A decision on the massive contract, which typically involves the production of more than six million passports a year, had been expected at the end of last month. Earlier this week a Home Office spokesperson told PrintWeek that the procurement process was “ongoing” with no update as yet.
Hours after The Telegraph reported that Gemalto had won the contract after apparently undercutting De La Rue’s bid by some £50m, the Home Office had still not released any official statement, and De La Rue was also in the dark about the decision.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast this morning, De La Rue chief executive Martin Sutherland said: “We have woken up to this news this morning so it is breaking news for us. It is shocking news and disappointing, mostly for my workforce in Gateshead.”
Sunderland said De La Rue’s bid had been “very competitive and a sensible price”.
“I wonder if the Government is storing up problems for the future. Yet again they are just buying the cheapest, and buying the cheapest is not always the most sensible option,” he stated.
“I question whether you can really get high-quality, highly technical document at such a cheap price.
“I’m going to have to go and talk to my workforce about this, and I’d like to invite Theresa May and Amber Rudd to come and talk to them and explain why this is a good and sensible decision.”
The existing contract runs until July 2019, with a transition period during 2020. The impact on jobs at De La Rue is currently unknown. The new, post-Brexit passports will revert to a dark blue design.
Unite national officer Louisa Bull said the union would be mobilising a campaign. “This is an outrageous decision. There is a two-week window to appeal it, and it’s about what we can do in that time, especially with Easter coming,” she said.
“The fact that our members have woken up to find out they’ve lost it and for them not to have informed De La Rue in advance is appalling from the Home Office.”
Bull said that the whole supply chain for UK passports is currently in the UK, from paper to the printed book with its personalisation and security features, whereas if the contract does go to Gemalto it is likely that only the personalisation aspect will take place here because that was one of the terms of the tender.
She also pointed out that the Gateshead passport production site set up by De La Rue after it won the contract from then-supplier 3M Security Printing in 2009 involves “highly-skilled jobs in the north, just what the Northern Powerhouse is supposed to be about”.
“Theresa May and Amber Rudd need to explain to De La Rue workers why ‘taking back control’ means their jobs could be put at risk while the production of Britain’s new iconic passport is shipped overseas to France.
“It wouldn’t happen in France because of national security and it shouldn’t happen in the UK. De La Rue is the UK’s leading security printer making bank notes as well as passports sustaining thousands of decent jobs in the UK. Ministers need to reverse this decision and start supporting British business and UK workers through public procurement and an industrial strategy which is more than just sound bites,” Bull stated.
PrintWeek understands that around 200 employees work on the passport side of the plant. De La Rue, which is the world’s largest security printer, also produces passports for some 40 other countries.
Gemalto offers a range of specialist security and ID services and had sales of €3bn (£2.6bn) last year. It currently has five UK offices including a card production facility in Fareham. The company specialises in identification systems and data protection. It currently produces national identity cards and e-identity solutions for around 40 countries.
A statement subsequently issued from the Home Office amidst the ensuing row pointed to taxpayer savings of £100m-£120m over the life of the new contract, with facilities in Fareham and Hayward to handle it expected to create up to 70 new jobs.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The preferred bidder has been selected following a rigorous, fair and open competition and all bidders were notified of the outcome last night. The chosen company demonstrated that they will be best able to meet the needs of our passport service with a high quality and secure product at the best value for money for our customers and the taxpayer.
“It’s been the case since 2009 that we do not require passports to be manufactured in the UK. A proportion of passports have been made overseas since then with up to 20% of blank passport books currently produced in Europe with no security or operational concerns.”
Gemalto had not commented at the time of writing.
A number of commentators have pointed out that, in contrast, the French passport contract does not go out to tender in the same way because it is handled by the ‘state printer’ and therefore deemed to be in-house.
The huge volume of comments being made on social media about the decision resulted in De La Rue trending on Twitter this morning (22 March).