|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 15th November 2010|
Future of the Newport Passport office
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Wednesday 10 November 2010
Alan Brown, Paul McGoay, Anne-Louise McKeon-Williams and Councillor Matthew Evans
Damian Green MP and Sarah Rapson
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
David T.C. Davies (Chair)
Susan Elan Jones
Witnesses: Alan Brown, IPS Group Secretary, Public and Commercial Services Union, Paul McGoay, IPS Group President, Public and Commercial Services Union, Anne-Louise McKeon-Williams, IPS Wales & South West Branch Secretary, Public and Commercial Services Union, and Councillor Matthew Evans, Leader, Newport City Council, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Good morning. Thank you very much indeed for coming here this morning. My name is David Davies. I am Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. I know one of the panel extremely well, but for the record perhaps you could introduce yourselves.
Alan Brown: My name is Alan Brown. I am the Group Secretary of the Identity and Passport Service Group of PCS-the Public and Commercial Services Union.
Anne-Louise McKeon-Williams: I am Anne-Louise McKeon-Williams. I am the Branch Secretary for the Newport office.
Paul McGoay: I am Paul McGoay. I am the Group President of PCS, IPS.
Councillor Matthew Evans: My name is Matthew Evans. I am the Leader of Newport City Council.
Chair: Thank you and welcome. I will begin the questioning straight away with Jessica Morden.
Q2 Jessica Morden: Perhaps I should start off by saying that I am the constituency MP for Newport so I should declare an interest. Could we just start with how the decision about the proposed closure of the Newport office was made? This is to all of you-was it expected or did it come as a bolt out of the blue?
Alan Brown: It is something that management and IPS had been speaking to us around the so-called "need for cuts", which the PCS don’t accept. We think that the IPS is an organisation which brings money into the Government coffers. If you take out the £57 million that was spent on consultants in the year before last, it actually makes money for the Government, so we do not accept that there was a need for the cuts or for office closures.
Management had been talking to us about the closure of the regional office and the majority of the interview office network offices and they were due to do that on 14 October, I think the date was. However, there had been some sort of leak which management initially seemed to imply that PCS were responsible for, but have since accepted that we were not.
For the people of Newport and the members in Newport, it was a bolt out of the blue. It came on Friday 8 October and we had members who effectively were being told that their jobs were going and were left in tears in effect with the announcement that was made on that day.
Q3 Jessica Morden: Who delivered that news to you and how do you feel about how the announcement was handled?
Alan Brown: We had been contacted by the BBC on the morning of the 8th. They said that they had two sources from the Home Office who had confirmed that there was going to be the announcement of the closure of the Newport office and they asked if we wanted to comment. We were not in a position to comment on any of that. I understand that management locally, in fact the Chief Executive, Sarah Rapson, went down on the Friday to the office in Newport and made an announcement to staff then.
She subsequently had a meeting with all members of staff on the Monday at which ourselves-PCS-were present; I and Anne-Louise, as part of the branch leadership, and Paul, as the Group President, were present. To be perfectly honest, she was given a very hard time from members there because of the effect it would have on them as individuals, on the community and on the service generally for not just south Wales but also for south-west England as well. That is how the announcement was made.
Q4 Jessica Morden: Do you think it is quite extraordinary in a way that it is a civil servant who is delivering the bad news about this size of job cuts, rather than a politician fronting up that announcement?
Alan Brown: To be honest, that is something that has been quite extraordinary. You would think that it is a political decision. Civil servants, yes, they deliver news, but the decision is made not by civil servants; it is made by Ministers. The fact that it seemed to be a civil servant who was left to carry the can and to deliver that news was quite extraordinary. In fact, for quite some time afterwards, it seemed to be civil servants that were left to defend the decision, which we do not think is defensible in the first place. In terms of quotes in the press, etc., it seemed to be civil servants and the chief executive who were left to make that decision and to defend that decision.
Q5 Jessica Morden: Do you accept the IPS rationale for why the office should close in terms of the ID cards going and operational improvements and, I understand, in terms of the Newport office having the wrong kind of floor and windows?
Alan Brown: That was one of the most bizarre documents that we have seen, with the wrong type of windows-leaky windows-and solid floors, I think was what they said. As Matthew will probably tell you, the council had been in discussions with the IPS about providing alternative accommodation in Newport.
But we certainly do not accept the need for the office to close. In fact, we were at a meeting yesterday as part of the 90-day consultation, where in one meeting we were told by IPS management that there are 50 excess jobs at the moment across the whole of IPS as a result of ID cards going and the second generation of biometric passports being scrapped. What they are saying is 50 of those are going.
As a result of internet applications, they are now saying they have now reviewed and renewed their figure for internet applications because of a new computer system that is coming in. They are saying that over the next few years they expect 45% of applications to be made online via the internet. They have said that is going to be responsible for the 300 excess jobs, which is the Newport office.
But we went into a second meeting yesterday afternoon during which management then said that the internet and the new system they are bringing in has been scaled back somewhat because of parliamentary cuts, because of Government cuts, and, therefore, there will be absolutely no savings as a result of applications being made online. In fact, what they are actually doing is separating the application from people having to provide their passports etc., so it just doesn’t make any sense.
Q6 Chair: Thank you very much. It is very important evidence. Are you telling us that you have been told there will be no savings as a result of this?
Alan Brown: Yes.
Chair: Thank you for that. I know this is very important, but perhaps, if I may just suggest, we ought to try and be as quick as we can with the questions and answers because there are quite a few.
Q7 Jessica Morden: One final question then. Do Newport process any of the ID cards work at all at an office, and would you think it is true to say that there might be a history in the past of IPS making short-term decisions that you then have to reverse?
Paul McGoay: Most definitely. If you look at 1999 when we had the major passport crisis, the cause of that crisis was that IPS, or UK Passport Service as it was then, had been running down staffing not through job cuts but through attrition. A new computer system was then introduced, and as a result of the tight staffing that they had, when the system went belly-up basically, they could not deal with the backlogs that were created because they did not have enough staff or capacity to do so.
We had a similar thing around Glasgow in 2008; they took postal production out of the Glasgow site, with the loss of 150 jobs, albeit with no compulsion. They were voluntary redundancies in the end. The rationale then, as now, was, "Oh, we have to improve efficiency and so forth. We have too much excess capacity in terms of staffing."
Over the last couple of years, they have had to put postal production back into the Glasgow site, utilising the remaining staff there. That has had a detrimental effect on the service because it has meant that they have had to shut down the main counter in Glasgow at least two days a week in the peak periods to bring the counter staff back to examine the postal work. We were told at the time in 2008 never will Glasgow have postal work again. So they have a history of short term, knee-jerk decisions.
Q8 Chair: Thank you, Mr McGoay. Just out of interest, which civil servant was it that told you there would be no savings, because I think we might want to take that up with the Minister later?
Alan Brown: I will just get my notes from yesterday. I will come back to that if that’s okay.
Chair: Don’t worry. In the meantime, I will bring in Alun Cairns to ask questions.
Q9 Alun Cairns : Thank you. Mr Brown, or any of your colleagues, I want to come back to the announcement because that was Ms Morden’s first question. It was extremely important in terms of how the news became public because it did not treat the staff with the respect that they deserve in terms of the consultation. I know that you said that you had a call from the BBC that morning about it. Some have suggested that the unions were responsible for leaking it. Is that true or not?
Alan Brown: Not at all.
Paul McGoay: Not at all. The BBC journalist we spoke to-it was Alun who spoke to him-told us that the leak had actually come from somewhere in the Home Office.
Alan Brown: He said that it was two separate sources from the Home Office who had given the information.
Q10 Guto Bebb: As a north Wales Member, some of my constituents have asked me why I am involved in an inquiry into the Newport Passport Office. Could you confirm that currently all applications made in Wales, from an address in Wales, are actually processed by the Newport office?
Anne-Louise McKeon-Williams: That is correct.
Q11 Guto Bebb: That is correct. Therefore, the question then is: why would you argue that Wales does actually need a separate passport office?
Paul McGoay: Why would we argue?
Q12 Guto Bebb: Would you argue that Wales does need a separate passport office?
Paul McGoay: We would, yes, and other vital services are provided from that office as well, like the Welsh language provision and so forth. So, yes, we would.
Q13 Guto Bebb: In the same way, would you confirm that the Newport office deals with every single Welsh language applicant for a passport?
Paul McGoay: Currently, yes.
Anne-Louise McKeon-Williams: Currently, Welsh language, but some of the applicants, if they want to process their application-say if they lived in Wrexham-quite quickly, but an English application, then they could go to the Liverpool Passport Office. The majority of Welsh applications or all Welsh applications will be processed in Wales and if you need Welsh language provision that will be done in Newport.
Q14 Guto Bebb: What sort of discussions have you had in terms of the proposal to close Newport, which would provide that service in the future? Have you had any indication that those issues have been considered?
Paul McGoay: As far as we can tell, no. They came back shortly after the announcement, as you will be aware, and said that there would be a customer service centre in Newport. That was announced a couple of days after the first announcement, after a meeting between Sarah Rapson and the Minister for Wales. As far as we can tell, that customer service centre will only involve basically taking in applications. It is likely that applications will be processed, once they are taken in from that office, elsewhere. Recently, a manager went into the Newport office and said to some staff there and people on the trade union side that it would be very unlikely that there would be the same-day premium service provided from that customer service centre.
I don’t think IPS management have given any real consideration to the impact of these plans on Wales. I think they are engaged in a short-term cost-cutting exercise. That was clear during some of the preliminary discussions we had when they were looking at various offices and things like that, and they were talking about Newport. We said, "Have you considered the political implications of this, and the economic implications, given the state of the economy in south Wales, in particular, and the likely reaction of the Welsh Assembly and Welsh MPs?" The response was as simple as this. It was, "That’s a matter for the Minister. Nothing to do with us."
To answer your question, we have not had many constructive discussions around service provision in that regard because I think they are simply bent on closing the office.
Q15 Guto Bebb: Just to finally press you on that issue as well, in addition to the fact that obviously there is the threat of closure to Newport, is it also the case that the regional offices currently serving people in Wrexham, people in Aberystwyth and so forth, are also under threat?
Paul McGoay: You mean the interview offices?
Guto Bebb: Yes.
Paul McGoay: Yes, they are. They are due for closure.
Q16 Guto Bebb: Due for closure. So, in other words, we will end up in a situation where there will be no provision apart from the counter service in Newport?
Anne-Louise McKeon-Williams: That is correct.
Q17 Guto Bebb: North Wales will end up going back to Liverpool, I suspect?
Paul McGoay: That is right.
Anne-Louise McKeon-Williams: That is correct.
Chair: Can I bring Councillor Evans in?
Councillor Matthew Evans: Thank you very much, Chairman. From a political perspective, with regard to the announcement itself, I was in the office on the Friday afternoon and we had a tip-off, sadly, from the local paper, the South Wales Argus, stating that this announcement would be made. It came completely out the blue from our perspective.
We found it even more irrational, I suppose, due to the fact that being a member of the Newport Limited board we have had long and detailed discussions with them about finding them new premises, so it was a complete shock. I will say that we have cross-party support from every other leader in south-east Wales whether it is Plaid, Lib Dem, Conservative or Labour. The issue is more about the effect it will have on Wales as a country. You mentioned about the Welsh language. Clearly, in Newport it is not a Welsh-speaking area but there are a lot of passions about the language. People currently, as I understand it, who use Aberystwyth and Swansea, where there is a predominantly large area of Welsh speakers, at the moment would have the opportunity to go to Newport, and you have the back office staff and functions who might be able to assist. This is another area where, should all the back office functions go, they will have a far smaller pool.
You have also got the security implications as well, which we need to highlight and stress. The Passport Office, I believe, has been open since 1967 and there is a wealth of experience there in dealing with fraud investigations. Now, you can’t just put people on a training course for the experience they have gained. Clearly, at the moment you have the back office staff who can help and assist, and that service is going to be lost to Wales as well.
Paul McGoay: Can I just make one very quick point about Welsh language? I do have a document that we received yesterday which I can send to the Committee. It is the equality impact assessment. There is a section on cultural impact and the legal requirement to provide a Welsh language service. The mitigation they have set against that openly says we can consider the option to completely remove the service of providing Welsh language applications. That is in there as a mitigation.
Chair: We are going to come back to that in a moment. A very quick question from Mr Bebb and then Mr Brown is going to let us have that name.
Q18 Guto Bebb: Just to have it on the record, the Welsh Language Board have presented us with evidence which states that there is no Welsh language capacity whatsoever in Liverpool. Is that your understanding?
Paul McGoay: That is my understanding.
Anne-Louise McKeon-Williams: That is correct.
Alan Brown: The name of the civil servant you were asking for was Louise Horton.
Q19 Chair: She has said that there would be no savings as a result of this?
Alan Brown: Yes, as a result of internet use.
Q20 Geraint Davies: Councillor Evans, following the previous question, would you accept in essence this decision inherently discriminates against Wales? It seems the position of Wales is not just as a second-class nation, but as a nation that if you want to leave it you have to go into England to get out. It is as if we are a sort of back cupboard of England. Is that the way you feel?
Councillor Matthew Evans: What I will say is that I have a slightly different view from my colleagues over here on the one issue about understanding and accepting cuts. We reckon that if there had been, to be honest, a 10% cut across the board, then I wouldn’t be here today.
Clearly, the issue has to be-bearing in mind that Newport has been so successful in attracting jobs from London-that we are using the economic argument, the excellent location of the city, to say we need and should have more jobs coming into Wales, bearing in mind that Newport has its fair share of deprived areas. It does look from the business case, as I understand it from the figures, that potentially 300 jobs needed to go by 2012, and remarkably Newport has 300 jobs. That does arouse suspicions.
Q21 Geraint Davies: Mr Brown has already made the point that there does not seem to be a clear cost case. You have made the point now that the finger has been pointed at Newport. I guess I am making the point that Wales is a nation. There is a Welsh language issue as well. We would expect, in some sense, special treatment rather than discriminatory treatment. Would you accept that, given that Wales is very rural, if you look at the actual cost to the consumer as opposed to the producer of people having to travel to get their passports, if you take out Newport, there would be an enormous on-cost to the people of Wales, who on average have less money and are being harder hit in this recession?
Councillor Matthew Evans: Yes, absolutely. That is whether people are coming from Birmingham, the south-west of England or Wales. Yes, the customer service will undoubtedly suffer.
Q22 Geraint Davies: If the decision was based on the customer as opposed to just costs, it would point away from doing Newport, and as Mr Brown has said, if it was done on cost, it would probably, again, not discriminate against Newport. If it was on the basis of nationhood, we should not hit Newport. Presumably, you will be strongly continuing to campaign that we keep the service for the people in Wales in Newport?
Councillor Matthew Evans: We certainly will be, yes.
Q23 Owen Smith: Councillor Evans, you are obviously a Conservative leader of the council. How do you feel about the fact this is being done by a Conservative-Liberal Government here in Westminster and the fact that they did not consult with you at all?
Councillor Matthew Evans: We are a Conservative and Lib Dem administration. We have been a Conservative and Lib Dem administration for the past two and a half years. Naturally, I was disappointed that there had not been any consultation. Clearly, making a non-political point, I would have hoped that any leader of any council does not want to hear this news from a local paper, and I do not want to go into the ins and outs of how the information came to public knowledge. But one would have hoped we would have had the information provided beforehand so that at least we would have the opportunity to be involved and engaged at an earlier stage. The last discussions we had were about expanding the service rather than removing the service altogether.
Q24 Owen Smith: I see from your evidence that you conducted an analysis in the council and with consultants of how many jobs will actually be lost as the wider impact of this. Could you tell us about that?
Councillor Matthew Evans: What we have to bear in mind from a Newport perspective is that it is not just the back office function and jobs which are being lost. There are a number of jobs in the private sector which will also disappear. It is the effect on the local trade and on the city itself. Newport has been going through some very difficult times. We have had recent announcements, for instance, that Marks & Spencer are thinking of moving out of the city, and Next and Monsoon. This just adds to the problem of perception we have at the moment.
Believe it or not, the Passport Office is the second largest employer in the city centre. We have very few jobs in the city centre and clearly many other local traders rely on the business. Our business case would be that we have excellent communications; we are on the M4 corridor, with easy access to London and south Wales. These city centre jobs we can ill-afford to lose at the moment.
Q25 Owen Smith: How many in total do you think we will lose? What is the multiplier? I am sure I have read in your evidence that it is nearer 500 than 300.
Councillor Matthew Evans: I was going to say it is nearer 500 than 250. These figures have been done independently of the council. Clearly, one would hope that the question about the economic impact assessment, which I understand has not been done at the moment by the Passport Agency, needs to be done.
Q26 Jonathan Edwards: In terms of the timing of the announcement, of course we had the Ryder Cup going on at the same time, which was more than just an event: it was a huge rebranding exercise for the city and south-east Wales. How disappointed were you with the exact timing?
Councillor Matthew Evans: It has been a roller-coaster of a ride because the Ryder Cup was a fantastic success not just for Newport but for Wales on the world stage and the positive publicity we got out of that was immeasurable in some respects. Then the following week to come down to announcements from the Passport Office and then from Marks & Spencer, it has been a very difficult time, particularly as we are in the process of hoping to redevelop the city centre. It has clearly come as a bitter blow.
Q27 Stuart Andrew: I wonder if you could provide us with specific evidence as to the deterioration in service that you expect the people of south Wales and south-west England to have as a result of this proposal.
Alan Brown: At the moment we have a situation where 700 applications are made over the counter on a weekly basis at Newport. We have also been told by another member of management-in fact the members in Wales, in Newport, were told by a member of management-that, as a result of the changes and the reduction in the service, the premium service, which is the same-day service, will go as a result of this. Our fear is that all processing work will go. If you look at the numbers, they have said up to 45 jobs would be retained. Management have since told us that that is actually 35. Forty-five is the full-time equivalent. So it is 35 jobs that will be retained. A customer service will be there and an interviewing facility, but the processing work will then have to go elsewhere-to England or wherever. There is clearly a knock-on effect there as well just in terms of people physically getting their applications and then getting them sent on to be processed elsewhere. There is a real problem with that.
There is also an issue around the interview office network. I think as your colleague from north Wales mentioned, there is only going to be the one office in Wales which, as has been said, is going to be in Newport. They are talking about peripatetic teams, mobile teams, that are going around using shared facilities and carrying laptops to carry out interviews. That is something we have real concern around and that will clearly have an impact on the level of service that people can expect elsewhere in the country as well.
One of the things that we are really concerned about is that the Government have said that there are four different real issues that affect people. One of the top four issues is identity fraud. They are talking about cutting the number of interviews from 300,000 to 250,000 as part of the customer service network-it used to be the interview office network-when previously, they were talking about increasing that to 700,000 to try and make sure that fraud was brought down and to try and make sure that fraud levels were kept low. They are talking about cutting that. If they are talking about identity fraud as one of the top four issues for people in this country, to then cut the number of offices, cut the number of jobs, processing staff, then that is a real fear that we have got-that people’s identity is not going to be safe and their passport as a product is going to be less safe as a result of these cuts.
Anne-Louise McKeon-Williams: Can I just add to that? The main fraudulent applications are detected by humans rather than by interview, through the processing of applications. In Newport, we have got an outstanding service. We have the best fraud department. We have trialled all the pilots. We are a victim of our own success in many terms.
Q28 Chair: What percentage of interviews result in further action or a case of fraud being discovered-roughly? Do you want to come back to us perhaps later on on that?
Paul McGoay: In terms of the interview office network?
Q29 Chair: Yes. You were talking about a figure of 300,000 people being interviewed and it was going to go up to 700,000, but now it is going to go to 150. What percentage would you say results in either further action or a case of fraud?
Paul McGoay: What I guess management have said in the past, and some politicians, is that very few fraudulent applications have been detected through the interview office network, but there are two things about that. One of its primary purposes was not just simply fraud detection: it was fraud deterrence. The interviews that take place at the interview office network are quite invasive interviews in many ways. The interviewer has quite a lot of information about the person they are interviewing. The interviewer is trained to detect fraud indicators and things like that in terms of behaviour, language and so forth. So it is deterrence.
One of the interesting things in the documentation we have been given is that they will not actually say how many interviews, for instance, have been cancelled when someone has gone to request an interview, put in an application and cancelled the interview with the interview office network.
Q30 Chair: How many have cancelled and not reapplied?
Paul McGoay: We do not know because the information in the document we have been given around that has been redacted, so we cannot actually see it.
Chair: We have the Minister coming in a minute so somebody might want to ask that very question.
Q31 Stuart Andrew: I think this brings up a very important point about the security of the British passport really. Given that we are going to have a smaller office, or that is being proposed, what you are basically saying is that the security of the British passport really is at stake with this?
Paul McGoay: Yes, I think so.
Alan Brown: Just to add to that, one of the things we have been saying is that the local knowledge that people have in the communities in terms of the questions that have been asked of people who are brought in for interview is critical in this, and that knowledge is going to be lost because it is going to be people coming in from elsewhere.
Q32 Jessica Morden: The Minister would argue in all the questions that we ask him that it’s not true to say that Wales is losing its passport office. But, quite clearly, if you are going down from 300 people to 45 or 35, but you are not sure quite yet what that office will do, it would be impossible to do the four-hour service and presumably the one-week service. I don’t know. But, also, presumably, out of that 35, you would have to have your Welsh language team as well within that 35. Is it true to say that the service cannot possibly be the same for people in Wales?
Paul McGoay: It can’t. I think that is absolutely right. On the Welsh language, I would just come back to the equality impact assessment I mentioned as well, because I think that’s key. I do not have a copy with me today, but we are happy to share this with the Committee because it is not a restricted document or anything like that. It openly says can we consider removing the option to complete forms in the Welsh language as a mitigation against the fact that the people who actually deal with the Welsh language applications are likely to be made redundant?
Alan Brown: I think that is absolutely right. Wales is losing its passport office-there is some sort of counter facility-if this proposal goes through. However, as part of the equality impact assessment Paul mentioned earlier, what management have given us in terms of race is they have said there is no impact adversely affecting specific races, which I think speaks dividends about how IPS feels about the Welsh as a race.
Q33 Jonathan Edwards: In terms of the assessment you have done there in terms of the Welsh language, do you think that the proposals are in danger of breaching the Welsh Language Act?
Paul McGoay: The paragraph I’m looking at says that legislation dictates that as far as "practicable", the Welsh language is given equal footing with English, but how is "practicable" defined? They are thinking about getting round this-trying to get round the legislation. That is what that section says to me. We raised that yesterday and we said that is absolutely appalling.
Q34 Geraint Davies: I have two quick questions. One is that you have already mentioned that there is a reduction in the deterrence and detection of fraud at risk here. Are you in essence saying that this may create a chink in the armour, given that we face a significant terrorist threat in Britain?
Paul McGoay: I think that is entirely possible.
Q35 Geraint Davies: Okay, that’s fine. Secondly, on the customer service network-I live in Swansea and I have used the four-hour service; it takes me nearly two hours to get there and two hours to get back, four hours, of course, eight hours to do this. Are you now saying that if you take away this four-hour service, not only will we have massive impacts on the retail footfall in Newport and the local economy, but from the point of view of customers who I represent in Swansea, they will no longer be able, within a day, like I did for my mother, to get a passport? Again, it is a second-class service or no service for the four-hour service or that same-day service for people of Wales and south Wales.
Paul McGoay: That follows directly from what that manager said. We certainly strongly suspect that there will be no same-day service at the customer service centre.
Q36 Geraint Davies: This customer service as opposed to interview is a joke really, isn’t it, in terms of south Wales people? Thank you very much.
Paul McGoay: Yes.
Q37 Alun Cairns : Can I follow up on a question that Mr Davies asked you before? I think the phrase that he used was a "chink in the armour". Is that not a damning indictment on your colleagues in the other passport offices elsewhere, maybe union members as well, because they cannot pick up on the fraud that you are suggesting?
Paul McGoay: I don’t think that is the case.
Alan Brown: I don’t think that is the case. I think they do pick up on fraud.
Q38 Alun Cairns : I want to press you. I am going back to the chink in the armour that was suggested. Are you saying that your colleagues elsewhere are not up to the standard of those in Newport, or that they simply will not be able to identify the fraud for whatever other reason?
Alan Brown: One of the big issues for us is having a locally based service. At the moment in the interview office network, where people have been brought in to give more information about passport applications, one of the big issues is around local knowledge. If somebody is making a fraudulent application who has actually come into the area and thinks this is an area where it is easier to get a passport, they can do that. But the questioners and interviewers have been trained in such a way that they can ask questions about the local area, give that local knowledge and can identify if there is a problem with the answers they are getting. However, as a result of the change, that local knowledge is going to go because we are going to have these mobile teams coming into areas who do not have that local knowledge. Also, there is the fact that we are actually reducing the number of interviews.
Effectively, 300,000 interviews at the moment are first-time applicants. They are now talking about 250,000 interviews that are taking place. They have told us they are going to be targeted interviews, but management have also told us that there are 5 million applications in the UK for passports every year. If they are to do proper targeted interviews, then they would have to have 5 million applications a month to try and make sure that they are properly targeted. We have a real concern about who is going to be targeted. There is also an issue here about ethnicity and race, etc. that we are very concerned about. Who is going to be targeted? I might be okay but others might not be. They have given us no indication of how people are going to be targeted and that is a real concern for us as well.
Chair: I appreciate you feel strongly, but I am trying to get everyone in.
Q39 Owen Smith: A question for Councillor Evans, if I may, and then two questions, Chair. With regard to the 500 people who are going to lose their jobs, what are the prospects in Newport right now that those people will find alternative employment?
Councillor Matthew Evans: Extremely limited. I think one of the economic arguments again is that you are likely to outplace fairly highly skilled workers with high levels of employment who will end up claiming benefits and potentially, economically, that has not been considered.
Newport has been struggling over the past few years. We are still suffering in a way. One of the reasons the Urban Regeneration Company was set up was because we lost all the manufacturing jobs at Llanwern. We are at a fairly critical time at the moment and every single one of those jobs is desperately needed.
Q40 Owen Smith: I think we can all see that this is a real blow to Wales. Can you tell us what the engagement involvement with the Wales Office, the Secretary of State for Wales, in particular, has been in engaging in this issue?
Councillor Matthew Evans: I was fortunate enough, to be fair to the Secretary of State for Wales, in the conversations I have had with her; and I think it is important to recognise that we are safeguarding 45 jobs on one line, but clearly we are losing 80% of our work force. I am grateful for the fact that we have managed to at least salvage something. Clearly, we want to salvage far more than we have got at the moment. The meeting with the Minister, I think, was constructive and helpful. Nevertheless, I think we have a long way to go and a tough battle to fight to ensure that these jobs remain in Newport.
Q41 Owen Smith: Have you asked the Secretary of State for Wales to continue to make the case for keeping the jobs in Newport, and what did she indicate?
Councillor Matthew Evans: Very much so. In fact, I went a step further than that. We have-here is a bit of advertising-"Newport Open 24/7". She has given an undertaking that every single Cabinet Member will receive a copy of this brochure highlighting the benefits of working and living in Newport. It is a very cost-effective area for people to relocate to. This is an ideal opportunity for us to save some money.
Chair: As an ex-Newport boy myself, I can sympathise with that.
Q42 Guto Bebb: Can I just take you back to the issue of the interviews and the potential risk to passports by reducing the number of interviews? You made an interesting point, and I just want to clarify it, in terms of the fact that you believe the interview process in itself is a deterrent. But there are no figures available for the number of people who do not turn up for that interview. Is that what you were saying?
Paul McGoay: The figures are available but they have been redacted.
Q43 Guto Bebb: They have not been made available for us to consider?
Paul McGoay: Not yet. We have a document about the future of interviewing that management have given us, but that key bit of information is redacted in the document.
Q44 Chair: What was the reason for redacting that, Mr McGoay?
Paul McGoay: They say they spoke to security in the Passport Office Security Unit and they think there might be a risk in making that information public. But we have also pressed them to rescind that redaction.
Q45 Guto Bebb: The point you are making in effect is that somebody trying to make a fraudulent passport application, when invited for an interview, might decide not to turn up?
Paul McGoay: Yes.
Q46 Guto Bebb: So, in itself, it works as a deterrent. Will the closure of Newport have an effect on the number of interviews taking place in Wales?
Paul McGoay: The closure of the interview office network offices in Wales will. The interviews that take place at the Newport office will be counter interviews primarily for fast- track and premium. We were making that point quite generally in terms of the interview office network, obviously in Wales, which is also facing closure, and there are closures of interview offices more widely across the UK as well, about 20, probably with the loss of about 150 jobs threatened at the moment.
Alan Brown: The other important point to make is that they are actually downgrading the grades of the interviewing officers as well, which speaks volumes, I think, in terms of how they look at this.
Q47 Stuart Andrew: If somebody is invited for interview and does not turn up, is there a follow-up on that? Does the Newport Office do anything to find out why that person did not turn up?
Anne-Louise McKeon-Williams: I think perhaps you are confusing the interview office network, which are small satellite offices. I will just explain.
Councillor Matthew Evans: Satellite offices.
Q48 Stuart Andrew: I understand that, but you said, if Newport closes, there are fraudulent applications and the security of the passport might not be as strong as it is at the moment. I am trying to understand: if the person did not turn up for interview, is nothing done to chase that up?
Paul McGoay: Things like that would be dealt with by the fraud and investigation unit. I imagine in some cases there are follow-ups, yes.
Q49 Stuart Andrew: And that would still happen even with a smaller office?
Paul McGoay: Would you say that again?
Q50 Stuart Andrew: That would still happen with the proposed smaller offices?
Paul McGoay: Yes.
Q51 Susan Elan Jones: I would like to ask the union representatives about the whole consultation period, the statutory 90-day consultation period, and to what extent you felt you were taken seriously in that? Also, do you feel that the Identity and Passport Service were receptive to your representations, or do you feel it was a bit of a foregone conclusion? How do you feel that process panned out?
Paul McGoay: Currently, we are extremely dissatisfied with how the 90-day consultation is going. We are four weeks in. Getting information out of IPS management is like getting blood out of a stone. I will give you an example. Yesterday, we were discussing a document the PCS had seen as far back as August. It is called the "Direction of Travel" document. We were shown that in August and they took it back off us in the meeting. They said, "You can’t actually keep this." That document, we think, is relevant to some of the arguments that are already in the ministerial submissions now.
Q52 Chair: What was the title of that document?
Paul McGoay: It was called the "Direction of Travel" document.
Anne-Louise McKeon-Williams: It was issued on 26 August.
Paul McGoay: We already had sight of that document at one stage. They took it off us. When we asked for it yesterday, they said, "We have got to be clear about whether we can give it to you or not."
Q53 Chair: I am sure the members will be asking the Minister for it as well.
Paul McGoay: It is a drip feed approach to information, and that is not the way to conduct consultation. It makes PCS think, as we have said in our submission to you and we have discussed a bit today, that there is a thin basis being provided in terms of the submission and the arguments we have seen for the decision that has been made. We think either there is further documentation out there that they are not sharing with us and they are being dishonest, or the decision has been made on a thin basis. I can’t see any alternative.
Alan Brown: We are also very concerned that the decision seems to be made and the justification for it is now being made after it, and we are getting documents. The document we got yesterday, which we were told was around something like the "Direction of Travel" document on which the Minister based his decision, was produced at the end of last week. So they seem to be working backwards from the decision.
Q54 Chair: Do you believe this is a foregone conclusion, gentlemen?
Paul McGoay: No.
Chair: No. Good.
Q55 Jonathan Edwards: I just wanted to explore some alternatives to the current proposals because, obviously, an argument that is made in terms of relocating jobs out of the south-east is that operational costs are far cheaper in the traditional manufacturing areas. Is there an argument for consolidation in Newport rather than closure? Secondly, if there are to be job cuts and the Government are intent on pushing that forward, wouldn’t it be better to share the pain across the national and regional offices across the UK rather than just targeting Newport solely?
Alan Brown: I think you could make that case. We don’t accept the need for any job cuts or any office closures. We think, in fact, given the issues around identity fraud, given what the Government have said on this, we should actually be investing more, rather than making cuts. This is an organisation that makes money for the Government and brings money in. Now we have got rid of the consultants-£57 million, which is almost the same as the spend on staff in the passport service a couple of years ago-we think that there should be investment in that. We think it should be a localised service and we think there is definitely a case to keep the Newport office open.
Q56 Geraint Davies: Presumably, you are saying in terms of a local service serving Wales and in terms of this issue of risk management of terrorism, where there is less capacity in Newport, obviously, if you were a rational terrorist, now that it is completely decimated in Newport, you would probably think about applying in Newport instead? It seems to me on a variety of fronts that we are going in the wrong direction.
Alan Brown: You could easily come to that conclusion, yes.
Q57 Owen Smith: Are you aware of a document called "Full Data Pack for the Newport Office Closure" that says on 31 August 2010 "the IPS Management Board decided to recommend to Ministers that Newport should close"?
Paul McGoay: The "Full Data Pack for the Newport Closure"?
Owen Smith: Yes.
Councillor Matthew Evans: Can I just say, we have got that.
Q58 Owen Smith: You have seen that?
Councillor Matthew Evans: I was made aware of this, thankfully, in discussions with the unions. I understand that the managing director received a copy of it yesterday, having made a request sometime ago. Clearly, to look through all the evidence in that submission with the time given is not sufficient.
Q59 Owen Smith: It clearly makes plain that the decision was made at the end of August that Newport would be targeted for closure.
Paul McGoay: Yes.
Chair: That is something we will be putting to the Minister in about 60 seconds. Can I just ask Jessica Morden to ask the final questions?
Q60 Jessica Morden: I want to take you back to one point about the economic impact study. We have been talking a bit about the drip, drip effect of all this information coming out. When do you expect to get that and don’t you feel that should have been right at the start of the process rather than towards the end?
Paul McGoay: We would like it as soon as possible, but the way things are going at the moment it is very, very difficult to get information out of them. I wish I could be more helpful.
Alan Brown: I think the economic impact study, the equality impact study and a whole range of other studies should have been done before there was any decision taken. I think it is absolutely back to front the way the whole process has gone.
Q61 Chair: Thank you very much. Could you just finally confirm that it is 300 full-time jobs that are being lost, or would be lost, if this decision goes ahead?
Alan Brown: Yes, but they are now saying that there will be 45 full-time equivalents and 35 that will be retained as part of the new office.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed for coming up and giving evidence to us today. You are very welcome to stay behind for the next session.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Damian Green MP, Minister for Immigration, Home Office, and Sarah Rapson, Chief Executive, Identity and Passport Service, gave evidence.
Q62 Chair: Good morning. Thank you for coming this morning. I understand you want to make a very short three-minute statement, which is absolutely fine, but we are very short of time, so I suggest we go ahead right away and then start the questions.
Damian Green: Fine. Thank you very much for allowing me the chance to make the statement about the proposed closure of the Newport Passport Application Processing Centre. Since these proposals were revealed on 8 October, there have been a number of inaccuracies and misconceptions that I think it is important to correct.
The passport service is paid for through the passport fee, which covers the cost of a domestic passport service and consular services overseas for British citizens. Passports have to be delivered within this fee structure and be available to the public at an economic rate. When efficiencies can be made through better working, they should be. Indeed, they must be.
A combination of falling demand for passports and significant improvements in productivity mean that the Identity and Passport Service has excess capacity in terms of both its staff and its office estate. IPS has already taken steps to reduce this overcapacity. In 2008, the application processing centre in Glasgow was closed, and this was followed in 2009 by the closure of two interview offices, with a further 10 interview offices closed earlier this year. More recently, the voluntary early release scheme run across the Home Office resulted in 234 staff leaving IPS, around 120 from passport operations.
Unfortunately, these reductions are not enough. By 2012, IPS is forecasting the need to reduce staff by a further 250 posts and remove around 25% of its office space. There is no way to remove this amount of capacity and space without closing the application processing centre. IPS currently has five processing centres, in Belfast, Durham, Liverpool, Newport and Peterborough. A thorough and objective assessment undertaken earlier this year resulted in the proposal to close the Newport processing centre.
This assessment was based on a range of criteria, but the primary consideration lay in the ability of the agency to achieve the right level of efficiencies while retaining sufficient operational capacity to maintain the current high level of service. Contrary to some media reports, the proposal will not result in the closure of Wales’s only passport office. The proposed restructuring would remove back office processing of postal applications from the Newport office and merge the public counter service with the local interview office to form a new customer service centre. This is similar to the situation in Glasgow in 2008.
There will be no impact on customers in Wales or south-west England. The new office in Newport will provide all face-to-face services required by IPS customers, including urgent same-day applications, assistance with queries and interviews. All these services will continue to be provided in Welsh and to the same standard as those available in the rest of the UK.
Now, I recognise this will be small comfort to the staff in the Newport office who might lose their jobs. IPS is committed to supporting them throughout the process and will do everything possible to avoid compulsory redundancies.
Chair: Thank you very, very much indeed, Minister. Perhaps I can Jessica Morden to start the questions.
Q63 Jessica Morden: I suppose I should declare an interest in that, obviously, I am a constituency MP and therefore I have an interest in that way. Can I start with how the decision was made? The PCS and the council have told us this morning that this decision came as a bolt out of the blue for them and that it was yourself as the chief executive who delivered the news, which I find quite extraordinary given the scale of the job losses, rather than a politician giving this announcement. Also, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Secretary of State for Wales did not seem to be aware of the decision before it was made. Do you accept that this is an announcement that has been handled extremely badly?
Damian Green: No, I don’t. If you like, I will go through the chronology of what happened so that the Committee can be aware of the full facts. I have given some of the history and the reasoning for it in my introductory statement.
In July, I was notified of an intent to bring forward restructuring proposals with no detail about that. On 13 September, I received a submission from the IPS recommending restructuring of the network and at the same time, over that period, negotiations were going on with the unions. So I cannot understand why they describe it as a bolt from the blue because they had been talking to the IPS about this for some time.
I informed the Secretary of State for Wales on 5 October and then it was revealed on 8 October. It was leaked. These things happen. We had clearly intended-
Q64 Chair: Are you therefore saying that you discussed this with the unions and that there had been discussions with the unions before this leak?
Damian Green: Sarah, would you like to answer that?
Sarah Rapson: We started talking informally with the PCS through June and July. We shared with them the thinking that we had been doing and the analysis that we were undertaking all the way through that process in advance of the formal consultation. For them to say that they had no prior knowledge is actually not true.
Q65 Chair: You have written evidence perhaps of that?
Sarah Rapson: Pardon?
Chair: I absolutely believe you, but you would have written evidence to be able to produce to that effect? Notes of meetings, that sort of thing?
Sarah Rapson: I am sure we can find something. I know that these meetings took place.
Q66 Jessica Morden: That is specifically about the future of the Newport office?
Sarah Rapson: To start off with, the fact that we had overcapacity and that we were actually going to have to do something, so two things. Firstly, that, and, secondly then, how we came to the conclusion that the proposal ought to be the Newport office. It was those two things. The PCS were informally talking with us throughout that period.
We have always worked very well with the trade union. It was important to us that they had early sight of that. In fact, you know that we have the 23 criteria as part of our analysis. It was the unions’ feedback to reduce it to 20 to take out the staff survey points, and that is what we got through those informal conversations with them. That actually did happen.
Q67 Jessica Morden: Obviously, you have elaborated a bit about the rationale behind the decision. It seems to me to be a lot to do with office space, basically, and not a lot to do with location and economic impact in a particular area. Do you appreciate that it is important for people in Wales to have a major passport office-I know we will come back later to the services provided by the counter service-and also in terms of a Welsh language service? It is extremely important in terms of Newport, which is a regenerating city dependent on these jobs in the city centre, that we keep this office locally. Do you not feel that, in terms of the idea about location, the economic impact study should have come at the start of the process? I hear that we are still waiting for that information to come through.
Damian Green: We are doing the economic impact study as part of the consultation, which is the proper time to do that. But, absolutely, I recognise that the existence of a counter service in Newport is not just important because it will preserve those jobs but it is important to the local economy as well. Indeed, it is reasonably well known now that the original thought was that we were always going to keep a counter service in Wales, and there was a possibility of looking elsewhere in Wales.
After strong representations from the Secretary of State and indeed from the leader of Newport Council as well as from you and your colleague, the other MP for Newport, I decided that clearly it was so important for the centre of Newport, the footfall and so on that we preserve the counter service there, that that is what we have decided to do. I am conscious that will get something like 50,000 people a year coming to Newport specifically for that purpose. It seems to me therefore right and proper that we should keep that service in Newport.
Q68 Jessica Morden: I think we are going to come back to the counter service in a later question, so I will come back to that one later on. The other thing I would ask is that this proposal seems remarkably similar to one that was made two years ago when the then Minister looked at a proposal to close the Newport office and said, no, we had to have a major passport office in the devolved nations. It just seems a little bit like that decision was turned down politically and yet this has been rubber stamped. Is that fair to say?
Damian Green: No. The first thing I should say is that, of course, on policy advice given to previous Governments, it would be improper for that to be shared with me as the new Minister and so I do not know. I cannot see what policy advice was given to previous Governments. I think we would all recognise the propriety of that.
From the outside therefore, I can imagine that what happened two years ago was that the then six processing application centres were considered, and the then Minister decided that Glasgow was the best one to close. I don’t know what rank order the others were in, but I assume-I would guess-that the previous Government went through the same objective process that we have gone through and that Glasgow came out as the one that fitted the bill best. But, as I say, I do not know that. I am not allowed to be told that for perfectly good reasons.
Q69 Jessica Morden: Is it not true to say that Glasgow lost some of its work but the office was not closed, but then that work was reinstated? Does that not indicate that there is a history of short-term decisions which then end up being reversed?
Damian Green: Sarah was there and while I am here you cannot reveal what the detail was.
Sarah Rapson: On the point about the actions we took at Glasgow and then putting work back, just for completeness, we took out the application process into the back office and we left the public counter, for the same reasons as we are talking about leaving the public counter in Newport, because it is important for Scotland also to be able to have a passport office.
We do, though, from time to time, at peak, use the people that we have there to process postal applications because there is capacity to do so at certain times of the year. Our demand is very seasonable. The peak demand at the public counter is in a different time of year to the peak demand on postal, so we share the work between those two peaks. That does mean for part of the year we may use the Glasgow staff to process back office work too.
Q70 Chair: Thank you very much indeed for that. Lots of people now want to come in. Just very quickly, we have been told in earlier evidence that a civil servant called Louise Horton suggested to members of staff and to the unions that there would not actually be any savings made as a result of this decision. Is that something you could look into for us?
Sarah Rapson: That there would not be any savings made as a result of the decision?
Sarah Rapson: There will be savings made as a result of this decision.
Q71 Chair: Apparently, the lady concerned was named here, a Louise Horton, who works for the Identity and Passport Service, and she suggested that there would not be savings made, or so we were told, to the unions.
Sarah Rapson: I will take immediate action and try to talk to Louise.
Q72 Chair: Perhaps you will have a look at the transcript of evidence afterwards and write back to us on that point?
Sarah Rapson: Okay, but that is plainly wrong.
Damian Green: I am trying to be as transparent as possible. We have sent you the evidence on which this is based and you can see what the savings are.
Q73 Chair: Could you tell us why therefore-apparently, again, I can only go by what we have been told today-a document called "Direction of Travel", which was published on 16 August, has been withheld? Is that a document the Committee could look at?
Sarah Rapson: I don’t have it with me.
Q74 Chair: No, but you would be happy for the Committee to look at that document and perhaps to send it to us sometime later today because we have been told that it is quite an important document and that the unions were not given full sight of it?
Sarah Rapson: Okay. We try to be as transparent as possible. That is our intention. So, then, I guess we should show it.
Chair: Absolutely. Great. We look forward to that in the interests of transparency. Excellent. Thank you very much.
Q75 Jonathan Edwards: Good morning. When exactly did the Home Office instruct the IPS to start working on these proposals, and when did the IPS come to the decision that the Newport office would be targeted? Wasn’t the simplest thing for you to do just to dust off that report from two years ago and give that to the Minister?
Damian Green: I have done some of the chronology. It is a continuous process of looking at how efficiently we can run the whole passport service, and the IPS first came to me with the specific proposals, as I say, in July. Again, we are into this point of propriety. I am not allowed to see what policy advice was given to the previous Government, but we can all know as a fact that whatever that policy advice was, it led to the closure of the Glasgow application processing centre and that centre is now closed.
The fact is that there is overcapacity within the system. So the decisions that have to be taken now have to be taken on the basis of the system that is there at the moment. The idea of dusting down an old report would be completely irrelevant because the situation has changed. I do not know if there is anything you want to add to that.
Sarah Rapson: The information that is populating the model is up-to-date information, so this reflects where we are today. It is not the case that we have just dusted off a previous report. This is new analysis to get us to reflect the situation that we are in today.
Q76 Jonathan Edwards: I think what I am trying to get to is who is leading the agenda? Is it the Home Office or the IPS?
Sarah Rapson: IPS is an executive agency of the Home Office. We are also the Home Office. The fact that you are describing us as two separate entities is not quite right. The agenda, if you like, comes from the facts, which are, that we have overcapacity both in terms of the numbers of people for the amount of demand that we have to do, plus too much estate. As I look at my organisation, and I look to make sure that we deliver the right level of customer service and the right level of integrity around a passport at the lowest cost, I can see that there is something to be done.
The analysis came from me and from my team, but we have spoken with colleagues within the wider Home Office and with the Minister to make sure that this is the right thing to be doing.
Q77 Owen Smith: Minister, you have just said that the IPS came to you with these proposals, I presume to close the Newport office, in July. Do you think it reasonable therefore that it was in October that this emerged as a leak from the Home Office to the staff? Equally, can you tell us why on earth it was that the Secretary of State for Wales was told about this decision, which had apparently been reached by the IPS-which, as you say, is the Home Office-in July, only on 5 October?
Damian Green: I think there are several misconceptions in that question. What we are doing is consulting. Once you launch a consultation, of course the proposal is public. The second thing you said was that this was a leak from the Home Office. There is not a shred of evidence for that assertion.
Q78 Owen Smith: That is what the BBC has stated.
Damian Green: I have seen no evidence at all that a Home Office official leaked this information. We all know that leak inquiries are pointless so there is no point going down there. But, as I say, there is no evidence for the assertion that the Home Office leaked this. Indeed, the point made by the hon. Lady earlier on seemed to me to suggest, what is the truth?
Of course, we would have preferred this to happen in an orderly way so that we could have finished the consultation. We could have talked to the Welsh Assembly Government. We could have talked to people more widely than just the Secretary of State for Wales. Indeed, the local MPs had asked for a meeting which was going to happen before the announcement was meant to be made. As I say, I do not recognise the preconceptions behind the question.
Q79 Owen Smith: Leaving aside the leak in that case, you do not deny, I presume, because you said it a moment ago, that the IPS proposed to you in July that these closures take place? I go back to my question: why was it, however it emerged, that it took until October for that to be made public, albeit through a leak, and you had not informed the Secretary of State for Wales until 5 October that that was what was proposed?
Damian Green: I think you are misrepresenting what I said. I said that in July the IPS came to me and said, "We’ve got too many staff and too much real estate. We need to do something about it." In September, they came to me and said, having done the analysis, "It looks like we should go out to proposals to close the Newport office", and I assume at that stage you were having informal talks with the unions about that. It obviously takes some time within the Home Office to come to the decision to go ahead with a proposal. When we had reached a settled view on that, I correctly informed the Secretary of State for Wales that these would be the proposals.
Q80 Owen Smith: One more, if I may, because I think the timing of this is important, Minister. The rationale behind my question is that I think it feels to lots of people that this is a fait accompli. This was decided long since and subsequently rationales have been developing in order to justify the decision. We have another leaked document here from the IPS which says that on 31 August 2010 the IPS Management Board agreed to recommend to Ministers that Newport would close, which fits loosely with your chronology. I ask again why on earth it then took a further month-a month and a half almost-before the staff were made aware, and they only became aware of it through a leak?
Damian Green: I don’t know when the board meeting was, but it is certainly consistent with the fact that a submission came up to me in mid-September. This is an important, sensitive decision. It is why we are having hearings like this.
Owen Smith: Absolutely.
Damian Green: These are people’s jobs. I thought about it hard and that takes some time, and when I had come to what I thought was the right decision I then communicated that to the Secretary of State for Wales. This is a perfectly normal part of governmental process.
Q81 Owen Smith: Given how important it is, don’t you feel that you should have conducted the impact assessment in respect of the economic impact of this on Newport-500 jobs, we have been told by the council, are going to be gone-before you made the announcement?
Damian Green: I am not sure where the 500 jobs come from.
Q82 Owen Smith: Newport council’s estimate of how many jobs would be lost in the wider economy.
Damian Green: Okay, that will clearly be part of the economic impact assessment. The truth is you can only do an impact assessment by going round asking people, what would be the effect if we did this? We are already spending a huge amount of time discussing the effects of a leak. Frankly, if you went round towns asking those sorts of questions, you would spread fear and uncertainty for months, potentially for no purpose at all.
Q83 Geraint Davies: My question, Minister, is whether the decision stacks up in terms of the impact on the economy, the impact on the service and the impact on the customer. Do you now accept that the 500 job losses by an independent report commissioned by Newport is a reasonable consideration for you in coming to your final decision on this?
Damian Green: That will be part of the economic impact assessment.
Q84 Geraint Davies: So the ball is still in play in terms of your review of this decision in those terms, just so that we are clear on that?
Damian Green: This is a genuine consultation. We have got the objective evidence so far, which points to Newport as the way to reduce the overcapacity.
Q85 Geraint Davies: In terms of the job losses in the service directly, those are, how many? Three hundred, is it?
Damian Green: Two hundred and fifty.
Q86 Geraint Davies: I think you did say earlier that on the reduction from 250 jobs to leave something like 45, apart from the extra job losses, there would be no impact for Wales on the same-day service, or language or anything. You are saying to us now today that that massive job reduction will have no impact at all?
Damian Green: The job reduction is in application processing in which we have overcapacity. On customer service, I am saying there is no effect on customers in Wales or indeed the south-west of England who tend to use Newport as well. That customer service will remain with everything you would expect in a customer service in Wales, like the capacity to process applications in Welsh as well. That will remain.
Q87 Geraint Davies: My understanding was that the same-day service was under risk, that people would be travelling and that they would not get the four-hour turnaround. If you are going to take 250 jobs out and leave 45 and have precisely the same services, it seems to me very unlikely, but that is what you are saying. No change at all?
Damian Green: You are confusing the two services. Sarah, do you want to explain the difference between them?
Sarah Rapson: In our Newport regional office, we have two things. One is the public counter which services the same-day services and the second is the back office processing, which is the applications that come in through the post-from anywhere, frankly. We are not touching the service that we provide from the same-day service perspective at all. That will continue to be delivered by the same number of people. The changes that we are making are on the back office process, so the postal applications. If you have just booked your holiday, you are about to go and you find your passport is out of date and you need an emergency passport, you will be able to go to Newport the same day and have a passport issued to you directly. You will also be able to continue to have, if we call you in, the interview conducted in Newport because at the moment we have the two offices there. There is a misconception actually in the media that Wales will end up without a passport office. We will still offer a same-day service.
Q88 Geraint Davies: There will be no reduction in the capacity for a same-day service at all?
Sarah Rapson: None.
Q89 Geraint Davies: What about the issue of deterrence and detection? We have heard about how the interview process currently deployed in Newport acts in terms of deterrence and detection of fraud and there are fears that that will be reduced. Is that true?
Sarah Rapson: No. We will continue to interview all first-time adult applicants, which is what we currently do today. What we know is that it is likely that the Newport office will need to conduct 7,000 interviews per year and the capacity-the 45 jobs in the combined customer service centre-will continue to do that level of interviews. There is no change to the group that we interview with and therefore no change to the security of the process.
Q90 Geraint Davies: The previous people we talked to deploy the service. There is a view there that, obviously, the service will be reduced. Are you aware of the sensitivity across Wales that people basically think Wales is being picked on again? The people who are living in Wales-it is a sparse population-want to be able to get down there, sort out their passports without the having to go to England to go abroad type of thing.
Sarah Rapson: Yes.
Q91 Geraint Davies: There is enormous sensitivity. They were treated in a discriminatory and second-class way in this decision.
Damian Green: Absolutely, there is sensitivity and it is based on a misapprehension-the apprehension that you will not be able to get a passport or be interviewed for a passport in Wales, and that is simply not true.
Q92 Chair: Minister, actually can I say at this point, having had a passport stolen and having to deal with passport offices in Newport and Victoria, Newport were absolutely first-rate and bent over backwards to help. Victoria were a disgrace and a shambles and I won’t even tell you why.
Sarah Rapson: I am sorry to hear that.
Q93 Chair: They were absolutely disgraceful. Anyway, the unions made a very interesting point and one which I found entirely believable, which is that the interview process deters people from making fraudulent passport claims. They have also suggested that people who are about to be interviewed may well cancel their interview if they are making a fraudulent claim, which, again, I find very credible. But, surprisingly, the number of people who cancel interviews is not published. Apparently, that information is not released. Can you tell us why that is and perhaps arrange for it to be released? It is something I think we would be very interested in seeing.
Damian Green: I do not think that is true. I think I have asked parliamentary questions in my previous role as shadow Immigration Minister-certainly about the number of people who were turned down at interview, which remained at one for some years, and also the number of people who withdrew. I am sure that is in the public domain, because I think I have asked parliamentary questions about it.
Q94 Chair: The union representatives behind you-you cannot see this-are shaking their heads. Protocol does not allow us to bring them back, but perhaps on that basis we would all be very interested to know what the figures are for the number of people cancelling interviews, if that is all right.
Damian Green: Off the top of my head-
Chair: There is no need to do it off the top of your head. A written response for the Committee would be excellent. Could I bring in Susan Elan Jones, please?
Q95 Susan Elan Jones: I would like to ask the Minister whether he has made a proper assessment of his Department’s obligations under the Welsh Language Act, as indeed that Department is obliged to do under the terms of the 1993 Act.
Damian Green: Absolutely, and one of the reasons why we are keeping the Newport customer-facing office open is so that we retain the capacity that is already there to deal with applications in Welsh. Straightforwardly, that will not change.
Q96 Susan Elan Jones: How does the Minister then feel that a Conservative-Lib Dem administration in Newport actually fears that this is not the case and they make this point: "The IPS would have needed to completely revise the service’s Welsh Language Plan under the Act as Welsh speaking customers’ interests could be endangered with the rapid downsizing or closure of the Newport passport office, jeopardising the capacity and the quality of the service they receive in their own language, given also that the other interview offices in Wales are marked for closure"?
If we add this to the submission from the Welsh Language Board, which makes the point that there is no Welsh language capacity in Liverpool, how does the Minister square those two points with what he has just said-that he is actually not breaching the terms of the 1993 Act?
Damian Green: It is simply not the case that the Welsh language service will disappear from Newport. That is a misconception.
Q97 Susan Elan Jones: Not disappear, but how does it actually fulfil the full terms of the Act?
Damian Green: It does not change. In fact, the capacity to be interviewed around Wales will be enhanced by making the service more mobile. Maybe you want to talk about that.
Sarah Rapson: We currently have seven sites in Wales where we offer the interviews through our video interview service, which is through using the buildings of local authorities or what have you. There will be changes made to Newport, obviously, because we will consolidate the two-the interview office and the public counter-into our new building. We will continue to offer services in Swansea, Aberystwyth and in Wrexham, and they will become a mobile service. We will release the actual buildings, but we will have a mobile team in those areas to deliver interviews. It may well be the case that we will be spending a day in Wrexham and two days somewhere else in a local town, which would be more convenient for customers. We will be able to provide those interviews in a place that is actually closer to where people live and where they want to go.
Chair: Thank you very much. There is a lot of interest in this.
Q98 Guto Bebb: I have a follow-up on the issue. Could you confirm this? You have said that the customer service elements of the service in Newport will continue, but the back office processing will happen somewhere else, I take it?
Damian Green: Yes.
Sarah Rapson: Yes.
Q99 Guto Bebb: Obviously, I am a Conservative Member, and we passed the 1993 Welsh Language Act, so I am very proud of that fact. But on that basis, my understanding is that there are some elements of the passport application process which cannot be done online through the medium of Welsh and therefore there has to be a paper application. If the back office work is being done outside Wales, will the Welsh language applications have to go outside Wales, and how will you deal with that from a staff point of view?
Sarah Rapson: Where we get applications completed in Wales, we will process them in Welsh. If we get an application form in Welsh, we will process them at the-
Q100 Guto Bebb: Some of the paperwork-some of the back office work-will be undertaken in Newport , therefore ?
Sarah Rapson: The applications that we get in Welsh, which is where we will have the Welsh speakers, will be processed in the Newport office.
Chair: Jonathan Edwards?
Jonathan Edwards: That was my exact question.
Chair: In that case, Jessica Morden.
Q101 Jessica Morden: In the equality impact assessment that I think you shared with the union yesterday, was not to have a Welsh service at all one of the options that you were considering?
Sarah Rapson: No. We have a legal requirement, but actually we also believe that in the spirit of that we ought to be offering Welsh services. There is no intention to reduce the level.
Q102 Jessica Morden: It was quoted to us in previous evidence that yesterday, in the equality impact assessment, one of the options was not to have a Welsh service at all.
Sarah Rapson: It is probably just for completeness, Ms Morden. There is no intention to do that.
Chair: We are grateful for that.
Q103 Stuart Andrew: We heard an earlier submission from the leader of the council that the loss of these jobs will obviously be quite significant in Newport, particularly as Marks & Spencer and Next are moving out, and actually the prospects of finding new work might be quite difficult. Can you tell us what plans you have in place to help people who may be losing their job to find alternative employment?
Damian Green: I mentioned a bit in my opening statement. Maybe you will want to elaborate on it. It is about what we are doing for our own staff.
Sarah Rapson: The support that we provide for our people going forward is really important-really, really important. So we will, over the next period of months, provide training and support in terms of CV writing, in terms of job application completion and interview practice-some practical support for people. We will also provide a counselling service, so emotional support for people who are going through the change. I have some HR professionals who will work in the local area with other Government Departments or local employers to see what opportunities there might be for people to be redeployed into. We will work with the local council also to do that.
Chair: I do appreciate that, but we are a bit short of time.
Q104 Stuart Andrew: Can I just quickly ask this as well? In terms of the 45 jobs that are remaining, was there any lobbying from the Secretary State for Wales and from the leader of the council to keep those jobs?
Damian Green: The Secretary of State for Wales has been vociferous in Newport’s defence, as has the leader of the council, as you would expect. As I said, there was a thought that perhaps the customer-facing office could go elsewhere in Wales, but having heard those representations I have decided no, let’s keep that in Newport, because the point was made to me that shops may be closing down. One of the things that the passport service can continue to do for Newport is to provide something that means that tens of thousands of people a year come into the centre of Newport and, particularly if they are waiting for their passport, will eat, drink, shop. whatever. That will continue, as has happened in the past.
Q105 Guto Bebb: Just on the service for the rest of Wales, obviously the interview offices are being changed in Wrexham, Aberystwyth and Swansea. What is the current usage of those offices roughly?
Sarah Rapson: I can tell you. The level of interviewing in the Newport interview office is 7,000. The next biggest office is Swansea with 3,500. This is interviews per year. Wrexham is 2.9, so 2,900. Aberystwyth is just under 600. Then we have three other video interview sites.
Q106 Guto Bebb: How will the mobile service work? Because obviously as a north Wales member as well I am delighted that 45 jobs are being retained in Newport, but for a north Wales individual looking for a passport, it is not a convenient four-hour drive, to say the least. How will the mobile service now work? How do you envisage that working?
Sarah Rapson: We are going to spend the next few months working this up in a bit more detail, but the intention is that we would release our own fixed buildings-all the leases are up, by the way, in September next year anyway-and we would make arrangements with other local authorities or other Government Departments to rent office space for parts of the week, and then our people would turn up with the right equipment and the right sort of information to be able to conduct the interview in that space. What it means is that we do not have the costs of a fixed office on a full-time basis. We are only paying for the time when we actually need it and we can be in a physical place where people can easily get to.
Q107 Chair: There are costings we can see, are there, Minister, on this? It doesn’t sound very cheap to me, with all due respect-the public sector renting a load of offices and turning up for a few days at a time.
Damian Green: It is better than the public sector leasing offices for years that are not very well used. One of the points made to all Departments at the moment is that the Government estate is vast, and a lot of it is under-occupied. Part of the reason for this is to make it easier, particularly in rural areas. You will know that every second Tuesday the passport office will turn up, or something like that, on the mobile library analogy. But, also, it means that we can get out of expensive long-term leases for chunks of buildings that may not be fully occupied.
Q108 Susan Elan Jones: I want to ask about the implication for security. We have already touched upon the fact that there will be a decision that will actually reduce the number of staff by 80%. Do you accept concerns that the closure of this office will have a detrimental effect on the security of the British passport?
Damian Green: Absolutely not. That clearly is one of our main drivers. The passport is a hugely important and sensitive document and we have to keep security as much as possible. It is a moving target, as Sarah has already said. We will continue to interview every first-time applicant, and the fraudsters and criminals who seek to exploit the passport service don’t stand still. They know that now, and indeed we will provide the figures for how many are cancelling interviews. They will move on to other parts of the passport service and try to get into it that way. We are constantly changing our defences because the criminals are constantly changing their attack methods.
Q109 Owen Smith: On the same theme, Minister, will these peripatetic staff be part of the 35 in Newport?
Sarah Rapson: No.
Q110 Owen Smith: These will be additional jobs?
Sarah Rapson: They are not additional jobs because we have people working in Swansea, Aberystwyth and Wrexham at the moment.
Q111 Owen Smith: So those people are all going to keep their jobs but be peripatetic?
Sarah Rapson: It is unlikely that we will keep all of those jobs. What we will do over the next month is work out what the operating model needs to be. Some of them may, but it is not going to be a big proportion of that. It will be a handful.
Q112 Owen Smith: A final question, if I may, to the Minister. There has obviously been a long tradition, 40 years really, of jobs being moved from London, and civil service jobs being effectively located in post-industrial bits of Britain. In my constituency, there is the Mint, which was put there in the ’60s. Do you feel comfortable that you are reversing that long tradition with this sort of decision?
Damian Green: I am not, because I am not moving jobs anywhere. Unfortunately-
Q113 Owen Smith: You are getting rid of the people.
Damian Green: Obviously, desperately unfortunately for the people involved, jobs are just going, but there are too many people employed in the passport service. We are under a legal obligation to run the passport service so that the fees cover the costs, so we cannot carry surplus staff and surplus buildings.
Q114 Owen Smith: I accept that you are not putting jobs there, but you are taking jobs away. Did you not consider continuing that theme and moving jobs from London to Newport?
Damian Green: The exact equivalent of what is happening, what we propose to happen in Newport, happened in London in 1988. There used to be a back office-a processing office-in London as well and that was closed down by the Government in 1988, just as the Glasgow back office was closed down in 2008. As the passport service gets more efficient and more can be done online, all the things that efficient entities do, and the passport service is efficient and well run, then over time you actually need fewer of these back office processing centres.
Q115 Guto Bebb: In terms of the financial implications of this decision, obviously, we have been told that the passport office or the service has to pay its way, but we have also been given evidence which indicates that the service would be paying its way if it was not for the fact that over the past few years something like £57 million was spent on consultancy fees. I would be interested to know over what period of time that £57 million was spent and what exactly was the consultancy all about?
Damian Green: A lot of the consultancy was about the ID card scheme, which is no longer with us, thanks to this Government. I know Sarah has the actual figures for consultancy, which, for those who think Governments waste money on consultants, are quite cheerful.
Q116 Chair: We hope there is going to be no more of that, but I think we probably haven’t got the time to go into all the details.
Damian Green: It is a 90% reduction this year. There used to be roughly 100. There are now 11.
Q117 Guto Bebb: With the stripping out of the consultancy fees, is the service actually paying its way at this point in time?
Sarah Rapson: The service will be cost recovery this financial year and next financial year, so, yes. The passport fee covers the operational costs of running the passport operation.
Q118 Jessica Morden: Just two quick questions. Is it 45 or, as now seems to be quoted, the figure of 35 jobs that you have got in mind for the customer-facing office?
Sarah Rapson: We have given a range, which is 30 to 45.
Q119 Jessica Morden: So it could be as low as 30?
Sarah Rapson: It could be as low as 30.
Q120 Jessica Morden: Would you be willing to provide the Committee written evidence of how you can provide counter staff security, interview, fraud, processing, printing and a Welsh service within that range of 30 to 45 jobs? Would you be willing to provide that to us as written evidence?
Damian Green: Certainly, yes.
Sarah Rapson: Yes.
Q121 Jessica Morden: Whilst maintaining exactly the same service for the people of Wales, which has obviously been promised today.
Secondly, do you appreciate that, with projects like St Athan, the barrage, and the fact we do not know what is going to happen about electrification of the railways, we are losing a prison and there is a proposed prison in north Wales, Wales needs some positive news from the Government, given the last couple of months, and that saving the passport office in Newport would be one way in order to deliver this?
Damian Green: As I said, I always object to the phrase that the passport office in Newport is closing down, because it isn’t. The people of Wales will still be able to get passports, as they always have done, from Newport. This is not the place to rehearse the macro-economic argument, but there is no money. The public sector in this country is having to shrink. I know the Secretary of State for Wales is working extremely hard both within Government and outside to make sure that the private sector in Wales becomes even more dynamic so that we can have a widely based, sustainable, economic recovery in Wales, as we seek to do for the rest of the United Kingdom.
Q122 Jonathan Edwards: Building on Mr Smith’s points in terms of savings, would not consolidating in Newport be more cost-effective for the service as, obviously, operational costs will be less? In terms of overcapacity-this is about reducing capacity in the service-would it not be better to share the pain across the nations and regions of the UK rather than just targeting Newport solely?
Damian Green: One of the options-it is in your written pack-was that we looked at the prospect of, if you like, slicing a bit off everywhere, and the costs, the wasted money on keeping all those buildings, were colossal.
Sarah Rapson: It is £1.9 million a year.
Damian Green: It is £20 million over 10 years. That option just does not stack up economically.
Q123 Chair: Minister, thank you very much for coming along today. We have asked for a little bit of further evidence from you in written form and we are going to be publishing a report quite soon on this. It would help us greatly if you were able to get us the information we have agreed the Home Office should be able to supply.
Damian Green: Okay, we will do that.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed for coming along.
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 15th November 2010|