Parliament: Home Affairs: Straw condemned for passport cost increases

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JACK STRAW was accused of "persecuting ordinary people" yesterday after he announced that passport fees will increase by pounds 7 to pounds 28 for adults and by pounds 3.80 to pounds 14.80 for children from next week.

The Home Secretary denied the extra charges were being introduced to pay for the emergency measures brought in this summer to tackle lengthy delays at the Passport Agency.

During a Commons statement, Mr Straw said that the increases would be used to fund a pounds 25m-a-year investment programme to improve the processing of applications and pay for a new regional passport office in the North- east, which will create 500 jobs in the area.

Ann Widdecombe, the Tory home affairs spokeswoman,condemned the plans, saying the "spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge" lived on at the Home Office.

But Mr Straw said the Passport Agency will be expanded to increase its capacity by 25 per cent and enable it to issue an additional 1.3 million passports each year.

"I understand that fees increases are never popular," he said. "However, the increase has been restricted to the minimum necessary to ensure that the crucial service improvements I have described today are delivered. I do not anticipate the need for any further increase in these fees for at least two years."

As well as opening the new regional office in Durham, the Government will expand the Peterborough passport office by 30 per cent, creating another 100 jobs. The London passport office will be relocated in spring 2001 to new premises in the capital, where there will be a "major improvement in facilities" for the public. A new call centre is being set up in Bristol, creating a further 60 jobs.

Apologising for the problems in the summer, when long queues of angry applicants formed outside passport offices, the Home Secretary stressed that all offices were currently processing applications in a maximum four working days. It would not be right to meet the cost of the special measures brought in over the summer, estimated at pounds 12.6m by the National Audit Office, he said. They would be met instead from efficiency savings.

From December 16, the fee for the 10-year adult passport will increase to pounds 28, the five-year child's passport will rise to pounds 14.80 and the fee for amending a passport will rise by pounds 6 to pounds 17. He said the cost of a British passport will still be below that of France, which charges pounds 74, and the US, which charges pounds 34.50.

However, Miss Widdecombe told the Home Secretary: "Stop persecuting the ordinary applicant for a British passport. These announcements will do nothing other than convince the average applicant that the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge lives on." It will cost a family of two adults and two children pounds 85 for their passports, a rise of pounds 21, she said. She also called on Mr Straw to consider sacking the Home Office ministers Mike O'Brien and Lord Bassam of Brighton for their part in the "fiasco" over issuing passports.

t The Tories will use today's second reading debate on the "dangerous" Freedom of Information Bill to call for a powerful Information Ombudsman and a greater role for Parliament in assuring openness.

Miss Widdecombe said that many clauses of the legislation amounted to "gagging clauses". "What it actually does is decrease the amount of information that is available and things that would not necessarily be secret, can be secret."

Many Labour backbenchers have also argued that the Bill does not go far enough.