HC Deb 24 April 1959 vol 604 cc859-68

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Ernest Davies (Enfield, East)

I wish to draw attention to the Foreign Service Fees Order, 1959, and I do so because under this Order about 150 fees charged by the Foreign Office for a variety of documents and services have been increased. A large number of these fees are concerned with documents and services as applied to foreign countries. I do not necessarily object to them, but I particularly wish to draw attention to the increase in the passport renewal fee, which has been doubled from 10s. to 20s.

During the short Easter Recess this Order was made and was then laid before the House. That meant that it was not available to Members in the Vote Office until 2nd April, although it came into force on 1st April. That meant that Members had no opportunity of questioning the representatives of the Foreign Office about the increases, nor had they any opportunity of debating them. Further, only a few weeks earlier the Estimates of the Foreign Office had been presented to the House, and in them no reference was made to these increases; so, again, the attention of the House was not drawn to them.

Therefore, it appears that either by accident or design Parliament in this case was by-passed, and, if it were not for the fact that the Foreign Office was responsible, I would suggest that there had been some sharp practice here. I consider it a very dangerous practice to refrain from informing Parliament of changes in charges which are, in effect, taxes. It is a very dangerous practice to impose charges upon the community without Parliament being given the opportunity to give its consent to them. After all, King Charles I lost his head for doing that.

Apart from the short notice which was given to Parliament and the bypassing of Parliament in the way I have stated, the increased charges, and particularly that for the renewal of passports, were imposed at very short notice. Travel agents and others had only 24 to 48 hours' notice from seeing the announcement in the Press that the charge was increased, and, inevitably, this put them to very considerable inconvenience as they handled these matters on behalf of their clients. It also made a difference to those who were planning their holidays and found that their passports would cost more.

When Questions were asked about the increase, the Under-Secretary tended to minimise the amount by which the charge was increased and the effect it would have on those who required to renew their passports. It is true that the effect on the individual may not be great, but if there happens to be a normal-sized family and each member of the family holds a separate passport which falls due for renewal, the figure does mount up. Whether the cost of £1 instead of 10s. for renewing a passport deters travel or not, the increase is quite unjustified, unnecessary, and is a tax on travel.

The Under-Secretary justified the increase on two grounds. First, that the administrative costs were up. Secondly, that the revenue was needed. It is perfectly true that administrative costs have risen since 1931, but so has the cost of travel. The cost of travel since 1931 has increased tremendously and it means that there is a far greater revenue accruing to the Foreign Office from the issue of passports than formerly. The staff issuing passports has not increased proportionately because the overheads have been spread, on the basis of a commercial business. There is a strong case for reducing the price of passports rather than increasing them.

The Under-Secretary said that the renewal fee… was fixed at 10s. in 1931 and was so out of line with present costs that it was decided to increase it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th April, 1959: Vol. 603, c. 640.) I should like to show the House how much out of line it was, or is. The cost of issuing and renewing passports in the United Kingdom is £524,000 a year. The fees derived from their issue and renewal is £1,150,000—more than twice as much. The Foreign Office is making a profit or. the issue and renewal of passports in this country of £626,000 per annum, a profit of 120 per cent.

That shows how much out of line the charges are. They are completely out of line because they are far too high. The Foreign Office is doing so well on this that it is qualifying for a "take-over" bid. Allowing for the cost of renewal, the cost of issuing a passport today is 15s. There is a profit to the Government of I5s. on the issue of each passport, which means that every person is paying double the cost of issuing that passport. He is being taxed to obtain it.

It is true that on the issue and renewal of passports abroad by embassies and consulates there is a loss, but it means that those resident in this country are subsidising those who obtain their passports abroad. Why should a resident of the United Kingdom subsidise those who live abroad, or who are foolish enough to forget to renew their passports before travelling abroad? Why should a working man who takes his family abroad for a holiday, maybe for the one time in his life, subsidise the beachcomber in Majorca, or Hawaii, who fails to renew his passport and has to pay for doing so and for the privilege of retaining his British citizenship while living abroad and, at the same time, escaping the payment of taxes in this country? I see no justification for that. Every United Kingdom citizen has a right to this document and most people are proud to carry it.

I could make out a case for granting a passport free to every citizen as a right. Certainly, the maximum charge made to the person seeking a passport should be the administrative cost of issuing it. I would remind the Under-Secretary that the O.E.E.C. recommended that principle in its report on tourism. It recommended that there should be a reduction in the price of passports to the limit strictly necessary for covering the cost of issue and delivery of the passport. The Government were a party to that report, but they are certainly not carrying out the recommendation. Since the report was issued the Government have increased the cost of renewal of passports and are doubling the cost of issuing passports.

On the second count, the Under-Secretary said that another factor was that the issuing and renewal of passports bring in a considerable revenue which the Government need. There are 200,000 renewals of passports per year. That means that the additional 10s. will bring in another £100,000. Is the Foreign Office really so "broke", with its Civil Estimate of some £18 million, that for lack of this £100,000 it will go bankrupt?

Surely, when the Chancellor is distributing largesse in his Budget, and reducing the price of beer by 2d. a pint, the Foreign Office cannot be so hard up that it has to seek this further £100,000 by imposing a tax on travel. I suppose that in the embassies they do not drink beer, and if the common man, who rarely enjoys the hospitality of the embassies, must pay twice as much for renewing his passport in order that their lavish entertainment can continue, then, I suppose, it is justified. I do not think that the Under-Secretary gave a diplomatic answer. Coming from that source, it is a shocking answer.

Following the establishment of the Welfare State and with compulsory holidays with pay, foreign travel has greatly increased. Of that we are all very well aware. It is welcomed by all and is generally accepted as a means of furthering international good will and understanding. At the same time, the greater ease and speed of travel from one country to another enables more and more people in more and more countries to get to know each other better. By and large, people are finding out that people the world over are very much alike and have far more in common to unite them than differences to divide them. In this way travel makes a unique contribution to the ability of people to live in peace.

In these circumstances, it seems to me that it is incumbent upon all responsible Governments to encourage the exchange of their nationals with the nationals of other countries. As a matter of fact, to that end the Council of Europe has made certain recommendations, and action on those recommendations has been taken by a number of countries. It recommended that the passport should be replaced by an identity card for periods of short travel, for tourism, and the like The citizens of seven Western European countries are able to travel to countries in Western Europe with identity cards instead of passports. These cards are sometimes issued free and sometimes for a small charge.

I do not understand why this country cannot do the same. Parliamentary Questions have frequently been asked on the subject, but the Foreign Office has stood out adamantly against the proposal. This country could, perhaps, contribute more than any other country to international understanding, because I believe that more people from this country travel abroad than from any other European country. Yet we appear to put more obstacles in the way of travel and more impositions on those who travel than any other country. Not only is there this increase for the renewal of passports—and 30s. is double what it need be—but air travel imposes landing fees, which recently increased from 5s. to 7s. 6d.

I had the privilege to work with Ernest Bevin at the Foreign Office. As the House knows, he was a great believer in freedom of travel as a promoter of better human and international relations. I recall that at the Labour Party Conference at Bournemouth in June, 1946. he said: I want to grapple with the whole problem of passports and visas. A diplomat asked me in London one day what the aim of my foreign policy was and I said it was, ' To go down to Victoria Station, get a railway ticket and go where the hell I liked without a passport or anything else.' I stick to that. That was Ernest Bevin's philosophy in the matter of travel. He tried to put that into practice.

I remember that in 1950 he sent me on an official tour to certain Central European and Eastern European countries with a view to fostering better relations and trying to re-establish relations where they had not been restored since the war, including those between Greece and Yugoslavia. Before I went, he drew his finger across the map of that part of Europe and pointed out to me the frontiers, saying, "Here the international expresses ran across the frontiers before the war. Now they are halted". He said, "We must get those trains running again for, once we get the wagons-lit crossing the frontiers, we shall have better relations." I went on the trip and I recall telephoning to him in London before I left asking if he had any final instructions for me. He said, "Yes, Ernest, only this. Be tough with Tito and get those trains running."

My final word to the Under-Secretary —with whom I have considerable sympathy, because I once occupied the post that he now holds and I know that he has been called upon to defend something of which no doubt he had no knowledge until Questions were asked in the House. and for which he was not responsible—is. be tough with the Treasury and get these passport fees down.

4.17 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I am very glad to have the opportunity of supporting what my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) has said. By now, the Foreign Office should have recognised that it made a very great mistake in introducing this Order at all and in introducing it in the way it did. Its action has been condemned by The Times and nearly every other responsible newspaper.

It was particularly unfortunate that this Order was promulgated on the eve of the Easter Recess and came into force seven days after being promulgated. It was a mere accident that because it was made under an Act of 1891 it did not need modern procedure and to be laid before the House. I am quite certain that if it had been so laid and was subject to a negative Resolution, there would have been a Prayer against it. My hon. Friend has said that the duty of the Foreign Office should be to encourage and not to discourage travel. More and more people travel abroad and it is a good thing that they should do so. A great many people who, hitherto, have not had the means of travelling abroad do so now for the first time.

The imposition of the increased fee for renewal of a passport is mischievous. I cannot see that any fee is justified for a passport. Certainly, the Foreign Office could not justify charging more than the bare minimum to cover administrative costs. There should be no tax on travel. A British subject should be free to travel anywhere. As a matter of law, he is free to travel everywhere and free to re-enter the country. A passport is a matter of international convenience. Nothing should be done by the Foreign Office to make travel more difficult. As my hon. Friend has said, the attitude of increasing fees for passports and visas is a retrograde step. It has been condemned by the Council of Europe and other international organisations. This country, in accordance with its long traditions, ought to set an example in that respect.

I hope that by now the Foreign Office will have recognised that it has made a grave blunder and that it will have the courtesy to acknowledge that blunder. If it is not too late, I hope, in the interests of those looking forward to travel this year, the Foreign Office may be persuaded to withdraw this mischievous, unnecessary and inopportune increase of fees.

4.21 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Robert Allan)

As the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) has said, he served in the office that I at present hold. His photograph is on the wall of my office. It looks down on me from there, flanked by rather more faces than confront me this afternoon. Nevertheless, it catches the light in a certain way so that I see his face and am more conscious of it than I am of some equally illustrious predecessors, Lord Curzon and others. The face that looks down from the wall is shrewd and not altogether unkind, so I rather expected the hon. Gentleman to speak in the way that he did this afternoon.

The hon. Gentleman was perfectly justified in attacking me for emphasising the need for revenue. I made that statement at the end of a series of supplementary questions, and my only defence, I must say quite frankly, is that it was rather a foolish statement. It was foolish, not in the way of letting the cat out of the bag or exposing a secret we wished to keep hidden, but because I did not relate increased revenue to the increased costs which we have to bear. That is the crux of the matter, and I should like to deal with it in some detail.

As the hon. Gentleman said, this affects a large number of people. One of the most significant things of the last eight or nine years is the increase in the number of our citizens who travel. That, in turn, reflects the general growth in our living standards. In 1951, 1,240,000 British citizens travelled abroad. In 1958, that figure was almost exactly double—2,400,000. There are arguments, of course, and both hon. Members produced some of them, in favour of abolishing passports altogether. What is often forgotten, although I think that the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) mentioned it, is that the British Government do not require British citizens to possess passports. British citizens carry passports only to meet the requirements of the Governments of the countries which they choose to visit. British subjects, therefore, buy passports not because they are forced to do so by this Government but because they wish to travel. It seems to me perfectly fair that if people wish to travel they should pay at least for the document that permits travel in the countries to which they want to go.

Mr. Ernest Davies

Why pay double?

Mr. Allan

I will come to that in a minute. I think that is the answer to those whose general suggestions have amounted to the proposal that travel should be subsidised by the British taxpayer. The argument against that is strengthened by the fact that travellers obviously are not among the neediest of Her Majesty's subjects. It is also part of the answer to the hon. Gentleman's assertion that we are imposing a tax on travel.

The other question is whether the price which we are charging is excessive in relation to the costs. Part of the function of our posts abroad is the issue and renewal of passports and the giving of help and advice on related nationality questions. Since the passing of the 1948 Act this work has been quite heavy. It has always been accepted that passport fees in general should contribute towards the cost of this work, and the cost of this work, of course, is directly related to the cost of the Foreign Service. We therefore try to establish fees which have some relation to the total costs.

It must be done on a universal basis. The hon. Member for Enfield, East suggested that it was unfair that the British traveller should subsidise the permanent British resident abroad who had to renew his passport or to obtain a new passport abroad. We could not have separate rates. I am sure that his experience of the Foreign Office will have shown him that. Even among our own highly mechanised and centrally organised depots in the United Kingdom, the cost of each passport varies considerably. But each passport issued here obviously costs us less than each of the five issued last year in Katmandu or of the 10 which were issued in Papeete or of the 16 which were issued in Kabul. These, in turn, cost less than each of the 6,000 which were issued in our various posts throughout the United States. Everywhere, from Algiers to Zurich, we must have a common fee.

The hon. Member tried to show that the Foreign Office had made a profit of over £600,000 on the issue of passports. I do not deny that there was a surplus. His figures are not quite correct, because he did not take into account the various overheads under other Votes. He will find that the figure which I gave was that there was an estimated surplus last year of £524,000. I am sure that he does not wish to quarrel on the size of the figure, however; the point is that we showed a surplus.

The figure of £524,000 is in relation to a total expenditure on the Foreign Service of about £17½ million. The passport surplus in the United Kingdom was therefore 3 per cent. of the total Foreign Service expenditure. In 1931 it was also 3 per cent. The increase on two occasions in the cost of a new passport has maintained that relationship more or less steady, and up to now the renewal fee has not been changed since 1931.

Towards the end of last year the whole question of fees was reviewed in the light of present-day costs. It was decided to bring the major fees into line with the charges made by notaries and business and professional bodies, but at the same time it became clear that the United Kingdom passport surplus would be a bare 2 per cent. of the total vote. Rather than alter the cost of a new passport it was decided to increase by 10s. the cost of renewal. On present estimates, the United Kingdom passport surplus will be 2.8 per cent. of the total Foreign Service costs.

I wish that I were able to prove conclusively that this figure of 3 per cent. is the right proportion for the United Kingdom passport surplus to bear in relation to the general expenses of the Foreign Service. Unfortunately, it is not possible to prove that because of the many variable factors involved. I have discussed the matter at several meetings with officials in the Foreign Office, and it seems to me clearly a reasonable proportion. Moreover, it has been accepted for thirty years.

That the percentage has, if anything, slightly fallen, is the answer to the hon. Member's complaint that revenue had risen more steeply than expenditure. In relation to the whole cost it has not. Nor do I believe that it is a serious argument to suggest that an increase of 2s. a year in the cost of renewing a passport will deter anyone from travelling.

I should have liked to go into a little more detail on other points, but before I close I must briefly answer the complaint by several hon. Members that Parliament was by-passed. It was not bypassed. The Act does not require that this matter should be laid before Parliament. On the other hand, I regret that when the Estimates were published we did not make a reference to this increase which would have drawn hon. Members' attention to it. I am sorry that this was not done—and my right hon. and learned Friend has asked me to express these sentiments. There was no disrespect to Parliament. We were not obliged to include it in the Estimates, but I think that it was an error of judgment not to do so.

Finally, whereas it costs a British subject £2 10s. to hold a passport for ten years, the average cost in 16 European countries which I have investigated is £8 4s. 6d.—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.