HL Deb 10 May 1994 vol 554 cc1428-31

2.38 p.m.

Lord Whaddon asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the design of the new United Kingdom passport.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the new-style British passport is in a common format which has been agreed with our European partners. The United Kingdom Passport Agency is, however, currently reviewing the design and security features of the passport in order to ensure that they meet developing needs.

Lord Whaddon

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that courtesy is important in this life, particularly towards visitors? Has he observed that the new passport eliminates the normal style of the name of the holder being on the front? For instance, Mrs. Brown is now shown as "Brown, Mary, female" on the back page. It is impossible for those observing the passport to address the lady by her normal mode, whether it be Miss, Mrs., Ms., Dr. or Reverend. Does not the noble Earl agree that the passport could be improved by restoring the former style of including the name on the front cover? Is it necessary to downgrade such an important document? Are the Government incapable of defending British practice when it is obviously the best?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the Government defend British practice constantly and with great success. The idea of one's name being shown on the front of a passport was attractive under the old system. However, the new system does not permit that. I agree that nomen dignitatis is desirable. That is the reason we are considering whether or not it is possible to adjust passports to include the title Mrs, Miss, Ms, Professor or Doctor on the front of the passport.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that my passport actually contains the word "Baroness" on the back page?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am sure that that is wholly suitable.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, would it not be possible for each country in the European Community to have passports in a different colour? We can then go back to the dark blue that we had while retaining the smaller size which is rather more convenient.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that would fuse the system completely. The "common format" refers to passports being the same size and colour and containing the same data. To go along the route suggested by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, would not be possible because it would not come within the common format.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, will the noble Earl consider presenting the new passports in either Welsh or English for the people of Wales?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the people of Wales are part of the United Kingdom and therefore come quite happily within the common format of the new passport in the same way as they did the old one.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, can the noble Earl tell us what consultations took place and with whom before the new passport was designed? Did not the Prime Minister make an award under the Citizen's Charter to the Pensions Agency for its work on passports? However, none of us knows why. Can the noble Earl enlighten us?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the common format of the passport comes as a result of discussions within the Council of Ministers and complies with European Community Resolution No. 7098/81. The United Kingdom was very much in the lead in helping to ensure a passport in right and proper order within the Community.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the common format passport is now machine readable, as was originally intended? Also, is the equipment for that purpose adequately available?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is machine readable. But, as my noble friend Lord Trefgarne will have observed, when he returns to this country all he needs to do is wave his passport—I believe it is known as the "Bangemann wave"—because people returning to this country do not need to have their passports read. Countries such as the United States of America and Canada possess reading machines. If one were to visit those countries doubtless one's passport would be read by a machine if the airport to which one flew was lucky enough to have one.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, can my noble friend guarantee that there will not have to be a referendum upon this important subject?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, heaven preserve us from such a thought!

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, can the Minister assure me, as the holder since February of a new flimsy passport which is already showing signs of wear and tear, that Her Majesty's Government made contingency plans to deal with the inevitable increase in applications for the replacement of passports which fall to bits during their currency period?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the Passport Agency is doing very well. The targets for renewal are down to four weeks between January and June, three weeks in July and August and two weeks between September and December. The overall average maximum turn-round is nine working days for the year as a whole and at the present time it is about two weeks. I do not think the noble Baroness need worry too much.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that people from other Parliaments with whom I have visited South Africa and other places are surprised to find that Members of your Lordships' House and another place do not hold what are called "diplomatic" passports? I am not necessarily seeking one. But is there any intention to introduce that system for Members of the United Kingdom Parliament?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is a matter under consideration but as yet no decision has been made.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the noble Earl may recognise that he did not answer the question of my noble friend Lady Mallalieu. The new passports tend to disintegrate. Can the Government assure us that when my noble friend's passport disintegrates the passport office will be in a position immediately to issue a substitute?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I thought I answered the question of the noble Baroness appropriately. I recall answering questions at this Dispatch Box a few years ago when everyone was complaining that it took too long for passports to be renewed. I tried to explain to the noble Baroness that there has been great success in reducing that time. It is unlikely that her passport will disintegrate all of a sudden and therefore she will have a fortnight in which to replace it. However, if she finds that it does suddenly collapse, I shall do my best to ensure that she receives a new one.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, will the noble Earl then substitute himself for the passport office so that my noble friend can apply directly to him for a new passport?

Earl Ferrers

No, certainly not, but I am always happy to be used as a post box.