Skip to main content

Newport Passport Office

Volume 517: debated on Monday 25 October 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Newmark.)

I am very grateful to have this opportunity to raise the issue of the Home Office’s proposed closure of Newport passport office. The campaign against the closure, led by the Public and Commercial Services Union and very well supported by the South Wales Argus on behalf of the workers, has united the whole community in Newport and is supported by MPs and AMs of all political parties, some of whom are here tonight. I am very grateful to those hon. Members who have stayed for tonight’s debate, which has started a little earlier than we expected, but their presence shows the strength of feeling. Most notably, the campaign is supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), in whose constituency the passport office resides.

Since the announcement that the passport office in Newport is in line to become the first major casualty of UK Government spending cuts, the city of Newport has united around the growing campaign against its closure. Three hundred workers attended the first meeting called by local union reps; more than 1,000 people attended a march and rally through Newport last week; and, in just two short weeks, more than 11,000 people have signed the South Wales Argus petition. If the Minister wants an indication of the strength of feeling in Newport, I am happy to present him with a subscription to the Argus, as I want him to be in absolutely no doubt about the fury in Newport over the decision.

The Identity and Passport Service announcement that the office could close has been badly handled, as well as being a disaster for staff and their families. Staff learned of the potential loss of their jobs from a civil servant who was sent as the bearer of bad news—not a Government politician in sight. The Secretary of State for Wales gave every impression at the time that she was not aware of the decision, although in a reply to a parliamentary question of mine she now claims that she was. That is all the more galling locally, as in her speech to the Tory party conference just a few short days before, she spoke of how the Ryder cup had put Newport on the map. We were hoping for an economic legacy from the Ryder cup, not an announcement a few days after the event that hundreds of people would lose their jobs.

The Prime Minister has made big play of the respect agenda. Does my hon. Friend not agree that by not telling anybody, not least Welsh Assembly Ministers, such behaviour proves that that agenda has been dropped in favour of disrespect?

I agree. We now see a culture of disrespect towards the Welsh Assembly Government, and I shall come on to that point.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing time for this very important debate. She has my party’s full support. The announcement is not only unjust and disrespectful, but unfair, because it came before last week’s cuts, which are deeper and worse for Wales than for the rest of the UK.

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely valid point, and I am extremely grateful for his support.

This cut is just one of a number that will affect Wales, including the cancellation of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, the cancellation of the electrification of the south Wales railway line and the cancellation of a prison for north Wales. Now, we have the cuts in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). Does that show a disrespect for Wales?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen a disgraceful list of cancellations in Wales, and that does show a complete disrespect for Wales.

I hope that the Minister will agree that the most important people in all this are the staff at Newport passport office and their families. Two years ago, when there was a rumour about the future of the passport office, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West and I initiated a meeting with the then passport Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). She was adamant in all her dealings with us that there should be a regional application passport office in each devolved nation. She also recognised that the staff at the Newport office did a fantastic job. In fact, she constantly praised them for what she called their can-do attitude, and for the fact that they were the regional office that always volunteered to do any pilot going. What message is sent to civil servants who strive for excellence in their jobs when they are rewarded with a decision like this proposed closure?

The previous Minister knew how good the Newport passport office is, but so do its customers, as it receives much favourable feedback from them for its fast and efficient service. I genuinely know how good that service is from personal experience when I had to get three passports at short notice last year. The staff tell me that in the past week they have dealt with customers from as far afield as Truro in the south-west, Harlow in the south-east, Scotland and Belfast, all of whom tried to get to a more local office but failed to get an appointment without waiting for two to three weeks.

My hon. Friend makes the very valid point that it is not only the people of Wales who are serviced by the Newport office. People from Bristol and much further afield in the south-west also rely on it, and they would have to make very long journeys to make passport applications if it were not there.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; she makes a valid point. People from the south-west come to Newport for its passport service, and it is much used. For example, travellers who have a problem with their passport when they arrive at Heathrow airport might be directed by staff to Newport because it is faster and more efficient than using the London office.

Given the work that staff have to put in to get the service right, why choose to close the Newport office? My constituents are not arguing that another office in another part of the country should be closed, but they want to know from the Minister why there are not calls for voluntary redundancies across the service to make this decision much fairer. I would be grateful if he could explain how his Department came to the decision to target the Newport office. Can he share with the House what case has been made internally, and make that information publicly available? If the closure were to go ahead, how much would it cost in short-term redundancy costs? Will he share with us the results of the economic impact study when it is available?

The feeling in Newport is that this decision has been taken at the stroke of a pen—that it is easier for the Department to close just one of the seven offices instead of looking at other options. Staff tell me that the IPS has a history of making short-term decisions which then have to be reversed. In Glasgow, the postal production service was removed, only for the IPS to have to reinstate it because demand was too great and it had reduced staffing to inadequate levels. Given the real hardship that this decision will cause, will the Minister re-examine this case for closing Newport, bearing in mind that history of the IPS running down capacity and then having to reverse decisions?

I am told that when staff were informed by the chief executive why they were about to lose their livelihoods, some of the reasons cited were that the windows were single-glazed and that the floor was of the wrong type. If part of this decision is to do with the office being old and unsuitable, what discussions has the Minister had with the local authority about doing a deal over more suitable premises and thereby cutting costs in that manner?

Does my hon. Friend think, like I do, that the real reason the Newport passport office is being closed is not that it has the wrong type of windows but that Newport has the wrong type of political party—that is, it is represented by Labour MPs, not Conservative MPs?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point and thank him for making it.

Putting people out of work is not something that should ever be done without absolutely every alternative having been examined. In this case, the evidence for that has not been supplied to me, to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West or to the unions, and that is not acceptable.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in addition to the loss of service to the people of Wales, it makes absolutely no economic or environmental sense to be centralising offices rather than keeping them in a large number of geographical locations?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend about the need to spread jobs across the country, which was certainly the policy of the previous Government.

If the office were to close, as well as the effect on people’s lives and families, it would have a devastating effect on Newport, where traders are already reeling from the loss of shops, with major high street retailers Marks and Spencer, Next and Monsoon leaving the city centre. The passport office employs more than 250 people right in the heart of the shopping centre. Their custom supports other local businesses, and people who travel to Newport to get their passports often spend the four-hour wait shopping. The loss of this office would leave a gaping hole in the centre of the city. Why does the Minister believe that the private sector is going to step in and provide enough jobs to cover the job losses given that some of the private sector is leaving the city centre as well?

It is a bit ironic that the heads of both Marks and Spencer and Next signed the letter to the Chancellor last week urging cuts and suggesting they were up to the job of filling the gap. It does not bode well for the future that they do not practice what they preach, given that they are leaving our city centre. In fact, that is a case in point of the division between the private sector and the public sector being false. Private businesses have much to lose if the jobs in question are lost in the city centre, and that is precisely why people in shops and businesses are joining the marches and signing the South Wales Argus petition. They want to keep the city centre alive.

Although it is disappointing that very few Conservative MPs are supporting us in our campaign, it is encouraging that Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on Newport council and in the Welsh Assembly are united in opposing this foolish move. Is it not encouraging that there are moves by Newport council to suggest alternative premises? The state of the premises seems to have been a factor in the decision, but now there is new information that there might well be alternative premises available that will destroy the case for the minute savings that the move would make.

I thank my hon. Friend. The cross-party support is very encouraging, and we very much welcome the Tory-Liberal Democrat council’s moves to consider alternative premises, which might be the answer.

May I ask the Minister to comment on why the Welsh Assembly Government were not even told that they were going to lose the passport office? As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) asked, how does it bode for the Government’s culture of respect for the devolved nations if the Government in Cardiff bay are not consulted?

Much has been said about Wales being left as the only country in Europe without a passport office. I know the Minister will argue that there will be a small office in Newport employing 45 staff. Given the strength of feeling that exists, the Government have been forced to make that decision, but they cannot expect people in Newport to be hugely grateful for 45 jobs when 200-plus will still go.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on making such a passionate and constructive case on behalf of the facility in Newport. Does she agree that the previous Government’s policy of taking jobs out of high-value areas and devolving them to areas where services could be delivered at better cost would be a good one to put forward in the consultation period that is about to take place?

That is an extremely good point, and of course Newport benefited from jobs in the Office for National Statistics, the Patent Office and the Prison Service.

I say respectfully to the Minister that the small office that is planned for Newport is not enough, and nobody in Newport is taken in by it. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, the former Minister, was adamant that Wales must have its fair share of jobs and that the passport service must be a truly UK service. Is the Minister 100% certain that 45 staff can service all the emergency passport demand in Wales, the west country and parts of the west midlands, not to mention the cases from further afield that I mentioned earlier?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who is a real friend on this matter. She has got to the heart of it—it is about fairness, and an implicit part of a fairness agenda must be a meaningful dialogue with the National Assembly. I am afraid that has not happened.

It has not, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point.

Let us be clear: what is being offered is the loss of the regional passport application centre and its replacement with an interview office. That would be a downgrading of the service, which leads me to my final point. Staff and the PCS have real concerns that if the proposals were to go through, reduced staffing would make the passport a less secure document. British passports are regarded as the most secure in the world, and the basis of that confidence is the integrity and skills of the staff involved. The loss of staff will mean that the work will have to done by fewer people, and there will be an inevitable impact on customer service and security. Is the Minister really confident that the loss of jobs will not have an impact on security?

Only this weekend, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said that people from the valleys should get on a bus to find work. Perhaps the Minister could tell us what town he is expecting the people of Newport to get a bus to if he proceeds with this proposal.

Does my hon. Friend agree that that remark about people getting a bus to work was outrageous, not least because in Blaenau Gwent, not very far from Newport, there are seven people chasing each job?

It was an outrageous remark. Hon. Members are here in numbers tonight precisely because their constituents do get on a bus to Newport, to work at the passport office. I hope that the Minister understands that this is not just a paper exercise; it is about people’s lives. The workers at Newport passport office deserve to have the Government consider their plans in depth during the consultation period and change their mind.

I understand why the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) has chosen the debate, and she is to be congratulated on securing it. Given her reputation, I would expect her to defend her constituents as passionately as she has done tonight.

What I can do most usefully is disentangle the emotion from the facts, because although some of what the hon. Lady said was undoubtedly valuable, some of it was misleading, and some of her colleagues’ interventions frankly suggest that they do not understand the Identity and Passport Service proposals for Newport. It is important to hold the debate on a factual basis and, indeed, on the basis of the previous Government’s actions towards other passport offices. The IPS has been contracting its network of regional offices for some years.

I met the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) last week. I was surprised when she said that she did not have any information because, as she and the hon. Gentleman know, I handed her the internal working document that the IPS used as the basis of its action. She asked for those details tonight but, as she knows, she was given them last week.

The Minister will recall from that meeting that we expressed some dissatisfaction with the idiot’s guide to the decision that we were given, and we questioned many of its conclusions, although we had only a brief time to look at it. We asked whether we could see the full report on which it was based, but no assurance was given that we would have it. Indeed, I suggested that we might need a freedom of information request to get it. Will the full report on which the decision was based be made available and put in the Library?

I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets the available information, because I acknowledge his concern and that of the hon. Lady about the impact of job losses on the staff, their families and the local community. As the hon. Lady knows, I have met the leader of Newport council to hear his views. Of course, a proposal to lose 250 jobs has not been made lightly.

The Identity and Passport Service has long recognised that its greatest asset is its reputation, and IPS employees make a significant contribution to that, as reflected in the high levels of public satisfaction with the delivery of passports and civil registration. The Identity and Passport Service has a reputation for quality of delivery, which is achieved by those who work for the agency across the UK.

The service is paid for through the passport fee, which covers the cost of the domestic passport service and consular services overseas for British citizens. Passports have to be delivered within the fee structure and be available to the public at an economic rate. When efficiencies can be made through better working, they should be—indeed, they must be. That is why in 2008, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), to whom the hon. Lady referred, closed the application processing centre in Glasgow, with the loss of 124 staff. The Glasgow office currently retains a premium and fast-track service, but the processing centre work was absorbed by other regional centres. I cannot emphasise enough that that is exactly the same proposal that the Government are making for the Newport office. All the rhetoric about respect and the Government’s somehow picking on the people of Newport or of Wales is wrong.

The hon. Gentleman has had his chance, I have not got much time and he has already made many points. I hope that he can contain himself for the moment.

There is absolutely no disrespect to the people of Newport or of Wales. Hon. Members know about the country’s economic position and the new Government’s terrible inheritance. That is why we are having to make such decisions. It would be entirely inappropriate for the passport fee to subsidise the IPS if it were or would knowingly be over-staffed or operating with excess capacity. However, that is the situation that the IPS faces. In the case of the five remaining passport application processing centres in the UK, at Belfast, Durham, Liverpool, Peterborough and Newport, an operational review was carried out by the IPS in the light of the planned programme of efficiencies to be achieved within the next 18 months. The review identified that meeting those efficiencies by spring 2012 and beyond would result in excess capacity of around 350 staff and some 25% of the IPS estate. Therefore, cuts do have to be made.

That is simply not true. The IPS has already lost around 100 jobs at headquarters through efficiencies and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it is making cuts across all regional offices. In addition, the IPS has already reduced some excess capacity across the network through voluntary redundancies. The announcement at Newport reflects the need for the passport fee to pay for the delivery of a service and not for surplus posts or excess office accommodation.

The Minister says that cuts are being made right across the board in the IPS, but surely he sees that one fundamental difference is that Wales will be the only country left in the UK without a passport office. That is a fundamental difference, whatever the cuts made elsewhere.

That would be a fundamental difference if it were true, but it is fundamentally wrong. It is false, and the hon. Gentleman is misleading people if he is saying that Wales will be left without a passport office. There will still be a passport office for people to go to in Newport. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said that people travel from the south-west of England to go to the Newport passport office, and they will still be able to do so. I have read many recent editions of the South Wales Argus, with pictures of people holding placards saying, “Wales mustn’t lose its only passport office”. I am happy to assure not just the people of Newport, but the people of Wales that Wales is not losing its passport office, and it is simply misleading for hon. Members to keep repeating the falsehood that it is.

I recognise that this is a difficult time for many people, and I appreciate that many members of staff working in passport offices up and down the country have contributed to the success of the passport operation. That is why the IPS carried out an objective assessment of its UK operation, to establish how to respond to the excess capacity. A comparative assessment was made of the five centres to determine how best to achieve a better, more efficient service for all existing and future passport holders. The assessment was based on the criteria of cost, affordability, estates, people, customers, partners, performance and operational feasibility.

The primary consideration lay in the ability of the agency to achieve the right level of efficiencies, while retaining sufficient operational capacity to maintain the current high level of service. The assessment had to consider whether an application processing centre could be closed without the need to recruit additional staff back into the remaining offices. Achieving the savings through efficiencies was a key criterion, but it had to be demonstrated in the assessment that savings would be sustainable and would not simply reappear as a future cost to the IPS during periods of peak demand. As I think the hon. Member for Newport East knows, I have undertaken to carry out a full impact assessment, in line with the requirements of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I note in passing that such an assessment was not published at the time of the Glasgow closure.

I appreciate that the hon. Lady will consider Newport to be a special case that should receive special consideration. I would expect hon. Members in constituencies across the UK to consider jobs in their constituencies similarly to merit special consideration. However, the IPS applied the same economic criteria to all areas, for two reasons: first, to ensure consistency and fairness; and secondly, because the IPS is a UK-wide service and requires an operational structure that ensures the highest standards of delivery and service for all its customers, in all parts of the United Kingdom. The IPS has identified the Newport passport application processing centre as the main potential candidate for closure by using an evidence-based approach. The closure would be achievable at the lowest cost, and would represent the most favourable net present value and enable the IPS to retain sufficient operational capacity after closure without the need to recruit staff to back-fill into other offices. The IPS is looking to achieve the necessary staff reductions while avoiding compulsory redundancy wherever possible. That is why, in the case of Newport, the IPS is working with the Wales Office and other Departments to help to identify opportunities elsewhere.

I repeat, in the hope that hon. Members will accept this salient fact, that the proposed restructuring of the regional application processing centres does not mean that Wales will be the only devolved nation without a regional office. The IPS will retain a customer service centre in Newport to service south Wales and the south-west, employing up to 45 people to provide a counter service and with the ability to deal with applicants in the Welsh language. That will cater for the 47,000 people a year who use the current Newport regional office and also provide capacity for 7,000 interviews. The service proposed for Newport after spring 2012 will be similar to the services currently in place at the IPS offices in Glasgow and London.

The point was made strongly to me by the Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan)—as it was by the hon. Member for Newport East—that shops in the centre of Newport have been closing and that there is a threat to the town centre. The footfall of those 47,000 people who visit the passport office is therefore essential to give some hope to the shops that remain in the town centre and to the town centre’s continuing regeneration. I found that argument very persuasive from my right hon. Friend and from the hon. Lady, and that is why I have decided that that office should stay in Newport. It could be moved to somewhere else in Wales; that would fulfil the criteria desired by other Opposition Members that Wales retain a passport office, and I could obviously do that without retaining it in Newport. Given the particularly difficult circumstances that Newport has faced, however, I think that it is right to retain the customer service centre there, and that is what we intend to do.

Obviously, this will be of little comfort to the hon. Lady’s constituents and those of the hon. Member for Newport West who might lose their jobs through the closure of the Newport passport application processing centre, but the decision reflects the importance that the IPS attaches to providing a service to passport applicants and holders across the UK. I am afraid that the IPS simply has excess staff capacity in its application processing and interview office networks of around 350 full-time equivalents. It has excess physical capacity of approximately 25% across the whole application processing estate, and excess staff capacity of about 150 full-time equivalent jobs and 39 local offices across the interview office network. That is why what is happening in Newport is not the only reduction that the IPS is having to go through. It is having to make cuts across all its regional offices and across the interview centres as well.

The IPS has begun a formal 90-day consultation period with the trade unions. It began on 19 October, and we will provide the unions with extensive background information on the decision to close the Newport processing centre. We are also looking into whether that information can be made public before the end of the consultation period. To answer another specific question, the IPS will be producing a full impact assessment, which will include an assessment of the economic impact of the loss of approximately 250 jobs. Home Office economists will support the IPS with that analysis.

We will seek to include as part of the assessment the impact of job losses on a local area, but that might not be specific to the economic environment in Newport. The IPS has conducted its closure analysis as an operational task, and to include in the analysis the effect on a specific local area, we would need to conduct a local economic impact assessment on all five application processing centres. Clearly, that is not a function for the IPS.

IPS officials are continually offering meetings to the First Minister and to local council officials in Newport. As I have said, I have already met the local council leader.

May I ask the Minister why he did not consult the Welsh Assembly Government before taking this decision?

As I say, we have started a consultation period, but, regrettably, as so often happens, for some reason somebody chose to announce this before all the consultations had properly taken place. The hon. Member for Newport West had asked for a meeting with me and I had agreed to meet him in the intervening period. As he knows, however, the BBC and various other journalists got hold of the date for the start of the consultation process. These things happen, and it is very unfortunate—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).