MP Richard Bacon, a member of the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, says that new passport holders will still have to pay for an ID card, even though the new passport will carry broadly similar data.
Richard Bacon was speaking as the Public Accounts Committee published a report on e-passports on 10 October 2007.
In 2006, the standard British passport book changed to include an embedded data chip, storing biographical data and a digital facial image of the passport holder. From 2009 second-generation e-passports will incorporate the fingerprints of the passport holder.
The committee’s report finds that UK citizens holding a valid new passport will still be required to purchase a UK national identity card, even though the proposed ID card and e-passports will hold similar data.
According to the committee’s report, this will entail significant additional costs for passport holders.
The committee said: “The Home Office needs to explain the underlying rationale as to why citizens need an identity card as well as an e-Passport, particularly as the ePassport offers broader utility in terms of global travel.”
Richard Bacon said: “The new passport will carry the same data as the ID card, so an ID card will do nothing new, other than prove you have paid the identity tax.”
Officials at the Identity and Passport Service have told Computer Weekly that it’s difficult to differentiate all of the costs of producing ID cards scheme from the costs of producing passports since they share part of the same IT infrastructure. When I asked officials at the Home Office whether regular fee increases for passports are being used to fund part of the ID card costs I received no clear answer.
The Public Accounts Committee said that fees for passports have risen ahead of inflation since September 2003. Part of this is because of the costs of passport applicants being interviewed by its staff and having biometric data captured. With the introduction of second generation ePassports, all applicants will need to attend a local office to give their fingerprints.
But some of the passport fees are not properly explained. For example nearly £10 of the passport fee is payable to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office [FCO]. When I asked the Identity and Passport Service for a break-down of the £10 it referred me to the FCO. At first an FCO spokeswoman undertook to provide a break-down but later recanted. So we don’t know whether some of the £10 paid to the FCO is being used to subsidise ID cards.
The report of the Public Accounts Committee (page 10) has a graph of passport fees which shows what it calls “sharp” rises particularly since 2005. The cost of producing a passport was about £15 in 2000. This was expected to rise beyond £17 per passport said the National Audit Office said in a report on passports in 1999. Today, it costs £114 for a passport if you need one quickly. This compares with £31 for urgent passport applications in 1999.
And the turnaround times for a passport have changed in part because of extra security checks. In 1999 it was possible for example to obtain a passport the same day by visiting a passport office. Now you have to phone for an appointment to visit a passport office. During busy periods it may take a week to obtain an appointment – and still the cost of a so-called “same-day” passport is £114.
The Public Accounts Committee says: “The national identity card will entail significant additional costs for the high proportion of the UK population that already holds a passport.” It adds: “Passport fees could be set to increase substantially over the next five years to fund the introduction of second generation ePassports.”
It’s clear that fees for e-passports are subsidising the IT and security infrastructure that will support the production of ID cards. There needs to be greater transparency of costs so that it’s clear how much passport applicants are subsidising the ID cards scheme.
On a more positive note, the report of the Public Accounts Committee shows how the Identity and Passport Service learned lessons from other projects to introduce e-passports successfully.