Sir George Young: The right hon. Gentleman's colleague, the Under–Secretary of State for the Home Department, said last night of the passport crisis that the jobs of all Ministers--his, the Home Secretary's and those of every member of the Government--are on the line. Does he agree?
The Deputy Prime Minister: Nobody is on the line. Let us get the problem into proper context. More than 3 million passports have been issued this year and the Passport Agency is currently issuing 150,000 a week, which is more than 20 per cent. up on last year. There has been a 40 per cent. increase in applications in recent weeks. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made clear, he is treating these problems seriously and putting new measures in place to tackle them. He said that in his statement to the House yesterday.
Hundreds of new staff have been taken on to deal with the problems and, to be fair, let us recognise that they are due particularly to the number of passport applications being made for children. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes, exactly."] It was our policy to implement that measure to improve the situation so that children are not abducted. That was agreed by the all-party group of which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is a member. The group recommended that measure to the House.
Sir George Young: Not even the Home Secretary yesterday pinned the blame on my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald. Do the latest figures from the Home Office show that the queues are getting longer or shorter?
The Deputy Prime Minister: Today's figures show that the queues are getting shorter. I have no doubt that the advertising campaign and the information being provided by the Home Office will reassure people. Indeed, 99.9 per cent. of applicants have had their passports processed in time for their holidays. We are sorry for any inconvenience that may have been caused, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said yesterday. The fact that he did not blame the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald just shows how generous he is. I should point out to the House that it was he who came to the House and said that he was sorry for any inconvenience. That may seem unusual to a party that, in 18 years in government, never apologised for anything that it did.
Sir George Young: The figures published today in Hansard show an increase of 34,000 outstanding applications for the last week for which figures are available. Given that an additional £10 is currently payable by those who have to queue in person at the passport office to get their passports processed, will the right hon. Gentleman at least consider suspending that fine, which is due entirely to the Government's incompetence?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I am assured that, by 11.30 this morning, the queues had been completely cleared. I should have thought that both sides of the House would welcome that, as it means that less inconvenience is caused. Suggestions about possible changes have been heard by the Home Secretary, and he can consider them. At least we have shown sensitivity in dealing with this problem, and people can be assured that they will get their passports in time for their holidays. The changes introduced by the Home Secretary reduce the possibility that children will be abducted.
Incidentally, I welcome the right hon. Member for North–West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) to the Dispatch Box on this occasion, but remind him that he is the third substitute for the Leader of the Opposition in two years. I do not want to worry him, but look at what happened to the other two. I hope that it will be some time before he has to get on his bike and leave the job.
Sir George Young: I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman wants to be reminded of his last appearance at the Dispatch Box in this role.
The right hon. Gentleman said that all the queues had been cleared. Half a million people are waiting for their passports and 1 million have been unable to get through to the Government by telephone. Thousands of people are queueing at passport offices and having to pay £10 extra for the privilege. When will the Government start working round the clock to process passports instead of excuses?
The Deputy Prime Minister: As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made clear, we are working round the clock and at weekends to clear the backlog. I should have thought that achieving 99.9 per cent. of passport applications in time for people to go on holiday was a record. It is at least a better performance than that of the privatised railways that the Conservative party gave us.