Let’s give everyone a passport for free at 16

British citizens at present have visa-free access to 173 countries and territories around the World. But that comes at a cost – currently £72.50 for a new passport, or £82.25 if you use the checking service. But what if your passport came in the post, free of charge, on your 16th birthday, like your National Insurance card? This is my suggestion for a new, distinctive Liberal Democrat policy.

Unimpeded travel around the world is something we should encourage, as part of a holistic, internationalist education. I don’t doubt that the admin fee is a barrier for less well-off young people, or those less-supported by family members. British people are relatively well travelled, with only 8% of British adults, roughly, having never been abroad. However, I expect a disproportionate amount of those less-travelled individuals are from lower income groups. Like votes at 16, I believe a free passport would be a great message for young people. Be a part of British society, and the whole world is at your fingertips.

Providing every young adult with a gateway to the wider world, free of charge and administrative efforts, would help them to take that first step outside their comfort zone, and to discover new friends, work experiences, and linguistic skills. It would also provide a useful piece of ID automatically, which is generally vital when dealing with job applications and other hurdles.

Some might argue that this measure would mostly help middle-class, gap-year-enjoying young people. It certainly would help them too, but I find it hard to scorn the assumption that removing a financial barrier (of any size) helps poorer people and families above all. If further provisions were to be made, I could suggest parental-means-tested ‘Travel Vouchers’ of £100 being issued, upon additional application, to help fund that initial trip.

In the book ‘Migration and Poverty: Toward Better Opportunities for the Poor” (World Bank, 2011) John Gibson and David McKenzie report from that reducing passport-issuing costs merely by 1% tends on average to lead to a 0.75% increase in emigration abroad. From this, I think we can confidently say that if free passports for 16 year olds were introduced, we would see tens of thousands more British young people taking advantage of travel, for work and pleasure, both with our EU partners and in the wider world outside its borders.

Each year, according to its website, HM Passport Office currently issues roughly 5 million passports every year. In 2013, they conducted 275,000 identity authentication interviews. It costs roughly £400 million a year to run the passport-issuing arm of HM Passport Office (see some useful data here). I imagine my suggestion would involve greater costs, perhaps growing to £500 million, or even £600 million, at a very rough estimate.

The increased workload would, of course, mean expansion of the work of the Passport Office, but surely in a progressive, liberal cause, this expansion would be justified. To cover the cost, I wonder if some amalgamation of data retention/gathering would be possible with the DVLA, as everyone who started driving tests would already have valid ID? I am happy to hear other suggestions for savings. Remember, I’m not suggesting the free issuing of all passports throughout a citizen’s life, merely the first one.

Debate on this point will probably focus on the cost of such a scheme, and its utility to the poorest in society. There will also be arguments about the ‘ID card’ implications. Following our blocking of the ill-conceived, intrusive cards during the coalition, would such a policy introduce them by stealth anyway? Well, no, I would argue – there would be no obligation to carry your passport except when travelling abroad, and they would not contain any of the intrusive biometric data once salivated over by Whitehall mandarins. If you wanted to, you could also opt out of the issuing before your 16th birthday (although there would have to be safeguards in place to make sure this was not abused by coercive parents).

I believe this is an idea that most voters would find appealing, across the political spectrum, and would be unique to us, and a simple ‘sell’ on the doorstep. I would urge my fellow Liberal Democrats to refine it as an idea, and to help me consider any flaws I haven’t considered.

* David Faggiani is a young-ish Liberal living in London, ex-smoker and co-founder of 'Game of Seats' political discussion group on Facebook and Twitter.

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24 Comments

  • Only £600 million, eh…And these “less well-off young people” who cant’ afford a passport will be able to afford travel abroad?

  • David Faggiani 14th Jan '16 - 10:49am

    I’m glad we had this discussion, John Marriott 🙂

  • Glenn Andrews 14th Jan '16 - 10:52am

    “Some might argue that this measure would mostly help middle-class”….. that would be a nonsensical argument, given that the one thing preventing most low income families from taking up cheap package holidays abroad is the cost of the passports .

  • why not? Issue the first one free.

  • @glenn andrews add in the cost of Air Passenger Duty

  • Barry Snelson 14th Jan '16 - 11:01am

    I don’t quite see your passport arriving in the post. There is a nationality and identity test you have to pass as well (photos etc). If you can afford to travel abroad you can afford a passport.
    But a good idea and keep thinking them up! We need differentiation from Pinky and Porky.
    (Sorry that should be Perky – can’t imagine what I was thinking of).

  • £600 million is certainly a lot of money. But there are a number of different ways this policy could be of potential benefit. If we take the view of this type of passport initiative as being a valuable accessory to social tourism schemes, and look at the documented impact of these schemes on the mental health and wellbeing of lower income and marginalised groups (where there is a significant body of evidence to suggest that having the support to travel on holiday positively benefits individuals, and in turn, society) Then it would be interesting to see if, as one of its potential benefits as a policy, whether spending £600 million in this way might serve to at least partly negate some of the far larger sum of £12 billion currently spent on mental health services annually in the UK.

  • Glenn Andrews 14th Jan ’16 – 10:52am……“Some might argue that this measure would mostly help middle-class”….. that would be a nonsensical argument, given that the one thing preventing most low income families from taking up cheap package holidays abroad is the cost of the passports …….

    My argument is that this would help very few ‘low income’ families (unless we issue free passports at birth) as all children need their own passports……….
    BTW.. I just love the ‘cheap’ bit. ‘Cheap’ is relative; I know families who would consider £200 pp self catering in Spain anything but cheap…

  • Tsar Nicholas 14th Jan '16 - 11:38am

    The climate situation is so serious that we need to cease air travel as soon as possible.

  • Eddie Sammon 14th Jan '16 - 11:39am

    I would try to stay away from SNP-style ‘middle class welfarism” as much as possible. It’s not a terrible policy, but I would rather state spending went on things like food banks, the homeless, domestic violence refuges, things like that. Other vital public services too, of course.

  • “Some might argue that this measure would mostly help middle-class”….. that would be a nonsensical argument, given that the one thing preventing most low income families from taking up cheap package holidays abroad is the cost of the passports .

    I think you will find that in most families the junior members are under sixteen; and their passports need renewing every 5 years…

  • “The climate situation is so serious that we need to cease air travel as soon as possible”.

    So make the ‘travel vouchers’ interrail + eurostar tickets. This is beginning to get expensive, with 750,000 reaching each year. £150 for interrail, £120 for eurostar. Maybe a connecting ticket, 75 for a passport. Approaching £200m per year. BUT, many people have passports as children. Do they get these perks, too? Are we talking about the first renewal after age 16? Or do we say: if you’ve been abroad as a child, you don’t need this? I think I’d go for the first renewal being free.

    Actually, I’d extend it to people turning 21, for the first five years. No harm in actually catching a few actual voters!

  • It’ll be useful for travelling to Scotland

  • It’s not a terrible policy but not great either. what I mean by not great is that it changes nothing of any real consequence – those who go abroad save £80 over ten years. That changes nothing, the country is still fundamentally the same with or without this.

    If you look at some of the stuff Labour did in power I think it would be fair to say that they radically changed the relationship between the individual and the state, they altered the balance of power giving the state far more power over the individual and effectively restricted free speech. After labour there is almost nobody left who will say I don’t agree with what you say but I’ll defend your right to say it.

    The tories are now radically altering what welfare is in this country.

    Changing things is what gives governments and political parties a purpose, without which they will cease to exist.

    What policies do the lib dems have that the others don’t that will change the country in a meaningful way? Free passports isn’t one, that’s just a small middle class tax break.

  • John Marriott
    You did miss out. The WW2 generation gets a passport for free. I am not sure they travel more often though. Payment of British pensions for those British pensioners who live in Commonwealth countries remains frozen at the level of the date they retired. (no increases)

  • Ronald Murray 15th Jan '16 - 9:09am

    This is essentially a daft idea. Firstly if everyone were issued a passport in this way whether wanted or not would make a nonsense of opposing ID cards. Authorities would just ask for your passport. Secondly how couls identities be properly checked.
    Also children of sixteen could easily leave the country to join ISIS and the like.
    More importantly this would be another silly policy such legalising drugs to make us unelectable.

  • Steve Deller 15th Jan '16 - 6:46pm

    Give a tax break to those “green” individuals that choose not to have a passport instead of encouraging the polluting classes.

  • @ronald Murray

    Legalising drugs is not a silly policy. It would fundamentally change things in that it would radically change what is and isn’t a crime, reduce crime, allow the problem to be treated as a medical issue, change and reduce the prison population etc etc.

    That doesn’t mean it will be a popular policy mind you, but then neither is federalism or closer union with the EU or taking more asylum seekers etc etc. But if a party runs away from anything that doesn’t have majority support it is left with nothing to stand for.

    A party must have a purpose or it will become extinct. The liberal democrats are fighting for the party’s survival at the moment, not the party’s popular appeal.

    Look at what is on the radar. In Scotland they only have 5 MSPs left and most of those seats look like they will be lost this May. The party would only need to achieve 6% of the popular vote in Scotland to hold those seats but that really doesn’t look likely. When a party can’t get 6% of the voter under PR that’s not because it’s unpopular, it’s because it’s pointless. This is why a pro drugs legalisation party like the Scottish greens who have a whole range of deeply unpopular policies will still win more seats in May than the lib dems.

  • David Faggiani 18th Jan '16 - 12:12pm

    Thanks for commenting everyone! Much appreciated.

    I’ll just try to tackle/engage with some of the objections:

    @Joe Otten/expats
    Yes, well, that’s a concern. I do think my suggestion of means-tested travel vouchers would help, though. I also think (and I know this could be controversial) that there’s a certain stasis that develops from rejecting ideas because they would benefit the middle-class, as well as poorer people. We actually might need a few of those policies…. ‘expats’, happy to consider free or discounted child passports too/instead, good suggestion.

    @Glenn Andrews/Bruce/Lucie – thank you for what I’ll label your ‘support in principle’! Thanks also for suggesting compensation for Air Passenger Duty (Bruce) and the possible ameliorative effects on Mental Health (and spending) in the UK (Lucie).

    @Tsar Nicholas – good, Green point! I’d argue the comments of Ian Eiloart (on rail vouchers) go some way towards addressing them. But if you’re suggesting we should actively discourage people leaving the UK (by air, at least)… that might be a bit controversial. Understand your concern, though, obviously. @Steve Deller seems to agree with you.

    @Eddie Sammon – I would argue that what you term ‘SNP-style middle class welfarism’ is not something we should avoid, but something we should adopt and improve, where possible? They seem quite popular, the SNP…. Also, you say this isn’t a priority for you. That’s fine, but that’s a little bit like changing the subject, with respect, isn’t it? Surely a Lib Dem manifesto (in 2020) would need to be full of wide-ranging policies, and there would be room for something like this idea?

    TBC…..

  • David Faggiani 18th Jan '16 - 12:12pm

    [email protected] Marriott – in your second comment (your first comment ‘NO!’ put me in mind of the Argument Sketch from Monty Python) you seem to perhaps-sarcastically suggest that you should receive what would effectively be ‘Reparations’ if this policy ever got introduced. I’m not sure if you’re serious here, but I would say that, if you are, then that’s a flawed response to attempts at progressive social policy, and, that if you’re not serious at all, then you’re being a bit unhelpful. Thank you for responding, nonetheless! I hope this policy actually would be a bit ‘sexy’ for some voters, as you worry in your reply to ‘Rsf7’

    Rsf7 – I agree, it’s not the boldest idea, but it would be, I think, appealing, and could help people, especially if refined with help from you all. Baby steps towards a possible manifesto, again….

    Ronald Murray – I take it then, that you fundamentally disagree with my argument in the penultimate paragraph of my article (namely, that this would be different from ID cards). That’s fine, of course, I’m sure many or even a majority of Lib Dems may agree with you. I disagree, however, with your concern over children joining ISIS because of this policy (all travel would be slightly easier, I hope, so yes, terror-based travel would be slightly easier, too, but that hardly seems like an argument not to make travel easier for everyone). I also disagree with your drug legalization opposition, but that’s a different topic! (I think @rsf7 might agree with me)

    Phew! Thanks again for all responses! Happy to continue argument, here or on Twitter (@dfaggiani1)

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