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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): All the Nuclear Weapons States--including China--are committed to the determined pursuit of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons. We continue to press for further progress towards balanced and verifiable reductions, as we made clear in last year's Strategic Defence Review.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: The Foreign Secretary hopes to visit Tallinn on 26 July, when he will open the new British Embassy. During this visit he will meet Foreign Minister Ilves; Estonia's progress in European Union accession negotiations is expected to be one of the topics of discussion.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: The Government welcome Estonia's application to join the EU. Negotiations opened in March 1998. Estonia has opened 15 (of the 31) chapters of the acquis and provisionally closed about half of those. The Cologne European Council agreed to open all remaining chapters with the six countries in negotiations as early as possible next year. Estonia will be able to join the EU as soon as negotiations are finished and all member states have ratified the necessary amendments to the treaties. The EU has made financial provision for up to six new member states to join the EU between 2002-06 (Agenda 2000) but has not set target dates for accession. Nonetheless, the EU is committed to helping all applicants to join as soon as possible.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: We believe that there is nothing wrong in principle with the current selection procedures for judges to the European Court. Under Protocol 11, the selection of judges is a matter for the Parliamentary Assembly and therefore it is for the assembly to determine its own election procedures. To be effective, these procedures rely on member states putting forward high calibre candidates for selection. The Government have adopted an open and transparent procedure for the selection of candidates from the United Kingdom.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): I believe a reasonable time for the Passport Agency to process straightforward properly completed applications is 10 working days, which is the target the agency is currently working to.
In processing its current backlog of work to meet its customers' travel needs, the agency is prioritising applications by declared travel dates. This means there are delays in processing non-urgent work. The agency aims to reduce its turnaround time for straightforward properly completed applications to 10 days by September.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: The Passport Agency is taking a number of measures to reduce current delays in processing passport applications. It is prioritising applications received in the post and made in person by customers' declared travel dates, and is meeting these dates for 99.99 per cent. of passports issued. The agency is employing additional staffing resources, streamlining its examination processes consistent with the need to maintain the integrity and security of its issuing procedures, and working extended hours. In order to clear quickly straightforward renewal applications, certain existing passports are being extended for two years.
The agency is currently experiencing very high seasonal demand and this together with its focus on customers' declared travel dates means there are delays in processing non-urgent applications. The agency will continue to meet customers' travel dates throughout the summer and aims to reduce its turn-round time for straightforward applications to 10 days by September.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: The delays in processing passport applications have been caused by teething problems with the introduction of new computerised passport issuing arrangements which since early October 1998 have been piloted in the Liverpool passport office and from mid-November last year in the Newport passport office. The new system provides a new more secure passport, improved security and a better customer information system. But productivity from the new system has been lower than expected, and arrears of work have built up.
One of the measures the agency is taking to meet its customers' travel needs is to prioritise applications by declared travel dates. This inevitably means that non-urgent applications are taking longer to process.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: We have no plans to privatise the Passport Agency. There is already substantial private sector involvement in the agency's business through contracts with Siemens Business Services for the initial processing of applications, and the provision of a new computerised issuing system, and with Security Printing and Systems Ltd. for the personalisation and printing of the new more secure British passport. Establishing the eligibility of an applicant for a British passport remains a function of the Passport Agency. This is core state business, and full privatisation of the agency would not be appropriate.
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