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Mr. Straw: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said. We certainly take the NAO's work seriously, and I am grateful for the insights that it gave me into the working of the Passport Agency and the problems that had to be dealt with to ensure that the agency was put on a proper and sound footing.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Siemens contract. Discussions with that company about the nature of the relationship are continuing, and I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman about that. I have given the best information that I can on the overall cost of the investment, which is running at about £24 million, and have explained the consequent need for a fee increase. Of course it is our hope that we can get unit costs down, but such a reduction will be from a higher level than previously, as we are asking customers to pay for a higher level of service. Whether we can, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, achieve a virtuous circle that would allow us to reduce the fee in future, rather than its rising, is something about which I am a little sceptical, but we live in hope. If the right hon. Gentleman wants more information, I shall be happy to write to him.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I, too, have a vested interest, as my passport appears to have been stolen at Heathrow last Wednesday. I should say how extraordinarily efficient and courteous were both our immigration service and that of the United States of America. Our embassy in Washington was also extremely helpful, as were the staff of British Airways.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure maximum co-operation with the Post Office so that the widest availability of passport application forms can be achieved? That would be a practical way in which to help rural post offices while also providing a better service to constituents in rural areas.

Mr. Straw: I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. Staff in the immigration and nationality directorate, the immigration service and the Passport Agency are more used to receiving brickbats than bouquets, and it is nice to hear hon. Members praise them, entirely justifiably. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's compliments are passed on.

We shall ensure better availability of passport forms. An arrangement with partners of the Passport Agency--principally, though not exclusively, the Post Office--allows customers to pay an additional fee to ensure that their applications are checked for errors before going into the system earlier than would otherwise be the case. The fee is £3.25, and there will be no increase on 16 December, although it may be increased next April.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): Some people will see today's swingeing increase in charges as the imposition of a new tax--an identity tax. The Home Secretary has announced the creation of 600 new jobs at a cost of £250,000 each every year to improve service in the Passport Agency. If the agency's time targets are not met, what compensation will be available to applicants?

Mr. Straw: The Conservatives are a bit like the Bourbons, except that they have forgotten everything and

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learned nothing. As the right hon. Gentleman is obviously suffering from amnesia, I remind him that he was a Treasury Minister when the Conservatives raised taxes not once or twice but 22 times. One of those taxes was an airport tax--a real tax on travellers. Today's increase is not a tax but a raised fee to provide an improved service.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that his use of "investment" must be spurious? The word implies positive anticipated return by efficiency savings or some other means. If there are genuine efficiency savings, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) is right to say that the unit cost of providing the service should come down. The fact that the Home Secretary does not anticipate a reduction in cost means that this measure is not an investment. He is misusing language. Would it not be good for the country if he thought a little more rigorously, which might help him to act more straightforwardly?

Mr. Straw: I bow to the hon. Gentleman's superior business acumen, but there is no question but that this is an investment of £24 million a year to provide an improved level of service. It is there to deal with the underlying problems that were properly identified by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee--I am grateful to them. Although the public will not find the increases especially palatable--neither do I--I think that they would prefer a balance so that, for a relatively higher fee, they are guaranteed a proper service with a swifter response from the agency. Furthermore, they will receive a modern service that takes account of the fact that people no longer work nine to five; they work different hours and they want a different response from public services.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): May I take this opportunity to thank the Home Secretary for his assistance in the eventual processing of passport applications from my constituents Sarah Crisp, Elizabeth Scott and Alice Wright, and, through him, thank the UK Passport Agency? However, in view of the swingeing increases in fees that he has announced, will he give me the assurance, which I have previously sought but which was not forthcoming, that where an individual is obliged to make an initial or an extra visit in person to a passport office as a direct result of the tardiness or incompetence of the UK Passport Agency, that individual's reasonable travel costs will be reimbursed without question?

Angela Smith (Basildon): They are.

Mr. Bercow: They are not.

Mr. Straw: It is my recollection that, during the summer, if individuals who applied for compensation had had to make a second or a third unavoidable journey to a passport office, that was included in the payment that they received. If I am wrong about that, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

We very much hope that the changes will ensure that the turnround is effective even at times of greatly increased demand. I am extremely grateful to the

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hon. Gentleman not only for his words of thanks to me--I do not deserve them--but to the staff of the agency, who do deserve them.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): The Home Secretary's reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) was limp-wristed and woolly. If there is major investment in a new system, there must be efficiency savings. Will the right hon. Gentleman make it his job to ensure that savings are passed on to the afflicted members of the public on whom today's huge increase has been imposed?

Mr. Straw: As I pointed out, this increase, proportionately, is marginally less than that imposed by the Conservative Administration in 1983. Although I fully understand that it will not be popular with members of the public, the last people--as ever--who should complain about an increase of that size are members of the Conservative party. If there are savings in the future that can properly be passed on to the members of the public, they will be passed on. My answer to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden was not limp-wristed; it was careful. In the House of Commons it is extremely important that we do not give undertakings that we cannot deliver.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): As the Government try so readily to borrow management speak and business speak, is the irony lost on the Home Secretary that the Passport Agency holds a monopolistic position--by definition, one cannot obtain a passport from anywhere else--and that an inflationary increase of this size would, by any test, be an abuse of a monopolistic position? If the right hon. Gentleman is to borrow from business speak, perhaps he should now consider that what you measure is what you get. As part of the thanks to the Passport Agency staff--expressed by Members on both sides of the House--perhaps the staff should be given an incentive bonus payment for what they have managed to do. That would also ensure that they are incentivised in future.

Mr. Straw: At the end of this debate on the statement, and after the preceding Home Office Question Time, we shall, as usual, go away and add up the total costs to which Opposition Members have committed themselves--against a background in which they have damned our spending as "reckless".

Let me make two points to the hon. Gentleman. The first is that the staff of the Passport Agency worked extremely hard last summer, and, in recognition of that, they rightly received significant overtime payments. Secondly, in spotting the fact that the issuing of passports is a monopoly, the hon. Gentleman displays those economic insights known only to Conservative Members. The issue of passports is a monopoly; I know of nowhere in the world where it is other than a monopoly exercised by the state.

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Points of Order

4.15 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Following the serious announcement at the weekend that the World Trade Organisation talks had collapsed in a shambles and today's press announcements that the British Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is to take a lead role in restoring the situation, have you received any request from the right hon. Gentleman to the effect that he wishes to come to the House to share with us and, through us, with British business, the way in which the Government intend to take the lead role in restoring what is now a very serious matter?


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