To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their intentions regarding the future of passport personal interview offices.
My Lords, the interview forms part of the identity authentication process for first-time adult passport applicants and provides a deterrent against fraud. There are no current plans to alter the existing network of passport personal interview offices.
I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree that, when we have had 1.5 million interviews in the past five or six years and only 12 rejections, there is something wrong with this legislation? Does he also agree that it might be an opportunity for those involved with personal passport interviews and the UK Border Agency to talk together, and that some of the personnel and resources in the personal passport interview process could be deployed to strengthen the work of the UK Border Agency?
My Lords, I cannot confirm the precise figure that the noble Lord cites, but I can confirm that there are something of the order of a quarter of a million interviews a year. The noble Lord is right to say that very few are declined, but it is interesting to find that possibly about 1,000 people a year decide not to come to an interview when asked to do so. That might imply that their application was not quite as straightforward as it might have been. We think that these interviews are an important part of the authentication process, as did the previous Government, who brought this process in in 2006. As I said, we have no plans to change matters.
My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords will have read in the press over the weekend speculation about the Prime Minister’s views on student visas. Can the Minister give us any insight into how thinking is developing in this area?
My Lords, I fail to see what that has to do with the Question on the Order Paper, which, as the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition will know, is about passport personal interview offices. I recommend that she does not believe everything that she reads in the press.
The Minister will be aware that when you apply for a passport you have to have it countersigned by “a professional”. In my 30 years as a head, I have probably done 100 of these. No one has ever checked whether I am the person I am supposed to be. Can the Minister tell us how many people who countersign those passports are checked up on?
I cannot give my noble friend a precise answer, but I will certainly make sure that the appropriate checks are made on him before he signs any future applications to ensure that he is the noble Lord he purports to be.
My Lords, I return to the Question. What has been the cost of these 1.5 million interviews? Is it true that it has been in the nature of a third of £1 billion? Is it not time that we looked at this situation?
My Lords, there is a cost. That is why we made changes to the number of interview offices. As a result of that restructuring, we are achieving a saving of some £7.81 million a year. As I said in answer to the original Question, they are a very important part of the authentication process.
In view of some of the comments that have been made, can the Minister confirm that one of the fastest-growing crimes in this country is based on identity theft and that, in the midst of identity theft, one of the largest areas is the theft of people’s passports as an entry to identity, which then leads to further crimes, running from intervention in personal details through to bank accounts and right up to terrorism? While we are reminding ourselves of the costs of this, let us remind ourselves of its benefits as well.
The noble Lord makes a very valid point, and I suspect that he was Home Secretary at the time these changes were made in 2006. We support those changes, we stick by them and we have no plans to make any further changes.