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I do not accept that adding an office in Taunton would cause the collapse of the so-called network. It would increase choice and availability for more than 200,000 people.

I was not consulted about the proposal, but I would happily have run through some of the points that I have made tonight had someone asked me, as the parliamentary representative of the people of Taunton constituency. Nor, as far as I am aware, was there any consultation with Taunton Deane council or Somerset county council.

I do not seek the closure of any of the existing 69 centres, but because of the concerns and criteria that I have raised, the Government could reasonably look to include Taunton as a 70th centre. If that does not happen, people in my constituency will incur considerable personal cost in travelling to and from their passport interviews. That will also take up a considerable amount of their time. People come into Taunton, if they do not already live in the town, to work, to shop, to go to the bank and to take out insurance—all the everyday exercises. They could incorporate into that routine going to a passport interview centre, but instead they will have to spend at least half a day going elsewhere.

I have not estimated the cost to the environment, but there will be one if large numbers of people are required to drive substantial distances instead of visiting a passport interview centre in Taunton, which is not only the county town of Somerset but its largest urban centre.

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I appreciate that many hon. Members seek to make representations to the Minister and her Department about what they perceive as unfair treatment of their constituents, but in this case there is a strong and compelling argument for Taunton to have a passport interview centre. It is a natural centre not only for people who live in the town, but for those who travel to it for work and other reasons. I urge the Minister to take my argument in the constructive spirit in which it is intended, and to consider whether it is possible to accommodate the requirements of the 200,000-plus people who live in and around Taunton and who would benefit from having a passport interview centre located in the county town of Somerset instead of having to travel further afield.

10.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Joan Ryan): I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) on securing this debate and on the sterling job he has just done on behalf of his constituents. The Identity and Passport Service is introducing a number of counter-fraud initiatives as part of the continuing fight against attempted passport fraud and forgery. The changes are critical because of increasing attempted passport and identity fraud.

One of the most significant changes is to the passport application process for first-time adult passport customers. The change, which was first announced to Parliament in December 2004, is designed to help to stop fraudulent applications by improving the integrity and security of British passports.

The United Kingdom is currently one of the few western countries that do not require first-time passport applications to be made in person. The key benefits of the changes will be to help to fight passport fraud and forgery; to help to protect the UK public from identity theft; and to ensure that the British passport stays one of the most secure and respected in the world

The introduction of passport application interviews will mean that all adults applying for a passport for the first time must attend an interview with IPS in person to confirm their identity. The Identity and Passport Service is an appropriate name for what is a very good service. I stress that the changes do not currently apply to people wanting to renew their existing passport. The requirement for an interview will apply only to those adults who have never previously held a British passport in their own name. That is estimated to affect approximately 609,000 customers a year.

The interview process is normally expected to take about 30 minutes, including an interview of between 10 and 20 minutes. At the interview, customers will be asked basic information about themselves—not deeply private information, but information that only they will know and that can be checked to confirm that they are who they say they are. I should make it clear that people who apply for passports will not have to give any more information than they do now and that the application forms will be unchanged. The interview is
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not about gathering information and the information used in the interview will be deleted from IPS records shortly after the passport is issued. The requirement to attend an interview will be introduced gradually and I will make further information on that available in due course.

As the hon. Gentleman said, IPS is opening 69 local interview offices across the UK. The majority of customers will be within 60 minutes’ travel of an office from their home or workplace. The network of 69 offices has been designed to provide an interview office within 15 minutes’ travelling time via public or personal transport for just over half the population of the UK. More than 95 per cent. of the population will live within one hour’s travelling time.

The interview offices will not be new passport offices. They will be used only to conduct interviews and will not handle general inquiries or take delivery of passport applications. It is important for the hon. Gentleman to know that the interview offices will be open on Saturdays. I am conscious that he feared that constituents might have to have to give up a whole half-day once every 10 years, but in fact it is quite likely that that will not be necessary. Each day that an office is open, it will be open from 8 am to 6 pm, except for the seven smallest offices, which will open only two half-days a week.

Deciding the location of the new offices was a careful and painstaking task. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the offices were scattered. Perhaps that was just his way of referring to them, but I can assure him that deciding the location of the offices was not done in a throwaway manner. We needed to balance customers’ wishes for the lowest possible additional increase to the passport fee with their wishes for convenient locations. Customer research was carried out in March and April 2004 and in July 2005. The results of both surveys showed that the majority of respondents felt that a journey of approximately 20 miles or half an hour one way, once in 10 years, was reasonable. The research also identified that, as he said, in more rural parts of the UK that expectation increased to approximately 40 miles or one hour’s travel time.

The IPS used mapping software and census data to model an office network, which, over several months, was subjected to independent verification by a specialist company and local consultation with authorities that are responsible for more sparsely populated areas. The hon. Gentleman is right: we did not consult Taunton. But we did consult Cornwall county council, Devon county council and a whole list of others. The work that we did used a range of data from the 2001 census, including—this is an important point—information on the distribution of people aged 16 to 34, which is the age range when most adults apply for their first passport. That was broken down by local authority wards.

As I said, initially it is people who are applying for their first passport who will be subject to interview, so mapping where that section of the population live and their travel routes was crucial when deciding the location of the 69 offices. Journey-to-work data that show the proportion of people who use each mode of transport in different areas of the UK were also used. Those data were combined with data on travel costs
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and times to model journeys from a total of more than 220,000 population centres, of about 250 people each, to 264 potential locations. I think that the hon. Gentleman is aware that Taunton was included in the 264 potential locations. However, when we whittled the number down on the basis of the information to which I referred Taunton was not in the final 69.

The aim was to design a network that optimised the number of offices to minimise costs and maximise operational efficiency—for example, through lower fixed costs and overheads and greater staff flexibility to handle the peaks and troughs of demand—while selecting locations that maximised the proportion of UK residents who would need to travel no more than 20 miles to their nearest interview office. Not everybody will fall within that limit, and not everyone will be able to reach their interview office within the ideal time, but the overwhelming majority come within what we, and they, consider a reasonable time frame.

Mr. Browne: I understand the criteria and I realise that there cannot be offices everywhere. Inevitably, some people in remote rural communities will have to travel further, but will the Minister give an undertaking to put a pin on the map to show the location of each of the 69 centres? If she does so, she will see that Taunton is in a hole in the middle. It suffers from being quite near four centres, but falls between all of them, yet it is a sizeable population area to be in that predicament. Many other towns may fall into such black holes, but they are much less significant than Taunton.

Joan Ryan: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I took seriously his correspondence with the Department and the agency and the points that I realised he would make this evening, so I brought with me the colourful map I am holding up, which shows all 69 centres. I made sure, too, that I availed myself of information about the distances from Exeter, Yeovil, Barnstaple and Bristol of Taunton, Bridgwater, Wellington, Minehead and Chard. Chard is only 21 miles from Yeovil, but apart from that the range is as the hon. Gentleman suggests and the distance between some places and Exeter, Yeovil, Barnstaple or Bristol is somewhat further than 20 miles. However, none of those distances is excessive.

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I want to deal with some of the other points that the hon. Gentleman made. From the conclusions of the research and consultation, the IPS identified 69 locations that provided the right trade-off for efficiency, public travel expectations and the needs of sparsely populated areas. More than 82 per cent. of the population live within 20 miles of an office in the network, and more than 84 per cent. within a 30-minute journey. I accept that the hon. Gentleman is not talking about those areas, but the range of distances in the areas to which he referred is not unusual.

The IPS plans remote interview facilities—to which the hon. Gentleman referred—in 25 locations. Consultations with regional stakeholders are ongoing. Those facilities will accommodate the fewer than 0.7 per cent. of possible first-time passport customers who live more than an hour’s journey away from an interview office.

The hon. Gentleman requests that an office be located in Taunton and I understand why he and other Members want an office in their constituency, but we have to balance cost with the number of offices we can provide, so not every town can have an office. The purpose is to provide locations that meet the requirement for best travel times for all passport applicants in each part of the country. The geographical location of offices is designed to meet that requirement. Each location has been selected as part of a mutually supporting network, so changing one location would have a significant effect on the balance.

The measures are essential to protect our citizens from identify theft and to ensure that the British passport remains one of the most secure and respected in the world. We want to do everything we can to ensure that the service is as accessible, and at as efficient a cost, as it possibly can be. On the basis of that and an extensive mapping exercise, this is the solution—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-five minutes to Eleven o'clock.

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