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Mr. Straw: I will follow up the point about correspondence, because letters should be replied to far more promptly than that.

Total compensation paid to members of the public for missed travel dates and other expenses amounted at the end of October to £161,000, but it is likely to rise further as outstanding claims are settled.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) and I will welcome the extra jobs in Peterborough. Has the Home Secretary yet written personally to those who work in the Peterborough passport office to apologise for the anger and opprobrium that they had to suffer last summer as a result of his incompetence? Is it not true that that incompetence is in part the reason for the swingeing increases announced today?

Mr. Straw: The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), went one better than simply writing to the staff at Peterborough. He went there and thanked them. I think--I am not absolutely sure, so I will check--that I wrote a message to staff thanking them very much for the unquestionable work that they did and for the fact that, as I observed in passport office front counters in London and Liverpool, they had to deal with a lot of members of the public who were understandably very cross and upset. I thanked them personally and I believe that I did so in writing as well.

Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement. Does he agree that the 100 welcome new jobs and the drop in unemployment in Peterborough from 11.4 per cent. when we took over in 1997 to only 6.3 per cent. today, after two years of Labour Government, is evidence of the Government's excellent record on getting people back to work? [Interruption.] Opposition Members may jeer and shake their heads, but they cannot deny that under this Government unemployment is at a record low and the country's finances are healthier than they ever were under the Tories. Is it not exactly that economic prosperity and stability that is allowing the sort of investment that my right hon. Friend has just announced?

Mr. Straw: I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. Although in some ways I regret the circumstances, I am delighted that that change in the structure of, and the investment in, the United Kingdom Passport Agency will lead to the creation of an additional 100 jobs in my hon. Friend's constituency and another 500 jobs in Durham city, in County Durham. Of course I accept what my hon. Friend says about the dramatic improvement in prosperity and the reduction in unemployment that has taken place in Peterborough under my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's stewardship of the economy.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): Although I welcome the fact that the

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Passport Agency seems here a painful inch to gain--to misquote Clough--will the Home Secretary turn his mind to the travel section of the immigration and nationality directorate, from which we can get neither particular answers on behalf of constituents nor general answers about the present state of the section?

Mr. Straw: If the right hon. Gentleman is talking about the issue of travel documents for stateless people, I can tell him that as a result of changes that have been made in the production process at Croydon, output of those documents has increased by some 500 per cent. That is a dramatic change. As far as other aspects of the administration of the immigration and nationality directorate are concerned, we are putting extra staff into Croydon. I understand the problems that have arisen, because--like the right hon. Gentleman--I have a large constituency case load of people who have tried to correspond with Croydon. I have asked the office to ensure that I get no better treatment than anyone else, and I can guarantee that I do not.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): My right hon. Friend, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), the new Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, pointed to difficulties with the British visitor's passport, which led to its withdrawal in 1995. Will my right hon. Friend revisit that decision? Why do not we take a pan-European approach and adopt a national identity card that would include data such as medical data and could then--subject to negotiation--be used throughout the European Union? Such a card is inevitable, so why not grasp the nettle now and seek its early introduction?

Mr. Straw: I fully understand that Members on both sides of the House have varying views on the issue of national identity cards. I have examined the issue with great care, and our view is that a national identity card would not be appropriate. It is a different matter to improve national records, which would be of some assistance. Part of the problem of having a national identity card, if we take the example of member states of the Schengen system, is that it requires a change in the powers of the police in place of border controls, so that they can demand the production of the card without any other cause. That would not be acceptable to British citizens, and our approach of having proper border controls is more effective in many respects. Of course, I am willing to continue to engage in the debate with my hon. Friend.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Would the Home Secretary consider what appears to be an unfair situation? Many thousands of us--I declare an interest--sought to have our passports renewed earlier this year and were given, exceptionally, a two-year extension. Does the right hon. Gentleman think it right that those people should have to pay the new fee for renewal of their passports instead of the fee they would have paid had they been able to have it renewed earlier?

Mr. Straw: We made that arrangement to relieve the pressure on passport offices, and it was successful.

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The result for the hon. Gentleman is that he has had two years' free extension of his passport. I do not begrudge him that, but it is not too bad a result.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Will my right hon. Friend exonerate those hundreds of my constituents who work in the Newport passport office from any blame for last summer's chaos? They--and staff in other passport offices elsewhere--faced the brunt of public criticism and responded magnificently, working long hours for little reward. They will be disappointed that their service and loyalty were not recognised today with the announcement that more people would be employed at the office. They will be further disappointed if the promised efficiencies mean that their jobs are under threat.

Does not the passport saga shake my right hon. Friend's faith in the omnipotence of high-tech and in the value of public-private partnerships? We are told that those partnerships represent the way forward, and that many public service activities must be outsourced to the private sector. Could not more efficiencies be gained through insourcing, so that work carried out in the public sector could be enhanced by the taking on of work that is performed less efficiently in the private sector?

Mr. Straw: I want to do far more than exonerate staff in the Newport passport office and elsewhere: I want to praise them for the way in which they dealt with a very difficult problem.

My hon. Friend will know that there is a history of large-scale computer systems not quite working out according to plan, in the private sector as well as in the public sector. At all stages, we have to try and learn from what has happened. I refer my hon. Friend to what happened with the introduction of the new payments system at the stock exchange, which was an entirely private sector operation. I am glad to see wry smiles on the faces of the hon. Members for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and for Arundel and South Downs(Mr. Flight), as hundreds of millions of pounds were wasted when the system at the centre of our economic arrangements almost collapsed.

When it comes to new information technology systems, the precise boundary between private and public sectors can be arguable. However, because the Government are not in the business of computer manufacture and supply and have no plans to go into that business, we must have a relationship with the private sector. The decision to be made has to do with what the best relationship is, and whether it is most likely to ensure that the private sector also bears part of the risk involved with the systems that it supplies.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I thank the Home Secretary for taking so seriously the work done by the National Audit Office in this matter. I also welcome the fact that the cost of this year's shambles--some £12 million--is to be met out of efficiency savings, rather than by the taxpayer or the holidaymaker. However, I presume that those efficiency savings will be on-going, whereas the cost was a one-off. I also presume that the management of the agency will make further efficiency savings, and that unit costs will fall as volumes increase and capacity use rises. I also believe that, because the volumes involved are higher than when the contract with Siemens was first negotiated, that contract should be

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renegotiated. Will the Home Secretary undertake to ensure that the Passport Agency pursues all those cost savings, and that it will return the money saved to the holidaymaker in the form of reduced fees in the future?


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