HL Deb 02 July 1987 vol 488 cc343-6

3.11 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will reorganise the Passport Office with a view to its giving better service to the public.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the Government are acutely conscious that the standard of service at some of the regional passport offices is unsatisfactory due to industrial action. However, work is well advanced on a computerised passport-issuing system, intended to provide a faster and more efficient service to the public. The system is due for introduction in Glasgow in July 1988, extending to all passport offices hopefully by the end of 1989. As a part of the process, work on postal applications now done in London is to be dispersed to Glasgow, following which the London office will deal with personal callers only.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, may I congratulate my noble friend both on his very well merited appointment and the admirable manner in which he has answered his first Question in this House. His manner was all the more admirable because of the difficulty of the subject. Is my noble friend aware of the present situation in which it takes nine times as long to obtain a passport issued in London as to obtain one issued in Belfast? That is really a masterpiece of disorganisation. Apart from the introduction of computers to which my noble friend referred in his Answer, would not a more immediate remedy, alleviating the wrongs caused to the public, be to put two or three competent people—whether from inside or outside the public service—into the Passport Office in order to run it properly?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, for his kind remarks. This is an occasion not lacking in some anxiety for me. As regards his question everything is being done to facilitate the service as it stands and to improve it, in particular through computerisation.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I do not usually quote the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, with approval, but may I, too, congratulate the Minister on the excellent way in which he answered his first Question? Would he please promise not to do as well in future? Whatever else may be delayed in the Passport Office, will the noble Lord agree to instruct his staff there to be as dilatory as possible in issuing European Community passports in the place of our good old United Kingdom passsport?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for his kind remarks. I cannot guarantee that I shall continue to do in the future as much as I have done today but I shall do my best. Of course I shall pass on his remarks concerning the European passport situation and see that matters improve.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, I also congratulate the Minister on his appointment. May I ask him to be careful about placing too much faith in the introduction of computers? My experience is that the introduction of computers usually—at first, at any rate—makes confusion worse. Would the Minister not be well advised to put in a few sensible human beings before he places all his faith in machinery?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, for his question. It is hoped that computerisation will streamline the passport issuing and record-keeping processes by eliminating many tedious and repetitive tasks. The main advantage will be automation of the issuing process and improved facilities for monitoring the progress of applications through the system.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations and also to ask my noble friend to pass thanks to his noble friend Lord Caithness for the long letter which he sent to me on this subject following a recent Question of mine. A copy of the letter is in the Library. What now is the Government's advice to someone who applied by post for renewal of a passport in April and is still waiting for a response?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, may I once again thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. Frequent situation reports are being provided to the Association of British Travel Agents for the information of its members and clients. The passport department has its own entry on Prestel which gives delay times and other information which is repeated in recorded telephone messages from the London Passport Office. Obviously, at the same time, the press and the media are being kept fully informed of the situation as it develops and hopefully improves.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, while also congratulating my noble friend, is he aware that a great number of the public do not seem to be aware that one can easily, very easily indeed, get a temporary passport?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her kind remarks. I hope that the public are aware of that possibility. Every step is being taken to make them fully aware of how to go about the procedure.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Earl and I hope that in a moment he will congratulate me. This is the first time that I have dared to get to my feet to take part in Question Time. Will the noble Lord tell me something which I do not fully understand? Why we need to have passport renewal at all? Why, having made an application for a passport, do we not, as it were, get one for life? Is it not a total waste of resources that one does not have a once-for-all passport?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question. He is quite correct. Each passport has to be reissued—every 10 years, I believe. Obviously, passports have to be reissued as a form of identification for people travelling abroad.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, while congratulating everybody in all directions, might I ask the noble Earl whether the effect of his original reply, as regards my own application, which has now been lying in Petty France for some two months, is that he is undertaking that my passport will be issued by the end of 1989?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, obviously I hope very much that that will be the case and that, for all our Lordships' sakes, the noble Lord's passport will be issued well before the end of 1989.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this morning I visited the Passport Office at Petty France with my wife's passport which had expired? I was sent to a special desk where a number of the public who had passports which had run out were able, without any difficulty, to obtain a stamp on their passports which extended the passport for six months to 1st January 1988. I and a number of others received every courtesy from the passport authorities.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question. I cannot regrettably answer the technicalities on the point that he makes. I apologise for being negative but perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to write to him.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I also congratulate the Minister. Does he agree that it is not by chance that the Passport Office is situated in Petty France? Sometimes there is such a queue that that is the nearest that anyone can get to France?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and I take note of her comments.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, in the light of the comments made by several noble Lords, is there not a good case for privatising the Passport Office?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that question. A passport is a uniquely important document providing evidence of a person's identity and national status and it must be internationally acceptable. There is reason to believe that other countries would be reluctant to accept such a document issued other than by a government agency. There are also objections on security grounds.