Thieves nab 3,000 blank U.K. passports, visas in van raid

The British government has acknowledged the theft of 3,000 blank passports and visa stickers after thieves stole a van carrying the documents.

The British government has acknowledged the theft of 3,000 blank passports and visa stickers after thieves stole a van carrying the documents while the driver stopped for a newspaper.

The Foreign Office said the documents were snatched in a raid Monday on a parked delivery van in Oldham, near Manchester, as the vehicle was en route from northern England to a Royal Air Force base near London.

Police said the driver of the van had entered a shop when two unarmed men assaulted a security guard inside the van and drove off in the vehicle. The vehicle was recovered a short distance away, but the assailants and the documents were gone.

The passports and visas were to be flown to embassies overseas for distribution to British nationals in other countries, the Foreign Office said.

The country's passport service said the documents' embedded computer chips that store personal data and biometric data have not been activated, making them useless as travel documents.

But the BBC quoted fraud experts as saying the passports can still be used as identification in countries that do not use the chip technology in document screening.

The theft has sparked political debate over what opposition parties claim is the government's failure to ensure security of documents and personal information despite pledges to crack down on illegal immigration.  

Last November, Prime Minister Gordon Brown was forced to issue an apology after two computer discs containing personal information of nearly half the country's population went missing while being sent from one government department to another.