HL Deb 23 November 1999 vol 607 cc312-4

2.44 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are taking action with the Passport Agency to ensure that, in the year 2000, delays are avoided of the kind which, in 1999, affected arrangements made by members of the public for holidays abroad.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, the United Kingdom Passport Agency is looking to introduce a number of measures that will ensure that the delays experienced in 1999 do not recur in the future. More than 300 extra permanent staff have been and are being recruited, there will be increased capacity to deal with applications, including a major expansion to add 30 per cent more capacity to the agency's Peterborough office, and improvements will be introduced in the customer service offered to customers who apply in person or make telephone inquiries.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that Answer. Does he recall that when I raised this subject in the House on 10th June, I received government replies which were much too optimistic—for example, that any problems would be solved soon? As it has now been admitted that a serious situation over passports arose during the summer, which resulted in many holidays having to be cancelled, has compensation been offered to any of those affected?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is regretted that anyone missed a holiday as a consequence of failures within the United Kingdom Passport Agency. In answer to the noble Lord's supplementary question, 510 claims for missed holidays have been received and that is against a background of 5 million passports being issued during the year. Compensation has been paid. Between October 1998 and September 1999, the total amount of compensation paid was £238,000, of which £90,000 related to missed travel dates.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, can the noble Lord confirm that the difficulties in the Passport Agency arose as a result of a combination of the introduction of a new IT system and changes in procedure? If so, has that kind of problem arisen in other parts of the public sector? What are the Government doing to avoid a recurrence?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very important point. As the National Audit Office accepted when producing a report on the problems experienced by customers, I can confirm that there were difficulties, particularly with the introduction of the new computer system. We now believe that the system is sound. It has been independently audited and found to be perfectly sound for the purpose for which it is intended. In our view, supported by the National Audit Office report, the agency found that there had been an inability to assess and test adequately the time needed for staff to learn and work the new processing system; and that there was an insufficient contingency plan built in to smooth out the difficulties that occurred. It was patently clear that there had been a failure to communicate effectively to the public some of the problems which were being experienced with the new system. We now believe that the system is far more robust and that the measures we are taking will ensure that the kind of inconvenience that people unfortunately suffered this summer will not occur again next summer.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will it need the extra 300 people?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it goes without saying that we wish to achieve lasting improvements. The Home Office would not have taken the view that the 300 extra staff were necessary if that were not the case. We are seeking to improve the quality of service and to make it world-class in the future.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, given that the passport is just a form of identification, of which there are many others, does the Minister agree that this would be a good moment to start thinking about having one single identification number which would cover the National Health Service, national insurance, tax, driving licence and passport? Does he further agree that once that were done, it would make it easier to ensure to whom a passport is issued? It might reduce the number of problems and help to avoid the kind of shambles that we had during the summer.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord has made a useful and important suggestion to the debate about forms of identification. If he comes forward with many more smart ideas such as that, I am sure that he will find himself a candidate for the mayoralty.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, what makes the Minister so confident that next year will be all right, given the Home Office's over-confidence until a very late stage earlier this year and given that that confidence is not widely shared, partly because we have not yet seen the business plan for the Passport Agency for this year—1999–2000? Has the Minister yet seen the business plan for the Passport Agency for this year?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I have yet to see the business plan for next year and, indeed, for the current year. However, we are confident that arrangements are now secured and in place to ensure that we have a high quality of service and standards. I believe that all members of the public and all Members of your Lordships' House will wish to see those carried out and completed so that we enjoy a first-rate service, as we did in the past. I have every confidence that our service will attain those necessary standards.

Lord Harris of Haringey

My Lords, is it not the case that one of the reasons for the problems last year was the fact that new rules were introduced which required that all children should have their own passports? I presume that that is not a factor which will recur in future.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is indeed the case that new rules were introduced and they are most beneficial. We have now received a guarantee that those rules are operational and working effectively and that the standards which, I believe, we have all rightly come to expect from the passport office will continue to rise in the future.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, do people who need passports to work abroad receive them faster? That was the question which was relevant to holidays.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am not aware that that is the case, but I am sure that if there are important and pressing reasons for people to have passports then officials who examine applications will take that carefully into consideration.