asked Her Majesty's Government:
What access arrangements are being made to enable all passport applicants to attend obligatory personal interviews from the end of 2006.
My Lords, from the end of 2006 there will be a requirement not for all passport holders but, in the first instance, for all adult first-time applicants to attend for interview. A network of office locations for the interviews will be provided. It has been designed to strike the optimum balance between cost and ease of access. It will consist of 69 new offices, the locations of which can be announced when the current negotiations to provide them have been finalised. Different arrangements will be made for remote rural communities.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Many first-time applicants will be young people on a very limited income who will perhaps need to lose a day's work and incur considerable expense to get to a passport interview office. How will the Government assist them? Also, how much will the 69 new offices cost, and how much training will be given to the staff? What is the final total likely to be?
My Lords, I cannot answer the last part of the noble Lord's question. As I indicated in my Answer, it is important to finalise the negotiations on the new premises. However, the design process has been such as to balance the proper requirement to keep down the cost with keeping down the average distance for the vast majority of applicants. The figures that have been calculated demonstrate that the costs will not be significant because of the placement of the offices. The average cost of journeys will be in the very low pounds.
My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General tell the House what consideration was given to building on the Post Office's existing passport service before it was decided to seek private-sector support? I bear in mind the letter from the Communication Workers Union to Members of Parliament last month which referred to the,
My Lords, I do not have a copy of that letter, but I can tell the noble Viscount the position on the use of post offices. The Post Office, having originally bid, withdrew its bid for the work. It is important to note that the introduction of the interviews will not take anything away from the Post Office. First, passport applications will not be lodged at the new offices. Secondly, it will be necessary to have particular arrangements for the interviews to take place. Someone in a post office queue, for example, should not have to answer personal questions to prove that he or she is the person they are supposed to be. You would also need people who are trained. Granting a passport to this country is a job done by civil servants.
My Lords, to avoid people having to lose a day's pay while attending the passport office, would it be possible for those offices to be open later in the evening and above all on Saturdays?
My Lords, I am sure that that is a sensible thing to look at, though I certainly cannot give a commitment that it will happen. I should make it clear that the location of the offices has been designed such that the average travelling time for all one-way journeys is 19 minutes. It need not be the sort of exercise that will cause someone to lose a day's pay at all.
My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord reassure us that at the interviews the necessary biometrics will be taken from applicants, so that we ensure that in future there are no false passports? Modern technology makes false passports inexcusable.
My Lords, the Government agree absolutely with the thrust behind the noble Lord's question. We have to move towards biometric data, and we are already doing so with passports in which a chip will include that information. In the future, probably about 2009, we will move, as the European Union has agreed, to including fingerprint data as well.
My Lords, the Minister spoke of 19 minutes' travelling time. How would he advise someone living in Aberaeron or Aberystwyth to apply for a passport in person when the nearest passport offices are in Liverpool, which is 81 miles away, and Newport, another 81 miles away?
My Lords, in my original Answer I indicated that there would have to be particular arrangements for certain remote rural communities. There are not many people in that category, but a careful analysis has been done. Some of them are in north Wales. I am not sure whether they are in quite the place to which the noble Lord referred, but we can talk about that later. The arrangements are not yet settled, and work is going on. Consultation is taking place, including consultation with the Welsh Assembly and other agencies. The arrangements will be announced in due course.