§ Madam Speaker
We now come to the first Opposition motion. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
§ Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)
I beg to move,That this House deplores the Government's handling of the current crisis in the issuing of passports including the untimely introduction of children's passports, the untimely introduction of a flawed computer system, the unsatisfactory manner in which the above were introduced, the failure to instruct the passport office to work around the clock to meet demand, confusion over compensation, the failure to deliver passports in time for many families who have now missed overseas trips, the failure to meet the Passport Agency's turn around target of 10 days and the great inconvenience and distress caused to the general public; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to take urgent measures to ensure the speedy and efficient delivery of passports and that there are no further instances of UK citizens being denied overseas trips due to the combination of bad planning, inefficiency and complacency.In deploring the Government's record on the management of the Passport Agency, I pay tribute to the many staff who have had to work in situations of amazing difficulty caused by the Government's policies and incompetence. It is not only the Opposition who deplore the present situation, but hundreds of thousands of Britons who are trying to do nothing more than have their annual holiday.
I hope that we will not witness the Home Secretary's usual formula for when something goes wrong in the Home Office. First, he smiles engagingly; then he apologises humbly; and then he shrugs helplessly, saying that he does not know how it happened. In the two short weeks for which I have held this brief, he has come to the House three times to smile engagingly, apologise humbly and shrug helplessly. Last week, he did not know why the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 happened to be minus a few crimes. Of course he took responsibility and apologised profusely, but he could not tell us why it had happened.
Yesterday, the Home Secretary was at it again. He did not know why a report had lain in the Home Office unactioned for two years during which he alone presided there. Of course he took responsibility and apologised profusely, but he could not tell us why it had happened. We, however, know why the passports crisis has happened.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), has his own explanation. On the "Today" programme this morning, he said that it was all the general public's fault, because they had panicked and were applying too early; by going and queueing for hours in the rain, they were causing the problem. It was a piece of arrogance to cover up a piece of gross incompetence.
When I visited the passport office in Petty France today, every single person to whom I spoke had an immediate case. People were not panicked into queueing 141 for holidays in August or September, as the Minister suggested. In some cases, the issue is not anything as pleasant as a holiday, and people need to go abroad on urgent and personal business. They are being caused not only great inconvenience but massive distress.
Queueing in the rain, in many cases since dawn, were mothers with very tiny babies, some as young as six weeks. They were there because the Government have changed the rules. All those mothers said to me, in different ways, that they thought that the Government must be barmy.
What did the Government do to cause the crisis? They alone decided—they cannot blame it on the Passport Agency, the Opposition, the previous Government or even the general public—that from last October children, including new babies, would have to have their own passport. That has led to an enormous rise in the number of applications.
The Home Secretary will say that the measure is designed to combat abduction, but the mothers to whom I spoke today could not understand that. They said that a photograph of a baby of six weeks of age will not look much like that baby a few months later. In a case of suspected abduction, what a baby looks like will not be immediately obvious.
I hope that the Home Secretary will dispel my cynicism, but is it possible that the motivation behind the change was the vast increase in revenue that would occur as a result of the extra passport applications?
§ Miss Widdecombe
One parent in the queue was applying for passports for four children, so he had to pay four sets of fees when, in the past, the children would have been included on the parents' passports. Is the Secretary of State seriously going to contest that increased revenue played no part in his decision to introduce the rule?
§ Mr. MacShane
I am the parent of four children, and have no problem with securing independent passports for them. Is the right hon. Lady aware that, under the previous Government, very serious questions were raised about the abduction of children? This is not a laughing matter to be treated in the flippant tone that she has adopted. She may have the same smiling face as she had when she was a baby, but I assure her that it is worth the extra money to throw some sand in the wheels of would-be child abductors. I have no problems with the rule, and neither would any serious parent.
§ Miss Widdecombe
I may be wrong, but my impression from the father to whom I spoke today was that he did not have to subsist on a parliamentary salary and that the sum involved was a significant consideration for him. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the mothers to whom I spoke said that an unrecognisable photograph is not much of an anti-abduction measure. I am therefore not at all convinced that the hon. Gentleman has presented an overwhelming argument.
For a moment, let us suppose that the measure were justified. The net result has been an increase of more than a quarter of million in passport applications. That is 142 a fact, and it has taken place against the background of the introduction of flawed technology into the Passport Agency.
§ Miss Widdecombe
I am asked, from a sedentary position, who signed the contract, and I can tell the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) that it was signed with Siemens under the Labour Government's first private finance initiative scheme. What is more, the Government pay Siemens on a case-by-case administration basis. I hope that the Home Secretary will tell the House whether the company is still making profits despite the penalties that have been imposed, and that he will do so before the hon. Lady throws out another spurious question.
The technology is flawed and—unbelievably—there are no proper back-up systems. Now I am a reasonable person, and I am the first to admit that unexpected glitches sometimes happen, that flaws will appear and that the normal smooth working of a Government Department will be held up and interrupted when new systems and technology are introduced. I admit that that can happen, but it is important to ensure that the two things do not happen together. Given the risks of obstruction to normal administration associated with the introduction of new technology, the Government's simultaneous implementation of the new rule for children was an unnecessary complication. It would have been sensible to separate the two changes by a considerable period. We should have had the introduction either of the children's passports, or of the technology. The Government ought not to have confused the two.
§ Miss Widdecombe
When technology goes wrong, the response should be immediate. Yet it is only now—the day of an Opposition debate—that the Government have got round to saying that they will take on some extra staff and run an advertising campaign. Yet again, we see the pattern of operation employed by the Home Secretary when he responds to problems. A year and two months too late, he came to the House to put right an omission in the prevention of terrorism Act.
§ Miss Widdecombe
Yesterday, the Home Secretary sounded as if he had done some great thing when he told us that he had asked the Director General of the Prison Service to ensure that the situation at Wormwood Scrubs would be sorted out, but that, too, came two years too late, long after receipt of the report.
§ Miss Widdecombe
I should have thought that the whole House understood that, Madam Speaker, but apparently the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) did not.
143 Today, yet again, the Home Secretary follows his usual pattern. He has come to the House, at the last minute and once the pressure has grown and the public are worried, to tell us that he will put matters right. He seriously expects us to thank him, and to say what a wonderful thing he is doing.
I have described what I found this morning—not a public in panic, but a public massively frustrated. According to the Government's figures, given in a parliamentary answer, the number of calls that receive an answering machine message—the Government coyly describe those as courtesy messages—stood at 1.1 million in May. In April, the figure was 460,000, and in January just 118,000. There has been a tenfold increase in the number of those who receive a so-called courtesy message, which is, in fact, a brush-off, since there is no one to answer the call.
Yet the Home Secretary wonders why people who have received that answer again and again have finally decided that the only way in which they can take charge of the situation is to go to the passport office. At least they are not faced with an answering machine when they get there. However, they are faced with a massive queue to join a massive queue. The queue inside the office that I visited today was two hours long. The head of the queue outside the office had been there since dawn, and the tail for several hours.
All those people had imminent holidays or journey abroad. They had not left applications to the last moment, and in several cases, were doing as the Minister said and not turning up until the last week. Most had applied weeks ago—in one case four weeks, in another seven—but their passports had not been delivered, or, having been due for delivery from another office, they had been diverted and lost. People turned up at the passport office because it was the only way in which they could take charge of what was going on. If I were in their position, I should do exactly the same.
I am not surprised that people are going to the passport office, and I am sure that they will continue to do so until the Home Secretary clears up the mess.
What I do find offensive is that although that situation has been getting worse, has been widely commented on in the press and has been the subject of constituents' correspondence, as hon. Members on both sides of the House will know, and although it has caused constituents distress and been the subject of parliamentary questions to Ministers, until the past 24 hours there has been a denial that there was any problem.
§ Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)
I intervene because, as my right hon. Friend made those remarks, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), was shaking his head. I find it offensive to receive a letter from the Minister at the weekend enclosing a photograph that shows a passport office with no queue around it. Through my right hon. Friend I ask the Minister when that photograph was taken—was it using infra-red technology at 2 o'clock in the morning?
§ Miss Widdecombe
I am delighted to pass on that question. I assume that the photograph was taken at public 144 expense and I wonder what the point of it was. Surely the Minister should have responded to the precise query sensibly and not with a gimmick.
§ Miss Widdecombe
The whole House heard me say, "In a minute." If the hon. Gentleman did not, he will find that I will not give way to him at all.
Perhaps the Secretary of State will tell us about the cost of that gimmick and the reply and give my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) a clear answer about when the photograph was taken and under what circumstances.
Why has it taken so long for the Minister to wake up to the fact that many passport offices were not working at the weekends and around the clock and taking extra measures to reduce the queues and accommodate more people?
Does the Minister recall the purpose of the Passport Agency? Its main aim is set out in its terms of reference, which state that its duty is to provide passport services for British nationals in the United Kingdom promptly and economically. The terms of reference continue that the turnround time should be 10 days.
The Passport Agency has a number of key performance targets and one is toTurn around applications in 15 working days in April, and 10 days for the rest of the year".To say that that target has been missed is to make an understatement. In Glasgow, the average processing time for correctly completed, straightforward applications—not even the complex ones—that are submitted in person and so have not gone astray is not 10 but 39 working days; in Newport, it is 38 days; in Belfast, it is 37 days; in Liverpool, it is 36 days; and in Peterborough, it is 33 days.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
My constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong, have now been waiting well over seven weeks. They sent their applications by special delivery to Peterborough, so the figures that my right hon. Friend has been given may not be 100 per cent. correct.
§ Miss Widdecombe
I am inclined to ask whether performance pay is tied up with some of those targets. The real performance under examination, however, is that of the Ministers who, even when confronted with the growing evidence of those sorts of waiting times and the distress that they were causing, took refuge in the statement that only 50 families have not got their passports at all and in 99.9 per cent. of cases the passport offices manage to get the passport out. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that in that statement he is completely ignoring the hoops and antics that people have to go through to get their passports in the first place? It is no boast to say, "We gave this person his passport", if he has waited a large number of weeks instead of 10 days, had to queue for anything up to eight hours and if all that 145 came about because the Government caused the situation through the combination of their policy on children's passports and on new technology.
Now that the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) has been patient, I will give way to him.
§ Mr. O'Brien
Well, the right hon. Lady took interventions from two Members of her own party before I could get in to speak—and the right hon. Lady says that she is fair. May I say to her that she was misleading the House—[Interruption.]—
§ Madam Speaker
Order. No right hon. or hon. Member misleads this House, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Will he withdraw that remark and rephrase his question?
§ Mr. O'Brien
Yes, the right hon. Lady is not misleading the House, but she said that it was only from today that 300 people had been recruited to attend to the delays in passports. I advise her that the Passport Agency recruited 300 people a week ago to attend to those delays. I also advise her that my residence in London is near Petty France; for 16 years, during the time that the Conservative Government were in power, there have always been queues outside the passport office. Every day, for 16 years, there have been queues outside the passport office. If the right hon. Lady wants to comment on that issue, we should have the true facts.
§ Miss Widdecombe
Let me finish dealing with the intervention of the hon. Member for Normanton and then I will come to my hon. Friend.
I asked some specific questions on my visit today. I asked what was normal, and what would normally be expected at this time of year. In addition to the figures that show the huge rise in the number of applications and of people waiting, and in the number of queues, I was told by staff at the Passport Agency—many of whom had worked there for several years—that they had never seen anything like this before.
I asked the manager to compare the current situation to what he would expect if there had not been the rise in applications for children's passports and the chaos caused by the technology problem. He said that two extremely long queues would not normally be there. One queue was there because work had been shifted from other offices due to the technology failure; the other was there because people were coming to the office to get their passports because of the publicity surrounding the Government's failures. One of the queues was extremely long and most 146 people were joining it. Without those two queues, people would not have been outside the office, in the rain, since dawn.
There is no doubt that, from time to time, there is a queue for a short period, but to queue from dawn is not normal. The length of that queue, from dawn, is not normal. The testimony from the passport office today was that none of that was normal.
§ Mr. Fabricant
It would seem that I have the misfortune to live in the vicinity of the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien). I can inform my right hon. Friend that I walk to the House of Commons every day, through Petty France. Usually, there are short queues on Tuesday mornings only. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want deliberately to mislead the House, but I can say that there have been queues every day—not only on Tuesday mornings—and that they wrap round and join up in a continuous circle. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would like to withdraw his question; he knows that it was untrue.
§ Miss Widdecombe
I am tempted to give the hon. Member for Normanton a second chance, because the first intervention was extremely helpful.
§ Miss Widdecombe
Tempted as I am to give way to the hon. Gentleman, I do want to make some progress.
I want the Secretary of State to answer some simple questions. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt by allowing that the measure on children's passports was desirable. However, what prevented him from postponing the implementation of that measure until the computer system had been sorted out?
Is it true that the Home Secretary is paying Siemens case by case? Has the company incurred a net penalty as a result of its recent failure, or has it continued to make profits because of the rise in applications, owing to the necessity of children having to have their own passport? Will he state clearly to the House the increase in revenue to the Passport Agency that has resulted from the requirement for children and babies to have their own passport? Will he state why no back-up systems were in place when the computer technology was introduced? Will he state why, when it became evident that the computer technology was going wrong, he did not then—at that time, not a week ago—embark on immediate action to get the extra staff and allocate the extra hours that would be necessary to avert a problem?
Does the Home Secretary accept that the number of people who are brushed off with an answering machine message—1.1 million, which represents a tenfold increase since January and a doubling since last month—is unacceptable? Will he tell us what he proposes to do to make sure that people are not encouraged to come to London to swell the ranks of people queueing at the Passport Agency simply by being unable to get an answer when they ring up with a perfectly routine query? Does he accept that the present situation is unusual, or does he go along with his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary in saying that there is no crisis, and anyway, if there is one, the general public caused it?
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend, but, given the observations 147 made by the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), it is essential to establish whether his views are shared by Ministers. Do those on the Treasury Bench go in for sleepwalking in the way that the hon. Gentleman on the Back Bench does?
§ Miss Widdecombe
That would indeed be an intriguing question.
Does the Home Secretary agree that, as a result of his requirement that children should have their own passport and that parents should apply on their behalf, the number of applications for children's passports this year so far—I need hardly point out, even to the right hon. Gentleman, that we are only half way through the year—is now 796,000; whereas the figure for the whole of last year was only 412,000? Might not the right hon. Gentleman have deduced from that vast increase that extraordinary measures were necessary? Was it not exactly the wrong time to put not only extraordinary measures, but all ordinary measures, at risk by introducing new technology?
§ Mr. Maclean
Before my right hon. Friend resumes her seat, will she ask the Home Secretary one more crucial question regarding the allegations that security has been relaxed in order to increase the output of the Passport Agency? She will be aware that, in July 1997, the Under-Secretary said that the new computer would improve security. However, I understand that on 24 February this year, instructions were sent out to drop eight special security checks so as to improve output. In addition, there are allegations that those measures were later dropped, because of the scandal that they could produce.
§ Miss Widdecombe
That is indeed an important issue, and I should be grateful if the Home Secretary commented on it. He should also tell the House whether it is true that Siemens staff have been processing applications, and whether he envisages any problems arising as a result.
I am sure, because it is his style, that the Home Secretary will stand at the Dispatch Box and apologise, but, on this occasion, let him not shrug. Let him not boast about last-minute measures, but let him make an honest analysis of what has gone wrong, tell us where responsibility lies and, for once, tell us how he is going to get a grip on his Department. For the third time in two weeks, he has had to come to the House to repent of his sins. It is time he learned to go and sin no more.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:acknowledges the difficult operational situation that the Passport Agency is facing and greatly regrets the inconvenience caused to the public; notes the measures that the Agency is taking to remedy the situation including the deployment of 300 additional staff, the streamlining of processes to boost productivity whilst maintaining security and the willingness of Agency staff to work seven days a week to help clear the arrears; further notes that in spite of this difficult position the Agency is meeting 99.99 per cent. of travel dates and will continue to do so throughout the summer and beyond; and agrees that it is right to introduce the policy of separate passports for children.148 I may indeed repent, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) opened her remarks by sneering at the idea that the Secretary of State for the Home Department should come to the House to apologise and accept responsibility for something that had gone wrong. We understand why someone who served in the previous Administration should find either the concept of an apology or the idea of accepting responsibility wholly alien.
It is true that, in every Government Department, under every Administration, things go wrong from time to time. It is also true—as the right hon. Lady has every reason to know—that things go wrong in the Home Office more often than anywhere else. Moreover, when things go wrong, they normally do so in threes or fours. Of course I would prefer to be performing my customary task of coming to the House and setting out the achievements of the Government and of the Home Office. There is a major difference between this Government and our predecessor—and it is one of the reasons why the previous Government were drummed out of office in the most dramatic defeat since the war. Under the previous Government, when things went wrong—as they inevitably did occasionally—Conservative Ministers did not come to the House to apologise when an apology was necessary; nor did they accept responsibility. They wriggled and evaded responsibility every time.
Conservative Ministers came up with the idea of executive agencies. I do not wholly disagree with that concept; it has some merit. However, I have always disagreed with the idea that the establishment of agencies would enable Ministers to evade their responsibility to the House. The right hon. Lady, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), their right hon. Friends and all the rest of them developed this neat difference between accountability and responsibility: they were responsible for policy but never for the operation of that policy.
To underline the fact that they were not responsible when things went wrong, Conservative Ministers would take out the basin and wash their hands. The right hon. Lady used to do that—as did the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). When questions were asked about the operation of an agency, who replied to those queries? Was it the Secretary of State or the Minister of State? Not on your life. They simply acted as the postbox every time. Conservative Ministers treated written answers like pieces of stinking fish and said, "I refer to the letter that I have received from the chief executive."
§ Miss Widdecombe
The Home Secretary is in a time warp: he thinks that he is still in opposition and that all he must do is rehearse the sins, as he sees them, of the previous Government. He is now in government and we are asking him what he is doing about this mess. The right hon. Gentleman stands at the Dispatch Box recounting history, but we are interested in the present. Will he now return to the present and answer for himself?
§ Mr. Maclean
I am grateful to the Home Secretary. Will he tell the House who took the decision to issue passports to babies and children? Was it the Passport Agency or Ministers?
§ Mr. Bercow
I was worried to see the right hon. Gentleman in a state of such perturbation a few moments ago. He now seems to have calmed down somewhat. Will he give the House an assurance that, no matter how many families need to be compensated for the loss of their holidays, there will be no increase in passport application charges over and above those that might otherwise have taken place in the lifetime of this Parliament?
§ Mr. Straw
I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking that families with children and individual applicants who have their holidays wrecked, or who cannot meet their travel date for any other reason, will receive full compensation. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question".] I am answering the hon. Gentleman; he knows that I answer his questions. The total amount of compensation is very small. There may have to be increases in the passport fee for the normal reasons to which he adverts, but there is no reason why any increase should result from the level of compensation.
§ Mr. Straw
No, I have given way more times than the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald did during her speech. I shall get on with my speech, but I will, of course, take more interventions should the occasion arise and if I decide to accept them.
As we all know, the Passport Agency is not providing its customers with the service that they and the House expect or that the agency has promised. I add my personal apologies to those of the chief executive of the agency and those of the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), to all those who have been inconvenienced by the inadequate standard of service, and especially to those whose holidays or business trips have been disrupted or cancelled.
Today, I want to put the situation into context and to set out why and how it has come to pass and what the agency and Ministers are doing, as quickly as possible, to resolve matters satisfactorily.
150 First, I shall set out the context. The Passport Agency is one of the largest passport-issuing authorities in the world. It issues around 5 million passports a year, or an average of more than 400,000 a month. The work is highly seasonal, however. In a typical year, 50 per cent. of the work is compressed into a third of the year, with the peak months being the pre-summer holiday period of April to June.
Since its establishment as an agency in 1991, and until this year, the Passport Agency has had a successful track record in delivering high-quality public services. It is one of the few organisations that has three times won a charter mark for excellence, which it gained last year and in 1992 and 1995.
§ Mr. Straw
Well, we have a Labour Government now, and the agency won the charter mark again last year.
In recent months, however, performance has been poor. Around 500,000 applications currently await processing, which amounts to a backlog of about a month's work. That is twice the level of outstanding work a year ago. Around half those applications are for people wanting to travel in August, September and beyond. The other half are for travel in July. The agency is now clearing almost 150,000 cases a week, which is 20 per cent. higher than the figure for this time last year.
The agency is prioritising work according to travel dates. In the vast majority of cases, applicants are receiving their passports by the stated travel date. However, I fully recognise that even where customers are, in the end, receiving their passports in time to travel—I entirely agree with what the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said about this—they have had to endure a good deal of anxiety and, in come cases, considerable trouble and inconvenience in having to make personal visits, with long waits, to the caller offices in London, Liverpool, Newport, Belfast and Peterborough.
§ Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)
A constituent of mine was forced to travel to Liverpool and miss a day's work. He noticed that the queue outside the office had vanished, but it had simply been transferred inside. I refer the Home Secretary to questions that were asked earlier. We have been sent a picture showing that there is no queue. Is it a symbol of new Labour that real problems are simply airbrushed out of the picture? When will the queues disappear?
§ Mr. Straw
I have given way enough.
It is pretty obvious that things have not worked out as anybody anticipated. There will still be queues even when we have returned the Passport Agency to operation at the levels that we expect, for reasons that my hon. Friend 151 the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) and—I think—other hon Members understand. The caller offices are there to deal with normal applications.
Although in respects other than queueing the situation is worse than that under the previous Administration—I do not suggest otherwise—I have been informed by the agency that, for six weeks in 1996 immediately following the withdrawal of the British visitors passport by the previous Administration, queues at the London caller office were longer and people were waiting longer.
The agency is clearing about 150,000 cases a week. In this calendar year, 3.25 million passports have already been issued. For literally 99.99 per cent. of applications, the agency has met due travel dates. In 93 cases, the passport has not been delivered on time, and those customers have had their plans either seriously disrupted or cancelled. Those customers obviously wanted a holiday or business trip on time and not monetary compensation—I understand that entirely—but in such circumstances, the agency pays compensation in full and as soon as possible.
I visited the agency's office in London yesterday and spoke to members of the public who were queueing. Some had been queueing for several hours; I do not for a moment regard that as acceptable. Those whom I met were showing extraordinary stoicism in the face of these problems. By 6.30 pm yesterday, 1,500 personal callers to the London office had been dealt with—twice the usual level for a Monday.
I was asked when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I first became aware of the problems and what we decided to do about them. We became aware of the problems in late March from the regular reports that we receive from the agency. My hon. Friend has paid very close personal attention on my behalf to what has been going on at the agency. As soon as he alerted himself to the nature of the problems—to the early warning signs—he called in the agency's chief executive, I saw the permanent secretary at the Home Office and meetings were held. There were also meetings between my hon. Friend and trade unions.
An action plan was agreed to meet what was anticipated at that stage to be the rise in demand and the need to raise output. As a result, an extra 300 people were recruited to deal with the backlog. Staff have been working evenings during the week and over weekends to process postal applications. In order to clear straightforward renewal applications, we also agreed that, where the agency was satisfied about the identity of the applicant, certain passports could instead be extended for two years.
I recognise that the situation did not improve as we had anticipated, although I should make it clear that, having fallen in late March, output has continued to rise and is now at a record level. That must be borne in mind, although I quite understand that it is of no comfort to those who are in the queue.
As a result of further decisions, we have decided—the agency has announced this today—that an extra 100 staff will be recruited to help to deal with the backlog in addition to the 300 extra staff who are being recruited. Advertisements will be placed in the national media advising the public how best to apply for a new passport 152 that is relevant to their travel date. Those measures should help the agency to get turnround times back to 10 days by September. That is what I am expecting.
§ Mr. Evans
The announcement of the extra 100 staff and anticipation of September is fine, but unless my constituent Sharon Gowan gets her passport by Friday, she will not be able to go on her honeymoon. The Home Secretary said that compensation is often not what people want. My constituent's honeymoon will be ruined, yet the cheque for her passport was cashed in May. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure her that, without queueing for a whole day at an office, she will be able to get a passport by Friday so that she can go on her honeymoon?
§ Mr. Straw
I will give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that his constituent will get her passport. [Interruption.] Whether Opposition Members raise their eyebrows or not, we will move heaven and earth to make sure that she gets her passport. I have had constituents in similar circumstances. I do not ask special favours of the passport office—any more than I do of any other part of government—because I happen to be Home Secretary. [Interruption.] I consider it extremely important for people in positions such as mine not to ask for favours in such circumstances. Where such cases have been raised, my office in Blackburn has dealt with them, and they have been dealt with satisfactorily.
§ Miss Widdecombe
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way. I am intrigued by his last answer, which promises special treatment—I am delighted that it does—for the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). Can the Home Secretary give a similar assurance to all those with equally urgent business abroad who are biting their fingernails because they have not heard from the passport office, and are in despair because they do not know what will happen? Are the only people who can get such a guarantee to be those whose cases are raised specially in the House?
§ Mr. Straw
I shall proceed with my speech. I have already taken many interventions, as I am always delighted to do. I shall take an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty), 153 then I shall set out other arrangements that we will put in place in respect of applications up against a late travel date.
§ Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Is he aware that—not by going through a Member of Parliament but by sending a clear explanatory letter by fax to the Glasgow office—several of my constituents reported that within half an hour they had a reply and a promised delivery date, which was kept to? I have found that if people's cases have a clear priority and there is a deadline to be met, they are dealt with swiftly, without having to go through a Member of Parliament.
§ Mr. Straw
If right hon. and hon. Members will bear with me, I shall set out the advice that we are giving about late applications.
People should apply by post as early as possible, and where possible, at least a month before travelling. People who are not travelling urgently should apply via the Post Office or a World Choice travel agent or direct to the Passport Agency by post. They should make sure that the form is properly completed, and that all documents are enclosed. Eighty per cent. of people apply by post in those ways. UKPA is prioritising all applications by date of travel, which is why we say that, in 99.99 per cent. of cases, people receive their passport on time.
A small extra charge of £3.20 is levied by the Post Office and World Choice travel agents under an arrangement with the Passport Agency, but Post Office and the travel agent staff are able to pre-check the applications and forward them direct to the agency. Because they have been pre-checked, they are being dealt with a little more quickly than direct applications.
Those who have not received their passport within seven days of their travel date should go in person, if they can, to their nearest regional passport office. Personal callers should please go to the offices only if their application is urgent—within seven days of their travel date, and not for later travel dates. We also ask people in that predicament not to leave their personal call to the last day, in case there are queries on the application. The agency has assured me that those travelling later in the year will be dealt with within the agreed time.
§ Mr. Straw
Let me deal with those who need to travel urgently. For the time being, those who need to travel within two weeks and who have not made any application must apply in person at their nearest passport office. Those who need such an urgent passport—I emphasise that this applies to urgent passports—and who for any reason cannot get to an office in person, should write direct to Mr. Kevin Sheehan, director of operations at Clive house. We will send this information in a "dear colleague" letter. I have already said that there will be standing arrangements to deal with constituents' cases.
154 Let me—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)
Order. The Secretary of State has indicated that he is not giving way, at least for the time being.
§ Mr. Straw
Let me deal with the background and the reasons for the current problems. As we know, the agency operates under a framework document set out in May 1996. It set the agency a number of objectives. Among them were measures to prevent and detect passport fraud, introduce a more secure passport and look at ways of involving the private sector in the issuing operation.
To take that forward, the agency carried out a review of its business during the following year to secure those changes. The information technology system on which passports were issued was 10 years old; the equipment used to print passports was out of date and becoming increasingly difficult to maintain; and the passport did not contain the latest modern security features. A new passport design was therefore needed to provide greater security. The new passport has a range of added security features, including a digital image of the holder and the holder's signature under a high-security laminate.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation, of which the United Kingdom is a member, set standards for passports, including separate passports for each traveller. The existing passport, in which details of children under 16 could be included on another person's passport without a photograph, does not meet those standards. Some countries—including the United States, Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, Brazil and, from September, Belgium—already insist on separate passports for children. Others have agreed the principle of separate passports, including other EU countries.
The Passport Agency consulted its user group panel about the introduction of separate passports. The change was generally welcomed, particularly by those groups concerned with preventing child abduction. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said various things about the child passport. She said that we should accept for the moment that it is acceptable to introduce the child passport, but she certainly used the word "barmy", and I think that she was describing the issuing of the child passport as barmy.
One of the organisations that made strong representations to the Government in favour of the introduction of child passports—including and especially passports for babies—was the all-party child abduction group. I have with me the list of members of the group and there are 21 Conservatives on it. I do not know whether the list is inaccurate, but all I can say to the right hon. Lady is that, four names from the bottom, under "W", her name appears. If she wants to correct the record and deny that she is a member I shall of course be happy to hear from her. A group of which she is a member called repeatedly for us to introduce child passports to reduce the incidence and risk of child abduction.
§ Miss Widdecombe
Perhaps the Home Secretary will answer the question that I clearly put to him. Even given 155 that there might be a case for that measure, why was it necessary to introduce it at the same time as he was introducing new technology? Hansard will show that I said postpone, not abandon.
§ Mr. Straw
I am answering the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald.
I shall explain why we decided to introduce those changes with effect from 1 October 1998. I may say that the only issue raised by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), when my hon. Friend the Minister announced them in April 1998 was cost. I shall deal with that issue. There has been some insinuation that we have introduced the measure only to make money. That is completely incorrect. The cost to the applicant of a child's passport is £11, albeit that such a passport lasts for only five years rather than for 10. The cost of processing the application is £21, which is the same as that for processing an adult passport.
Although the old passport was available for 10 years, we also ensured that the cost of a child passport was reduced from £18 to £11. We fixed a figure of £11 because that was being charged to amend an existing passport to include children.
We decided to introduce the changes at this time because we were changing many of the administrative procedures; that included simplifying the application form. If we were to introduce a new information technology system, it was important for it to be durable. It could not involve arrangements whereby at one moment children could be included on other people's passports, and at another moment they could not.
I understand why the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald asked whether we could have suspended the issue of child passports. That is an entirely fair question, which I raised at an early stage, as did my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. That was not possible: it would have led to more problems than it would have solved.
§ Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)
I do not disagree with the Home Secretary on the general point about child passports, but I hope that he will accept another correction. In 1997–98, the full economic cost of 156 a child passport to the passport service was £9.94. The £21 is the amount charged to an ordinary applicant; the cost of processing an application is far less than that.
§ Mrs. Brinton
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way.
I was very interested by the comments of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), and by the fact that she had been a member of the all-party group on child abduction. As the current vice-chair of that group, I should like to reassure my right hon. Friend that we called for the passports, and we welcome the passports.
§ Mr. Hogg
I actually wanted to ask what I hoped might be a useful question. [HON. MEMBERS: "They are always useful."] Indeed, they are always useful, and even perhaps helpful.
One of the problems relates to recently expired passports. It is, I think, within the discretion of the Home Secretary to devise ways in which a recently expired passport can be extended. For example, would it not be possible to authorise police stations to extend the current validity of a passport, and would it not be possible to agree with other countries to receive travellers with recently expired passports? I strongly suspect that, if it were necessary to introduce legislation rapidly to make either of those things possible, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) would help the Home Secretary.
§ Mr. Straw
I have taken many interventions from the right hon. and learned Gentleman during my time on the Government Benches—and, indeed, when I sat on the other side of the Chamber. Some are helpful and constructive, as were his amendments—stimulated amendments—to the Human Rights Act 1998. This latest intervention is also helpful.
157 As I have said, there are already arrangements for extending the validity of passports, and they have helped, but I am not sure that it would be possible to make arrangements for police stations to extend passports. One of the problems is security—not security within the police stations, but ensuring that a proper record is kept at every stage. I shall examine the possibilities, however, and write to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
§ Mr. Straw
Many other Members wish to speak. I have already accepted about three times as many interventions from the opposite Benches as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, and I now wish to complete my speech.
Let me say more about the IT system, and the problems that have arisen. Testing of the new system was completed in time for it to be introduced on a pilot basis in the Liverpool office on 5 October, and in the Newport office six weeks later. The pilot started in the low season for UKPA business, so that disruption to customers could be minimised. However, two significant problems then arose.
First, the new working processes, which involved additional checking, required more staff than was envisaged. That is true both for the parts of the system operated by the private sector and for the parts operated by the agency.
§ Mr. Straw
I will give way to the right hon. Lady in a moment, if she will just listen to the explanation.
Secondly, some loss of output was expected in the pilot's early stages and was built into the project plans, not least the provision for making the changes in the autumn quiet season and for staffing changes. However, loss of output was greater than the agency anticipated. Despite that, more than 1 million of the new, more secure passports have been issued on the new system. A recent independent audit has confirmed that the new system's design is sound.
I in no sense minimise the problems and disruption that have been caused to individuals by the difficulties in the passport office, but output since April—since we put the action plan in place—has risen consistently and is now running at record levels: about 150,000 passports a week.
The Passport Agency increased the number of passport examiners by 250 through recruitment and promotion. Staff throughout the agency have been working high levels of overtime at weekends and in the evenings. However, it is now obvious that the roll-out is lasting longer than the agency expected, and that more staff are required than the agency envisaged at the planning stage.
On children's passports—the following point is important, too—applications were initially rather less than expected when the new changes came into force in October 1998. That may have given false reassurance to the agency. The agency went to considerable lengths to 158 get outside advice from Government statisticians about the likely level of applications from and in respect of children. As it happens, for some months after the introduction of the change, the level of applications was lower, rather than higher, than anticipated,
I point out two things to those who are concerned about the idea of a baby's photograph being put on a passport. First, of the 400,000 voluntary applications for children's passports, quite a number have been in respect of babies. Secondly, although we all understand that a photograph of a baby may not provide the same identity two or three years later—in some cases, even a few months later—the immigration service and all the child abduction pressure groups say that the totality of the evidence provided by a passport provides far better reassurance and security checking than a simple name on someone else's passport ever does.
§ Miss Widdecombe
It seems that, in that explanation, the right hon. Gentleman has confirmed what we said earlier—there was a coincidence, which I now realise, given the timetable that he has set out, was even closer than I thought. In October, it became law that children had to have their own passports and, again in October, the first experiments were tried. Why were two brand new burdens put on the Passport Agency at exactly the same time? That was underlying all the questions that I asked earlier. I still have not had an answer to that one.
§ Mr. Straw
I have given the right hon. Lady an answer. There has never been the least secret about the fact that the change in the application arrangements for children's passports was introduced at the same time as changes in the procedures and the pilot IT system. The two were designed to be integrated, and for good reasons. It was much more cost-effective to do that. As we were making changes to the system by which passports were produced—which will, I hope, last for many years—it made sense at the same time to make changes in the application procedure, which, in respect of children, simplify the procedure; there is one application for each person, not one application that may include a number of other people.
§ Mr. Straw
No. That was the last intervention.
As I have explained, as it happened, the application levels in respect of children in the first five or six months of the new pilots being rolled out were lower, rather than higher, than we anticipated. Since April, however, the intake of applications for both children and adults has shown a significant rise—well in excess of normal seasonal trends. Current figures show intake 40 per cent. higher than last year. If that pattern continues, this year's intake will be the highest ever.
159 The agency tells me that intake is expected to fall sharply at some stage next month and that it will then be able to deal quickly with the arrears. It tells me—I expect this to be achieved—that the time for clearing properly completed applications will be down to 10 days by the end of September. With the extra staff now being brought in, the agency expects to be able to hold that level of performance in future.
The agency has quite rightly deferred plans to roll out the new system into the remaining offices until the arrears are cleared this autumn. It is not true, as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald has tried to insinuate, that, once the system had been set in train, no alterations were made to the programme to take account of the increase in demand. We have had to make sensible changes to the arrangements to ensure that demand can be coped with.
§ Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his detailed explanation. I am sure that my constituents will welcome his observations. It is a pity that I did not get an apology when I had to queue all the way round Liverpool passport office, but that was under the previous Administration. I do not remember any apology or any explanation on the record to the House.
§ Mr. Straw
It is doubtful whether my hon. Friend would ever have received an apology from a Minister because, as I said earlier, Ministers under the previous Administration were seeking to evade responsibility and, so far as they could, never to say they were sorry.
The current backlogs have resulted in severe problems with the telephone service. People are understandably anxious when they have submitted their applications some time ago and have not heard anything, so there has been a significant but understandable surge in inquiries by telephone and fax. In May alone, the agency recorded more than 1.5 million calls, many of which have gone unanswered. The agency has had to make the difficult operational decision between using staff to answer the telephone or to concentrate on passport issuing to ensure that passports are received in time to travel. It has chosen to do the latter, but I acknowledge the anxiety and frustration that has resulted, and so does the agency.
Steps are now being taken to provide an adequate telephone service for passport inquiries. I am sorry to say that those changes will be too late to deal with the current problems. We do know that once turnround times are brought down to 10 days, call volumes will drop dramatically, to levels at which the agency can provide an acceptable service. By the autumn, the agency should have brought the present unsatisfactory situation under control and the extra staff should enable lasting improvements to be made.
The framework document to which I referred earlier is due for review later this year. The current chief executive, David Gatenby, who has been in post since 1994, told the Home Office late last year of his decision to retire this summer. A new chief executive, Mr. Bernard Herdan, has been appointed to take up his post on 1 October. One of his first tasks will be to conduct the review of the framework document. There will be a substantial independent element in that review and Ministers will be taking a close interest in its outcome.
160 I should like to pay tribute to the staff of the agency. They have worked extraordinarily long hours in difficult circumstances to ensure that travel needs are met. I thank the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald for her tribute to the staff. This, at least, is not remotely a party issue. As the right hon Lady and I have seen—as have many of my right hon. and hon. Friends—the staff have shown extraordinary good humour in difficult circumstances.
§ Mr. Straw
No. I am just at the end of my speech.
I acknowledge that this has been a difficult year for the agency's customers and for the agency itself, for the reasons I have outlined. Despite the difficulties, the agency has continued to meet the travel needs of the vast majority of its customers. In recent weeks, it has not delivered the very high level of service to which the agency and I are committed and which the House expects. I should like to assure the House that firm action is being taken to put the agency's performance back on track and to resolve the difficulties that I have outlined to the House today. I commend the amendment to the House.
§ Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)
I should like to start my contribution by echoing the comments of the Home Secretary and the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) in praise of the staff at the Passport Agency. My constituency employees, in common with those of many other hon. Members, have found them extremely courteous when dealing with individual cases. My staff have made some firm friends in the Passport Agency, the Immigration and Nationality Directorate at Croydon and the Child Support Agency over the many happy hours that they have spent on the telephone together dealing with my constituents' business.
The Home Secretary worried all of us by suggesting that bad luck in the Home Office comes in fours. The right hon. Lady cited three instances, and we are left wondering what the fourth could be. Perhaps it is the Home Secretary's plan to place criminal record checks in the hands of the Passport Agency, to add to its work load. That decision was taken on the basis of itsproven track record of discreet delivery of a large application driven service"—[Official Report, 14 December 1998; Vol. 322, c. 356.]—and in particular recognition of itsexperience of procuring information technology using public-private partnership arrangements which will be appropriate for the setting up of the CRB".—[Official Report, 16 June 1999; Vol. 333, c. 159.]The Liberal Democrats feel that the proven track record of the agency's ability to set up a new IT system must be called into question in the context of the Criminal Records Bureau.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
I notice that the Liberal Democrat amendment has a specific reference to the IT problems. Have any lessons been learned from the computerisation in Lunar house? Are we satisfied that the consultancies involved have been up to the mark? Can we discover who they are?
§ Mr. Allan
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. There are two computer systems. The current 161 Administration signed up to the Passport Agency's computer system with Siemens business systems in July 1997, so must take some of the responsibility. They should have learned some lessons from the introduction of the system in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate at Lunar house. That contract was signed by the previous Administration in 1996, and has caused equal if not worse problems.
Indeed, there seems to be a conspiracy to fill up the country. The IND at Croydon is unable to give foreign nationals their passports back so that they can leave the country, and the Passport Agency is unable to give British nationals passports so that they can leave the country. Some important lessons could be learned about the management of IT contracts by government at both venues, and I hope that the Government will take them on board.
§ Mr. Maclean
I am following carefully what the hon. Gentleman says. Has he seen the press release issued by the National Audit Office, which confirms his remarks? The NAO examined the Home Office computerisation programme, and one of its recommendations is:Departments should consider whether a proposed project might be too ambitious to be attempted at one go.
§ Mr. Allan
That is an interesting report by a worthy body. As a former IT professional, I take a close interest in these matters. With Government systems—many others have similar problems—hope triumphs over reality. Agencies and organisations try to meet over-ambitious efficiency targets, and they lay off staff ahead of a new computer system that is intended to make savings. A commercial company would not risk doing that. A large utility running a similar business would not take the risks that monopoly suppliers, such as the Passport Agency, have taken.
§ Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)
I too was an IT professional before I entered the House. The experience on this and other projects is that basic disciplines, such as risk analysis before entering a project, project management, clear accountability for running a project, and appropriate contingency planning seem to be missing in the public service.
§ Mr. Allan
The hon. Gentleman has outlined a set of good remedial measures, and I hope that they are being noted for future computer projects.
I have been disappointed by the Government's response to the concerns that have been raised by the Passport Agency—until today, when the Home Secretary has at least come to the Dispatch Box with some form of apology. I was disappointed in their earlier responses, which seemed to shoot the messenger and blame the customer. The Government's view was that if they did not tell people about the problem, it would go away. Their ostrich-like approach has clearly been shown to have failed. Other hon. Members will have had constituents with problems similar to those that exist now, way before any publicity was given to the issue. The problem existed and was shown to be building up for many months. Delays to the average processing time increased month on month.
162 My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) wrote to the Home Office as long ago as April this year, dragging the problem to its attention and seeking a remedy. However, little action was taken until June, when the first recruitment of extra staff took place.
§ Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)
I actually wrote at the end of March and in early April, and perhaps that prompted the Home Secretary to take the initiative. At that time, people at the Liverpool office were desperate and asked me to do all that I could to get some improvement. We have heard that 300 members of staff were put in quite late. Why was there no action in March—when I and, probably, other hon. Members wrote—to put people into the Liverpool office?
§ Mr. Allan
My hon. Friend is right. Early action would have saved the Passport Agency money and saved a large number of constituents huge distress.
In May, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)—on behalf of the Liberal Democrats—acted as an early-warning system for the problems by tabling parliamentary questions, and by publicising the fact that there was a problem with the delays and that the average processing time had increased.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
Is the point that the hon. Gentleman is now making about his right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred to in the first line of the Liberal Democrat amendment, in which it claims thatthe Liberal Democrats first exposed the problems at the Passport Agency at the end of May"?Questions were being raised in this House from March onwards about the problems, some of which have been mentioned. For instance, I made a speech on the Floor of the House on 26 May—but I would never be immodest enough to table a motion that referred to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire first exposing the problem at the Passport Agency at the end of May.
§ Mr. Allan
I admire the modesty of the hon. Gentleman. We are referring to work done by this party which was widely publicised in the national press. In the context of this debate, we felt that it was important to make sure that the House was aware of the work that had been done. I take nothing away from all hon. Members who have worked on this matter. I particularly give full credit to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald for her cruise missile strike against the Government today. In this debate, we join her in criticising the Government in the strongest possible terms, in an attempt to achieve some joined-up opposition.
The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard)—who, I believe, is a good friend of the right hon. Lady—was a prophet, a Nostradamus of our time. In the UK Passport Agency framework document of May 1996, he stated in the foreword that the agency faced "a challenging period." Clearly, the right hon. Lady is in place now to make the challenges.
We looked at the problems, in common with many other hon. Members, earlier this year. We were able to show that the applications in March 1999 amounted to a backlog that was 32 per cent. higher than one year beforehand, and that the problem had been growing month 163 on month. We noticed in particular that problems existed at the Liverpool office; as a Member representing a northern constituency, I am especially sensitive to problems at the Liverpool office.
We sought to draw these matters to the attention of the Government, who gave what we felt was a negative response from 31 May until 2 June, when it was said that an extra 300 staff would be recruited. Since then, only one of the six Passport Agency offices has seen its average processing times reduced. In five out of the six offices—on the Passport Agency's own figures—the average processing time is longer now than it was four weeks ago. We now have a backlog of more than 500,000, compared with only 220,000 in March.
§ Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)
The Home Secretary alluded to statistics projecting a higher demand earlier in the trial. When the statistics were undershot, alarm bells did not ring about the pent-up demand that would come later. Perhaps the undershooting was misread as a reassurance that there would not be as much of a problem as previously thought.
§ Mr. Allan
The problem is the lack of slack and contingency planning to allow for variations. The agency has been under tremendous pressure to make efficiency savings—of 24.5 per cent. from 1995–96 to 1997–98—so it has considered any chink of light and been glad to cut costs anywhere, rather than allowing any slack in the system. A system that fails to deliver has not made efficiency savings: it has made cash savings that have turned out to be inefficiency savings.
We are concerned about those who have missed their travel dates. According to a parliamentary answer from the Home Office, there were 95 such cases in all in 1998–99. There have been 50 so far this year. We are concerned also about those who did not declare a travel date, because it is quite common not to do so.
Fifty may sound like a small number, but it represents 50 families whose holidays have been ruined, or people who may have failed to make important engagements abroad. The individuals concerned should be compensated. Another parliamentary answer said that the Passport Agency's current policy is to reimburse, by an ex gratia payment, the reasonable out-of-pocket expenses incurred by customers as a direct consequence of clear operational errors or failure to provide an acceptable level of services; that each case is considered carefully on its merits; and that it is not the agency's normal policy to make compensation for distress and inconvenience arising from such errors and failures.
Is that still the case? People will be especially interested to know whether there will be compensation for distress and inconvenience, which will in many cases have been considerable. How have the budgets been revised for compensation? In 1998–99, 74 per cent. more was paid in compensation than in 1997–98. What might the total be for this year? That money is being wasted, in the sense that it should never have needed to be paid.
The Home Office has offered several reasons for the problems that we do not accept. Passports for children serve a useful purpose in preventing abduction. I noted earlier that my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) has a child on his passport. The line adding the child strikes me as 164 easily forged, so having a separate document will bring real benefits. It is astonishing, however, that effective preparations for the change were not put in place. There is no excuse for the Passport Agency failing to deliver it effectively.
I have heard anecdotally that one problem that has arisen is that when one child is issued a passport, the other children in the family want one too. Such human factors could and should have been taken into account.
We do not believe that it is reasonable to blame the IT system. It is traditional on the telephone to blame the computer.
§ Mr. Allan
I will come to that in a minute, as I am quite exercised about the unacceptable standard of service on the telephone.
How much were Siemens and Security Printing Systems fined, or is it like the Immigration and Nationality Directorate system, in which no fine is levied but the company does not get paid when the system is not running effectively? The system is working, but not as well as it should.
I know that the Home Secretary has an interest in freedom of information, but I hope that he will not cloak this problem of genuine public concern in a cloud of commercial confidentiality. People who hand over £21 or £31 have a right to understand how that money is spent and whether it is spent well. I hope that commercial confidentiality will not be trotted out as an excuse for not revealing how Siemens has suffered for failing to reach contractually arranged targets.
How much has been levied on the Immigration and Nationality Directorate contract, where the problems have been even more extreme? A pattern is evident that needs to be examined as a whole. It is not enough simply to take each information technology system in isolation, as the lessons will apply to the delivery of any such system.
High seasonal demand was one of the original reasons put forward to explain the delays. That is a "leaves on the track" argument and is unacceptable. High seasonal demand is a recurrent feature. A person who telephones British Gas with a complaint in the middle of winter is not told that the high demand for gas in winter means that the complaint cannot be satisfied. Responses such as that from any of the comparable utilities would put them out of business. One of the matters needing attention is the extent to which a monopoly supplier can extend periods of inefficiency because people have no choice of supplier.
§ Mr. MacShane
The demand for passports has risen by nearly 200,000 since 1997. Does not that show that people are happier under a Labour Government, that they want to travel more and that they have the money to do so? It is not a matter of seasonal demand, but of our Government's success.
§ Mr. Allan
The hon. Gentleman has his view, but others may suggest that people are fleeing from the present condition of the country. I do not want to get into that debate, but the Government should have been able to plan for the happiness factor when they took office. Two years ago, they should have anticipated the wealth that they were going to create, and required the Passport 165 Agency to issue more passports. Whatever the real cause of the delays—the hot summer weather or the Government's successes or failures—it is no longer acceptable to cite seasonal demand as the reason for the failure properly to deliver public services.
The utility providers do not behave in this way any more, because regulators monitor their operations, yet Ministers are ready to attack any other provider of a core service that fails to deliver. When the train services fail to meet their targets, Ministers line up to criticise them. They levy fines and believe that the system of regulation governing those providers should be strengthened. We agree about that, but why should the Passport Agency be exempt from the general structure? A target is a target, and there are penalties if it is not achieved.
§ Miss Widdecombe
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I had a question that I wanted to ask the Home Secretary, but he had become rather exhausted and would not take it. Given that the Home Secretary accepts responsibility for what has gone wrong—and the number of things that have gone wrong, for which he has also accepted responsibility, is really rather large—does not the hon. Gentleman think that the time may have come for the right hon. Gentleman to expect a penalty to be imposed on him?
§ Mr. Allan
Certainly. One of the more depressing aspects of the matter is that it seems that the compensation and fines that are paid or levied will be added to the customer's costs. Passport applications will therefore cost more, which is unacceptable. The Passport Agency is self-funding, but its structure needs examination if a more rigorous system, ensuring that standards are met and not resiled from, is to be achieved. We must make sure that customers do not end up paying for the failure of the service provider.
I shall close with several suggestions for ways forward to deal with what I consider to be the key priorities, but first the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) seems very keen to intervene.
§ Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)
Incompetent planning was mentioned earlier, and it is clear that, whatever the reason, the planning was appalling and left much to be desired. Does the hon. Gentleman know whether the Government's estimates take account of the pound's strength on the foreign exchanges? Is not that likely to increase the number of people wanting to go abroad and therefore applying for passports? Should not the Government say whether the exchange rate was incorporated in estimates of the number of passports that will be demanded?
§ Mr. Allan
I am amazed by the number of wider factors that can be introduced to this debate. It might be even more dangerous to discuss currencies and exchange rates, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, than it would have been to debate the more general economic conditions mentioned by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane).
I want to offer the Home Secretary some positive pointers towards key improvements. First, there should be a telephone call centre. People come to our surgeries 166 because they cannot get through on the telephone. Again and again people say that they are sorry to bother us, but they have been on the phone for hours. They are not exaggerating, and that is not acceptable. Utilities set strict targets, answering 80 per cent. or 90 per cent. of calls within a specified number of rings. The targets are monitored, and the regulator checks them. Anything less than the target is deemed unacceptable.
Setting up a call centre system would bring considerable savings to the Passport Agency. We have been told that one way around the problem is to write to the agency, but I cannot believe, given the modern technology of 1999, that answering letters can be cheaper than answering telephone calls. The Passport Agency would save money by having a call centre in which people with computers could answer basic queries about the progress of an application, preventing people whose applications relate to August and September from queueing, as the Under-Secretary wishes them not to do. The problems would be greatly reduced if people could simply get through on the telephone.
The cost of a modern call centre should not be inordinate. The utilities, for example, with their high seasonal demand, can spill over from one call centre to another. The hon. Member for Rotherham would surely agree that south Yorkshire is an excellent site for a call centre, as the area is already developing centres in abundance.
We must also offer guaranteed service targets for processing times. The number of days before travel at which the passport will arrive is critical to the applicant. It is not acceptable to tell a customer that he or she will receive documents before travel, but that they may arrive one or two days before. We cannot tolerate that level of service, as it would generate queries and personal applications. The agency should be able to say that, if people have applied four weeks ahead of the date of travel, the passport should be guaranteed to arrive at least a week ahead. I hope that the Government can accept that target, as well as learning lessons about the information technology contracts and making improvements for the future.
Has there been any progress on consideration of a photocard passport, as mentioned in the agency's report for 1997-98, following the introduction of the photocard driving licence? It seems bizarre that someone who has obtained a passport at great expense and trouble, and who is travelling only within the European Union, will have the passport checked in the most cursory way. We have abolished embarkation controls. The airlines check passports because of carriers' liability, but documents are not checked in detail.
Security issues arise over the issuing of full 10-year passports to people who take only an occasional trip within the European Union. A proper balance must be struck between the desire for secure border controls and the issue of documents that are unnecessarily inconvenient to the customer and a risk to security. The Home Secretary said that the Passport Agency deals with one of the greatest volumes of demand in the world, and that is probably because we have so much intra-European Union travel. Yet, almost exceptionally within the EU, we require a full passport. Following the removal of the one-year British visitors passport, have the Government done any work on alternative documents for travel within the EU?
167 I hope that the Minister will respond to those substantive points, and I am grateful to him for coming to the Dispatch Box with an apology.
§ Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)
First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the way in which he has dealt with the issue and explained to the House and the country the reasons for the problems that the UK Passport Agency has encountered. I also congratulate him on offering a reasonable apology to everyone concerned for what happened at the agency.
Like many other hon. Members, I have received representations from constituents who have had difficulties in obtaining their passports. With the exception of one, all the representations that I made have been accepted and my constituents have received their passports in time to meet dates for holidays or business trips. Therefore, I must also offer my congratulations, as my right hon. Friend and others have done, to the staff of the UK Passport Agency for their work in the past four or five weeks to deal with the problems that they have encountered. I know for a fact that the chief executive and other senior members of staff have been working long hours to try to resolve the problems that have faced the agency recently.
I visited the passport office in London a few months ago. I was concerned about the number of fraudulent applications for passports—I understand that about 1,400 instances of people applying for passports illegally have been discovered by the agency in the past year. We should never lose sight of that problem. We must have tight control over applications for passports to ensure that only bona fide applicants receive them. There must be tremendous pressure on that section of the UK Passport Agency that ensures that passports are vetted to such a degree that people do not obtain them fraudulently or illegally. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will insist that that issue is a prime concern of the agency.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who, I understand, has been involved with the agency ever since the problem emerged and has updated Members of Parliament on the way in which the issue has been handled. My hon. Friend and members of his Department did not relax their efforts to ensure that people who had applied for passports received them in time to depart on holiday or on business.
The queues have been mentioned this afternoon and we should clear up that problem. I was disappointed in the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who was reluctant to give way to Labour Members. She intervened on my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, no fewer than six times. The right hon. Lady made a full contribution—40 minutes at the Dispatch Box—and intervened on other speeches, but was reluctant to give way when Labour Members tried to intervene. That was most unreasonable. Although the right hon. Lady has said that she is a reasonable person, she did not demonstrate that this afternoon.
The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) is no longer in his place, but he said that he has seen queues only on a Tuesday. That is because he only passes the 168 office on a Tuesday. If he had been there on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, he would have witnessed the queues. In my experience, there have been queues for the past 16 years; queueing has always been with us. We are concerned that the queues have lengthened, but people have always gone to the passport office to pick up a passport for the same day, or within 24 or 48 hours. Queueing has always been an accepted way to obtain a passport. However, we should now try to ensure that there should be no reason whatever for queueing. As a result of our debate on this important matter, I hope that we can find a way to prevent queueing at the passport office.
§ Mr. Maclean
A few years ago, I used to live in that area. There were short queues during the summer months, but nothing on the scale that we have seen recently. Is it not true that people queued at Petty France because, in the past, one could obtain a passport quickly? It was a convenient way to get a passport on the same day. People now have to queue because they cannot get a passport by any other means—the normal, conventional means of writing to the passport office.
§ Mr. O'Brien
I challenge that point. People who are queueing today, and who queued yesterday and the day before, did so because they wanted their passports urgently. People present their case early in the morning and are allowed to return in the afternoon to collect their passports; indeed, some people collect their passports there and then.
Although I accept that there is a problem and that that is unsatisfactory, we should remember that there has always been a problem. People have always presented themselves at the office to get a passport urgently. We should have a system in which, if people need a passport urgently, they can obtain one urgently, without having to queue outside the passport offices. The inclement weather gives rise to a further concern; no one wants people to queue in the rain to obtain a passport—or for any other purpose. When my right hon. Friend considers the future of the Passport Agency and the distribution of passports, I hope that he will try to ensure that people do not have to queue outside the offices at all.
There must be new information technology to develop the service, but that technology must be secure, as well as ensuring that the service is speeded up. It is rather sad that the new IT equipment provided by Siemens failed, and has not yet been put right. One of the problems that we face at present is that we relied too much on that new technology at two offices. It has not delivered the service that the Passport Agency wanted.
The Government's amendment notes that we must maintain security at all times. I prefaced my contribution to the debate by pointing out that I was concerned about security a few months ago. I visited the passport office and witnessed some of the illegal and fraudulent means that people use to obtain passports. The staff are to be congratulated on finding out about those frauds. The Government's amendment makes the only reference to security in our agenda for the debate.
I appeal to the House: if we sincerely want to find a way forward, to reorganise the Passport Agency and to introduce a better system for the future, we should give the Government's amendment our support. I shall support the amendment because it not only outlines but the current 169 problems refers to the important issue of security. I appeal to hon. Members on both sides of the House to support the amendment because it offers the best proposal for the Passport Agency.
§ Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)
My right hon. and hon. Friends deserve many congratulations for raising in an Opposition day debate the subject of delays in the issue of passports, because such delays are a cause of inconvenience, hardship and anxiety to many hundreds of thousands of our constituents. The importance to many people of their annual holiday should not be overlooked; our constituents will want answers to the questions that have been asked today and assurances that lessons have been learned from this sorry episode.
I give credit to the Home Secretary for endeavouring, in the latter part of his speech, to answer some of those questions. It is kinder to draw a veil over his earlier remarks, especially his references to the previous Government. The right hon. Gentleman adverted to agencies, but he appears to have changed his mind about agencies and their responsibilities.
§ Mr. Clappison
Well, agencies might be one of the matters on which the right hon. Gentleman has not changed his mind, but there is a long list of subjects on which he has changed his mind since entering government. That long list includes privatisation of prisons—he looks quizzical, but I remember many criticisms of private prisons uttered by the then Labour Opposition. The list also covers subjects such as the right of silence; freedom of information, on which he has recently made a decision; carriers' liability; and employers' liability for checks on illegal immigrants, on which point he has reversed a promise made by the previous Government. As for today's explanation of the Passport Agency's difficulties, the jury is still out—which is another matter on which he has changed his mind.
§ Mr. Straw
It is of great interest that the Conservatives are having to draft in junior Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen to speak from the Back Benches in this debate—that says something. I have not changed my mind about the relationship between agencies and central Government. My position is the same today as it was in opposition: agencies have a role to play, but my concern was and is about the nature of the relationship and about whether Ministers should take responsibility for what went on within agencies in difficult circumstances.
§ Mr. Clappison
I entirely accept the Home Secretary's statement, but he has to accept that his assertion about agencies stands in stark contrast to the large number of serious constitutional matters on which he has changed his mind and which I have just listed.
The right hon. Gentleman asks why I take an interest in this subject. I have a personal interest, because my wife and children are among those queueing for a passport. Furthermore, a number of my constituents are in the same position. As the right hon. Gentleman knows well, I have 170 always taken a great interest in the activities of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and I have asked a large number of questions about that organisation in the past; at the most recent session of Home Office questions, I took up that issue with him.
I listened carefully to the Home Secretary's explanation today, but at the end of his speech several questions asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) remained unanswered. My right hon. Friend asked the important question: why was a decision taken last year to introduce new technology at the same time as a requirement for children to have their own passport?
The Home Secretary has given his reasons for that decision, and it will be for others to judge the weight and the importance of those reasons in the light of subsequent events. In fairness, he must concede at least that, having taken the decision, it was incumbent upon Ministers to be on their guard, to monitor how the new system was bearing up and to take every precaution against the appearance of the familiar glitches that affect new technology.
The right hon. Gentleman admitted today that Ministers became aware of the problem last March. Ministers admitted at the beginning of May, in written answers, that they were aware of operational difficulties. If Ministers were aware as early as March this year that something was going wrong with the issuing of passports, it is reasonable to question whether they did enough to try to prevent the sorts of problems that have arisen involving people and their summer holidays. Many people who listen to or study this debate will draw scant consolation from the Home Secretary's undertaking today that, as a result of the measures now being put in place, people can expect the system to be operating by September. That will be far too late for many of our constituents.
Members of Parliament are privileged in that we have a long summer recess during which we can choose when to take our summer holidays. Of course, hon. Members are busy during the recess performing additional parliamentary duties in their constituencies, but at least we have the opportunity to choose when to take our summer holidays during that relatively long period. Many of our constituents—particularly employees—do not have that facility. They have limited holiday allocations every year and they must take them at a certain time. Our constituents often look forward to their holidays for a long time—many of them book their holidays immediately after Christmas. They have made arrangements and paid for them and their children expect to go on holiday. Therefore, they are in a state of great anxiety when questions arise as to whether they will be able to take their holidays.
§ Mr. MacShane
If people book their holidays in December and they are aware that they or their children require passports, why can they not apply for them in January, February, March or April?
§ Mr. Clappison
The hon. Gentleman must concede that members of the public could reasonably expect to have received their passports much sooner. I listened to the hon. Gentleman's rather curious explanation as to why more people are holidaying abroad. I have mentioned my family, but I am not pleading my own case because we 171 may take only a short break abroad this year. I enjoy my holiday at the English seaside, and I had a wonderful time last year in Devon. I shall not take any lectures from the hon. Gentleman and new Labour about where I should spend my summer holidays. We are as likely to find followers of new Labour at the English seaside as we are to see the Minister for the Cabinet Office travelling economy class.
§ Mr. Maclean
I hope that my hon. Friend will condemn more strongly the outrageous comments of the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). It is yet another example of the Government trying to blame the public: it is their fault for wanting to go on holiday. Some of my constituents applied for passports last November, in January and in February—and they are still waiting. Blaming the public is grubby and unacceptable and it is beneath the hon. Member for Geneva.
§ Mr. Clappison
I think I may have been a little harsh with the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). I am sure that he will tell us in due course that he makes an annual trek to the Blackpool illuminations and the sands of Scarborough.
§ Sir Robert Smith
It is not only holiday makers who are affected. My office received a telephone call today from parents who are extremely worried because their daughter is due to travel abroad on Sunday with a guide trip and she has not yet received her passport. The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) made a very important point: the uncertainty is damaging people's holiday plans. People look forward to that yearly event, whether it is a holiday or a guide trip abroad.
§ Mr. Clappison
We should not underestimate the real hardship and anxiety that the delays will cause. It has prompted people to take days off work in order to make long journeys to passport offices. For example, today's edition of the Evening Standard reports that a man arrived at the London passport office at 2.30 am to get a passport for his six-year-old daughter so that she can travel abroad with her class. We need to take into account how much anxiety the situation is causing our constituents. It is no good our constituents being told that they are panicking. It is understandable that people experience anxiety in those circumstances, especially when they are planning to take their young children abroad—they are not panicking.
We have been reassured that people will be able to telephone passport offices, and there have been calls for more telephone facilities. I hope that those who telephone the passport offices will have more joy than the thousands of overseas visitors who, we hear, were telephoning the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, which is in chaos, to try to get back their passports. In a written answer to me, the Under-Secretary said that every day in March, 42,000 calls were made to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, but only 1,637 were answered. I was also told:Many calls are repeat calls and, therefore, these statistics must be approached with caution".—[Official Report, 17 May 1999; Vol. 331, c. 261.]The Government draw consolation from that fact.
It is not much consolation to be told that MPs should get in touch with passport offices. When we contacted 172 the Under-Secretary about the problems experienced by overseas visitors with the IND, he wrote back on 5 March to tell us thatit is disappointing to note that the number of enquiries from MPs has risen over the recent period by a factor of around 25 per cent. As I said in my letter of 12 January, it is to an extent in Members' hands how long it takes IND to return to normal levels of productivity. I would appreciate your help in ensuring that this happens by Easter.
§ Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)
Does my hon. Friend share my slight unease that MPs should have that fast-track approach? Of course we are here to help our constituents—in the past few days, I have been able to help a constituent of mine with such a problem, and I am grateful for the help that we received from officials—but what about those members of the public who do not think of approaching their MP, or who have an MP who is not as available or as assiduous as all the hon. Members now present in the Chamber?
§ Mr. Clappison
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course MPs of all parties will do their best to help their constituents, but we should not rely on MPs having to take up such cases, especially when there are, as we have heard, 500,000 cases outstanding. That merely channels people from one queue to another.
People in the queue will not draw much consolation from the time scale proposed by the Minister in a letter to Members. He has been praised for all the letters that he has written to us. In his letter of 10 June, he concluded:The problem is only temporary and we believe that it will be resolved in the very near future.The Minister's time scale will be rather different from that of our constituents, who want to go on their holidays in July and August and for whom it will not be much consolation if the matter is resolved by September.
I do not want to be unkind to the Minister because he has had a lot on his plate. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) referred to the parallel problems in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate concerning overseas visitors who are experiencing delays in getting back their passports. Queues have lengthened in the immigration and asylum system.
As I said to the Minister earlier, he is perfectly fair and does not discriminate: the queue for people trying to get out of the country is as long as that for people trying to stay in the country. The hon. Gentleman has displayed such great aptitude for preventing anybody from going anywhere that he would be a natural candidate for Minister for prison security. Nobody would want to escape because the queue would be too long, and in any case, any would-be escapers would be let out much earlier by the Minister because of early release and tagging schemes.
The hon. Gentleman has parallel queues to deal with. The Government, and above all the Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary, need to take on board the fact that this has been a sorry episode and lessons must be learned. It is right for this matter to be raised in the House; it has caused much inconvenience and there must be detailed answers to the questions that have been asked. The problems cause great hardship to many of our constituents. We need Ministers to accept responsibility—rather than to tell us that the public or MPs are to blame—and to analyse where things have gone wrong. They must ensure that lessons are learned from this sorry debacle.
§ Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who made some very good and sensible points.
This has been a useful debate. Despite the fact that we all read that the House of Commons never affects what the Government want to do, I expect that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, would rather that this debate had not taken place. Perhaps it has accelerated some management decisions that needed to be taken.
Now that we are in calmer waters, the queue to speak is much shorter than those outside passport offices, and the Front-Bench cruisers have left the Chamber for a cup of tea—one of them, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, has just returned—perhaps we can discuss the matter seriously. I am glad that we have a Home Secretary who is prepared to say sorry and accept responsibility in the House of Commons. That is one heck of a change from the previous Administration.
It disappointed me that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) did not offer a single solution. She is wallowing in the publicity of going down to the queues in Petty France, but not proposing one—just one—solution. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) proposed some solutions, the hon. Member for Hertsmere proposed some, but the right hon. Lady, who is no longer in her place, did not propose one.
In her attack on the Passport Agency, I was not sure whether the right hon. Lady was demanding that it should be re-nationalised—I wonder whether that is the new Conservative policy—or that it should be totally privatised. Perhaps it can be sold to Harrods and we can all go there to get a passport in a brown paper bag from Mr. Al Fayed.
We should set this debate in a slightly broader context. A century ago, it would not have happened; we did not need passports then. When Palmerston said 150 years ago that all people had to say was "Civis Britannicus sum" and the might of Britain would defend them, one did not have to carry a passport. Passports are a product of 20th century state bureaucracy and were introduced after the first world war.
My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), whose remarks deserve careful attention, talked about security. As a country, we are a shining example to the rest of the world in that we do not demand any papers or passports from citizens of a sovereign country—the Republic of Ireland—whose policies have often opposed our own. I remember going on holiday there regularly as a boy—I still go on holiday there. One of course does not need any papers to enter the country. I wish that passports protected our country from the problems of drugs or terrorism, but I am afraid that such evidence is scant.
Ernie Bevin, our great Foreign Secretary, said that he dreamed of the day when a British citizen could go to Victoria station and buy a ticket to anywhere in the world without worrying about papers. Passports have always been a sensitive issue for politicians in this country. According to Mr. Tony Benn—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Member must remember that we refer to Members by their constituencies.
§ Mr. MacShane
In his diary entry of a Cabinet meeting in 1978, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), whom some of us will be very sorry to see leave this place, recorded that, when it was first proposed that the European-style passport would replace the old, blue, stiff, leather board passport, my noble Friend Lord Shore said that it would be introduced over his dead body. I am glad to say that Lord Shore is alive and well and still fighting the great anti-European cause in another place.
I have one of those old stiff blue leather passports, for the simple reason that I once turned up in a Gulf state because my plane broke down coming back from Australia, and I found that, because my passport had the stamp of Israel in it, I was not allowed in. Everyone else was put up in a Hilton and given lots of nice food and drink for 48 hours; I was stuck in the airport. I was able to get a second British passport—I do not know whether that is still possible.
If one goes to funny countries, one can get a second passport. [Laughter.] That was true for South Africa. Hon. Members may laugh, but many exporters from this country faced that problem. It is a genuine problem, which does not deserve to be treated with flippancy by Opposition Members.
The Passport Agency managed to lose my passport and birth certificate five years ago, so I am not necessarily its biggest fan.
What are the causes of the present problem? Hon. Members enjoyed themselves when I gently suggested that an extra 200,000 people applying this year was a tribute to the fact that British citizens enjoy their holidays abroad. They have a stronger pound, and more of them are in work. I do not know whether that can be factored into the way in which the Passport Agency plans its activities, but it certainly was not.
The British visitors passport was withdrawn by the previous Government. That was the automatic passport for many of my constituents. They went to the post office, showed their birth certificate, got their pink passport and off they went on their holidays. My purpose is not to lay blame, but the withdrawal of a popular and much-used travel document without the introduction of adequate replacement mechanisms cannot be attributed to the present Government.
There is the further problem of children requiring a separate passport. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald is not in her place. I thought that she was flippantly irresponsible in her handling of the subject. Each year, 120 children are abducted. To say that a baby's picture on the passport is no hindrance to anyone planning an abduction is nonsense. The children cannot simply be put on the parent's passport. A husband or wife who wants to take the children out of the country must go through the procedure of getting a separate passport for each child. That must help to slow down an extremely serious problem. The right hon. Lady dealt with it with disgraceful flippancy.
The computer contract was drawn up under the previous Administration. Perhaps my right hon. Friend should not have signed it, but I pay tribute to him for being honest and communicating with hon. Members. He has done his best. I have had problems in my constituency—
§ Mr. Maclean
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. How honest was it to distribute a photograph and say that there was good news—there were no queues round the passport offices last Friday?
§ Mr. MacShane
I am not responsible for what the Liverpool Daily Post publishes. I recall queueing up at Petty France in the 1970s and 1980s to get a passport.
The problem is that some exceptional cases have arisen. It is also linked to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate problem, and reflects the extent to which London has become a great global city in recent years. There are 100,000 French people working in the UK. We open our arms to them. People from abroad work in our country on a scale that was not envisaged five or 10 years ago. That explains the number of people applying for passports or applying to have their passports renewed. Unlike the isolationist, anti-European, xenophobic Conservative party, I welcome the fact that we have many foreigners working in Britain and that many of our citizens want to travel to Europe and elsewhere.
§ Mr. Allan
The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that the problem may grow, rather than reduce, with increasing globalisation. Can we ever reach a point at which there will be no queues, we have a genuinely efficient system and we stop blaming one Government or another? What are his ideas for achieving that?
§ Mr. MacShane
As they say in "Under Milk Wood", I am coming to that.
I have here my mobile phone—switched off, Mr. Deputy Speaker—which is on the One2One network; hon. Members should try getting through on it at any time of the day or night. We can have all the call centres in the world, but there will still be huge queues.
The real problem is that the Conservative party has enjoyed the problems created by what is undoubtedly a worrying situation. I ask all hon. Members to put their hands on their hearts. I wanted to intervene on the hon. Member for Hertsmere to ask how many individual cases have been referred to him. I have had cases referred to me, and I have tried to sort them out. I had such cases last year and the year before, and I had them when he was a Minister. I expect that I shall have them for years to come.
The almost total absence of Conservative Members from the debate shows that the problems have not been quite as they have recounted, but we should move to discussing real solutions that might work. I return to an exchange that I had with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary at the previous Home Office questions. We should consider whether the time has come for Britain to issue voluntary national identity cards. That relates to what the hon. Member for Hallam said about a travel document.
§ Mr. Allan
I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that I am not in favour of identity cards. I was referring to the Passport Agency's own document, which says thatMinisters indicated their wish to pursue the introduction of a photocard passporton the back of the driving licence, which is a photocard. I was not referring to a separate ID card.
§ Mr. MacShane
The hon. Gentleman is making a meal of that. Whatever we call it, the purpose of such a card 176 would be to provide proof of identity. People can travel from the United States into Canada or Mexico using a driver's licence, which has a photograph on it and is a slightly more secure document than our driver's licence. In much of the rest of Europe, people whizz backwards and forwards across frontiers, just as the citizens of Ireland can come to this country and we can go there without showing papers.
Nearly every citizen in Europe can travel on an ID card. I have two here—I hasten to add that they do not belong to me. The French national identity card is voluntary and issued locally. The German identity card is compulsory, but it records little information. When it is renewed every 10th year, a completely new number is issued. As hon. Members can imagine, the Germans are extremely sensitive about compulsory ID cards. The countries that have voluntary ID cards are France, Austria, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden. Cards are compulsory in other European Union member states. Gibraltar issues an ID card and people can travel on it. It is slightly odd that Britain is so far behind its own colony in issuing ID cards.
This matter was discussed under the previous Government. I refer to the Home Affairs Committee fourth report of 1996, which, in paragraph 31, concluded:there is a definite benefit to be obtained from use of an ID card as a valid travel card within Europe.The response of the Government of the day was to accept that recommendation, but nothing was carried forward in their dying days.
There are discussions in Whitehall about a new driver's licence and—although wishes may be ahead of reality and there may not be such a card for some time—slightly more futuristic discussions about a card for social security and perhaps even tax arrangements are taking place. We may have to wait some time, but the driver's licence, if member states would accept it as an ID card, would more than fulfil my requirements.
Last year, I went with my wife to Spain for a wedding anniversary party. I arrived at Heathrow and found that I had forgotten my passport, which was the end of what was meant to be a lovely weekend. Had this country—like Gibraltar, other European countries and the United States—issued a wallet-sized ID card to its inhabitants, I would have been able to fulfil all her dreams and take her away for that happy weekend in Spain, but it could not start for another 24 hours.
A wallet-sized ID card is one solution. Conservative Members have been wallowing in the problem, but the hon. Member for Hallam has proposed another, concrete, solution, as I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and other hon. Members will do. We know that Conservative Members are not keen on British citizens going to Europe because they might learn something. They are locked into isolationism, which is the shame of modern Toryism. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald was so keen to encourage travel that she used to shackle pregnant women to their prison beds. She never once came to the House to say sorry for that.
I applaud my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I admire the willingness of my hon. Friend the Minister to take responsibility—something that never happened under the previous Government. Following the positive welcome for voluntary ID cards that my right hon. Friend offered in the House four weeks ago, will my hon. Friend 177 set up a working party to take forward the Home Affairs Committee report and consider combining such a card with the driver's licence? That would enable many more of us to have a permanent ID card that would at least allow us to travel in Europe without having to carry or obtain the full British passport.
§ Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)
I am delighted to participate in the debate and it is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). This is very much a new Labour issue, although I cannot imagine the average new Labour person, of whom he is a prime example, having such a problem. They all have well-thumbed passports, as I am sure he does. He was good enough to share with us a number of aliases and showed us several cards as well as a riveting array of electronic and other equipment, which he carries about his person. No doubt all that will get him out of a tight corner when necessary—he is a James Bond figure in that respect.
Not all our constituents, and not all the hon. Gentleman's constituents, spend their lives jetting backwards and forwards between this country and Geneva, occasionally being forced to "de-plane" in unpleasant parts of the world other than Geneva. We can imagine the strain that that puts on him and people of his persuasion. As we all know, he is never happier than when travelling to other countries to explain that the Prime Minister loves the euro and that people should not believe everything they read in the English newspapers.
The Home Secretary was uncharacteristically churlish today when trying to explain his role and that of other Ministers in this debacle. He sometimes has to play on a sticky wicket, and there are not many stickier than this particular wicket, but in the past he has come to the House with a certain grace, a certain style and good-humoured willingness to shrug his shoulders and take the blame, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) put it. Today, he came out swinging and took refuge in a great deal of unnecessary and painfully transparent bluster to try to cover over the appalling state of affairs at the Passport Agency.
We must not forget that there are some human stories behind today's debate. Hardly a Member cannot have been contacted by constituents who are sometimes in a state of near panic, and not simply because they want to go on holiday—although for most people in this country, unlike the hon. Member for Rotherham and his new Labour chums, foreign travel is a relatively rare event. They look forward to it throughout the year, save up for it and, in many instances, organise it a long time in advance.
Despite what the hon. Gentleman suggested at one point, we are not talking about irresponsible people who have waited until the last moment to apply for their passports. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said, such people may have booked their holidays many months in advance, and also applied for passports in good time. They then have the galling experience of finding that their cheques have been cashed almost instantly by an otherwise overwhelmed organisation—there is clearly no problem of staff shortage in the section that deals with the cashing of cheques on behalf of the Passport Agency—only for months to go by without a passport appearing.
178 Only the other day, a lady constituent rang my office. She was really quite distressed. She had applied for a passport for her daughter, who was born in January last year. This is an example of the effects of the new rule that is apparently causing so much of the backlog. She applied in late April; they were going on holiday in the middle of July. I do not think it unreasonable to apply for a passport in April if one knows that one is going on holiday in mid-July.
That lady had heard nothing. She had sent a recorded letter, and had still heard nothing. She had tried telephoning, without success. I think we have heard that some 1.2 million such unsuccessful telephone calls have been made. She rang me in desperation, asking if there was anything I could do. I am pleased to say that, with considerable help from officials, I was able to solve the problem. My constituent has received a passport for her very young daughter, and the family will be able to go on holiday as planned.
Two things make me uneasy, however. The first is the fact that the family had to go through all that simply to obtain a passport. Secondly, as I said earlier, it makes me slightly uneasy when a Member of Parliament, whatever his party, has to become involved in situations such as this—in what ought to be a mundane and purely administrative function. What ought to happen is this: people should send in the form and the money, and, given that everything is in order, the passport should be delivered within a few days. In fairness, the Home Secretary accepts that that is what ought to happen, and he tells us that it is what will happen in due course, when the backlog has been dealt with.
What is worrying is that, for every person in such circumstances who thinks of contacting me, there may be any number in my constituency—and in other hon. Members' constituencies—who have not thought of contacting their Member of Parliament. Others may have thought, as people sometimes do, "I cannot bother my MP about something like this." And how many others have tried to contact MPs who are busy or unavailable, and could not help them?
§ Mr. Bercow
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Will he also reflect on the position of those who do not approach their MP, but make representations to the authorities, and are enjoined to pay a special and unscheduled visit to the nearest office—and, having done so, incur a considerable cost? Is it not unfair that people who have to make such visits—through no fault of their own—and who may be of modest means should suffer financially as a consequence?
§ Mr. Waterson
My hon. Friend also makes a powerful point, which had not occurred to me thus far. It is said that compensation is available to those whose holidays are ruined as a result of such ineptitude, but what about those who take a day off work and spend that day queuing up at the passport office? The Minister may not have had a chance to think about that, but he may be able to deal with it when he winds up the debate. Is there any thought of compensating those who, having taken time off work, incur expenses such as the cost of travelling from one end of the country to the other, because the queues at Liverpool have allegedly disappeared and they think that they would do better to try their luck there?
179 We are not talking about people like the hon. Member for Rotherham. We are talking about instances in which, if people take a day off work, someone notices, it makes a difference, and they must make up for it in some way. Their employers may expect them to work an extra day in lieu, or to take a cut in pay. That is a serious situation for people who may have pushed their family budgets to the limit in order to afford a holiday in the first place.
A parallel problem is that of people who have handed their passports to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, for which the Under-Secretary is also responsible. I received a letter from a constituent about this. It concerned a couple—the wife is Slovakian—who deposited their passports with the Home Office in October 1998. My constituent finally got around to writing to me in February this year, saying that the couple had heard absolutely nothing. The letter says:You cannot ring the Home Office and they have not even had an acknowledgement that their matter is being dealt with and that the Passports have arrived.Such examples are legion. Another constituent contacted me only this month. Again, the wife was a foreign national, whose original visa had expired. The couple had contacted the Home Office in the usual way, leaving plenty of time. The Home Office replied apologising for the inconvenience—which is at least a step forward—and mentioning renovation works. It added the following galling sentence:Please do not hesitate to telephone the above number if you need assistance.Not unreasonably, my constituent thought, "I think I will telephone that number and tell them that I need some assistance." He told me in the letter that he had spent from 8.59 am until 4.5 pm on the day before he wrote to me trying to reach the Home Office. The letter states:All day I received either the engaged tone or … recorded message.It continues:These people are destroying our lives.We are two legally married people from our Commonwealth. I am and always have been a British citizen.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)
I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's speech, but I am a little confused. Is he talking about the IND or the UKPA? Am I right in thinking that he is talking about the IND?
§ Mr. Waterson
I am at the moment, but I am describing a parallel problem. If the Minister will allow me, I shall pull all the threads together towards the end of my speech.
My constituent wrote:I am battling, and winning, my fight with Brain Cancer. I just want a peaceful life living with my wife in my country.Those are just examples that I pulled out of my mailbag for the purpose of today's debate, but each represents a potential human tragedy. Certainly these are individuals who deserve better, but are not receiving the service that they should be receiving.
On, I think, 24 June we were told that the number of outstanding applications had more than doubled, to more than half a million. We know of instances in which people have waited for more than 12 weeks for passports. As we 180 have heard, the service has promised that applications involving no problems will be dealt with in 10 days. That applies to straightforward, properly completed applications. I do not think that anyone is suggesting that mistakes or inaccuracies would not quite reasonably cause delays. We have also heard that, in 1997–98, more than 200,000 fewer passports were issued than in the previous year. Given that those figures were calculated before the present crisis, I wonder how accurate they are.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald said in her speech, the real problem has been caused by the fact that two events are happening at the same time. One is the introduction of a new computer system, which is one of the problems that bedevilled the IND; the other is the introduction of the new rules governing children's passports. There is a substantial view—out there in the real world, rather than on the planet Straw—that it is absurd to go through the pantomime of shoving an almost newborn baby into one of those automatic booths, and getting out of the way just in time for the photograph, by which point the baby has slumped on the chair and all that there is a shot of the background. The other point has been made powerfully more than once in the debate. I think that it was Churchill who said that all babies looked the same and they all looked like him, but babies and young children change their looks fast. We are told that the passports will be valid for five years, rather than the usual 10, but, again, in five years, a small child can change its appearance markedly.
Lord Williams of Mostyn, with breathtaking understatement, said thatproductivity from the new system has been lower than expected, and arrears of work have built up."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 June 1999; Vol. 602, c. 56.]He went on to talk about "teething problems". I can do no better than quote from that old Labour organ, The Guardian, whose home affairs editor, Alan Travis, said at the beginning of the month about the current problem:It comes hard on the heels of the administrative breakdown in the asylum and immigration system. Both crises have been caused by the botched installation of new computer systems".The great rule in life—and, above all, in politics—is, "When you are in a hole, stop digging", but that is another piece of common sense that seems to be lost on Home Office Ministers. One of the reasons that has been given for the problem is seasonal demand; as someone on the radio said this morning, it is similar to the reason that was given by British Rail for train delays: the wrong kind of snow had fallen. All these clever people, officials and Ministers, have concluded that the British public's irrational and unreasonable desire to have passports, so that they can go on their summer holidays is behind all the problems.
§ Mr. Waterson
It is. The suggestion that the problems could not be foreseen is particularly odd.
I think that we have had an assurance that compensation will not involve any increase in the cost of passport applications. That is welcome—it would be helpful if the Minister could reconfirm that. I wonder what Ministers' projections are for the total amount of 181 compensation. Will the Minister also deal with the excellent intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) about the separate problem of compensating those people who have taken time off work and perhaps paid to travel to Liverpool, Glasgow or wherever to try to ensure that they have their passport in time?
Last October's pilot scheme seems to be where the problems began. By admission, the Home Secretary said that the scheme was tested during a low season. On what possible basis could the success of that pilot be tested against the high pressure period in which we are currently engaged? What projections were made at the time?
It is apparent from what the Home Secretary was saying that Ministers became aware of the problem in late March. I think that he said that an action plan was then devised. All I can say is that that plan has been an unmitigated failure. Will the Under-Secretary perhaps give us a little more detail about where the shortcomings were in the action plan? He and the Home Secretary knew the problem and knew that it was building as early as March this year.
Perhaps I am being a little unfair. Perhaps the problem is all part of what we are asked to consider nowadays as joined-up government. When we left office, British tourism was at a 20-year high. Last year, for the first time in quite a few years, the total number of visits to tourist attractions in this country fell, so perhaps, in reality, the problem is a Department for Culture, Media and Sport initiative to encourage domestic tourism by ensuring that British people have to spend their money on holidays in this country.
I do not mean to be unkind to the Minister, but we all remember our history. When Napoleon was invited to make one of his soldiers a general, his only question was, "Is he lucky?" I am afraid that he is one Minister who, despite his best intentions, extremely hard work and obvious abilities, is simply unlucky. He has had the massive problems of IND with which to contend, which he mentioned in an intervention; now he has massive problems in the Passport Agency. As we approach the Government's reshuffle fairly soon, I wonder whether his talents would not be better deployed in another Department.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), who used to represent my late uncle Arthur, although, as he had moved from Easington colliery to Eastbourne, I doubt whether he ever voted Conservative.
§ Mr. Barnes
Uncle Arthur probably had the facilities of a passport during the second world war when he served in the air force, but he may not have had a passport later in life.
I do not always attend Opposition day debates, apart perhaps for the opening speeches, because I often think that the topics are not worth getting involved in, but at least today's topic is worthy of discussion and debate. 182 There has been much knockabout stuff from the Opposition, as might be expected, but it is important that the issue is aired vigorously and that there should be the dialectics of debate, leading, I hope, to improvements in the system and some of the relevant measures.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary mentioned agencies and their development, but I am not keen on the move towards them. There are certain similarities between the Passport Agency and other agencies. I think in particular of the problems that hon. Members have had over a considerable time with the Child Support Agency—constituents have not been able to get anyone on the telephone, or to get letters answered, and they have been subject to considerable delay before their cases have been dealt with.
In those cases, hon. Members are expected to act as administrators—as officers and clerks—which is inappropriate. That is not what they should be doing. On behalf of their constituents, they are obliged to pick up the pieces of systems that are not running correctly. Perhaps it is an easy way in which to gain some support from constituents. After all, by making telephone calls, entering into correspondence, or even attending passport offices, they can deliver what their constituents failed to get. Short cuts might be possible when a Member of Parliament takes a matter up.
A constituent with a serious CSA problem is often told by staff at citizens advice bureaux, other support organisations or even by those employed by the CSA, "Why don't you see your local Member of Parliament because he probably has access to certain avenues and will be able to ensure that the matter is progressed faster." To some extent, some of us keep a bit quiet about that because, if we announce that different avenues are available to us, the number of cases that we are likely to get in connection with child support and passports is liable to increase. I have already publicised the Passport Agency, however, by using a local freebie newspaper to illustrate what the problem is, and some of the difficulties that some of my constituents have faced.
We must bear in mind that there are problems with passports, irrespective of the current situation, and that those problems are just increased by the backlog. One of my constituents applied for passports for her two daughters in March. It was only a fortnight ago that she received a passport for the younger child but nothing for the older child. The older child is on the passport of her husband, from whom she is separated. She does not know where her husband lives and is in touch with him only through his parents. She is making efforts to get hold of that passport. She was asked to send a letter explaining the problems, which she did. However, as I understand it, in the meantime, the regulations have been changed and she now has to produce the passport or some evidence that it has been lost—perhaps from the police—before a new passport can be provided. That is just a normal problem.
The application was made in March but, because of the backlog, that problem has only just arisen. The child's holiday has already been delayed and it has now been put back to August. Hopefully, having approached her Member of Parliament, things can now be sorted out. However, there might be a problem with the regulations.
As we have discovered with the CSA, almost any difficulty can emerge. The complexities involved in issuing passports are considerable and, if there is an error 183 or a problem with the application, it might not be discovered until a week or so before a passport is due to be issued. Many applications are pushed aside, depending on the date of the holiday. That is why matters must be dealt with.
The Home Secretary said that there have been only 50 cases in which passports have not been delivered on time. That is serious. I know that there have been some narrow escapes because one occurred in my constituency. My constituents made use of the partnership scheme operated by the Post Office. They paid £3.20 and should have had their passports delivered within 10 days. A month or so later they had not received them and, two days before they were due to travel, my office discovered the problem.
An arrangement was made for the passport to be received on the morning that the family were due to go on holiday. Given that, there had to be some contingency arrangements. That involved a courier being sent from Liverpool to deliver the passport. The courier left late and the information was passed to my office. There then had to be contact with the courier on a mobile telephone in order to sort the matter out. As a result, the brother of one of the family members had to meet the courier at junction 29 of the motorway in order to collect the passport so that it would not be lost in the obscurer parts of my constituency. The family were waiting with the taxi outside the door so that they could leave immediately for Birmingham airport.
That family enjoyed their holiday, but they did not enjoy the experience before it. There could have been another case added to the list of 50. There must be many other people placed in such difficulties, some of whom may have given up before their holiday was due to take place because they could not stand the hassle. Many people are not used to jumping on aeroplanes and going overseas. This is a big issue for many and, for some, it may be the first such holiday and they do not want to deal with all the problems.
§ Mr. Allan
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the problems with the way in which the backlog has been handled is that those who applied for their passports well in advance, which is something that the Passport Agency has been trying to encourage for a long time, have, in many ways, suffered the most because their passports have not been delivered on time? That is counterproductive if we want to encourage people to apply early because the message seems to be, "Don't bother applying early, just queue up for an emergency passport."
§ Mr. Barnes
If people have sussed out the arrangements, what information will they supply about the date of their holiday? Decisions are being made according to the date given for the holiday, not when the application was made.
I accept that things would have been much easier if the visitors passport system had still been in existence because, in many cases, that could have been used to cover the immediate problem without people having to travel considerable distances to queue at distant passport offices.
I welcome the improvements announced by the Home Secretary and I hope that they operate well. I accept that there will be an intermediate period in which MPs will be 184 called upon to use the avenues available to them within the system. I hope that we get this sorted out. We have not sorted out the problems with the CSA, despite the fact that this Government and the previous Government have thrown extra money at it and talked about rejigging it. I receive as many cases as ever about the operation of that agency and I hope that I will not receive as many letters about the operation of the Passport Agency.
§ Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)
The Home Secretary was gracious enough to recognise that the Passport Agency has done a reasonable job since being set up as an executive agency in 1991, With the possible exception of a bit of a blip when temporary passports were abolished, it has by and large delivered a reasonable service. We all know that, when people turn up for passports at the last moment, it occasionally leads to queueing, but in general the Passport Agency has not been a political issue.
We are today discussing whether the current position was predictable. The computer contract was signed in July 1997—nearly two years ago. Those of us who have had any dealings with high technology know that things never go to plan: there are often difficulties, and more staff are needed. It is not therefore unreasonable to expect that things might slip.
We have been told that the changes in respect of passports for children have led to additional difficulties. The announcement about those changes was made last summer, and they were implemented in October. It did not happen yesterday or a few weeks ago—the decision was taken 12 months ago. So what has happened is that two policy decisions have come together and caused chaos.
It is clear that responsibility for that must lie with Home Office Ministers. I appreciate that the Home Office has to wrestle with many difficult issues, but in this case responsibility is clear. We have been told that an action plan was set up at the end of March. That was 10 or 12 weeks ago. We should be told today what was agreed at that stage; what targets were set; why they have not been fulfilled; and why we still have queues and newspaper headlines.
We have heard of about 93 people missing their holiday who may apply for compensation. What about those who have had to take time off work or travel many miles in order to get a passport? Is there a means by which they can be compensated?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) referred to security arrangements. An article in The Daily Telegraph in March reported that security arrangements may have been relaxed. That point should be answered.
I thank the House for listening to those brief words in this important debate.
§ Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)
The debate has reflected our constituents' anger and frustration at the fact that a part of government which, for many years, gave what hon. Members on both sides of the House agree was a first-class service, has failed dismally to meet the targets that have been set for it. The debate has also reflected the growing anger at the fact that Home Office Ministers have failed to come up with solutions to a crisis that should have been obvious to them for many weeks and months.
185 It was something of a consolation to us to hear the Home Secretary admit that the service provided by the agency was not what the public deserved, and was not up to the standard that the agency and Ministers had repeatedly promised it would maintain. Only the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who is no longer present, disbelieves the experience of our constituents as reported to us day by day and week by week. Lest the hon. Gentleman or any of his hon. Friends remain in doubt, I emphasise that the story of this crisis is still being told in the Government's own statistics. The truth is that, despite all the emergency packages, action plans, apologies and good will from the Government Front Bench, matters are still getting worse rather than better.
I discovered from a written answer given to me by the Minister this afternoon that the backlog of passport applications waiting to be determined, which a fortnight ago stood at the already scandalously high total of 531,000, has now, a week later, risen to no fewer than 565,000.
Much the same record applies to telephone calls to the agency. I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). The Home Secretary told us that the Passport Agency received approximately 1.5 million calls in May. We know from written answers that 1.1 million callers got through not to a member of staff but to a recorded message informing them that all lines were busy. That means that barely one quarter of all calls to the Passport Agency are being answered.
In those circumstances, the Secretary of State must forgive us if we are somewhat cautious about accepting the travel advice and assurances that he has offered. He said that people should apply at least one month in advance, but most passport offices are taking almost two months to process routine applications. The truth is that people do not believe and trust the Government's assurances because they have been let down so badly over the past six to 12 months.
I hope that the Minister will not only respond to concerns such as those expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) but will give specific answers on a number of points. What is the Government's policy towards the general extension of passports by two years? Do they intend to develop that procedure further in the next few weeks to overcome the present crisis? Could those extensions include passports on which the names of children are listed? Will the Minister consider the problem of personal callers? Will he waive the £10 extra fee charged to personal callers when they have to come to the Passport Agency in person out of sheer desperation?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) began the debate by making the point that we have had no proper or detailed explanation from the ministerial team of how this crisis arose in the first place. From the way in which the Home Secretary responded, one might have thought that the crisis was down to something beyond ministerial control: like the weather, it had to be endured rather than tackled. The truth is that in July 1997—two years ago—Ministers 186 approved the contract and timetable for computerisation. In April 1998, Ministers announced that all children should be required to hold their own passports. Ministers decided that both those innovations should be introduced at once. If, for the reasons that Ministers have given, it was necessary to introduce both at once, why did they engage in such glaringly inadequate planning for such drastic innovations in the passport service?
The Home Secretary knew of the changes and had made an assessment of their likely impact when he approved the agency's business plan for 1998–99, which says:The major challenge for the Agency in 1998/99 will be the successful management of the project to introduce these new passport issuing arrangements … whilst maintaining service standards in dealing with a continuing high volume of passport applications.Ministers set the performance targets for the Passport Agency, presumably taking account of the impact of the policy changes that they had decided and had introduced. The Home Secretary set the 10-day turnround target for handling postal applications, and the targets for answering telephone calls and for dealing with personal callers.
So conscious were Ministers of the fact that the changes were bound to have a damaging impact on the Passport Agency that they did something that the Home Secretary notably omitted to tell us about in his speech: they explicitly softened the agency's efficiency target for 1998-99 to allow it to cope with the problems that Ministers expected to arise as a result of computerisation.
Despite all that, on 21 July 1998, the Minister said that, although he anticipated difficulties, he nevertheless expected the agencyto maintain a high standard of service throughout the year."—[Official Report, 21 July 1998; Vol. 316, c. 435.]That was the expectation in July last year. During the 12 months that have elapsed since then, there have been many occasions on which the alarm bells in the Home Office ought to have been ringing loud enough to awaken even this team of Ministers from their slumbers.
In summer 1998, the situation was already a good deal worse than 12 months previously. At the time when the Minister made his promise about high standards of service throughout the year, he already knew—or at least he ought to have known—that processing times for applications were significantly longer than in the same period in 1997. Even before computerisation and before the introduction of children's passports, the delays were getting worse.
Last winter, there was a huge rise in the number of applications outstanding at the end of each successive month—from 116,000 in November to 121,000 in December; 167,000 in January; and 280,000 in February, which is when one expects, on the basis of historical experience, that the agency should be in the slack period of its seasonal work flow.
It is no good Ministers' saying, as some anonymous spin doctors have done in recent days, that this problem is all to do with the agency; that they were never told and did not know about it; in other words, "It wasn't me guv." Paragraph 4.13 of the agency's corporate plan says that forecasts of demand for passports will be subject to—
§ Mr. Mike O'Brien
It is the hon. Gentleman's first outing on the Front Bench. He said that spin doctors are trying to shift responsibility. Can he justify that statement?
§ Mr. Lidington
If the Minister had picked up any one of a number of newspapers in the past week—and newspapers, as we know, are the Government's usual way of communicating with Parliament and the country—he would have seen many references to the sort of thing that I have described.
§ Mr. Lidington
The Minister will have ample opportunity to reply.
The agency's corporate plan said that forecasts of demand for passports would be subject to monthly review, taking account of the actual demand experienced by the agency. It is not a matter of Ministers being overtaken by an unexpected surge in applications. Mechanisms are supposed to exist for them to be informed of, and to initiate action on the basis of, the pattern of demand experienced during the year. Having listened to Home Office Ministers, I wonder whether they bothered to read the reports coming from the agency, until the one in March this year that finally alerted them.
I hope that the Minister will address a number of long-term issues that have been raised in the debate. Security matters were addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) asked whether it remained the Government's plan that the criminal records agency should be administered by the Passport Agency. In view of the problems, can the Minister say whether the Government still plan to move the London passport office away from Clive house during the current financial year, since, whatever the gains to be won from that move, some short-term disruption of services must be expected?
Above all, the House requires an explanation, and a plan of action with the sort of detail that has not yet been forthcoming from Ministers. Bland assurances that they are trying their best and that it will all be over by September will not be good enough for the House or for our constituents.
The agency's business plan for 1999–2000 has not yet been published. It is hardly any wonder that people lack confidence in the Minister's capacity to deal with the crisis to which the agency is now subject. We are now a quarter of the way through the financial year, yet the Minister says that he hopes to have the plan available to him in the next few weeks. In other words, he is pleading that the business plan is in the post.
If the Minister were holding a comparable position in the private sector, that sort of handling of management and business planning would have the regulators camping in his office, the shareholders baying for his blood and the board of directors examining the fine print of his contract of employment.
I had not realised that my analogy would be quite so accurate. In today's edition of the Evening Standard—under the headline,Passport Crisis: It's Your Fault",I found the Minister quoted as saying,The difficulty is that millions of people are literally phoning up because of the panic that is going on, partly as a result, I have to say, of the reporting of this.188 The Minister may not have realised—the Whips may not have told him—that a spokesman for the Prime Minister was quoted in the same article as saying:I do not agree that there is a panic. People are understandably concerned.The half-smiles on the face of Government Whips indicate that the tumbrel is being rolled out even as we speak.
Hundreds of thousands of decent, hard-working people in this country today are paying the cost of the idleness and complacency of Home Office Ministers. It was Ministers who introduced children's passports and who, at the same time, pressed ahead with computerisation without adequate preparation or back-up. It was Ministers who then sat on their hands while the queues lengthened, the backlog of post piled up and public frustration and anxiety grew.
In their handling of the crisis affecting the Passport Agency, the Government have demonstrated that they are both indolent and incompetent, and they have shamefully neglected their duty to provide the British people with the decent public service to which they are entitled and which, until recently, they enjoyed. It is for those reasons that I invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the motion tonight.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)
I begin by extending a welcome to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) on his first sojourn on the Opposition Front Bench. I wish to chide him gently for not being able to justify an allegation that he made, but it was his first time and he put in a confident performance.
Let us deal with what is a very serious issue for our constituents. I am concerned about the backlogs in the Passport Agency. They are unacceptable, and I am sorry that this has happened. The Government told the Passport Agency to sort this out and to get people off on their holidays. Intake is now falling, and, in due course, that will reduce delays, together with the package of measures that we have announced, including the recruitment of 400 more staff. We are mounting a high-profile media campaign to inform people of how to get their passports and what action to take.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)
The Minister has made great play of his reassurances to the public that the recruitment of another 100 employees will make the difference. Will those 100 employees go straight to work tomorrow, or will they require to be trained, as there are security implications in terms of granting passports? If they are to be trained, will not the very people who, at the moment, are dealing with the backlog have to train them?
§ Mr. O'Brien
That is a sensible and reasonable question. The staff at the moment are working enormously long hours to try to ensure that people get on holiday. We have brought in 300 new full-time staff, who are in place. Some are in the process of being trained, while some have been trained.
We became aware that the situation was developing in late March, and I asked for a recovery plan from the chief executive of the Passport Agency, who provided one, 189 together with his view that 300 extra staff were needed. With the Home Secretary's permission, I promptly authorised the recruitment of those staff. They have been recruited in recent months, and most are now in place. I have had a further meeting with the chief executive, and agreed the recruitment of a further 100 members of staff. Some of those will be able to work immediately because they will be doing tasks that do not require training. Others will require training, and it will take some time before they are entirely productive, in the sense of turning out passports.
The staff at the Passport Agency, including the 300 extra staff recruited recently, deserve a lot of praise. I join the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) and others who have said that when the staff of the Passport Agency have been contacted, they have sought to do their best for any constituent with an urgent travel date. The staff are working their socks off to try to get people off on holiday, and they are now hitting their 99.99 per cent. target. I hope that they can continue to do that for the next few weeks.
We know that demand is starting to come down and we believe that the situation will come under full control, and that we will be able to ensure that people get off on their holidays. It is not the fault of ordinary workers that computer problems have arisen, and they do not deserve criticism. I wish to join the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and others in praising those who have worked so hard.
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)
Did not the Minister realise earlier this year that the figures were mounting and that there was bound to be a crisis in the summer? Whose fault is it?
§ Mr. O'Brien
The hon. Gentleman cannot have been here for the whole debate. It has already been made clear that in the early part of the year the figures were not mounting as he suggests. They started to increase substantially in March, and at that point I called in the chief executive and said that we should take prompt action and recruit staff. We are taking other steps, including strengthening the management team to help David Gatenby, the chief executive, to ensure that we deliver in the current difficult circumstances.
We are deferring part of the roll-out of the computer programme until we can be sure that it will not cause further delays. We are extending passports free of charge for another two years, because that is quicker and gets people off on their holidays. The new chief executive will review the future of the agency in October, as his first task, to ensure that the problems never arise again.
I will visit the various parts of the agency to ensure that everything is being done that should be done to ensure that our constituents get the passports that they deserve. We aim to get the wait down to 10 days by the end of September.
§ Mr. Tyrie
The Minister has kindly sent us secret fax numbers to allow us to accelerate the process of getting passports for our constituents. But is not that creating two 190 categories of applicants: those who go to their Member of Parliament and accelerate their applications, and the rest? Is it not a disgrace that those who apply in the normal way are thus put even further back in the queue?
§ Mr. O'Brien
The hon. Gentleman is close to denigrating the role that he plays as a representative of his constituents. Does he hold them so cheap that he believes that when they come to him he should be able to do nothing? [Interruption.] When my constituents come to me, they expect me to be able to do something to try to resolve their problems. The hon. Gentleman may want to be impotent in the face of problems; I do not. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. The many thousands of people outside who are affected by this matter might expect this debate to be conducted with due solemnity. The Minister should be heard.
§ Mr. O'Brien
Will the hon. Gentleman sit down until I have dealt with the point made by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who has asked whether I should listen to the representations of Members of Parliament? Many Conservative Members will know that I do that. We must also ensure, however, that all our constituents with urgent travel dates get passports, regardless of whether they go to their Member of Parliament. That is not the issue. If hon. Members who have a representative capacity want to contact the Passport Agency, they should be able to do so. If they want to talk to me, they should be able to do so. That is how it has been since I became a Minister.
§ Mr. McLoughlin
The Minister says that he wants to treat everyone the same. Why did he feel it necessary to change the number when some colleagues, as he said in his letter, had let the public know the direct number that we were entitled to use?
§ Mr. O'Brien
Some hon. Members asked me whether they could fax information about their constituents to the agency. It was a perfectly reasonable request, so I gave them a number. Somebody put it out on the radio, which resulted in the faxes not getting through; no Member of Parliament was able to get a fax through, so hon. Members asked me whether they could have another fax number. I was trying to help, but obviously Conservative Members feel that Ministers should not try to be helpful to them and their constituents. That is not how I conduct myself as a Minister: I continue to try to help.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
On the so-called secret numbers, I remember how, a few years ago, when there was a strike at the Liverpool office, the then Government gave Members of Parliament private numbers so that they could represent their constituents. Is it not hypocrisy for Conservative Members to complain now?
§ Mr. O'Brien
I have given way enough, and I must make some progress.
191 Experience shows that Departments are having problems with computerisation—it also happens in the private sector—but computerised passports are more secure, with a digitalised image and signature; the date can be scanned, and automated security checks can reduce fraud and improve efficiency. The 1996 review concluded that the changes were necessary. The Minister then responsible agreed and set in place the canvassing of possible private sector partners.
We accept responsibility for having approved those plans in July 1997. The roll-out at Liverpool was on 5 October 1998, and at Newport in mid-November. Siemens was the main contractor. The system was delivered to tight deadlines, including the refurbishment of buildings and the design and introduction of the new passport. There are many lessons to be learned, and we are in the process of evaluating them and ensuring that the mistakes are not made again.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) asked whether I was lucky. The immigration brief is one of the most difficult, so perhaps the die was cast at the beginning, but my task is to modernise and computerise IND and the Passport Agency. Computerisation has caused problems in the private sector too, but once the teething problems are sorted out, computers prove invaluable.
When the Conservatives introduced computers in 1989, there were serious teething problems, with massive backlogs, but soon production increased dramatically. That is what I expect to happen now. Modernisation is never easy but it brings benefits in the end. The teething problems need to be sorted out and I am prepared to see that through and ensure that we deliver.
I will take no lessons in this task from a Front-Bench team led by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. She criticises us for incompetence. That is rich from her. She was the prisons Minister when 800 criminals were released early by accident—not over the walls but out of the doors—and it was she who, to ensure that women prisoners who were about to give birth did not escape, chained them to the delivery table. Once the baby was born—
§ Miss Widdecombe
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a point of fact, as the Minister well knows—
§ Miss Widdecombe
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker—a point of order for the Chair. Is it in order for Ministers to make statements to the House that they know not to be accurate?
§ Mr. O'Brien
What about the Child Support Agency, which the right hon. Lady created? Now she wanders up and down the country stirring up misery about people's holidays. We want to get people off on holiday; she wants to tell them that we will spoil their holiday. I want to 192 praise the staff for working their socks off to get people off on holiday. The Passport Agency had to computerise because of passport forgery. We implemented proposals that the right hon. Lady made as a Minister. We take responsibility for them and do not seek to duck them, as the previous Government sought to duck a whole series of decisions.
We introduced a package of measures involving more staff and a publicity campaign to ensure that people know what to do to get their passports, extending the passport for two years so that people can get away more quickly, and paying compensation to those who miss their holidays. We will get people off on their holidays with a more secure passport that is less susceptible to fraud.
Staff at the Passport Agency are working enormously long hours to ensure that this happens. Their spirit of commitment is a credit to the public sector. There have been difficulties in modernising the agency, but it needs to be done. We will work our way through the problems and resolve them. We are determined to deliver a system that works. The Conservatives may carp and criticise but their record of incompetence was far worse than anything that we could deliver. We want to ensure that we deliver; and we will.
§ Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 165, Noes 351.196
|Division No. 220]||[7 pm|
|Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)||Cotter, Brian|
|Allan, Richard||Cran, James|
|Amess, David||Curry, Rt Hon David|
|Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James||Davies, Quentin (Grantham)|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen|
|Baker, Norman||Duncan, Alan|
|Beggs, Roy||Duncan Smith, lain|
|Beith, Rt Hon A J||Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter|
|Bercow, John||Evans, Nigel|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||Faber, David|
|Blunt, Crispin||Fabricant, Michael|
|Body, Sir Richard||Fallon, Michael|
|Boswell, Tim||Fearn, Ronnie|
|Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)||Forsythe, Clifford|
|Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia||Forth, Rt Hon Eric|
|Brady, Graham||Foster, Don (Bath)|
|Brake, Tom||Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman|
|Brazier, Julian||Fraser, Christopher|
|Breed, Colin||Gale, Roger|
|Brooke, Rt Hon Peter||Garnier, Edward|
|Browning, Mrs Angela||George, Andrew (St Ives)|
|Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)||Gibb, Nick|
|Bumett, John||Gill, Christopher|
|Bums, Simon||Gillan, Mrs Cheryl|
|Burstow, Paul||Gray, James|
|Butterfill, John||Green, Damian|
|Cable, Dr Vincent||Greenway, John|
|Cash, William||Grieve, Dominic|
|Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)||Hague, Rt Hon William|
|Chidgey, David||Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie|
|Chope, Christopher||Hancock, Mike|
|Clappison, James||Harris, Dr Evan|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh)||Harvey, Nick|
|Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||Hawkins, Nick|
|Clifton—Brown, Geoffrey||Heald, Oliver|
|Collins, Tim||Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael|
|Colvin, Michael||Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Cormack, Sir Patrick||Horam, John|
|Howard, Rt Hon Michael|
|Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)|
|Jack, Rt Hon Michael||Sanders, Adrian|
|Jackson, Robert (Wantage)||Sayeed, Jonathan|
|Jenkin, Bernard||Shepherd, Richard|
|Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Simpson, Keith (Mid & Norfolk)|
|Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)||Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)|
|Keetch, Paul||Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)|
|Key, Robert||Soames, Nicholas|
|King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)||Spelman, Mrs Caroline|
|Kirkbride, Miss Julie||Spicer, Sir Michael|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Spring, Richard|
|Laing, Mrs Eleanor||Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Lansley, Andrew||Steen, Anthony|
|Leigh, Edward||Streeter, Gary|
|Letwin, Oliver||Stunell, Andrew|
|Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)||Syms, Robert|
|Lidington, David||Tapsell, Sir Peter|
|Livsey, Richard||Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)|
|Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)||Taylor, John M (Solihull)|
|Llwyd, Elfyn||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Luff, Peter||Taylor, Sir Teddy|
|MacGregor, Rt Hon John||Tonge, Dr Jenny|
|Maclean, Rt Hon David||Townend, John|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Tredinnick, David|
|Madel, Sir David||Trend, Michael|
|Maples, John||Tyler, Paul|
|Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian||Tyrie, Andrew|
|Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)||Viggers, Peter|
|Moore, Michael||Walter, Robert|
|Moss, Malcolm||Wardle, Charles|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Waterson, Nigel|
|Norman, Archie||Webb, Steve|
|Öpik, Lembit||Whitney, Sir Raymond|
|Ottaway, Richard||Whittingdale, John|
|Page, Richard||Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann|
|Paterson, Owen||Wilkinson, John|
|Pickles, Eric||Willetts, David|
|Prior, David||Willis, Phil|
|Randall, John||Wilshire, David|
|Redwood, Rt Hon John||Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)|
|Robathan, Andrew||Woodward, Shaun|
|Robertson, Laurence (Tewkb'ry)||Yeo, Tim|
|Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxboume)||Young, Rt Hon Sir George|
|Ross, William (E Lond'y)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Russell, Bob (Colchester)||Mr. Stephen Day and|
|St Aubyn, Nick||Mrs. Jacqui Lait.|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Blizzard, Bob|
|Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)||Blunkett, Rt Hon David|
|Ainger, Nick||Boateng, Paul|
|Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)||Borrow, David|
|Alexander, Douglas||Bradley, Keith (Withington)|
|Allen, Graham||Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)|
|Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)||Bradshaw, Ben|
|Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)||Brinton, Mrs Helen|
|Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary||Brown, Rt Hon Gordon (Dunfermline E)|
|Ashton, Joe||Brown, Russell (Dumfries)|
|Atherton, Ms Candy||Browne, Desmond|
|Atkins, Charlotte||Buck, Ms Karen|
|Banks, Tony||Burden, Richard|
|Barnes, Harry||Burgon, Colin|
|Bayley, Hugh||Butler, Mrs Christine|
|Beard, Nigel||Byers, Rt Hon Stephen|
|Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret||Cabom, Rt Hon Richard|
|Begg, Miss Anne||Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)|
|Bell. Martin (Talton)||Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)|
|Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)||Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)||Campbell & Savours, Dale|
|Bennett, Andrew F||Cann, Jamie|
|Benton, Joe||Caplin, Ivor|
|Berry, Roger||Casale, Roger|
|Best, Harold||Caton, Martin|
|Betts, Clive||Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)|
|Blackman, Liz||Chaytor, David|
|Blears, Ms Hazel||Chaytor, David|
|Clapham, Michael||Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)|
|Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)||Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)|
|Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)||Grocott, Bruce|
|Clark, Paul (Gillingham)||Grogan, John|
|Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)||Gunnell, John|
|Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)||Hain, Peter|
|Clwyd, Ann||Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)|
|Coaker, Vernon||Hall, Patrick (Bedford)|
|Coffey, Ms Ann||Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)|
|Cohen, Harry||Hanson, David|
|Coleman, lain||Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet|
|Colman, Tony||Healey, John|
|Connarty, Michael||Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton N)||Hepbum, Stephen|
|Corbett, Robin||Heppell, John|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Hesford, Stephen|
|Corston, Ms Jean||Hewitt, Ms Patricia|
|Cousins, Jim||Hill, Keith|
|Cox, Tom||Hinchliffe, David|
|Cranston, Ross||Hodge, Ms Margaret|
|Crausby, David||Hoey, Kate|
|Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)||Hood, Jimmy|
|Cryer, John (Homchurch)||Hoon, Geoffrey|
|Cummings, John||Hope, Phil|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Hopkins, Kelvin|
|Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)||Howarth, George (Knowsley N)|
|Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)||Howells, Dr Kim|
|Curtis—Thomas, Mrs Claire||Hoyle, Lindsay|
|Dalyell, Tam||Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)|
|Darling, Rt Hon Alistair||Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)|
|Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)||Humble, Mrs Joan|
|Davidson, Ian||Hurst, Alan|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||Hutton, John|
|Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)||Iddon, Dr Brian|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)||Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)|
|Dawson, Hilton||Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)|
|Dean, Mrs Janet||Jamieson, David|
|Denham, John||Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)|
|Dobbin, Jim||Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)|
|Dobson, Rt Hon Frank||Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)|
|Donohoe, Brian H||Jones, Helen (Warrington N)|
|Doran, Frank||Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)|
|Dowd, Jim||Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)|
|Drown, Ms Julia||Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)|
|Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth||Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)|
|Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)||Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa|
|Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Edwards, Huw||Keeble, Ms Sally|
|Efford, Clive||Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)|
|Ellman, Mrs Louise||Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)|
|Ennis, Jeff||Kelly, Ms Ruth|
|Etherington, Bill||Kemp, Fraser|
|Field, Rt Hon Frank||Khabra, Piara S|
|Fisher, Mark||Kidney, David|
|Fitzpatrick, Jim||Kilfoyle, Peter|
|Fitzsimons, Lorna||King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)|
|Flint, Caroline||Kingham, Ms Tess|
|Flynn, Paul||Kumar, Dr Ashok|
|Follett, Barbara||Ladyman, Dr Stephen|
|Foster, Rt Hon Derek||Lawrence, Ms Jackie|
|Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)||Laxton, Bob|
|Foster, Michael J (Worcester)||Lepper, David|
|Fyfe, Maria||Leslie, Christopher|
|Galloway, George||Levitt, Tom|
|Gapes, Mike||Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)|
|George, Bruce (Walsall S)||Lewis, Terry (Worsley)|
|Gerrard, Neil||Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen|
|Gibson, Dr Ian||Linton, Martin|
|Gilroy, Mrs Linda||Livingstone, Ken|
|Godman, Dr Norman A||Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)|
|Godsiff, Roger||Love, Andrew|
|Goggins, Paul||McAvoy, Thomas|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||McCabe, Steve|
|Gordon, Mrs Eileen||McCafferty, Ms Chris|
|McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield)||Pike, Peter L|
|McDonagh, Siobhain||Plaskitt, James|
|Macdonald, Calum||Pond, Chris|
|McDonnell, John||Pope, Greg|
|McGuire, Mrs Anne||Powell, Sir Raymond|
|Mclsaac, Shona||Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)|
|McKenna, Mrs Rosemary||Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)|
|Mackinlay, Andrew||Primerolo, Dawn|
|McNamara, Kevin||Prosser, Gwyn|
|McNulty, Tony||Purchase, Ken|
|MacShane, Denis||Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce|
|Mactaggart, Fiona||Radice, Giles|
|McWalter, Tony||Rammell, Bill|
|McWilliam, John||Rapson, Syd|
|Mallaber, Judy||Raynsford, Nick|
|Mendelson, Rt Hon Peter||Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)|
|Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)||Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)|
|Marshall, David (Shettleston)||Robertson, Rt Hon George (Hamilton S)|
|Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)||Robinson, Geoffrey (Coy'try NW)|
|Marshal—Andrews, Robert||Rooker, Jeff|
|Martlew, Eric||Rooney, Terry|
|Maxton, John||Rowlands, Ted|
|Meacher, Rt Hon Michael||Roy, Frank|
|Meale, Alan||Ruane, Chris|
|Merron, Gillian||Ruddock, Joan|
|Milbum, Rt Hon Alan||Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)|
|Miller, Andrew||Ryan, Ms Joan|
|Mitchell, Austin||Satter, Martin|
|Moffatt, Laura||Sarwar, Mohammad|
|Moonie, Dr Lewis||Savidge, Malcolm|
|Moran, Ms Margaret||Sawford, Phil|
|Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Morley, Elliot||Shaw, Jonathan|
|Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)||Sheerrnan, Barry|
|Mudie, George||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Mullin, Chris||Shipley, Ms Debra|
|Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)||Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)|
|Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)||Singh, Marsha|
|Naysmith, Dr Doug||Skinner, Dennis|
|Norris, Dan||Smith, Angela (Basildon)|
|O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)||Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)|
|O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)||Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)|
|O'Hara, Eddie||Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)|
|O'Neill, Martin||Snape, Peter|
|Organ, Mrs Diana||Southworth, Ms Helen|
|Osborne, Ms Sandra||Speller, John|
|Palmer, Dr Nick||Squire, Ms Rachel|
|Pearson, Ian||Starkey, Dr Phyllis|
|Pendry, Tom||Steinberg, Gerry|
|Stevenson, George||Vis, Dr Rudi|
|Stewart, David (Inverness E)||Walley, Ms Joan|
|Stewart, Ian (Eccles)||Ward, Ms Claire|
|Stinchcombe, Paul||Wareing, Robert N|
|Stoate. Dr Howard||Watts, David|
|Stott, Roger||White, Brian|
|Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin||Whitehead, Dr Alan|
|Straw, Rt Hon Jack||Wicks, Malcolm|
|Stringer Graham||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)|
|Stuart, Ms Gisela||Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)|
|Sutcliffe, Gerry||Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)|
|Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)||Wills, Michael|
|Taylor, Ms Dad (Stockton S)||Wilson, Brian|
|Taylor, David (NW Leics)||Winnick, David|
|Temple—Morris, Peter||Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)|
|Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)||Wise, Audrey|
|Tipping, Paddy||Wood, Mike|
|Todd, Mark||Woolas, Phil|
|Touhig, Don||Worthington, Tony|
|Trickett, Jon||Wray, James|
|Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)||Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)|
|Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)||Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)|
|Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)||Wyatt, Derek|
|Twigg, Derek (Halton)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)||Mr. David Clelland and|
|Vaz, Keith||Jane Kennedy.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.
§ MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House acknowledges the difficult operational situation that the Passport Agency is facing and greatly regrets the inconvenience caused to the public; notes the measures that the Agency is taking to remedy the situation including the deployment of 300 additional staff, the streamlining of processes to boost productivity whilst maintaining security and the willingness of Agency staff to work seven days a week to help clear the arrears; further notes that in spite of this difficult position the Agency is meeting 99.99 per cent. of travel dates and will continue to do so throughout the summer and beyond; and agrees that it is right to introduce the policy of separate passports for children.