People we spoke to who had their passports removed told us they received a letter which stated that they had been assessed to be an “Islamic extremist” or involved in “Islamist activity”. No criminal charges had been brought against them at the time.
A line consistently written in all the letters we saw, read:
You are therefore considered a person whose past, present or proposed activities, actual or suspected, are so undesirable that the grant or continued enjoyment of passport facilities is believed to be contrary to the public interest.
Royal prerogative powers to remove passports were updated in April 2013. The revised policy established that there was ‘no entitlement to a passport and no statutory right to have access to a passport’ and reconfirmed that the ‘decision to issue, withdraw or refuse a passport’ was at the discretion of the Home Secretary.
Whilst it was reasserted that the decision to withdraw or refuse a passport ‘must be necessary and proportionate’ and that refusal on the grounds that it was in the ‘public interest’ to do so was to be used ‘only sparingly’, the ‘public interest’ criteria for refusing or withdrawing a passports was itself redefined.
The new criteria of assessment would account for a person’s ‘past, present or proposed activities’. Largely aimed at targeting British nationals suspected of engaging ‘in terrorism-related activity or other serious or organised criminal activity’, our research indicates, passport removals have been used against individuals resident in Britain who have come under the radar of security services. Government reports indicate that a number of British citizens abroad have also had their passports cancelled in 2017.
The exact process via which the Passport Office establishes whether an applicant is deemed to be suspicious by the Home Secretary is shrouded in secrecy and remains unclear but from the interviews we carried out it seems both the Passport Office and the Home Secretary rely on knowledge and requests from the intelligence services for refusing or withdrawing passports on these grounds.
When the Home Affair’s Committee subsequently discussed use of the power in 2014, it noted that because passport removals operated as a Royal Prerogative power there was no obligation for the Home Secretary to report its use to Parliament, ‘and that it was not subject to any scrutiny external to the executive’. They recommended that the Home Secretary report quarterly on its use to the House of Commons and allow the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation to review use of the power. The first report is still due.