HC Deb 06 December 1999 vol 340 cc559-69 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement to explain why passport fees are to increase by £7 to £28 for the standard passport, and by £3.80 to £14.80 for the child's passport. I am also publishing the Passport Agency's corporate and business plan for 1999–2002, together with a separate recovery plan. I am placing both documents in the Library of the House and the Vote Office.

As the House is aware, the agency encountered major problems last summer. I greatly regret the severe inconvenience caused to the public, and repeat my apology for what happened. However, the emergency measures that I authorised in the summer have proved effective. Turnround times for passport applications have been within 10 working days since August. Currently, all offices are processing work within a maximum of four working days. The current total backlog is 47,000 applications, which represents about four days' work.

A report from the National Audit Office, published in October, found that £12.6 million had been incurred meeting the exceptional costs involved in remedying the situation that arose in the summer. I think the whole House would accept that it would not be right for those costs to be met by a fee increase, and I have therefore agreed with the agency's new chief executive that they will be met instead by a programme of efficiency savings.

The NAO report also makes it clear that some fundamental changes are necessary to improve the quality and reliability of the agency's service to the public. To effect those changes will require significant investment, and that investment is the reason for the increase in the passport fee, given that successive Governments have rightly determined that the agency must be self-financing.

The passport service became an executive agency in 1991, a change that has undoubtedly delivered improvements. Although the agency has been successful in driving down unit costs, its record for customer service has been less consistent. As the NAO report makes it clear, some of the causes of last summer's problems were deep-rooted. Although the agency has sought to reduce the maximum time taken to process applications from the four-week norm in 1991, it has had problems in consistently delivering the more recent two-week target.

From the early 1990s until last summer, the time taken to process applications has risen significantly above two weeks to a maximum of about four weeks in the busy season each year. As a result, there have been queues at passport offices each summer and increasing problems in responding to a rising volume of telephone inquiries.

Our strategy for the agency takes full account of the NAO report and seeks to deal with those problems. New performance targets are to be set to ensure that the two-week turnround means what it says throughout the year. To ensure that the agency can, in practice, meet those targets, I have agreed to increase its capacity by 25 per cent. to enable it to issue an additional 1.3 million passports each year. That extra capacity will be met by the opening of a new regional office for the north-east of England and by a 30 per cent. expansion of the existing Peterborough office. The new north-east office will create 500 additional jobs and be based in Durham. The Peterborough expansion will mean the creation of an extra 100 jobs.

Other improvements are to be made. From March next year, there will be earlier opening and later closing for all the agency's offices, and Saturday opening as well. That is aimed to deliver a 45-minute maximum waiting target. The renovation of public counter areas in all offices will take place. From next July, a new public counter service will be provided at the new office in Durham. The London passport office will be relocated in spring 2001 to Bridge place, adjacent to Victoria station, where there will be major improvements in facilities for the public. The forms and accompanying notes are to be redesigned to make them more customer-friendly and to reduce error rates. Payment options will be improved and the quality of the telephone inquiry service is being raised.

A new call centre is being established in Bristol involving the creation of a further 60 jobs. The agency is being set a target of answering 90 per cent. of calls within 20 seconds, seven days a week, throughout the year. No more than one call in 50 should receive an engaged tone even at the busiest time of year. Demand forecasting and contingency and manpower planning are being strengthened to ensure that the agency can cope better with unexpected fluctuations of demand and other uncertainties in the process.

Changes have been made to improve the operation of the new computer system, but only when Ministers and the new chief executive are satisfied with the productivity of the new system as implemented at Newport and Liverpool will that system be extended to the other offices, and then only on a phased basis.

Altogether, that investment will cost an estimated £25 million per year. As I have already informed the House, the fee for a standard adult passport with 10-year validity will therefore be increased by £7 to £28. The fee for a child's passport for five years will be increased by £3.80 to £14.80. The fee for amending a passport will be increased by £6 to £17. The additional fee for customers seeking a personal service at the agency's offices will be increased by £2 to £12. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has decided that the higher fees that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office charges for passports issued by its British posts abroad will also increase. All those changes will come into effect on Thursday 16 December.

I naturally understand that fee increases are never popular. However, the increases have been restricted to the minimum that we judge necessary to ensure that the crucial improvements that I have described are delivered. I do not anticipate the need for any further increase in fees for at least two years.

Even with the increase, the fee for a British passport is among the lowest in the world and will remain well below the level of other countries where, like the UK, there is no taxpayer subsidy. For example, the equivalent 10-year adult passport fee is £34.50 in the United States, £46 in Canada, £47.50 in Australia and £74 in France.

The fee increase should ensure that the agency is put on a proper financial footing and is able to put in train the essential improvements to customer service. It will help to ensure that this year's problems do not recur, that the modernisation programme is driven forward and that the agency is able to provide a significantly improved service to the public.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

When will the right hon. Gentleman stop persecuting the ordinary applicant for a British passport? His announcements today, which will come into effect on 16 December, will do nothing other than convince the average applicant that the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge lives on. Will he confirm that it will now cost a family consisting of mother, father and two children £85 for their passports; that that is an increase of one third, or £21; and that, for those seeking a simple amendment to a passport, the increase is more than 50 per cent?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the new computer system was chosen and signed for by the Under-Secretary of State for Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), and that, according to a National Audit Office report, the new system will deliver no more than the old system was capable of delivering?

Does the right hon. Gentleman to this day take any direct responsibility for the fiasco that arose over the summer, given the decision to implement the new rules on child passports at the same time as the new computer system was being installed? We are now told, moreover, that the new computer system was not really going to do anything more than the old system.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned efficiency savings. Will he confirm that the background papers—which he has given me with the statement, and for which I thank him—suggest that there will be no efficiency savings in the years 2000 or 2001? Are we therefore to believe that none of the fee increase is to pay for the past fiasco, as there will be no efficiency savings for at least two years?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, despite his own assertion that the Passport Agency's revised business plan was considered on 27 September by his advisory board, two months later, on 23 November, his own Minister in the Lords was claiming not to have seen it? That is of course the same Minister who recently announced in another place a set of police figures which, days earlier, had been repudiated by the Home Secretary.

I have to ask the right hon. Gentleman, and not for the first time, what is going on in the Home Office. I know that he will tell me, as he has done in the past, that it is business as usual. He will be aware that I have always eschewed the practice of calling for ministerial resignations—[Laughter.] I have. However, in the light of what he has told the House, and the costs to British passport applicants of putting right the results of the fiasco that he—and he alone by his decisions—produced, does he not think that the time has come at least to consider the position of the Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State for Home Affairs, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) and Lord Bassam?

Mr. Straw

As I have always explained to the House, I have never suggested that my stewardship of the Department would be perfect. However, my stewardship of the Home Office is different in at least two important respects from that of the previous Administration.

The first major difference is that we as Ministers accept responsibility for anything that happens in our Department, including the Department's agencies. That contrasts very starkly with the way in which the right hon. Lady and other Ministers in the previous Government used to try to dance on the head of a pin to distinguish between policy, for which they were responsible, and operations, for which someone else was always to blame.

I have already said that I was responsible for the problems that arose last summer—I told the House that at the end of June. I am very sorry that the problems happened, and we sought immediately to put them right. I will take criticism from a great many people about what happened, but I will not take it from someone who served in the Home Office in the previous Administration.

I remind the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that the worst delays last summer—which were totally unacceptable—were 50 working days. That compares favourably with what happened when she and her right hon. Friends introduced a new computer system in 1989–90 when—thanks to industrial action, which they provoked, the delays were not 50 days, but 95 days. It then took four and a half months.

I regret fee increases of this kind, and the fact that holidaymakers will have to pay for them. However, our judgment has been that we must avoid a recurrence of the difficulties which arose last year. The NAO report—for which my colleagues and I were grateful—exposed the fact that, although the Passport Agency had been successful in driving down unit costs, underlying problems were in some ways obscured by that apparent success. We therefore had to increase capacity and ensure that other improvements were made to the standard of service offered to the public.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald asked about efficiency savings. I hope that she is not challenging my word on this: as I have said, the £12.5 million cost identified as that arising from last summer's problems will be met not from a fee increase but from efficiency savings.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Does my right hon. Friend understand that, although no one likes fee increases, there will be a general welcome if—on the back of the extra investment that he has announced this afternoon—there is an improvement in the efficiency of the service? May I tell him also that he will be judged on the way in which the service is delivered or not? Will he think about a simpler and cheaper system of travel document for those who wish to take holidays only in other European Union countries?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. Our judgment—which I hope will be shared by the House, despite the increase—is that what holidaymakers and other travellers want above all is a guarantee that when they apply for a passport, they get one. In addition, to fit in with differences in working times and so on, if someone phones up outside traditional office hours, they will get a proper answer, and a swifter answer than before. I accept that we and the agency will be judged on whether the improvements in service are delivered.

There was a modified and simpler form of travel document, which was withdrawn—I believe correctly—by the previous Administration in 1995 or 1996. That was a British visitor's passport, which was available over the counter in post offices. The difficulty with it was that it was insecure and open to forgery and other fraud. For that reason, it had to be withdrawn.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I welcome the proposals for a more customer-friendly system, and I ask the Home Secretary to pass on our thanks to the staff of the Passport Agency, who have recovered speedily from the fiasco of the summer and are now processing passports quickly. Clearly, a one-third increase is not a Christmas present to which anyone will look forward. Has such a large increase ever been announced in the history of passport charges imposed by Government?

How can the Home Secretary say—as he did in a letter the other day—that the National Audit Office has said that in recent years the Passport Agency has achieved great efficiency savings, while at the same time saying that there is scope for further efficiency savings to raise the £12 million-odd with which he says the increased passport fee has nothing to do?

Given that the blessed computer system appears to be two years behind schedule and £20 million overrun in costs and that, according to answers that the Home Secretary gave me, 13 of the 17 Home Office main IT projects are either overrun in cost or behind schedule or both, can the contracts for those 17 systems be put in the public domain—this follows the question asked earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)—so that there is no secrecy and we can judge whether the blame lies with the Home Office or the IT company or both?

Mr. Straw

I accept that the increases are unpalatable, but they are not dissimilar to increases that took place under the previous Administration. For example, the fee for a driving licence rose in 1996 from £21 to £27. The percentage increase that the previous Administration imposed when they increased the passport fee by £4, from £11 to £15, was bigger than the one that I have just announced.

We are confident that we can meet the demand for efficiency savings over a period—more than one or two years—and that they will be achievable within the business plan, not least because of a high and improved level of service.

The issue of contracts is difficult. I will certainly consider what further information can be provided. When I was in opposition, I took the view that the maximum information about contracts should be provided, and I have not changed that view, but there are issues of commercial confidentiality involved and, understandably, companies signing contracts with public authorities—sometimes for justifiable reasons, but sometimes for unjustifiable reasons—want parts of those contracts to remain confidential. The NAO report gives considerable information about the income forgone that Siemens has had to take, as well as the Passport Agency.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

I welcome the measures that my right hon. Friend took earlier this year and the confirmation that they have been effective in shifting the backlog, and I am glad that applications now take an average of 10 days, but that is in sharp contrast to the response from the chief executive of the UKPA to correspondence. I wrote to him on 1 November and 35 days later I am still waiting for so much as an acknowledgment. I wrote on behalf of a constituent seeking compensation for a cancelled holiday. How many such cases have been settled and how many remain outstanding? If necessary, will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that the process is accelerated?

Mr. Straw

I will follow up the point about correspondence, because letters should be replied to far more promptly than that.

Total compensation paid to members of the public for missed travel dates and other expenses amounted at the end of October to £161,000, but it is likely to rise further as outstanding claims are settled.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) and I will welcome the extra jobs in Peterborough. Has the Home Secretary yet written personally to those who work in the Peterborough passport office to apologise for the anger and opprobrium that they had to suffer last summer as a result of his incompetence? Is it not true that that incompetence is in part the reason for the swingeing increases announced today?

Mr. Straw

The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), went one better than simply writing to the staff at Peterborough. He went there and thanked them. I think—I am not absolutely sure, so I will check—that I wrote a message to staff thanking them very much for the unquestionable work that they did and for the fact that, as I observed in passport office front counters in London and Liverpool, they had to deal with a lot of members of the public who were understandably very cross and upset. I thanked them personally and I believe that I did so in writing as well.

Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement. Does he agree that the 100 welcome new jobs and the drop in unemployment in Peterborough from 11.4 per cent. when we took over in 1997 to only 6.3 per cent. today, after two years of Labour Government, is evidence of the Government's excellent record on getting people back to work? [Interruption.] Opposition Members may jeer and shake their heads, but they cannot deny that under this Government unemployment is at a record low and the country's finances are healthier than they ever were under the Tories. Is it not exactly that economic prosperity and stability that is allowing the sort of investment that my right hon. Friend has just announced?

Mr. Straw

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. Although in some ways I regret the circumstances, I am delighted that that change in the structure of, and the investment in, the United Kingdom Passport Agency will lead to the creation of an additional 100 jobs in my hon. Friend's constituency and another 500 jobs in Durham city, in County Durham. Of course I accept what my hon. Friend says about the dramatic improvement in prosperity and the reduction in unemployment that has taken place in Peterborough under my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's stewardship of the economy.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Although I welcome the fact that the Passport Agency seems here a painful inch to gain—to misquote Clough—will the Home Secretary turn his mind to the travel section of the immigration and nationality directorate, from which we can get neither particular answers on behalf of constituents nor general answers about the present state of the section?

Mr. Straw

If the right hon. Gentleman is talking about the issue of travel documents for stateless people, I can tell him that as a result of changes that have been made in the production process at Croydon, output of those documents has increased by some 500 per cent. That is a dramatic change. As far as other aspects of the administration of the immigration and nationality directorate are concerned, we are putting extra staff into Croydon. I understand the problems that have arisen, because—like the right hon. Gentleman—I have a large constituency case load of people who have tried to correspond with Croydon. I have asked the office to ensure that I get no better treatment than anyone else, and I can guarantee that I do not.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), the new Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, pointed to difficulties with the British visitor's passport, which led to its withdrawal in 1995. Will my right hon. Friend revisit that decision? Why do not we take a pan-European approach and adopt a national identity card that would include data such as medical data and could then—subject to negotiation—be used throughout the European Union? Such a card is inevitable, so why not grasp the nettle now and seek its early introduction?

Mr. Straw

I fully understand that Members on both sides of the House have varying views on the issue of national identity cards. I have examined the issue with great care, and our view is that a national identity card would not be appropriate. It is a different matter to improve national records, which would be of some assistance. Part of the problem of having a national identity card, if we take the example of member states of the Schengen system, is that it requires a change in the powers of the police in place of border controls, so that they can demand the production of the card without any other cause. That would not be acceptable to British citizens, and our approach of having proper border controls is more effective in many respects. Of course, I am willing to continue to engage in the debate with my hon. Friend.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Would the Home Secretary consider what appears to be an unfair situation? Many thousands of us—I declare an interest—sought to have our passports renewed earlier this year and were given, exceptionally, a two-year extension. Does the right hon. Gentleman think it right that those people should have to pay the new fee for renewal of their passports instead of the fee they would have paid had they been able to have it renewed earlier?

Mr. Straw

We made that arrangement to relieve the pressure on passport offices, and it was successful. The result for the hon. Gentleman is that he has had two years' free extension of his passport. I do not begrudge him that, but it is not too bad a result.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will my right hon. Friend exonerate those hundreds of my constituents who work in the Newport passport office from any blame for last summer's chaos? They—and staff in other passport offices elsewhere—faced the brunt of public criticism and responded magnificently, working long hours for little reward. They will be disappointed that their service and loyalty were not recognised today with the announcement that more people would be employed at the office. They will be further disappointed if the promised efficiencies mean that their jobs are under threat.

Does not the passport saga shake my right hon. Friend's faith in the omnipotence of high-tech and in the value of public-private partnerships? We are told that those partnerships represent the way forward, and that many public service activities must be outsourced to the private sector. Could not more efficiencies be gained through insourcing, so that work carried out in the public sector could be enhanced by the taking on of work that is performed less efficiently in the private sector?

Mr. Straw

I want to do far more than exonerate staff in the Newport passport office and elsewhere: I want to praise them for the way in which they dealt with a very difficult problem.

My hon. Friend will know that there is a history of large-scale computer systems not quite working out according to plan, in the private sector as well as in the public sector. At all stages, we have to try and learn from what has happened. I refer my hon. Friend to what happened with the introduction of the new payments system at the stock exchange, which was an entirely private sector operation. I am glad to see wry smiles on the faces of the hon. Members for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight), as hundreds of millions of pounds were wasted when the system at the centre of our economic arrangements almost collapsed.

When it comes to new information technology systems, the precise boundary between private and public sectors can be arguable. However, because the Government are not in the business of computer manufacture and supply and have no plans to go into that business, we must have a relationship with the private sector. The decision to be made has to do with what the best relationship is, and whether it is most likely to ensure that the private sector also bears part of the risk involved with the systems that it supplies.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I thank the Home Secretary for taking so seriously the work done by the National Audit Office in this matter. I also welcome the fact that the cost of this year's shambles—some £12 million—is to be met out of efficiency savings, rather than by the taxpayer or the holidaymaker. However, I presume that those efficiency savings will be on-going, whereas the cost was a one-off. I also presume that the management of the agency will make further efficiency savings, and that unit costs will fall as volumes increase and capacity use rises. I also believe that, because the volumes involved are higher than when the contract with Siemens was first negotiated, that contract should be renegotiated. Will the Home Secretary undertake to ensure that the Passport Agency pursues all those cost savings, and that it will return the money saved to the holidaymaker in the form of reduced fees in the future?

Mr. Straw

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said. We certainly take the NAO's work seriously, and I am grateful for the insights that it gave me into the working of the Passport Agency and the problems that had to be dealt with to ensure that the agency was put on a proper and sound footing.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Siemens contract. Discussions with that company about the nature of the relationship are continuing, and I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman about that. I have given the best information that I can on the overall cost of the investment, which is running at about £24 million, and have explained the consequent need for a fee increase. Of course it is our hope that we can get unit costs down, but such a reduction will be from a higher level than previously, as we are asking customers to pay for a higher level of service. Whether we can, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, achieve a virtuous circle that would allow us to reduce the fee in future, rather than its rising, is something about which I am a little sceptical, but we live in hope. If the right hon. Gentleman wants more information, I shall be happy to write to him.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I, too, have a vested interest, as my passport appears to have been stolen at Heathrow last Wednesday. I should say how extraordinarily efficient and courteous were both our immigration service and that of the United States of America. Our embassy in Washington was also extremely helpful, as were the staff of British Airways.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure maximum co-operation with the Post Office so that the widest availability of passport application forms can be achieved? That would be a practical way in which to help rural post offices while also providing a better service to constituents in rural areas.

Mr. Straw

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. Staff in the immigration and nationality directorate, the immigration service and the Passport Agency are more used to receiving brickbats than bouquets, and it is nice to hear hon. Members praise them, entirely justifiably. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's compliments are passed on.

We shall ensure better availability of passport forms. An arrangement with partners of the Passport Agency—principally, though not exclusively, the Post Office—allows customers to pay an additional fee to ensure that their applications are checked for errors before going into the system earlier than would otherwise be the case. The fee is £3.25, and there will be no increase on 16 December, although it may be increased next April.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Some people will see today's swingeing increase in charges as the imposition of a new tax—an identity tax. The Home Secretary has announced the creation of 600 new jobs at a cost of £250,000 each every year to improve service in the Passport Agency. If the agency's time targets are not met, what compensation will be available to applicants?

Mr. Straw

The Conservatives are a bit like the Bourbons, except that they have forgotten everything and learned nothing. As the right hon. Gentleman is obviously suffering from amnesia, I remind him that he was a Treasury Minister when the Conservatives raised taxes not once or twice but 22 times. One of those taxes was an airport tax—a real tax on travellers. Today's increase is not a tax but a raised fee to provide an improved service.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that his use of "investment" must be spurious? The word implies positive anticipated return by efficiency savings or some other means. If there are genuine efficiency savings, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) is right to say that the unit cost of providing the service should come down. The fact that the Home Secretary does not anticipate a reduction in cost means that this measure is not an investment. He is misusing language. Would it not be good for the country if he thought a little more rigorously, which might help him to act more straightforwardly?

Mr. Straw

I bow to the hon. Gentleman's superior business acumen, but there is no question but that this is an investment of £24 million a year to provide an improved level of service. It is there to deal with the underlying problems that were properly identified by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee—I am grateful to them. Although the public will not find the increases especially palatable—neither do I—I think that they would prefer a balance so that, for a relatively higher fee, they are guaranteed a proper service with a swifter response from the agency. Furthermore, they will receive a modern service that takes account of the fact that people no longer work nine to five; they work different hours and they want a different response from public services.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May I take this opportunity to thank the Home Secretary for his assistance in the eventual processing of passport applications from my constituents Sarah Crisp, Elizabeth Scott and Alice Wright, and, through him, thank the UK Passport Agency? However, in view of the swingeing increases in fees that he has announced, will he give me the assurance, which I have previously sought but which was not forthcoming, that where an individual is obliged to make an initial or an extra visit in person to a passport office as a direct result of the tardiness or incompetence of the UK Passport Agency, that individual's reasonable travel costs will be reimbursed without question?

Angela Smith (Basildon)

They are.

Mr. Bercow

They are not.

Mr. Straw

It is my recollection that, during the summer, if individuals who applied for compensation had had to make a second or a third unavoidable journey to a passport office, that was included in the payment that they received. If I am wrong about that, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

We very much hope that the changes will ensure that the turnround is effective even at times of greatly increased demand. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman not only for his words of thanks to me—I do not deserve them—but to the staff of the agency, who do deserve them.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

The Home Secretary's reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) was limp-wristed and woolly. If there is major investment in a new system, there must be efficiency savings. Will the right hon. Gentleman make it his job to ensure that savings are passed on to the afflicted members of the public on whom today's huge increase has been imposed?

Mr. Straw

As I pointed out, this increase, proportionately, is marginally less than that imposed by the Conservative Administration in 1983. Although I fully understand that it will not be popular with members of the public, the last people—as ever—who should complain about an increase of that size are members of the Conservative party. If there are savings in the future that can properly be passed on to the members of the public, they will be passed on. My answer to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden was not limp-wristed; it was careful. In the House of Commons it is extremely important that we do not give undertakings that we cannot deliver.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

As the Government try so readily to borrow management speak and business speak, is the irony lost on the Home Secretary that the Passport Agency holds a monopolistic position—by definition, one cannot obtain a passport from anywhere else—and that an inflationary increase of this size would, by any test, be an abuse of a monopolistic position? If the right hon. Gentleman is to borrow from business speak, perhaps he should now consider that what you measure is what you get. As part of the thanks to the Passport Agency staff—expressed by Members on both sides of the House—perhaps the staff should be given an incentive bonus payment for what they have managed to do. That would also ensure that they are incentivised in future.

Mr. Straw

At the end of this debate on the statement, and after the preceding Home Office Question Time, we shall, as usual, go away and add up the total costs to which Opposition Members have committed themselves—against a background in which they have damned our spending as "reckless".

Let me make two points to the hon. Gentleman. The first is that the staff of the Passport Agency worked extremely hard last summer, and, in recognition of that, they rightly received significant overtime payments. Secondly, in spotting the fact that the issuing of passports is a monopoly, the hon. Gentleman displays those economic insights known only to Conservative Members. The issue of passports is a monopoly; I know of nowhere in the world where it is other than a monopoly exercised by the state.