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Viscount Tonypandy: My Lords, is the Minister aware that although the passport is merely a symbol it is a symbol of our nationality and most British people did not understand that a signature had been given to prevent our being able to present a passport? What objection can there be to our having the choice of a British passport or the European one? Will that offend Europe?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is important for me to stress that it is a British passport. We have adopted a common format but it remains a British passport and it remains available only to bona fide British citizens.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the whole concept of a supra-European state and a federal Europe is a dead duck and that all this business of tinkering about with the form, shape, colour and content of our passports is a hopeless irrelevance? Most people in the United Kingdom, including Members opposite, will be quite content with the authority, prestige, and honour of holding a British passport.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am happy to agree with the noble Lord and say that I hope a supra-national federal state is a dead duck, and long may that be the case. On the second point, I think perhaps there is some logic in having a common passport across Europe so long as the passport allocated within member states remains a passport for the nationals in that member state. That is the case with the particular passport we are discussing. It is a British passport available only to British subjects.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: My Lords, is the Minister aware that an even greater Labour British patriot than the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, Mr. Ernest Bevin, said that his object was to be able to go from Victoria Station without a passport of any sort to where the hell he pleased? Is that not more likely to be achieved by co-operation than by chauvinism?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, much has been done to allow freer movement of British nationals across the European continent but I have to make the caveat that we are also concerned about the security of our borders.

Lord Elton: My Lords, is not a principal advantage of the common format that while preserving the identity of the British passport it enables that passport to be read quickly by a machine anywhere in the Union and eventually in most parts of the world? Are not the

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advantages of that transparently honest once one has queued at a Greek or other frontier post with an old-fashioned passport?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. The passports we are discussing are machine-readable. That will help enormously not just as regards the example my noble friend gave but also in helping to speed things up at airports.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, is the Minister aware that some of us do not think that passports are the same since they were introduced by the words, "We, Ernest Bevin"? More seriously, the important information in a passport is contained inside the back cover. Why should not the back cover simply be reversed so that the information is outside and is available without the complicated opening procedure we have now?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, that is a suggestion I have never heard. As always after responding to Questions in the House, I take good ideas back to my right honourable friends. I suspect that the reason given may still be technical and that the back of the passport has a type of cover which makes it difficult to expose the contents of the passport. I shall nevertheless report the information provided by the noble Lord to my right honourable friend.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords—

Noble Lords: Cross-Benches!

Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, I am not used to this self-regulating Chamber. As the Minister is in the process of receiving positive ideas, will she look at the passport document from the point of view of its already multilingual nature and consider positively whether it is now time to include all official languages within the United Kingdom in the version of the passport now available?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I report any ideas wholly without prejudice to the outcome. I find it difficult to accept the suggestion of the noble Lord; nevertheless I shall make sure that my right honourable friend hears about it.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, if titles cannot be put on the front of passports, what is the position with regard to knights, baronets and dames?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, there has been a concession to that end—not on the front of the passport but on the page that contains the basic fundamental data—that titles can be included in a shortened form and that somewhere else in the passport the full title can be printed for observational purposes.

Lord Hanson: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is little enough "feel-goodness" about the European Union as it is and that what has been proposed would be a positive concession to those of us who value, as the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, said, everything that is British from the Union Jack to the traditional blue passport? We enjoy demonstrating, when abroad, our pride in being British. We should consider this measure

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and not just pass it over for reasons of machine reading or any other. It is possible for that to be done; it is not difficult. I ask my noble friend the Minister to consider the matter seriously on behalf of all of us here who seem to have strong feelings on the subject.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I understand the nostalgia for the blue passport; in fact, my own blue passport still has one more year to run. I understand the points being made, but we are party to an international agreement and we signed up to the common format. I believe that the noble Lord makes an impractical suggestion. Nevertheless I shall report his suggestion to my right honourable friend.

Lord Whaddon: My Lords, does the noble Baroness appreciate that while the information given on the inside back cover may be adequate for a computer reading, it is utterly useless for anyone such as a passport officer who wishes to address the holder with normal courtesy? To know that the holder is, "Mary Brown, female", is quite useless for that purpose. Can the matter not be considered further?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, there has been an agreement not to include prefixes. I note what the noble Lord says, but I understand that we have agreed that prefixes should not be included.

Lord King of Wartnaby: My Lords, may I make a comment about this? I find myself in complete agreement with the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, as on so many other occasions. I have presented my passport to a number of immigration officers—

Noble Lords: Question!

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will realise that we are running out of time and there are two more Questions to go. Will he put a question to the House rather than a statement? As the noble Lord will be aware, that is our procedure.

Lord King of Wartnaby: My Lords, it is a pity because the statement was rather good. Can we get back to having a decent passport such as the blue one that I still have? That is very important. We trade in every country in the world. When the immigration officer sees it, he recognises it as being of some value and having some identity. This little red notebook is depressing.

Baroness Blatch; My Lords, there can be no return to the old blue passport.

Small Business: Bank References

3.20 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they consider that the promotion and encouragement of small businesses is assisted by the present arrangements for obtaining bank references.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Earl Ferrers): My Lords, the Government recognise the vital role which small businesses play in the

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economy of the country and are firmly committed to supporting them. The style and the content of individual bank references must be a matter for the bankers and their customers.

Lord Stanley of Alderley: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Does he accept that the present mealy-mouthed and anodyne, to the point of misleading, bank references given nowadays mislead small businesses and lead them into serious debt? Bearing that in mind, will he consider whether the Government would be prepared to review the present system of credit references?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that some bank references can be, as he puts it, mealy-mouthed but, of course, banks have a duty to their customers as well as to the inquirers. Banks are expected to make the meaning as clear as possible within certain confines. I remember an occasion when my father was asked to give a reference for someone who had been found stealing. He said that, although the doctor said that he should not lift heavy articles, he was quite good at lifting light articles. Sometimes a degree of interpretation is required. However, businesses which wish to obtain information about customers can also use credit reference agencies, to which my noble friend referred.


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