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Passport Office (Delays)

Volume 582: debated on Tuesday 10 June 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Gyimah.)

I would like to speak on behalf of the hundreds of people in my constituency who are suffering as a result of the Government’s incompetence in the issuing of passports and, indeed, on behalf of all Back Benchers for whom this debate is a useful opportunity to voice discontent about a major public service for which the Home Office is responsible. I am therefore pleased to welcome the Minister for Security and Immigration, who will respond to the debate. We know that the Home Secretary currently has many things on her mind and is doing many things other than running the Passport Office. Nevertheless, it is regrettable that ministerial neglect has led to the dire situation that has given rise to this Adjournment debate.

I would like to provide some context. The passport delays now number 500,000. We can call them delayed, or “in process”—whatever the Minister wants. I see him shaking his head already, but he leaves the whole House incredulous with his simple, naive belief in the numbers presented to him. Why are we having this debate? Why have so many Members lobbied me to intervene? It is simply because people in their constituencies are not getting passports anything like on time.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue before the House, because not one Member present is not bothered by it. In the Belfast passport office, 30,000 people are waiting for their passports to be processed. That is an astronomical number bearing in mind that Northern Ireland’s population is 1.8 million. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that contingency money should be made available to recruit extra staff to clear the backlog and get the problem sorted out?

I will come to that point in a minute. If the situation could be sorted out in that way, I would wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am not sure that it can be because one of the problems, which I will deal with later, is that the Government have left it so late to react to this burgeoning problem that there is probably no time left to deal with it in the relatively short period before the holidays. That is one of the tragedies of the situation.

The nub of the problem lies in the cuts that the Government have made. They have cut 700 personnel who are directly concerned with processing and examining passports before they are issued. Those are not back-office jobs, but people who are directly involved in the process. There has been a 20% cut, with no plans to retrain, reskill or build up alternative resources for the key periods. We all know that businesses have to plan for such key periods.

I will give way in a moment.

As we all know, in the early summer months, people take advantage of cheap flights and hotels, and need a passport to make their bookings.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Has he, like me, encountered cases involving expatriate British citizens who are having trouble coming back for the summer holidays to visit family and friends? There are cases in my constituency of newborn children not being able to see their family because they are not able to get passports in time.

Indeed I have. I am grateful for that intervention. Seldom have I known a problem that is so multifaceted. There is a problem with expats. I have a slightly different case that involves a gentleman who is a naturalised British subject, but who has not had occasion to travel abroad before. He is a professor at a prestigious local university who wants to travel abroad. He is going to get married in Berlin and has an important lecture to give in Japan. He has been waiting for two months for a British passport and now thinks that he will have to get—

I will—I meant no disrespect, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am trying to get round the number of interested Back Benchers who have key constituent complaints to register. The Minister might not have time to reply to them all, but at least he can take on the extent and depth of the problems he is dealing with, about which I think he is in some state of denial.

My hon. Friend will know of my interventions earlier in the day. Is it time for the Government to address one important matter for Members of Parliament? Our ministerial hotline is not working and needs to be beefed up. I asked earlier whether there is any real commitment on that, but I have not received an answer. Does my hon. Friend agree that that line needs to be beefed up?

I agree with my hon. Friend, but sadly it is not just that line that needs to be beefed up; the whole Passport Office needs to be brought under control. This is crisis management and management by panic only, and at the moment—I will come on to some illustrations—things are totally out of control.

When the service is up and running it is pretty good, but the problem is that the depth of the cuts has taken its toll. Although people are being brought in for a temporary period, we need to resolve the problem with a longer-term solution because this is unfair on families.

Exactly. My hon. Friend has similar problems in Coventry South to those in Coventry North West, although they appear to be more acute in my area. I will refer the Minister to an acute problem regarding the Durham office and child passports being issued for the first time.

I will give way in a moment. If I turn round to give my right hon. Friend any further indication, I will be called to order by Madam Deputy Speaker.

A family of five in my constituency, the Vernons, and mother Amy, saved up and the whole family chipped in for their first ever holiday as a family together. Because one passport out of the five was not available—if I am correct, it was the first issue of a child’s passport—they drove 200 miles to Durham, leaving at 4 o’clock in the morning. They got nothing but hassle when they got there and further delay. They got the passport, but after driving all the way back to Coventry to fly out from a local airport, they missed their flight by 15 minutes. If that does not ring a bell with the Minister about the state of chaos in the Passport Office, I do not know what will.

The Minister said earlier that measures have been taken to deal with this problem. I raised the issue in the previous debate, went out of the Chamber, and within two minutes I received an e-mail about yet another passport problem. We get them all the time. The Government are not taking action or making a difference yet.

I am willing to take even more interventions as I think they are nearly as effective as this couple of photographs—I will not display them, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I will draw Members’ attention to them. They show interview rooms being used not for interview purposes but to store unprocessed files of passport applications in the course of being processed. They say that a good picture tells 1,000 words, so I refer the Minister to those photographs, which I am sure will soon be in circulation.

On that point, my hon. Friend will be aware that the Scottish school holidays start about a month earlier than in England, and therefore within a couple of weeks. I am sure he shares my concern that when people make applications for passport renewals, they do so on the basis of advice on the forms and website that it will take three to four weeks. Given that passports are not being processed in that time, should advice at least be given for people to allow more time while the chaos is dealt with?

I take my hon. Friend’s point, but it is not good enough—this is quoting the ineffable Mr Paul Pugh, who has already been referred to—to say that people should not book their holidays until they have their passports. At the present rate of progress, some might not get their passports for a year, and could not book their holidays. Anyway, how could people book now when all the best package deals are gone and the best hotels booked? It shows how out of touch the Passport Office, the Government and Ministers are with the real world of our constituents.

The Home Secretary earlier stood by her figures and maintained that the targets were being met, but I have had nine cases in the last fortnight. If we multiply that by all the hon. Members in the Chamber, we realise that those figures, which represent only the tip of the iceberg, cannot be right.

We understand that the Home Secretary has other things on her mind, but people want to go on holiday. They have pre-booked and when they have to cancel there is no offer of compensation. Mr Pugh said that the economy is picking up and lots of people are booking holidays. He forgets to mention the catch—they cannot get a passport.

The problem has not arisen just this year: it has been building up over four years of successive cuts—amounting to 20%, as I said, and 700 key staff—and the effects are now apparent in the delays that people face. We are told that all is well and under control at the Passport Office, but staff are working seven days a week, from 7 am to midnight—a 17-hour day. Staff on administrative grades 6 and 7 are being paid up to £60 and £70 an hour overtime for the high-level job of sticking on labels with names and addresses. If that is not evidence of a crisis of mismanagement, I do not know what is. If the Minister remains deaf to the many complaints from my right hon. and hon. Friends this evening, he is not fit to hold office.

The Government make much of the £70 million profit that the Passport Office has made in the last year, but what is the purpose of that? The purpose of that public service should be to ensure, in a timely manner and at reasonable cost, that every citizen of this country enjoys their inalienable right to a passport. We hold our passports dear, but unfortunately people have been caught up in this mess, which is not of their making. The Government appear to be ignorant of or plain indifferent to the problems.

My hon. Friend has secured a very timely Adjournment debate and he has hit the nail on the head. The Minister will doubtless claim that the problems are the result of unusual demand, but they are not. They are the result of the changes the Government have made to the Passport Service and the cuts and structural changes made in the last three years. The Minister needs to explain how they will now get a grip.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to hear what the Minister proposes to do. The problem has been building up since the Government made the cuts. They failed to do any retraining or to provide for what was coming with a moderate level of overtime. Any service should be able to meet peak demands—that is what management is about.

Does my hon. Friend agree that asking someone who is in China—such as one of my constituents—to ring up every 72 hours is very poor management, not only of his time but of staff time?

It is bad for business all round. We hear complaint after complaint, but the Minister sits there as if he is happy for the chaos to carry on all around him. It is amazing how late Ministers have reacted to this issue. The chaos has been mounting, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) so perceptively pointed out, but Ministers did not intervene with panic measures—which should not have been necessary—until the backlog had reached 350,000. Will the Minister confirm that he would normally seek to intervene when it reached 150,000?

That is what I was told. Ministers intervened when the backlog reached 350,000, which was clearly too late to do anything about it in the narrow window before the holiday period.

May I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend on securing the debate? One real problem is that staff deployed to look at passport fraud have been moved to try to process passports, meaning that important work to protect against fraud is not now being done. That is a real problem with this situation.

The new UK Visas and Immigration department is feeling the pinch as much as everybody else. Staff are being moved from there, as my right hon. Friend points out—but not just from there. They are being moved from other departments, too. It is all hands to the pump, but it is too late. They have let it build up. It is a crisis and there has to be some accountability.

The interview rooms are filling up with the backlog of passport applications. Mr Pugh, chief executive of the Passport Office, has, I think been unconfirmed in his job for some 12 months now. He said:

“During this busy period we have processed more than 97% of straightforward passport renewal and child applications within the three week target turnaround time.”

I just do not believe it. I think the figures are plain wrong. I do not want to get into statistics, but I ask the Minister to look at them again. They just do not correspond with reality as we all know it. We are here tonight at the end of a long day because we are concerned about the situation affecting our constituents.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and I congratulate him on securing this timely debate. If 20 passport offices are closed and hundreds of staff are shed, is it not inevitable that there will be a problem that has to be managed? This has built up over time. Is it not incompetence on behalf of the Minister and the Government? This has not just appeared in the past two weeks; it has been building up over a long period.

Again, I could not agree more. My hon. Friend’s intervention is apposite. That is exactly what it is about: the incompetence of the Government machine, compounded by the indifference of Ministers, has let this situation come about. They owe an apology to the hundreds upon hundreds—tens of thousands, I think—who have had their whole summers ruined, life savings wasted and children bitterly disappointed.

What can we say to Mr Pugh? I do not know who is going to be called to account for this mess, but knowing this Government it will be nobody. It will be everybody’s fault but theirs. It is clearly the fault of the Department. We would not expect the Home Secretary to be here to reply to the debate, but we know that she has not been paying any attention to the Passport Office in recent weeks. What I think Mr Pugh should do is clear a small corner in one of the interview rooms where the whole floor is covered with unattended files. One has to smile because it is so comical. He should ask himself, “What am I doing here?” He should then make as graceful an exit as he can, because it is clear that this job is well beyond him.

I have not mentioned those who have suffered in Coventry, in my own constituency. Many of them do not want to be mentioned, because they feel that they might come off even worse if they are. However, I would like to draw the attention of the Minister to the Vernon family. They drove 200 miles to the Durham passport office. There were further delays there and they missed their flight. It was their first opportunity to have a holiday abroad as a family of five. The other case I want to mention is Professor Cooter, who has been waiting for a passport for two months. He will miss his lecture tour in Japan and his marriage in Berlin unless the Government pull their finger out. I could mention many other examples, but I do not want to as it will take up unnecessary time. All the cases are with the hotline, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe). The hotline needs to up its act, and the Minister has to up his. One basic question has been posed to the Minister by each successive intervention: does he accept there is a big mess? Does he accept there is a problem? What is he going to do about it?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) on securing the debate. At the outset, may I say to him that there is no indifference on the part of Ministers? I recognise how important passports are, as is securing people’s renewals. As he highlights, behind the statistics lie a multitude of personal stories. Passports are not just dry official documents. They are the key to once-in-a-lifetime trips, eagerly anticipated holidays and visits to loved ones. That is why it is important that applications and renewals are processed in an efficient manner, particularly at this time of the year when hard-working families are making plans for their summer holidays. Therefore, I recognise the importance and significance of the points that he makes.

It is important to understand the context of passport renewals and the work of the Passport Office. I will go on to address each of the specific points he has raised with me in terms of overall numbers and the steps that have been taken, and will be taken, to ensure that the Passport Office functions efficiently and delivers for his constituents and those of other Members in the Chamber this evening.

Each year around 5.7 million of us apply to have our passports renewed or replaced, or make an application for the very first time. The demand for passports is spread out across the year, but the highest volumes of demand by far come in the summer months. Since January this year, Her Majesty's Passport Office has seen a significant surge in demand for passports. Between 1 January and 31 May 2014, HMPO received 3.3 million applications—350,000 more than the same period last year, and the highest volume of applications received for this period over the last 12 years. Indeed, in both March and May this year, HMPO recorded the highest level of applications received in any month over the last 12 years.[Official Report, 7 July 2014, Vol. 584, c. 1MC.]

Of course, it is recognised that there is always a surge in demand for new or renewed passports as people look forward to their summer holidays. But this year the surge began—

I will not give way for now. I would like to make some progress and put some points on the record. I will then be happy to give way to hon. Members.

This year the surge began much earlier and was sustained more than normal; an indication that, as the economy is improving, more people are understandably planning to travel abroad. I can assure the House that this high demand was identified by HMPO early this year. As a result, it has put in place a system of measures to deal with it and to see that people receive their passports in good time. A number of steps have been taken, including existing passport examination and customer service staff working seven days a week to process the higher number of applications. Non-operational staff have been re-deployed to support examination and customer service functions, whilst ensuring that the necessary security checks are still properly undertaken. I recognise the issues raised about fraud and counter-fraud and I can assure the House that those security checks are still being undertaken.

Additional staff have been deployed to work on HMPO’s parliamentary and diplomatic helpline for Members who wish to raise cases on behalf of their constituents. I heard the point raised by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) about the response he received. I shall take that away and investigate further as it is important that Members receive timely responses for their constituents.

I will, but I would like to deal with these points and then I will happily give way.

HMPO has introduced process changes to speed up the handling of applications made in the UK and overseas. As we enter the traditional peak season of demand, further steps are being taken to strengthen front-line resources further. By the end of June, HMPO will have deployed 250 additional passport examination staff and a further 65 staff to support customer contact. Teleperformance, which runs the passport helpline, has over 1,000 staff to deal with customer enquiries, a significant increase on its normal complement of 350. While the number of applications is up significantly, HMPO has increased the number of staff dealing with applications.

Before I give way, I would like to reassure the House on some points that have been inaccurately represented. First, on allegations of backlogs in passports applications, it is important to state to the hon. Member for Coventry North West, who raised the issue of what counts as a normal throughput, that at peak periods the Passport Office will issue over 150,000 passports a week. During peak season, it would be expected to see several hundred thousand applications within the system. Although demand is greater than in recent years, HMPO has deployed more staff to deal with it.

Secondly, the overwhelming number of straightforward applications are dealt with within the three-week service standard, and HMPO is working tirelessly to improve performance still further. As I have explained, even in the busy months of January to April this year, 97% of straightforward applications were processed within the three-week service standard, and 99% within four weeks.

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman mentioned cuts in HMPO staff, but the numbers have gone up in recent years. On 31 March this year, HMPO had 3,444 full-time equivalent staff—up from 3,260 in 2013 and from 3,104 in 2012. Clearly, then, there have been increases in staff—

The hon. Member for Coventry North West is catching my eye, and I would like to give way to him first, as this is his debate.

If I heard the initial figures correctly, in comparison with last year—the recent increase in manpower relates to the same period—we are up about 10%. If there are broadly 10% more staff, as the Minister says there is, to deal with increasing numbers of applications, surely the problems come down to mismanagement and incompetence. He is condemning himself for the malfunctioning of his Department.

It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to hear that I do not accept that characterisation. We have seen 350,000 additional applications in the early season—a time when that level of increase would not normally be expected. That is why HMPO has deployed additional resources and is deploying further resources as we speak.

Will the Minister guarantee that when my staff phone up tomorrow, asking for some response to the problems of my constituents, they will get an answer? Will he give that commitment to giving them that kind of service?

As I have said to the hon. Gentleman, I am happy to investigate the issue of the response he is receiving. I will speak to him afterwards about whether he is contacting HMPO directly or whether he is referring to the MP hotline. I want Members to receive timely responses to their constituents’ inquiries, particularly at this time of year when people are seeking to make bookings and need their passports.

One issue raised by my constituents is that nothing appeared to have been flagged up to suggest there was any problem. If the Department was aware that the increase was coming in the early part of the year, it would have been helpful to make MPs and relevant websites aware of that. Will the Minister explain why there has been such a problem with first passports for children—in a way there has never been before?

The Passport Office has obviously indicated its performance. It has clearly stated that 97% of straightforward applications—and child applications fit within that—were dealt with within the three-week period, and that 99% were dealt with within four weeks. I say to the hon. Lady that HMPO is prioritising those who have waited longest, and has policies in place to deal with urgent and compassionate cases. A passport can be issued at very short notice, but such discretion is reserved for emergencies such as ill health or death, and is not a stand-by provision for someone who has perhaps forgotten to renew until the last minute, or for similar circumstances. This sort of compassionate approach is reserved for certain cases.

I am conscious that I have only a minute left and I want to make a few more points.

Hon. Members will be aware that delays can occur for a whole range of different reasons, so it is important to underline the check and send facility. Hon. Members will also know that the responsibility for processing overseas applications was recently transferred to HMPO from the Foreign Office. This move was made to improve our response to security and fraud challenges and to provide a more consistent service for customers that can be reflected in the fees they are charged. Indeed, as Members will know, the cost of an adult overseas passport was cut by £45 in April this year. While the volume of overseas applications is smaller than that of domestic applications, specific issues are associated with them.

The Passport Office has faced an unusually high level of demand above forecast demand, but since January it has taken steps to deal with the situation by raising its level of output to meet that demand, while maintaining its focus on public protection. We have not compromised on our checks, and will not do so. I hope Members will agree that maintaining the security of our passports is paramount, along with ensuring that we process applications as swiftly and as safely as possible. The British passport has a gold standard reputation, both domestically and internationally, and I am determined that that will continue. My focus on the performance of the Passport Office will certainly be my main priority.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.