Previous Section Index Home Page


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),

Tax Credits

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),

Environmental Protection

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),

Representation of the People

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),

Constitutional Law

Question agreed to.

12 Mar 2007 : Column 125

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),


Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),


Question agreed to.



12 Mar 2007 : Column 126




Knife Crime

10.3 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I rise to present a most compelling petition, signed by well over 20,000 people, including key supporters Vicky Painter, Jessica Shidell, Ann Oakes-Odger, Melanie Hopwood, Charlotte Hall and Sandra Griffiths.

Knife crime can kill young people, but it is too often dealt with by magistrates courts, which can give a maximum sentence of only six months. In reality, that involves serving only three months. That is simply inadequate, and does not provide the necessary deterrent to those who would go armed with blades to commit mayhem. The Evening Standard front page tonight declares that 10 people were knifed in London only last night. This illustrates the validity of the petition better than my words ever could. I thank everyone involved in the petition.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

12 Mar 2007 : Column 127

Passport Interview Centre (Taunton)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Roy.]

10.5 pm

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): The context of this debate is the Government’s recent announcement that people will be required to attend one of 69 passport interview centres, scattered throughout the United Kingdom, if they wish to apply for a British passport for the first time. In future all applicants for passports, including those renewing or replacing lost documents, will be required to report to one of those centres. My bone of contention is that Taunton, the town in Somerset that I represent, is not one of the 69 centres chosen.

I want to make two points at the outset. First, my support for Taunton as one of those passport interview centres should not be taken to imply that I am in favour of identity cards—quite the opposite. It is extremely important that we maintain a healthy balance between the power of the state and that of the individual citizen. In a liberal democracy, the Government should be answerable to the people, not the people to the Government. I continue to be mystified and saddened by the inability of many Labour Members of Parliament to understand the importance of a liberal and benign state having proper safeguards against such measures.

Secondly, as a preamble, let me say that I do not have absolute confidence that the new system of passport interviews will work as well as some in the Government might hope. Its implementation has already been delayed: it was meant to come into effect last year, and is now coming into effect this year. A Home Office spokesman was quoted recently in a newspaper as saying:

the rather Orwellian-sounding Identity and Passport Service—

It is not beyond comprehension that the system might not process everybody as effectively as the Government wish. From 2009, the system is being extended to cover about 4 million applications per year.

My principal interest, however, is in the lack of a passport interview centre for Taunton, rather than in the merits or otherwise of passport interviews per se. It might help the Minister and other Members, who might not have been to Taunton, if I explain why it is so important that such a centre be provided.

Taunton is the county town of Somerset and the home of the county council. It is also the town in Somerset with the largest population, by a significant margin. But even that understates its place in Somerset. As well as being the largest place and the county town, it is a big centre for employment, leisure and shopping. I always think that one can identify such a centre by asking people where their nearest branch of Marks and Spencer is, and for many people, not just those who live in the town, it is in Taunton. Musgrove Park hospital, the largest hospital in Somerset, draws in patients from
12 Mar 2007 : Column 128
across the county. Taunton therefore serves a much wider area and bigger population than its own.

Under the current arrangements, people from Taunton will be forced to go to one of four places in rough geographic proximity to the town to be interviewed for a passport. Those places are Exeter, Yeovil—the only one in Somerset, despite being only about two thirds the size of Taunton in population—Bristol or, perhaps, Barnstaple in Devon. According to the Government’s reckoning, people should be able to get to one of those centres within about 30 minutes following a journey of about 20 miles, but in this case it was thought reasonable to allow for a 40-mile journey and a journey lasting an hour rather than half an hour.

A theme to which I shall return is that Taunton falls between two stools. It is not a metropolis—it does not provide the ease of communication provided by London and other big cities—but nor is it a remote rural area like the highlands and islands of Scotland. It suffers as a result of falling between classifications according to the Government’s criteria.

When the 69 passport interview centres are introduced, people in Taunton may choose to go to the town nearest in straightforward mileage: Yeovil, whose population is 41,871, compared with Taunton’s population of 58,241. I apologise for all the figures that I am giving; they are necessary to illustrate my points, but I will try to keep them to a minimum.

Yeovil is 28 miles from Taunton, so a 56-mile round trip would be necessary. The Government estimate that the one-way journey takes 48 minutes by car. Some people in Taunton may prefer to take the 47-minute journey to Exeter, which, being 36 miles away, is slightly further from Taunton, but is slightly quicker to get to because it is on the motorway. In either event, people would make a 56-mile or a 94-minute round trip to reach the nearest interview centre—and that is by car. Many people do not have access to cars.

The bus journey from Taunton to Exeter takes about an hour and 20 minutes if there are no delays, while the bus journey to Yeovil takes about an hour and 15 minutes. Whether people can return to Exeter or Yeovil on public transport within a reasonable period will depend on the bus timetable, but it can safely be said that those who live in Taunton will have to take half a day off from their other duties and activities to travel to Exeter or Yeovil, or, if they prefer, to Bristol or Barnstaple.

Although Taunton is the largest town in my constituency, I also represent a number of other significant population centres. The second biggest is Wellington, with a population of 13,696. People in Wellington would have to travel 28 miles to Exeter, 34 miles to Yeovil and further still to Barnstaple or Bristol, but only seven miles to Taunton. Many people in Wellington work or shop in Taunton. It is routine for people in Wellington to travel to Taunton; it is not routine for them to travel to Exeter, Yeovil, Barnstaple or Bristol—but that is what the new arrangements will require them to do.

Another town in my constituency, Wiveliscombe, with a population of 2,670, is 11 miles from Taunton but, crucially, 29 miles from Exeter and 38 miles from Yeovil and Barnstaple. I say “crucially” because Exeter
12 Mar 2007 : Column 129
is, by the Government’s own reckoning, one hour and four minutes from Wiveliscombe by car. That is above the requirement that the Government set themselves for rural communities, let alone what I regard as reasonable for people living in the Taunton area.

I live in the borough of Taunton Deane, as do 102,298 other people. All those people would find it easier to go to a passport interview centre in Taunton than to a centre in any of the other towns. If Members envisage the number of people who would fit into the new Wembley stadium and then add 15,000 or so, perhaps standing on the pitch, they will have an idea of the population of Taunton Deane.

There are other towns outside the borough of Taunton Deane whose populations would also find it easier to go to Taunton than to travel further afield. North Petherton, with a population of 5,190, is only eight miles from Taunton, but its inhabitants will have to travel to Yeovil, which is much further away. Bridgwater, a sizeable town in Somerset and outside my constituency, is just 12 miles from Taunton and handy to get to on the motorway; it has 36,563 inhabitants, and they will have to travel much further—again to Yeovil—for their interviews. Like Yeovil, Chard is in the South Somerset district council area; it has a population of 11,730, but it is closer to Taunton than to Yeovil. In the Burnham and Highbridge area there are 18,922 residents; it is 19 miles from Taunton, which again is closer than the current nearest interview centre, which for them would be in Bristol. Minehead on the Somerset coast has approximately 10,000 residents; it is 24 miles from Taunton, so that is not handy, but it is 40 miles from Barnstaple, its nearest interview centre, which is one hour and 20 minutes away. That is way beyond the Government’s travel criteria.

The total population of those places is 82,405. Therefore, there are approximately 102,000 people in Taunton Deane, and approximately 82,000 in some of the significant-sized towns outside Taunton Deane, for whom travelling to Taunton would be more convenient than travelling to any of the current proposed passport interview centres. There are also many people in villages and rural hamlets outside Taunton Deane and outside those five towns who are nearer to Taunton than to any of the current proposed sites. Therefore, for a total of more than 200,000 people Taunton would be a more convenient and useful interview centre for passports than any of the mooted locations.

When I found out about the situation I wrote to the Home Secretary, and I received a response from Mr. Bernard Herden, the executive director of service planning and delivery at the Identity and Passport Service. First, he said that the plan had

No consultations were held with the council covering Taunton and there were no consultations in surrounding constituencies within Somerset. There were consultations with areas such as the highlands and islands of Scotland, but I emphasise again that Taunton suffers from being neither a grand metropolis nor as remote as the islands off the west coast of Scotland, for example.

The second point that Mr. Herden made was that an effort had been made

12 Mar 2007 : Column 130

As I have said, travelling for 47 minutes by car—and a lot longer and further by public transport—to get to an interview is the bare minimum journey time for those in Taunton. Therefore, in my view that balance has not been struck, and more than 200,000 people, including many whom I represent, will also feel that it has not been struck.

Thirdly, Mr. Herden stated:

I suspect that the Taunton area is not regarded as sufficiently remote or sparsely populated to qualify for video-conferencing facilities, so we are again in the invidious position of falling between two stools: we are not big enough to meet the criteria met by a big city such as Bristol, but not small enough to be given special treatment.

Fourthly, Mr. Herden said that

I am surprised by that, as 47 minutes by car—that is one way, and people are likely to want to come home afterwards—seems to me a substantial journey, but the journey by bus or train is likely to take a lot longer. Many people in my constituency do not have access to a private car, so for them, that mode of transport will be the reality.

Finally, Mr. Herden said in his letter:

Next Section Index Home Page