The Government "spending £500m to bring back Brexit Blue Passports" is (mostly) FAKE NEWS

A nation mis-informed. Again.

The latest Brexit flap that tens of thousands of people are talking about is the government apparently "spending £500m" to “change the colour” of British passports (from burgundy back to blue). A roundup of the main coverage:

The Home Office has confirmed it will spend almost £500m redesigning passports for British citizens
— The Independent, 2 April 2017


Leavers are excited. They see it as an expression of national sovereignty and identity.

Nigel Farage (former UKIP leader, 748,000 followers on Twitter) is delighted:


Remainers are angry. They don’t like the symbolic loss of EU citizenship and are up in arms about the “waste of £500m” that could be better spent elsewhere.

Abi Wilkinson (Freelance journalist, 43,000 followers on Twitter) says the government is prioritising redesigning passports over housing benefits for young adults.

Matt Haig (author and journalist, 103,000 followers on Twitter), claims it will cost “£500 million pounds to change the colour”.

David Lammy (Member of Parliament for Tottenham, 81,000 followers on Twitter) wants this “funding” spent on “Schools instead”.


Slight problem:  most of this is utter bull****.

Let's look at the facts.

The Government isn’t “spending £500m” on a passport “redesign”. In fact it is spending essentially zero

HM Passport Office (part of the Home Office) is almost entirely funded by “user fees”. What this means is the cost of passports is borne by citizens directly: i.e. when you get a new passport or renew one. This means….

The £500m can’t be spent on anything else!

Since you and me give the government this money, in return for the passport, it can’t be “spent on something else”. This isn’t taxpayers money. The tropes about spending it on schools, hospitals or anything else are all false, unless the plan is not to have any passports at all. Sorry Abi and David, you’ll need to find another axe to grind (shouldn’t be too hard).

The Government isn’t redesigning the passport because of Brexit.

The timing with Brexit is coincidental. The UK redesigns its passport every 5 years, mostly for security reasons (e.g. to introduce biometric features). New versions were introduced in 2010 and 2015. Private firm De La Rue (who also make UK banknotes), won a ten year contract/tender for designing and producing passports in 2009. That contract is up for renewal in 2019. 

The term of the current [passport] book design and manufacture is a 10-year cycle and the tender’s timing with our exit from the European Union is quite coincidental. The passport is a unique symbol of national identity and a critical piece of national infrastructure. As such, there will be huge expectation on the development of this design
— Julian Payne, Creative Director at De La Rue, quoted by Dezeen.com, 27/02/2017

The £500m (actually: £490m) isn’t just for the “redesign” of British passports, it also covers printing 60 million of them over 10 years

Matt Haig’s claim that it is “£500 million pounds to change the colour of a passport” is false. And since it is something his 100K followers will probably repeat for the next 2 years, worth debunking right now.

The government tender for the contract was published on 23 March 2017 (with initial market engagement on 10 Oct 2016) and covers the “design” ANDprint, assembly and personalisation of the UK Passport and its variants” (plus other non-passport documents like Emergency Travel Papers).

The tender is clear that the £490m estimated cost includes producing 6 million passports annually, over 138 months (10 years plus an option to extend for 1.5 years). 

Extract of Government tender notice, 'Passport Production and Associated Services Contract', via contractsfinder.gov.uk

That’s about £40m a year, or £7-£8 per passport.

Again, this is paid via the cost of purchasing a passport by you and me. Now you could make an esoteric argument that £490m isn't good value for money or it could be cheaper, but don't bother with that one if you're a Remainer: this tender is being competitively bid, on the open market, under EU procurement rules.

As an aside, also this means the next “redesign” (likely in 2024-2025) is also funded by this contract (if you want to geek out, this could involve your smartphone becoming your passport, though unfortunately this is probably a few years away yet).

The use of a ‘Blue’ colour isn’t decided, and is mostly irrelevant anyway.

The Home Office hasn’t committed to the use of blue - or for that matter, red or pink passports. This will be decided as part of the tender process (ironically the government confirming the new colour with the incumbent De La Rue at this stage is probably illegal under EU procurement rules).

Shocker I know, but changing the colour of a passport isn’t a particularly expensive part of the design process. The intricate nature of the anti-counterfeit graphics and writing is. The bio-metric security is. What images to use to represent the national identify is (see here for a long discussion on the detailed thought that goes into making a passport). The vast majority of the lifetime contract cost is in printing & distribution, not the initial design phase.

And to disappoint some Brexiteers as well - the EU also doesn’t mandate the colour of passports, and could have been blue for the entire time we were in the European Union. The use of “Burgundy red” is only a recommendation (dating back to 1981). Croatia still retains a blue/black passport (hat tip to John Band), though it is the only EU state to do so, and for reasons to do with connotations with Communist Yugoslavia.

Things are looking up for Brexiteers elsewhere apart from the colour - the EU does mandate or demand many other standardised features, such as “European Union” at the top, which will of course be ditched. But, most of the other features (size, a lot of the layout) are mandated globally outside the EU, by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

Latest version of Croatian passport

Conclusion

The government isn’t spending £500m to change the colour of your passports because of Brexit. It is renewing the passport on its standard 5 year schedule, and you are paying this money in exchange for one. This covers the lifetime cost of everything to do with the passport for 10 years, not just the design.

It is entirely sensible that the government seeks input into the latest design for the passports from 2019 as the UK will be leaving the European Union at the same time (especially as it will take several months just to award the contract to produce them).

Rather than using this as another opportunity for ill-informed rants and fighting over nothing, it would be far more productive for both Remainers and Leavers to critique and input into the new design, as it will have to represent everyone in the UK.

In fact, there is an argument to be made that in order to unite everyone, perhaps it shouldn't be blue at all?

For the next British passport, the design needs to capture our national identity the way we are now, but also signal something about our future, the way we are seeking to reposition ourselves in the world. The passport is a powerful symbol and as a nation, whatever your views on Brexit, we are about to embark on a new chapter in our history - you need to seek to capture and reflect that
— Julian Payne, Creative Director at De La Rue, quoted by Dezeen.com, 27/02/2017