Blue passports: British firm De La Rue fights to keep contract after Brexit
Hampshire company claims Franco-Dutch Gemalto ‘drastically underbid’ for right to make new passports
Passport manufacturer De La Rue is to mount a legal bid to prevent the Government awarding the contract to make post-Brexit passports to a Franco-Dutch company.
In a statement, the Hampshire-based firm confirmed it was taking steps towards launching a formal appeal against the decision to award the £490m contract to Gemalto, questioning the feasibility of its cut-price offer.
“We can accept that we weren’t the cheapest, even if our tender represented a significant discount on the current price,” the company said.
“It has also been suggested that the winning bid was well below our cost price, which causes us to question how sustainable it is.
“Based on our knowledge of the market, it’s our view that ours was the highest quality and technically most secure bid.”
According to the Daily Mail, the Home Office “gave a 60-40 weighting to quality and price respectively, and De La Rue believes Gemalto drastically underbid because it knew it could not match the British firm on quality”.
From October 2019, Britain’s present burgundy EU-branded passports, which have been in use for 30 years, will be replaced by dark blue books similar to those used prior to 1988. Holders of the burgundy passports will still be able to use them until their expiry date.
News that passports were returning to their pre-EU style was heralded by “a number of Brexit supporters” as a symbolic triumph of the UK “re-establishing its sovereignty as it leaves the EU”, City AM reports.
However, “the decision to give a foreign company the contract had been criticised by pro-Brexit government figures”, while eliciting ironic jabs from the Remain camp, says the BBC.
More than 270,000 people have signed a petition by the Daily Mail calling on the Government to award the contract to a British firm.
The Home Office said Gemalto’s bid met the needs of the passport service and could save the taxpayer as much as £120m over the 12-year term of the contract.
De La Rue has been making UK passports for the Home Office since 2009.
Blue passports: why does it matter to so many Brits?
When Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis announced before Christmas that Britain would bring back dark blue passports after Brexit – many Brits let out a collective patriotic roar.
For many, blue passports symbolise British prosperity and self-determination, and changing the colour “is regarded by some Brexiters as a powerful symbol of Britain’s restored sovereignty” says The Guardian.
Lewis echoed these feelings when he told the BBC: “One of the most iconic things about being British is having a British passport”.
The Sun hailed the move as a “stunning victory”, adding that Lewis understood that many Brits who voted in the referendum want to see change.
But Labour MP Mary Creagh pointed out that no one under age 45 will understand the symbolism.
However, Brexiteer joy has been short-lived after it was revealed the post-Brexit blue passport, that great symbol of British sovereignty, will be made in France.
Today, Martin Sutherland, the chief executive of UK firm De La Rue, which has made British passports for almost a century, confirmed the company had lost out on the contract to make the new designs after 2019.
Three companies reportedly bid for the new contract and it is believed that Gemalto, which is listed on the French and Dutch stock exchanges, won the race for the £490m printing job.
The news brought a stinging response from across the political spectrum. Tory MP Sir Bill Cash, chairman of the Commons European scrutiny committee, called the decision “completely unnecessary” adding “in fact it is symbolically completely wrong”.
Former cabinet minister and arch-Brexiteer Priti Patel went further, telling The Sun it was a “national humiliation”.
The decision to award the contract to an overseas company could lead to hundreds of job losses at De La Rue, which first produced a blue passport for the UK government in 1915.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Sutherland challenged the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary to “come to my factory and explain my dedicated workforce why they think this is a sensible decision to offshore the manufacture of a British icon”.
While acknowledging his company had been beaten on price, he pointed out that in France, as a foreign-based firm, De La Rue would be barred from bidding to produce the French passport.
EU procurement rules, which Britain must obey until after Brexit, “mean that ministers cannot discriminate against EU firms bidding for public contracts”, says The Times. The decision was the result of a blind tender, meaning that ministers were not allowed to know which firm submitted which bid.
But others chose to focus on Brexiteer hysteria surrounding the return to blue passports.
The Liberal Democrat's Brexit spokesman, Tom Brake, said: “The blue passport saga is turning into a farce. First it was established that we did not have to leave the EU to have blue passports. Now we learn that the passports will be printed by a foreign company”.
“And to add insult to injury, we will pay over the odds for them because the value of the pound has fallen since Brexit and they will have to be imported.”
Eloise Todd, of the pro-remain pressure group Best for Britain, said: “The new pro-Brexit blue passports were supposed to be a statement of intent and now we find out they are to be made by the French or the Dutch. The irony is unreal."