalties were available, loss tended to be equated with the value of the document, rather than the potential use to which the document could be put. Provisions increasing the penalty for falsely obtaining a passport or driving licence to a maximum of two years prison came into effect on 29h January 2004 (Home Office circular). And when the late Beverley Hughes, a Home Office minister at the time, announced the change at the Combating Identity Fraud Conference in London in June last year, she said: "The new offence will make it much easier and swifter for police to arrest criminals for identity theft as they will be able to arrest the criminals for just possessing fake or stolen documents" (Home Office press release*).
Much useful information on the related issues of illegal immigration and people trafficking is available from the Metropolitan Police Authority, which reports that "as the Home Office have become more concerned about immigration and introduced more controls, so the opportunities for serious and organised criminals to profit from would-be migrants by providing them with fraudulently obtained, forged or stolen travel documentation, or secure means of transportation across borders, have increased" (performance report, 8th May 2003). The MPA says that numbers trafficked "rather than facilitated" are relatively small, that London is the principal target for organised crime and illegal immigration, and that 75 per cent of failed asylum seekers live in London.
Joint operations with the Immigration Service had a target of the removal of 350 failed asylum seekers per month last May, and it was intended to ramp this to 800 a month by March 2004. Actions supporting this ramp include "a 'walk up' at identified locations throughout London with a focus that includes car washes and other similar activity." So clearly, even under the grotesquely inadequate laws of 2003, the police do not seem to have been significantly impeded in their ability to spot-check ID and nick people.
A more recent MPA report gives an indication of what happens to people carrying false ID, and indicates what the Home Office is doing to in the fight against organised crime (er, it's impeding it). Says the report: "It is evident, though, that UKIS and UKPS [Immigration Service and Passport Service respectively] are working to a different set of objectives to Operation MAXIM [the Met task force dealing with organised immigration-related crime]. From an enforcement perspective, UKIS is focused on meeting Government targets for removals and... considers identifying and tackling organised immigration crime networks as a secondary issue, potentially best addressed by police resources."
So in chasing their failed asylum removal targets, IKIS and UKPS are whipping detainees out of the country so fast that police chances of tracking the origins of their false documentation are substantially reduced. The report continues: "This is leading to a number of missed opportunities where linked offences, such as forged passports coming from the same source, are not being followed up, because the focus is on removing the holder of the forged passport and not expanding the investigation to include identifying the network that supplied it and others in the series."
So shall we recap? We will have a new, stiffer penalty for an offence that gained a new, stiffer penalty just last year. A large proportion of those caught carrying false ID will, as previously, be swiftly ejected from the country, and will therefore not be going to prison anyway. The Metropolitan Police is meanwhile is "negotiating" with the Immigration Service in order to agree procedures that will give it data on false identity documents that will actually stand up in court. Should UKIS be able to tear itself away from its Home Office targets for long enough to do this, then the police will be rather better equipped to target organised crime's production of false identity documents. ®
* Our apologies for the Google cache link. At time of writing great swathes of the UK government's documentation, including select committee reports, had been offline for several days. As the provision of information to the citizenry is merely a key component of the democratic process in the electronic age, we accept that this probably doesn't count as mission-critical.