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Passports: Interviews

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 12 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What progress has been made in the establishment of the 69 new passport and interview facilities and the facilities for applicants from remote areas.

My Lords, good progress has been made to establish the 69 passport interview offices: 21 interview offices have been delivered and provision of the remainder is on schedule; 454 staff have been recruited and a campaign to fill the remaining 151 positions has started. Positive and productive discussions have taken place with the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Executive, and work has started to agree locations for the remote communities service. Acceptance testing of the IT system to support the new offices is under way.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. On 24 April this year the Minister answered me by saying that iris scans and fingerprinting would not be introduced until 2008. That is only 15 months away. Do the Government still intend to introduce those measures in 2008? How will remote areas be able to have information on fingerprinting and iris scans by webcam?

My Lords, the second question is clearly more detailed and technical, and I should prefer to write to the noble Lord about it. It is our intention to meet our deadline. It needs to be remembered that the EU deadline for the inclusion of finger scans in passports issued by member states is mid-2009, and we intend to meet that deadline.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the new passport arrangements will not affect the business of post offices, particularly rural post offices?

My Lords, the current service operated by the Post Office will not be affected by the new arrangements.

My Lords, can the noble Lord say how many facilities there are in Scotland and where they are situated?

My Lords, I have a map of the new facilities in front of me. They are in Wick, Inverness, Aberdeen, Oban, Dundee, Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Berwick-upon-Tweed—that will no doubt serve both areas—Kilmarnock and Dumfries. If the noble Lady would like, I can provide her with even more detailed addresses.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that, desirable though more secure biometric passports are, it is perhaps even more important to improve the security of existing passports? What steps are in place to ensure that the passports of deceased persons are returned to the Passport Agency rather than being diverted to illegal use?

My Lords, the passport service takes fraud very seriously, which is why there is a plan to introduce biometric passports. The law governing the issuing and return of passports and abuses and breaches of the regulations is very clear, and a proper investigative facility is available to enforce the legislation as it exists. For good reasons, I would not want to go into more operational detail than that.

My Lords, the cost of a passport is already high and is likely to rise because of the biometrics that will be involved. Have the Government undertaken an impact assessment of the cost that will be involved, particularly for people who have to travel to an interview from a rural area?

My Lords, we have taken careful account of cost in establishing and building up the network of office locations. Our assessment is that fewer than 4,000 people in the more remote areas are likely to be more than an hour away from one of the new office locations. In most cases, people will be no further than 15 minutes or half an hour away from the new passport interview locations. We have taken careful account of the potential costs. We think that travel costs will probably be no more than roughly £3 or £4 for each individual which, when one considers the value of a passport, is a very small sum.

My Lords, how can we be assured that the IT systems that are being set up will not follow the same pattern as the systems provided for the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office’s Immigration Service?

My Lords, it would be fair to say that over the past few years the passport service has had a very good track record on the use of modern technology. I am sure that I am not alone in admiring the speed with which passport applications are processed and the way in which the administration works. As I indicated in my initial response, we are making sure that the IT for the new interview offices is properly tested and rigorously worked through before the scheme is implemented next year.

My Lords, how will the service work in Scotland’s four island groups? The locations that the Minister listed in response to the question asked by my noble kinsman are all very definitely on the mainland. How much do the Government regard it as reasonable for islanders to have to pay to get to one of these offices, bearing it in mind that the use of the ferry may well involve an overnight stay?

My Lords, I could have read out another list of the remote locations in the highlands and islands of Scotland, but I shall not. I am more than happy to provide the noble Earl with a full explanation of how the remote locations will operate with webcams so that the remote interviews can take place. I think that the noble Earl will be fairly satisfied with the arrangements that we have come up with.

My Lords, my noble friend referred to a map as far as Scotland is concerned. Does he have one for Wales?