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Stasi Spies

17. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): What steps are being taken to investigate British Stasi spies, information about whom has been discovered in the Berlin Stasi archive. [99692]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): As part of its remit under the Security Service Act 1989, the Security Service has investigated, and continues to investigate, British citizens and some others recorded in the East German intelligence service's records as having worked for the Stasi. Those investigations were, and are, handled in the same way as other similar investigations.

Dr. Lewis: I thank the Home Secretary for that reply, but unfortunately it does not accord with the information at my disposal on this matter, which I first raised in the House more than a month ago. My information is that the Berlin archive of the Stasi has not been visited by investigators from this country; Dr. Anthony Glees, the senior lecturer who discovered in that archive the detailed material incriminating Dr. Robin Pearson, the would-be university recruiter for the Stasi, has still not been interviewed by the police or the Security Service; and, as far as is known, the material that was given to the BBC, which formed the basis of the programme that brought this matter to public attention, has still not been examined. Is he assuring the House that that material has already been examined? If not, when will it be examined?

Mr. Straw: The House will understand that I cannot speak about the information available to the hon. Gentleman, but only about that available to me.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): A poor substitute.

Mr. Straw: If this will reassure the hon. Gentleman--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I am afraid I heard that aside rather later than the rest of the House.

Mr. Straw: I will not attempt to follow that, Madam Speaker.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the records have revealed many leads in cases involving the investigation of more than 100 individuals.

Community Sentences

18. Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): What measures he proposes to increase the confidence of the public and the courts in the use of community sentences. [99693]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): The public need to be satisfied that community sentences are effective and properly enforced. We are improving the quality and effectiveness of probation service work through the "what works" initiative, and we are

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tightening enforcement procedures through work with the Association of Chief Officers of Probation and through more rigorous national standards.

Maria Eagle: Given that reconviction rates following the imposition of custodial sentences are about the same as reconviction rates following the imposition of community sentences, does my right hon. Friend believe that the courts have got the balance of sentencing about right, or does he think that community sentences should be used more regularly by the courts?

Mr. Boateng: It is important to examine those statistics with great care, because they are compiled on a different basis. We are determined to ensure that community and custodial sentences are better informed as to content, and that the protection of the public lies at the heart of both.

Crime and Disorder Partnerships

19. Mrs. Sylvia Heal (Halesowen and Rowley Regis): If he will make a statement on the level of activity of crime and disorder partnerships. [99694]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The crime and disorder reduction partnerships brought into being by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 published their strategies on 1 April 1999 and are currently implementing them. We recently published a crime reduction strategy, which includes measures to support and develop partnerships' effectiveness .

Mrs. Heal: Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the establishment of many partnerships around the country? That shows the Government's commitment to getting all parts of our communities working together to tackle crime and disorder. Will he congratulate Sandwell metropolitan borough council in my constituency, where two anti- burglary initiatives have produced a significant reduction in domestic burglary rates in recent months? I hope that he and his colleagues will look favourably on a bid by the Halesowen Highfields estate for CCTV, so that it, too, may benefit from a reduction in crime.

Mr. O'Brien: I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the work that is being done in Sandwell. I also agree with her that the work of crime and disorder reduction partnerships is enormously important. It will be one of the most significant contributions that there has been to tackling the problems of crime and disorder in this country. On the CCTV application, she will already have heard in earlier questions that we are putting a considerable amount of funding into that, and all applications will be considered.

Oakington Detention Centre

21. Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): When Oakington detention centre will be opened. [99696]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): We are aiming to open the centre early in the new year, but it is likely to take a few months to build up to full capacity.

Mr. Corbyn: I thank the Minister for that answer. What details about the administration of the Oakington detention

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centre will be made public, and how many people will be detained in it throughout its life? Does she accept that many people in this country and in other parts of the world find it fundamentally disgraceful that this country still imprisons a large number of asylum seekers? Ours is the only country in Europe routinely to hold asylum seekers in detention.

Mrs. Roche: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. We detain about 1 per cent. of asylum seekers. The centre will have the capacity to take up to 400 people, but we expect to build it up gradually. It will be a reception facility that will process straightforward applications--we are talking about a seven-day period. The question that my hon. Friend must ask himself is how European Union countries deal with unfounded asylum cases, because they all face that problem. We must have this system in place to deal properly with genuine refugees and to progress their cases.

IT Projects

22. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): How many information technology projects currently being implemented, for which his Department is responsible, are behind schedule. [99697]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The hon. Gentleman has raised an enormously important issue.

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Eleven of the 17 major projects currently under way are expected to complete, or did complete, later than the date originally estimated. Timetables and milestones are kept continually under review. Currently, following updated reviews, all Home Office information technology projects are on target.

Mr. Heath: I thank the Minister for his answer, but the situation is a bit of a shambles, and it is costing the country a lot of money. In a week during when we shall discuss the Freedom of Information Bill, would it not be appropriate for the Minister to place in the Library the terms of the contracts and the penalties payable by the IT companies, so that we can all see what the Government are doing on our behalf?

Mr. O'Brien: We have said that we will seek to be as open as possible in regard to the contracts that have already been signed. As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, they were signed on the basis of certain conditions and criteria, and obviously we shall be bound by the contracts that currently exist; but as we have said, our policy will be to be as open as we can in making available the contents of future contracts.

Many private sector projects have experienced some difficulties. The public sector deals with matters on a larger scale; as a result, the opportunities for problems to arise are inevitably greater.

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Passports

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement to explain why passport fees are to increase by £7 to £28 for the standard passport, and by £3.80 to £14.80 for the child's passport. I am also publishing the Passport Agency's corporate and business plan for 1999-2002, together with a separate recovery plan. I am placing both documents in the Library of the House and the Vote Office.

As the House is aware, the agency encountered major problems last summer. I greatly regret the severe inconvenience caused to the public, and repeat my apology for what happened. However, the emergency measures that I authorised in the summer have proved effective. Turnround times for passport applications have been within 10 working days since August. Currently, all offices are processing work within a maximum of four working days. The current total backlog is 47,000 applications, which represents about four days' work.

A report from the National Audit Office, published in October, found that £12.6 million had been incurred meeting the exceptional costs involved in remedying the situation that arose in the summer. I think the whole House would accept that it would not be right for those costs to be met by a fee increase, and I have therefore agreed with the agency's new chief executive that they will be met instead by a programme of efficiency savings.

The NAO report also makes it clear that some fundamental changes are necessary to improve the quality and reliability of the agency's service to the public. To effect those changes will require significant investment, and that investment is the reason for the increase in the passport fee, given that successive Governments have rightly determined that the agency must be self-financing.

The passport service became an executive agency in 1991, a change that has undoubtedly delivered improvements. Although the agency has been successful in driving down unit costs, its record for customer service has been less consistent. As the NAO report makes it clear, some of the causes of last summer's problems were deep-rooted. Although the agency has sought to reduce the maximum time taken to process applications from the four-week norm in 1991, it has had problems in consistently delivering the more recent two-week target.

From the early 1990s until last summer, the time taken to process applications has risen significantly above two weeks to a maximum of about four weeks in the busy season each year. As a result, there have been queues at passport offices each summer and increasing problems in responding to a rising volume of telephone inquiries.

Our strategy for the agency takes full account of the NAO report and seeks to deal with those problems. New performance targets are to be set to ensure that the two-week turnround means what it says throughout the year. To ensure that the agency can, in practice, meet those targets, I have agreed to increase its capacity by 25 per cent. to enable it to issue an additional 1.3 million passports each year. That extra capacity will be met by the opening of a new regional office for the north-east of England and by a 30 per cent. expansion of the existing Peterborough office. The new north-east office will

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create 500 additional jobs and be based in Durham. The Peterborough expansion will mean the creation of an extra 100 jobs.

Other improvements are to be made. From March next year, there will be earlier opening and later closing for all the agency's offices, and Saturday opening as well. That is aimed to deliver a 45-minute maximum waiting target. The renovation of public counter areas in all offices will take place. From next July, a new public counter service will be provided at the new office in Durham. The London passport office will be relocated in spring 2001 to Bridge place, adjacent to Victoria station, where there will be major improvements in facilities for the public. The forms and accompanying notes are to be redesigned to make them more customer-friendly and to reduce error rates. Payment options will be improved and the quality of the telephone inquiry service is being raised.

A new call centre is being established in Bristol involving the creation of a further 60 jobs. The agency is being set a target of answering 90 per cent. of calls within 20 seconds, seven days a week, throughout the year. No more than one call in 50 should receive an engaged tone even at the busiest time of year. Demand forecasting and contingency and manpower planning are being strengthened to ensure that the agency can cope better with unexpected fluctuations of demand and other uncertainties in the process.

Changes have been made to improve the operation of the new computer system, but only when Ministers and the new chief executive are satisfied with the productivity of the new system as implemented at Newport and Liverpool will that system be extended to the other offices, and then only on a phased basis.

Altogether, that investment will cost an estimated £25 million per year. As I have already informed the House, the fee for a standard adult passport with 10-year validity will therefore be increased by £7 to £28. The fee for a child's passport for five years will be increased by £3.80 to £14.80. The fee for amending a passport will be increased by £6 to £17. The additional fee for customers seeking a personal service at the agency's offices will be increased by £2 to £12. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has decided that the higher fees that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office charges for passports issued by its British posts abroad will also increase. All those changes will come into effect on Thursday 16 December.

I naturally understand that fee increases are never popular. However, the increases have been restricted to the minimum that we judge necessary to ensure that the crucial improvements that I have described are delivered. I do not anticipate the need for any further increase in fees for at least two years.

Even with the increase, the fee for a British passport is among the lowest in the world and will remain well below the level of other countries where, like the UK, there is no taxpayer subsidy. For example, the equivalent 10-year adult passport fee is £34.50 in the United States, £46 in Canada, £47.50 in Australia and £74 in France.

The fee increase should ensure that the agency is put on a proper financial footing and is able to put in train the essential improvements to customer service. It will help to ensure that this year's problems do not recur, that the

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modernisation programme is driven forward and that the agency is able to provide a significantly improved service to the public.


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