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Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): When will the right hon. Gentleman stop persecutingthe ordinary applicant for a British passport? His announcements today, which will come into effect on 16 December, will do nothing other than convince the average applicant that the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge lives on. Will he confirm that it will now cost a family consisting of mother, father and two children £85 for their passports; that that is an increase of one third, or £21; and that, for those seeking a simple amendment to a passport, the increase is more than 50 per cent?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the new computer system was chosen and signed for by the Under-Secretary of State for Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), and that, according to a National Audit Office report, the new system will deliver no more than the old system was capable of delivering?

Does the right hon. Gentleman to this day take any direct responsibility for the fiasco that arose over the summer, given the decision to implement the new rules on child passports at the same time as the new computer system was being installed? We are now told, moreover, that the new computer system was not really going to do anything more than the old system.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned efficiency savings. Will he confirm that the background papers--which he has given me with the statement, and for which I thank him--suggest that there will be no efficiency savings in the years 2000 or 2001? Are we therefore to believe that none of the fee increase is to pay for the past fiasco, as there will be no efficiency savings for at least two years?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, despite his own assertion that the Passport Agency's revised business plan was considered on 27 September by his advisory board, two months later, on 23 November, his own Minister in the Lords was claiming not to have seen it? That is of course the same Minister who recently announced in another place a set of police figures which, days earlier, had been repudiated by the Home Secretary.

I have to ask the right hon. Gentleman, and not for the first time, what is going on in the Home Office. I know that he will tell me, as he has done in the past, that it is business as usual. He will be aware that I have always eschewed the practice of calling for ministerial resignations--[Laughter.] I have. However, in the light of what he has told the House, and the costs to British passport applicants of putting right the results of the fiasco that he--and he alone by his decisions--produced, does he not think that the time has come at least to consider the position of the Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State for Home Affairs, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) and Lord Bassam?

Mr. Straw: As I have always explained to the House, I have never suggested that my stewardship of the Department would be perfect. However, my stewardship of the Home Office is different in at least two important respects from that of the previous Administration.

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The first major difference is that we as Ministersaccept responsibility for anything that happens in our Department, including the Department's agencies. That contrasts very starkly with the way in which the right hon. Lady and other Ministers in the previous Government used to try to dance on the head of a pin to distinguish between policy, for which they were responsible, and operations, for which someone else was always to blame.

I have already said that I was responsible for the problems that arose last summer--I told the House that at the end of June. I am very sorry that the problems happened, and we sought immediately to put them right. I will take criticism from a great many people about what happened, but I will not take it from someone who served in the Home Office in the previous Administration.

I remind the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that the worst delays last summer--which were totally unacceptable--were 50 working days. That compares favourably with what happened when she and her right hon. Friends introduced a new computer system in 1989-90 when--thanks to industrial action, which they provoked, the delays were not 50 days, but 95 days. It then took four and a half months.

I regret fee increases of this kind, and the fact that holidaymakers will have to pay for them. However, our judgment has been that we must avoid a recurrence of the difficulties which arose last year. The NAO report--for which my colleagues and I were grateful--exposed the fact that, although the Passport Agency had been successful in driving down unit costs, underlying problems were in some ways obscured by that apparent success. We therefore had to increase capacity and ensure that other improvements were made to the standard of service offered to the public.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald asked about efficiency savings. I hope that she is not challenging my word on this: as I have said, the £12.5 million cost identified as that arising from last summer's problems will be met not from a fee increase but from efficiency savings.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): Does my right hon. Friend understand that, although no one likes fee increases, there will be a general welcome if--on the back of the extra investment that he has announced this afternoon--there is an improvement in the efficiency of the service? May I tell him also that he will be judged on the way in which the service is delivered or not? Will he think about a simpler and cheaper system of travel document for those who wish to take holidays only in other European Union countries?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. Our judgment--which I hope will be shared by the House, despite the increase--is that what holidaymakers and other travellers want above all is a guarantee that when they apply for a passport, they get one. In addition, to fit in with differences in working times and so on, if someone phones up outside traditional office hours, they will get a proper answer, and a swifter answer than before. I accept that we and the agency will be judged on whether the improvements in service are delivered.

There was a modified and simpler form of travel document, which was withdrawn--I believe correctly--by the previous Administration in 1995 or 1996. That was

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a British visitor's passport, which was available over the counter in post offices. The difficulty with it was that it was insecure and open to forgery and other fraud. For that reason, it had to be withdrawn.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I welcome the proposals for a more customer-friendly system, and I ask the Home Secretary to pass on our thanks to the staff of the Passport Agency, who have recovered speedily from the fiasco of the summer and are now processing passports quickly. Clearly, a one-third increase is not a Christmas present to which anyone will look forward. Has such a large increase ever been announced in the history of passport charges imposed by Government?

How can the Home Secretary say--as he did in a letter the other day--that the National Audit Office has said that in recent years the Passport Agency has achieved great efficiency savings, while at the same time saying that there is scope for further efficiency savings to raise the £12 million-odd with which he says the increased passport fee has nothing to do?

Given that the blessed computer system appears to be two years behind schedule and £20 million overrun in costs and that, according to answers that the Home Secretary gave me, 13 of the 17 Home Office main IT projects are either overrun in cost or behind schedule or both, can the contracts for those 17 systems be put in the public domain--this follows the question asked earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)--so that there is no secrecy and we can judge whether the blame lies with the Home Office or the IT company or both?

Mr. Straw: I accept that the increases are unpalatable, but they are not dissimilar to increases that took place under the previous Administration. For example, the fee for a driving licence rose in 1996 from £21 to £27. The percentage increase that the previous Administration imposed when they increased the passport fee by £4, from £11 to £15, was bigger than the one that I have just announced.

We are confident that we can meet the demand for efficiency savings over a period--more than one or two years--and that they will be achievable within the business plan, not least because of a high and improved level of service.

The issue of contracts is difficult. I will certainly consider what further information can be provided. When I was in opposition, I took the view that the maximum information about contracts should be provided, and I have not changed that view, but there are issues of commercial confidentiality involved and, understandably, companies signing contracts with public authorities--sometimes for justifiable reasons, but sometimes for unjustifiable reasons--want parts of those contracts to remain confidential. The NAO report gives considerable information about the income forgone that Siemens has had to take, as well as the Passport Agency.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): I welcome the measures that my right hon. Friend took earlier this year and the confirmation that they have been effective in shifting the backlog, and I am glad that applications now take an average of 10 days, but that is in sharp contrast

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to the response from the chief executive of the UKPA to correspondence. I wrote to him on 1 November and35 days later I am still waiting for so much as an acknowledgment. I wrote on behalf of a constituent seeking compensation for a cancelled holiday. How many such cases have been settled and how many remain outstanding? If necessary, will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that the process is accelerated?

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