HC Deb 13 July 1989 vol 156 cc1122-4
10. Mr. John Greenway

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what progress has been made with his proposal to create an executive agency for the issuing of passports.

Mr. Hurd

Draft proposals have been prepared as a basis for consultation with other Government Departments and the trade unions concerned. A change of status would make it easier to incorporate relevant private sector experience, and I am keen to see this done to the maximum possible extent.

Mr. Greenway

Is my right hon. Friend aware that delays in issuing passports in Liverpool have caused applicants in the north considerable inconvenience and anxiety? The prospect of executive agency status, which would bring a much clearer definition of executive responsibility, has been on the agenda for over a year. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House when he expects to set a timetable for implementation of this policy and what part setting a deadline for the computer system to be fully operational will play in that?

Mr. Hurd: My hon. Friend is right about the delays, which were made much worse in Liverpool by the recent strike, which, I am happy to say, is now over. The staff concerned are now working to reduce the arrears. I should like to set this agency change in hand as quickly as I can. Certain consultations must take place, and they are being undertaken. My hon. Friend is right—computerisation throughout the passport offices and a change to agency basis are two long-term solutions to this problem.

Mr. Worthington

Year after year, we have long delays at the passport offices and, year after year, we have promises that this will end, but that has not happened this year. Again there were long queues in Glasgow. It is impossible to get through by telephone to the Glasgow passport office. Why does not the right hon. Gentleman accept that there must be an expansion of staff resources —never mind computerization—to deal with the predictable surge in passport demand every summer?

Mr. Hurd

It would not have been sensible to do what the union required, which was to employ large numbers of extra permanent staff for a service that ebbs and flows. We have reached agreement with the union on that aspect. I agree that the service to the public must be substantially improved. A long-term solution depends upon a mixture of two things—computerisation, which has started in Glasgow, and a change in the nature of management, bringing to the greatest possible extent the relevant experience of the private sector to the passport offices.

Mr. Gow

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, apart from the recent industrial action in the passport offices, the system of issuing passports and dealing with queries has been massively incompetent for years? Is my right hon. Friend aware that, if he applied his formidable intellect to resolving the existing problems, which are certain to continue unless his reforms are implemented, this matter could be put right once and for all within three months?

Mr. Hurd

I do not think that my hon. Friend is quarrelling with the ultimate objective or with the two ways that I have suggested of meeting it. Certainly, they are preferable to continuing as we have in recent years. The immediate task is to clear up after the recent industrial action and to reduce the arrears. We are doing that partly by overtime, partly by employing extra temporary staff, and partly by a limited increase in the number of permanent staff. In the short term, that is the only way of improving the service to the public. In the longer term, we must act more drastically, as I have suggested.

Mr. Randall

The whole House, as well as the public, could almost certainly have anticipated the problems that we have had this year. Home Office figures in the past have demonstrated the way in which demand has been outstripping the capacity to deal with them. Does the Home Secretary agree that this is a serious example of bad management in the passport office? During the introduction of the computer system, should he not have ensured that enough staff were available to deal with any contingencies and delays?

Mr. Hurd

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is entitled to say that, particularly when a large part of the public's recent misery has been brought about by the Civil and Public Servants Association and the action that it took in Liverpool. [Interruption.] Hon. Members would not expect me to staff up the passport office to deal with bloody-mindedness on the part of the union. I agree that the long-term future includes a basic change in the way in which the passport office is manned.

Mr. Soames

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the real rage of some of our constituents who, in 1989, find it impossible to travel on their holidays or to go to the United States of America, purely because of the incompetence of the passport office? Will he assure the House that, whatever steps he intends to take, which the whole House will believe are entirely laudable, he will see that the reforms are pressed through with great vigour so that our constituents will no longer be so grossly inconvenienced?

Mr. Hurd

Yes, indeed. This is an example of a public service that has fallen below the level that the public should expect. There is a long history to it, which we can debate on another occasion. [Interruption.] I believe that we have now found, and are now putting into effect through computerisation, the correct answers. As my hon. Friend suggested, I intend to press on with all energy.