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Passport Interview Centre (Taunton)

Volume 458: debated on Monday 12 March 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Roy.]

The context of this debate is the Government’s recent announcement that people will be required to attend one of 69 passport interview centres, scattered throughout the United Kingdom, if they wish to apply for a British passport for the first time. In future all applicants for passports, including those renewing or replacing lost documents, will be required to report to one of those centres. My bone of contention is that Taunton, the town in Somerset that I represent, is not one of the 69 centres chosen.

I want to make two points at the outset. First, my support for Taunton as one of those passport interview centres should not be taken to imply that I am in favour of identity cards—quite the opposite. It is extremely important that we maintain a healthy balance between the power of the state and that of the individual citizen. In a liberal democracy, the Government should be answerable to the people, not the people to the Government. I continue to be mystified and saddened by the inability of many Labour Members of Parliament to understand the importance of a liberal and benign state having proper safeguards against such measures.

Secondly, as a preamble, let me say that I do not have absolute confidence that the new system of passport interviews will work as well as some in the Government might hope. Its implementation has already been delayed: it was meant to come into effect last year, and is now coming into effect this year. A Home Office spokesman was quoted recently in a newspaper as saying:

“Customers who have not been contacted by the IPS”—

the rather Orwellian-sounding Identity and Passport Service—

“within 8 working days from receipt of a completed application form will not need to have an interview.”

It is not beyond comprehension that the system might not process everybody as effectively as the Government wish. From 2009, the system is being extended to cover about 4 million applications per year.

My principal interest, however, is in the lack of a passport interview centre for Taunton, rather than in the merits or otherwise of passport interviews per se. It might help the Minister and other Members, who might not have been to Taunton, if I explain why it is so important that such a centre be provided.

Taunton is the county town of Somerset and the home of the county council. It is also the town in Somerset with the largest population, by a significant margin. But even that understates its place in Somerset. As well as being the largest place and the county town, it is a big centre for employment, leisure and shopping. I always think that one can identify such a centre by asking people where their nearest branch of Marks and Spencer is, and for many people, not just those who live in the town, it is in Taunton. Musgrove Park hospital, the largest hospital in Somerset, draws in patients from across the county. Taunton therefore serves a much wider area and bigger population than its own.

Under the current arrangements, people from Taunton will be forced to go to one of four places in rough geographic proximity to the town to be interviewed for a passport. Those places are Exeter, Yeovil—the only one in Somerset, despite being only about two thirds the size of Taunton in population—Bristol or, perhaps, Barnstaple in Devon. According to the Government’s reckoning, people should be able to get to one of those centres within about 30 minutes following a journey of about 20 miles, but in this case it was thought reasonable to allow for a 40-mile journey and a journey lasting an hour rather than half an hour.

A theme to which I shall return is that Taunton falls between two stools. It is not a metropolis—it does not provide the ease of communication provided by London and other big cities—but nor is it a remote rural area like the highlands and islands of Scotland. It suffers as a result of falling between classifications according to the Government’s criteria.

When the 69 passport interview centres are introduced, people in Taunton may choose to go to the town nearest in straightforward mileage: Yeovil, whose population is 41,871, compared with Taunton’s population of 58,241. I apologise for all the figures that I am giving; they are necessary to illustrate my points, but I will try to keep them to a minimum.

Yeovil is 28 miles from Taunton, so a 56-mile round trip would be necessary. The Government estimate that the one-way journey takes 48 minutes by car. Some people in Taunton may prefer to take the 47-minute journey to Exeter, which, being 36 miles away, is slightly further from Taunton, but is slightly quicker to get to because it is on the motorway. In either event, people would make a 56-mile or a 94-minute round trip to reach the nearest interview centre—and that is by car. Many people do not have access to cars.

The bus journey from Taunton to Exeter takes about an hour and 20 minutes if there are no delays, while the bus journey to Yeovil takes about an hour and 15 minutes. Whether people can return to Exeter or Yeovil on public transport within a reasonable period will depend on the bus timetable, but it can safely be said that those who live in Taunton will have to take half a day off from their other duties and activities to travel to Exeter or Yeovil, or, if they prefer, to Bristol or Barnstaple.

Although Taunton is the largest town in my constituency, I also represent a number of other significant population centres. The second biggest is Wellington, with a population of 13,696. People in Wellington would have to travel 28 miles to Exeter, 34 miles to Yeovil and further still to Barnstaple or Bristol, but only seven miles to Taunton. Many people in Wellington work or shop in Taunton. It is routine for people in Wellington to travel to Taunton; it is not routine for them to travel to Exeter, Yeovil, Barnstaple or Bristol—but that is what the new arrangements will require them to do.

Another town in my constituency, Wiveliscombe, with a population of 2,670, is 11 miles from Taunton but, crucially, 29 miles from Exeter and 38 miles from Yeovil and Barnstaple. I say “crucially” because Exeter is, by the Government’s own reckoning, one hour and four minutes from Wiveliscombe by car. That is above the requirement that the Government set themselves for rural communities, let alone what I regard as reasonable for people living in the Taunton area.

I live in the borough of Taunton Deane, as do 102,298 other people. All those people would find it easier to go to a passport interview centre in Taunton than to a centre in any of the other towns. If Members envisage the number of people who would fit into the new Wembley stadium and then add 15,000 or so, perhaps standing on the pitch, they will have an idea of the population of Taunton Deane.

There are other towns outside the borough of Taunton Deane whose populations would also find it easier to go to Taunton than to travel further afield. North Petherton, with a population of 5,190, is only eight miles from Taunton, but its inhabitants will have to travel to Yeovil, which is much further away. Bridgwater, a sizeable town in Somerset and outside my constituency, is just 12 miles from Taunton and handy to get to on the motorway; it has 36,563 inhabitants, and they will have to travel much further—again to Yeovil—for their interviews. Like Yeovil, Chard is in the South Somerset district council area; it has a population of 11,730, but it is closer to Taunton than to Yeovil. In the Burnham and Highbridge area there are 18,922 residents; it is 19 miles from Taunton, which again is closer than the current nearest interview centre, which for them would be in Bristol. Minehead on the Somerset coast has approximately 10,000 residents; it is 24 miles from Taunton, so that is not handy, but it is 40 miles from Barnstaple, its nearest interview centre, which is one hour and 20 minutes away. That is way beyond the Government’s travel criteria.

The total population of those places is 82,405. Therefore, there are approximately 102,000 people in Taunton Deane, and approximately 82,000 in some of the significant-sized towns outside Taunton Deane, for whom travelling to Taunton would be more convenient than travelling to any of the current proposed passport interview centres. There are also many people in villages and rural hamlets outside Taunton Deane and outside those five towns who are nearer to Taunton than to any of the current proposed sites. Therefore, for a total of more than 200,000 people Taunton would be a more convenient and useful interview centre for passports than any of the mooted locations.

When I found out about the situation I wrote to the Home Secretary, and I received a response from Mr. Bernard Herden, the executive director of service planning and delivery at the Identity and Passport Service. First, he said that the plan had

“taken into account consultations with authorities and agencies responsible for sparsely populated areas”.

No consultations were held with the council covering Taunton and there were no consultations in surrounding constituencies within Somerset. There were consultations with areas such as the highlands and islands of Scotland, but I emphasise again that Taunton suffers from being neither a grand metropolis nor as remote as the islands off the west coast of Scotland, for example.

The second point that Mr. Herden made was that an effort had been made

“to strike a balance between keeping costs (and therefore fees) as low as possible while making journeys to interviews as short as possible”.

As I have said, travelling for 47 minutes by car—and a lot longer and further by public transport—to get to an interview is the bare minimum journey time for those in Taunton. Therefore, in my view that balance has not been struck, and more than 200,000 people, including many whom I represent, will also feel that it has not been struck.

Thirdly, Mr. Herden stated:

“In remote, sparsely populated areas…we are putting in place videoconferencing facilities”.

I suspect that the Taunton area is not regarded as sufficiently remote or sparsely populated to qualify for video-conferencing facilities, so we are again in the invidious position of falling between two stools: we are not big enough to meet the criteria met by a big city such as Bristol, but not small enough to be given special treatment.

Fourthly, Mr. Herden said that

“we considered both private and public transport”.

I am surprised by that, as 47 minutes by car—that is one way, and people are likely to want to come home afterwards—seems to me a substantial journey, but the journey by bus or train is likely to take a lot longer. Many people in my constituency do not have access to a private car, so for them, that mode of transport will be the reality.

Finally, Mr. Herden said in his letter:

“Each location has been selected as part of a mutually supporting network; no individual location can be changed without affecting the whole network.”

I do not accept that adding an office in Taunton would cause the collapse of the so-called network. It would increase choice and availability for more than 200,000 people.

I was not consulted about the proposal, but I would happily have run through some of the points that I have made tonight had someone asked me, as the parliamentary representative of the people of Taunton constituency. Nor, as far as I am aware, was there any consultation with Taunton Deane council or Somerset county council.

I do not seek the closure of any of the existing 69 centres, but because of the concerns and criteria that I have raised, the Government could reasonably look to include Taunton as a 70th centre. If that does not happen, people in my constituency will incur considerable personal cost in travelling to and from their passport interviews. That will also take up a considerable amount of their time. People come into Taunton, if they do not already live in the town, to work, to shop, to go to the bank and to take out insurance—all the everyday exercises. They could incorporate into that routine going to a passport interview centre, but instead they will have to spend at least half a day going elsewhere.

I have not estimated the cost to the environment, but there will be one if large numbers of people are required to drive substantial distances instead of visiting a passport interview centre in Taunton, which is not only the county town of Somerset but its largest urban centre.

I appreciate that many hon. Members seek to make representations to the Minister and her Department about what they perceive as unfair treatment of their constituents, but in this case there is a strong and compelling argument for Taunton to have a passport interview centre. It is a natural centre not only for people who live in the town, but for those who travel to it for work and other reasons. I urge the Minister to take my argument in the constructive spirit in which it is intended, and to consider whether it is possible to accommodate the requirements of the 200,000-plus people who live in and around Taunton and who would benefit from having a passport interview centre located in the county town of Somerset instead of having to travel further afield.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) on securing this debate and on the sterling job he has just done on behalf of his constituents. The Identity and Passport Service is introducing a number of counter-fraud initiatives as part of the continuing fight against attempted passport fraud and forgery. The changes are critical because of increasing attempted passport and identity fraud.

One of the most significant changes is to the passport application process for first-time adult passport customers. The change, which was first announced to Parliament in December 2004, is designed to help to stop fraudulent applications by improving the integrity and security of British passports.

The United Kingdom is currently one of the few western countries that do not require first-time passport applications to be made in person. The key benefits of the changes will be to help to fight passport fraud and forgery; to help to protect the UK public from identity theft; and to ensure that the British passport stays one of the most secure and respected in the world

The introduction of passport application interviews will mean that all adults applying for a passport for the first time must attend an interview with IPS in person to confirm their identity. The Identity and Passport Service is an appropriate name for what is a very good service. I stress that the changes do not currently apply to people wanting to renew their existing passport. The requirement for an interview will apply only to those adults who have never previously held a British passport in their own name. That is estimated to affect approximately 609,000 customers a year.

The interview process is normally expected to take about 30 minutes, including an interview of between 10 and 20 minutes. At the interview, customers will be asked basic information about themselves—not deeply private information, but information that only they will know and that can be checked to confirm that they are who they say they are. I should make it clear that people who apply for passports will not have to give any more information than they do now and that the application forms will be unchanged. The interview is not about gathering information and the information used in the interview will be deleted from IPS records shortly after the passport is issued. The requirement to attend an interview will be introduced gradually and I will make further information on that available in due course.

As the hon. Gentleman said, IPS is opening 69 local interview offices across the UK. The majority of customers will be within 60 minutes’ travel of an office from their home or workplace. The network of 69 offices has been designed to provide an interview office within 15 minutes’ travelling time via public or personal transport for just over half the population of the UK. More than 95 per cent. of the population will live within one hour’s travelling time.

The interview offices will not be new passport offices. They will be used only to conduct interviews and will not handle general inquiries or take delivery of passport applications. It is important for the hon. Gentleman to know that the interview offices will be open on Saturdays. I am conscious that he feared that constituents might have to have to give up a whole half-day once every 10 years, but in fact it is quite likely that that will not be necessary. Each day that an office is open, it will be open from 8 am to 6 pm, except for the seven smallest offices, which will open only two half-days a week.

Deciding the location of the new offices was a careful and painstaking task. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the offices were scattered. Perhaps that was just his way of referring to them, but I can assure him that deciding the location of the offices was not done in a throwaway manner. We needed to balance customers’ wishes for the lowest possible additional increase to the passport fee with their wishes for convenient locations. Customer research was carried out in March and April 2004 and in July 2005. The results of both surveys showed that the majority of respondents felt that a journey of approximately 20 miles or half an hour one way, once in 10 years, was reasonable. The research also identified that, as he said, in more rural parts of the UK that expectation increased to approximately 40 miles or one hour’s travel time.

The IPS used mapping software and census data to model an office network, which, over several months, was subjected to independent verification by a specialist company and local consultation with authorities that are responsible for more sparsely populated areas. The hon. Gentleman is right: we did not consult Taunton. But we did consult Cornwall county council, Devon county council and a whole list of others. The work that we did used a range of data from the 2001 census, including—this is an important point—information on the distribution of people aged 16 to 34, which is the age range when most adults apply for their first passport. That was broken down by local authority wards.

As I said, initially it is people who are applying for their first passport who will be subject to interview, so mapping where that section of the population live and their travel routes was crucial when deciding the location of the 69 offices. Journey-to-work data that show the proportion of people who use each mode of transport in different areas of the UK were also used. Those data were combined with data on travel costs and times to model journeys from a total of more than 220,000 population centres, of about 250 people each, to 264 potential locations. I think that the hon. Gentleman is aware that Taunton was included in the 264 potential locations. However, when we whittled the number down on the basis of the information to which I referred Taunton was not in the final 69.

The aim was to design a network that optimised the number of offices to minimise costs and maximise operational efficiency—for example, through lower fixed costs and overheads and greater staff flexibility to handle the peaks and troughs of demand—while selecting locations that maximised the proportion of UK residents who would need to travel no more than 20 miles to their nearest interview office. Not everybody will fall within that limit, and not everyone will be able to reach their interview office within the ideal time, but the overwhelming majority come within what we, and they, consider a reasonable time frame.

I understand the criteria and I realise that there cannot be offices everywhere. Inevitably, some people in remote rural communities will have to travel further, but will the Minister give an undertaking to put a pin on the map to show the location of each of the 69 centres? If she does so, she will see that Taunton is in a hole in the middle. It suffers from being quite near four centres, but falls between all of them, yet it is a sizeable population area to be in that predicament. Many other towns may fall into such black holes, but they are much less significant than Taunton.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I took seriously his correspondence with the Department and the agency and the points that I realised he would make this evening, so I brought with me the colourful map I am holding up, which shows all 69 centres. I made sure, too, that I availed myself of information about the distances from Exeter, Yeovil, Barnstaple and Bristol of Taunton, Bridgwater, Wellington, Minehead and Chard. Chard is only 21 miles from Yeovil, but apart from that the range is as the hon. Gentleman suggests and the distance between some places and Exeter, Yeovil, Barnstaple or Bristol is somewhat further than 20 miles. However, none of those distances is excessive.

I want to deal with some of the other points that the hon. Gentleman made. From the conclusions of the research and consultation, the IPS identified 69 locations that provided the right trade-off for efficiency, public travel expectations and the needs of sparsely populated areas. More than 82 per cent. of the population live within 20 miles of an office in the network, and more than 84 per cent. within a 30-minute journey. I accept that the hon. Gentleman is not talking about those areas, but the range of distances in the areas to which he referred is not unusual.

The IPS plans remote interview facilities—to which the hon. Gentleman referred—in 25 locations. Consultations with regional stakeholders are ongoing. Those facilities will accommodate the fewer than 0.7 per cent. of possible first-time passport customers who live more than an hour’s journey away from an interview office.

The hon. Gentleman requests that an office be located in Taunton and I understand why he and other Members want an office in their constituency, but we have to balance cost with the number of offices we can provide, so not every town can have an office. The purpose is to provide locations that meet the requirement for best travel times for all passport applicants in each part of the country. The geographical location of offices is designed to meet that requirement. Each location has been selected as part of a mutually supporting network, so changing one location would have a significant effect on the balance.

The measures are essential to protect our citizens from identify theft and to ensure that the British passport remains one of the most secure and respected in the world. We want to do everything we can to ensure that the service is as accessible, and at as efficient a cost, as it possibly can be. On the basis of that and an extensive mapping exercise, this is the solution—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-five minutes to Eleven o'clock.