Passports have been on my mind a good deal these last few weeks. A passport is more than just a security document that allows us to travel from one country to the next. It is a symbol of our national identity and a source of pride for many citizens. I’m no little Englander, in fact, I absolutely love France, but still I am appalled at the news that our UK passports are to be produced by a foreign company that is part-owned by the French Government. This is nothing to do with nationalism or protectionism, or whether it’s blue or burgundy – the real issues surrounding the passport debacle are much more serious than the colour of its bindings.
De La Rue, the current producer of UK passports, employs a workforce of over 600 on the Team Valley Trading Estate in my constituency. Two hundred work on passport production and another 400 on currency production. These are high quality jobs and well paid – just the type of jobs we need more of here in the north east. When I visit the plant I’m always struck by the dedication of the highly-skilled workforce and the relentless security measures and clearances required to enter the site.
So, the workers were right to be shocked, when they heard on the news that the UK Government’s preferred bidder was, in fact, a French-owned company. The workforce are dedicated to passport production and they deliver ahead of their targets month on month. They are available to work at the drop of a hat, day or night, to meet demand. In fact, they are so committed that they regularly deliver a profit return to the Home Office through their gain-share agreement. I was pretty shocked too.
The passport contract is – or should be – about more than cost. It’s a vital part of our border security and we need to be sure that we maintain the same level of assurance in the quality of our passport. That’s why I’ve been asking detailed questions of Government ministers about just how viable the new contract will be at a cost that is so much lower than the current cost.
A price rumoured to be £120m lower has to make you wonder just how that kind of saving can be made and the integrity of our passports maintained. That’s why I have been working with Unite the Union, who represent the workforce at De La Rue, and my Labour colleagues to ensure that the issue is not swept under the carpet. I intend to make sure the dust keeps getting raised.
The decision to award the work to an overseas company would be a disaster for our region. We often talk about the de-industrialising of our region and this is another example of a threat to skilled work disappearing from the north east. The Government love to talk about the Northern Powerhouse and have even awarded our region with the Great Exhibition of the North, in which we will celebrate our heritage and future as an innovative region. If the Government is serious about the Northern Powerhouse, they will ensure this decision is reviewed.
I was pleased that on Monday 26 March, the Speaker allowed me to ask an Urgent Question to the Minister in the House of Commons and later that week I asked Theresa May to provide reassurances to the House about the final decision on the bid at Prime Minister’s Questions before Easter. We all know that Prime Minister Theresa May loves a soundbite when it comes to Brexit. But what did she really mean when she announced we would have a “red, white and blue Brexit”? Was she referring to the French Tri-colour or the Union flag?
The Petitions Committee, on which I sit, considers debating any official e-petition that reaches 100,000 signatures. The Government will also provide a response. So, I urge you to sign the e-petition to keep the pressure on the Government to continue to manufacture the new blue passport in the UK, rather than abroad.
The petition can be found at: petitions.parliament.uk/petitions/208170. Let’s continue to campaign to keep our passport production here in Gateshead.