National Audit Office
157-197 Buckingham Palace Rd
Your ref. GF/1378/10
14 October 2010
Dear Ms Ronaldson
The £23 passport
Thank you very much indeed for your letter dated 27 September 2010.
In a letter to the Treasury and several other people dated 17 August 2010, and in a related press release, I asserted that passport fees collected by the Identity & Passport Service have been used for years to fund the failed project to introduce government ID cards into the UK. This assertion was made in good faith but turns out to be flat wrong.
It was based on a longstanding misunderstanding of mine and I would like here to retract that assertion and apologise to both the National Audit Office and the Identity & Passport Service.
The nominal price of a ten-year adult British passport quadrupled between May 1997 and May 2010 from £18 to £72. Subsequently it has increased again, to £77.50. Given the rate of RPI inflation during that period, the real price has trebled.
British passports have a potential customer base of 60 million or so. That should keep the price down. They have to abide by EU regulations. EU-compliant passports have a potential customer base of 650 million or so. That should keep the price down. EU passports have to abide by International Civil Aviation Organization regulations. ICAO-compliant passports have a potential customer base of seven billion or so. They are commodities, and they should be very cheap.
They should be cheap also because technology prices have fallen since 1997, and continue to fall. They should be cheap because the Home Office have been the object of several efficiency reviews and because contracts are put out to competitive tender.
They should be cheap, but they’re not, their real price has trebled.
Does that price increase reflect any benefit to passport-holders?
• The introduction of biometrics based on facial geometry brings no benefits to anyone.
• Nor does the introduction of RFID chips into the passport. If anything, RFID is a security risk.
• Although it can’t do anything to prove that a passport was issued to the current holder, PKI can prove that it is an authentic passport issued by the Identity & Passport Service and that it hasn’t been subsequently revoked. But is the PKI technology used at border crossings abroad? Is it even used in the UK? There’s no point paying to introduce these security facilities if they aren’t used, like the security facilities in the biometric residence permits issued to non-EEA nationals and the smart gates installed at 10 UK airports.
• Authentication by interview for first time passport-holders can provide only limited security enhancements. The interviewers may be satisfied at the time that the person in front of them is who he says he is but that is of no use later to the UK Border Force or anyone else. The Identity & Passport Service are rumoured to be likely to close four interview offices. That would leave them with a network of just 64 offices for the entire country. They are not serious about authentication by interview.
• We are being asked to pay £385 million for CSC to develop a new passport application system. We already have a passport application system. A lot of the proposed facilities for a new passport have been dropped, like adding fingerprints from . And there is no longer a National Identity Register to be maintained. So why do we need a new application system?
• We are currently members of the US visa waiver scheme. There is no guarantee that we will continue to be members. We could find ourselves having to pay three times more than we need to for a passport and yet still have to pay for US visas in addition.
Take these, and other elements, out of the cost side of the equation and perhaps the ten-year adult passport could once again approach its natural level of £23.
Since passports are not included in government expenditure, none of today’s Browne and Green reviews is likely to consider them. A £23 passport wouldn’t save the government anything. But it would leave several billion pounds in 60 million long-suffering people’s pockets.
The Identity & Passport Service, a monopoly supplier, perhaps a bit credulous about technology, perhaps led on by over-enthusiastic politicians and salesmen and consultants, could continue to over-charge its clients without scrutiny ...
... unless the National Audit Office can find room in its budget to do a value for money examination of today’s passports.
You might consider for instance this announcement, PA wins gold at the 2010 MCA awards:
The winning project involved working with the IPS to procure a new passport provider. This complex and high-profile project required a redesigned passport which met the new international regulations for travel documentation, with enhanced security features to keep ahead of the threat of counterfeiting and the capability to store additional biometric information.
Cui bono? PA Consulting get a gold award and a consultancy fee. The British public gets to pay three times more than it needs to for a passport.
PA Consulting themselves, it may be worth noting, believe that biometrics is “mostly hype”, please see the children’s graphic on page 3 of their paper on biometrics. And yet they continue to charge the Identity & Passport Service and the UK Border Agency, i.e. the British people, for advice on how to deploy biometrics.
Once again, thank you very much indeed for your letter and if you can look into passports, please do.
cc Rt Hon Danny Alexander MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury
Stephen Hammond MP
Damian Green MP, Minister of State (Immigration)
Keith Vaz, Chair, Home Affairs Committee
Andrew Miller, Chair, House of Commons Science and Technology Committee
Sarah Rapson, Chief Executive, Identity & Passport Service
Alan Brown, Deputy Director, Policy, Identity & Passport Service