(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on Her Majesty’s Passport Office.
Her Majesty’s Passport Office is receiving 350,000 more applications for passport applications and renewals than is normal at this time of year. This is the highest demand for 12 years. Since January, HMPO has been putting in place extra resources to try to make sure that people receive their new passports in good time, but as the House will know there are still delays in the system. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, the number of straightforward passport applicants who are being dealt with outside the normal three-week waiting time is about 30,000.
Her Majesty’s Passport Office has 250 additional staff who have been transferred from back-office roles to front-line operations, and 650 additional staff to work on its customer helpline. HMPO is operating seven days a week and couriers are delivering passports within 24 hours of their being produced. From next week, HMPO is opening new office space in Liverpool to help the new staff to work on processing passport applications.
Despite those additional resources, it is clear that HMPO is still not able to process every application it receives within the normal three-week waiting time for straightforward cases. At the moment, the overwhelming majority of cases are dealt with within that time limit, but that is, of course, no consolation to applicants who are suffering delays and are worried about whether they will be able to go on their summer holidays. I understand their anxiety and the Government will do everything they can—while maintaining the security of the passport—to make sure people get their passports in time.
There is no big-bang single solution so we will take a series of measures to address the pinch points and resourcing problems that HMPO faces. First, on resources, I have agreed with the Foreign Secretary that people applying to renew passports overseas for travel to the UK will be given a 12-month extension to their existing passport. Since we are talking about extending existing passports—documents in which we can have a high degree of confidence—this relieves HMPO of having to deal with some of the most complex cases without compromising security.
Similarly, we will put in place a process so that people who are applying for passports overseas on behalf of their children can be issued with emergency travel documents for travel to the UK. Parents will still have to provide comprehensive proof that they are the parents before we will issue these documents, because we are not prepared to compromise on child protection, but again this should relieve an administrative burden on HMPO.
These changes will allow us to free up a significant number of trained HMPO officials to concentrate on other applications. In addition, HMPO will increase the number of examiners and call handlers by a further 200 staff.
Secondly, HMPO is addressing a series of process points to make sure that its systems are operating efficiently.
Thirdly, where people have an urgent need to travel, HMPO has agreed to upgrade them: that is, their application will be considered in full; it will be expedited in terms of its processing, printing and delivery; and HMPO has agreed to upgrade those people free of charge.
All these measures are designed to address the immediate problem. In the medium to long term, the answer is not just to throw more staff at the problem but to ensure that HMPO is running as efficiently as possible and is as accountable as possible. I have therefore asked the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill, to conduct two reviews—[Interruption.]
Order. The Home Secretary’s statement must be heard, and preferably with courtesy. There will be plenty of opportunity for questioning, but let us hear what the Home Secretary has to say.
As I said, in the medium to long term the answer is not just to throw more staff at the problem but to ensure that HMPO is running as efficiently as possible and is as accountable as possible. I have therefore asked the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill, to conduct two reviews: first, to ensure that HMPO works as efficiently as possible, with better processes, better customer service and better outcomes; and, secondly, to consider whether HMPO’s agency status should be removed, so that it can be brought into the Home Office, reporting directly to Ministers, in line with other parts of the immigration system since the abolition of the UK Border Agency.
This has been a sorry shambles from a sorry Department and a Home Secretary who cannot even bring herself to say that word. Government incompetence means that people are at risk of missing their holidays, their honeymoons and their business trips. Every MP has been inundated with these cases and it seems that she has not even known what was going on.
There has been a huge turnaround in the things the Home Secretary has to say since two days ago, when we asked her the same questions. On Tuesday, she told us that the Passport Office was meeting all its targets; on Wednesday, she told us that maybe it needed more staff; and today she says that maybe it needs some changes in policy too. On Tuesday, she told us there was no backlog; on Wednesday, the Prime Minister said there was. On Tuesday, she said, “it is not true” that staff numbers have been cut; on Wednesday, her own figures showed that they have been cut by 600; and now she is having to put them back.
On Tuesday, the Home Secretary told us the only problem was rising summer demand, but now we find out that she took over passports for foreign residents from the Foreign Office in April, even though diplomats warned that it was not working. On Tuesday, the Minister for Security and Immigration said that security was not being compromised, and now we find out that on Monday security checks on addresses and counter-signatories were dropped; and Ministers claim that they did not have a clue what was going on. Well, that much is certainly true.
Can the Home Secretary tell us now how bad the situation is, not only for the straightforward cases but for all the other cases, and what she means by “straightforward” cases anyway? How long will it take to get the system back to normal? When all her changes are in place, what can families across Britain expect? When did she first know there was a problem? MPs have been warning about this issue for ages. Why did she not know that those security checks were being dropped? Surely she has spent the past week asking for details about everything that has been going on. Or perhaps she has not, because the truth is that she did not know what was going on. She has come to this late. She has not had her eye on the ball. She has been distracted by other things.
It is really unfair on people who have saved up everything for their holiday, only to see it wrecked by the Home Secretary’s incompetence. Will she now apologise to those facing ruined holidays, business trips or trips back to Britain? Will she get a grip on her Department and sort it out?
The shadow Home Secretary has raised a number of issues. The Passport Office started to receive increased numbers of applications not just in recent weeks, but from the beginning of the year, so it took action to increase the number of staff available to deal with them. From January to May, over 97% of applicants in straightforward cases received their passport within three weeks, and over 99% received them within four weeks, but of course that means there were applicants who did not receive their passport within the normal expected time. That is why the Passport Office has been increasing the number of staff throughout this period and will continue to do so, as I have indicated.
The shadow Home Secretary asked about the difference between straightforward and more complex cases. A case is straightforward when all the information is there and the application form has been properly filled in, signed and so forth. In those cases it is possible to deal with a straightforward renewal very quickly. [Interruption.] The problem comes when the right information is not there or the correct forms have not been sent in—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr Bryant, we cannot have a running commentary throughout the Home Secretary’s response. Colleagues will have plenty of opportunity to question the right hon. Lady, but her remarks must be heard with a modicum of courtesy.
A case ceases to be straightforward if it is necessary for the Passport Office to go back to the individual to request other documents, which of course delays the process. We are looking at part of the system to ensure that that is being done as efficiently as possible.
The shadow Home Secretary asked about taking over the process of passport applications from British nationals overseas. Before March this year that was done by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at processing centres world wide. The change was made to provide better value for the fee-payer and greater consistency in how overseas passport applications are assessed, and to use our expertise to better detect and prevent fraud. The checks needed for applications from overseas can take longer than those for applications in the UK. Security is our priority and we will not issue a passport until the necessary checks have been completed. However, as I said in my statement, for those applying for a renewal from overseas, where we can have confidence in the documents that they have already had and the process they have been through, we will be offering an extension of 12 months.
Finally, the shadow Home Secretary raised the issue of staff numbers, as did other Members earlier this week. Here are the figures: in March 2012 the Passport Office had 3,104 members of staff—[Interruption.] Opposition Members talk about 2010, so I will make one simple point: when we took office there were staff in HM Passport Office who had been brought in to deal with the new identity card. This Government scrapped the identity card. Over the past two years the number of staff in the Passport Office has increased from 3,104 to 3,445. That is the answer. People might say that this is about reduced staff numbers, but actually staff numbers have been going up over the past two years.
The Home Secretary has set out clearly the action that she is taking to deal with the problem. Those listening outside this Chamber will welcome the grip that she is showing and will see the nonsense that we have heard from Labour for what it is—a cheap attempt to make up for their poor show on Monday.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and I recognise the points he made about the attempts from the Opposition. Outside the political arena that is the House of Commons, we should never forget that this is about people who are applying for their passports, planning holidays and so forth. That is why the Passport Office has been taking the action it has taken, and why it is continuing to increase the number of staff to ensure that it can meet the current demand which, as I said, is the highest for 12 years.
Is the Home Secretary aware that in the past hour I have received an e-mail from a constituent who tells me that her husband—[Interruption.] Here it is. My constituent tells me that her husband received British citizenship in March and immediately applied for a British passport; that the Home Office totally bungled the entire procedure, but after repeated calls and approaches from her, promised the passport at the beginning of last week; that the passport has not been received; that they had booked a visit abroad to her family and have paid the airfares; and that because of the fact that her husband has not got the British passport and the Passport Office will not return to him his original passport, which is still valid, they will have to cancel the flights and lose a great deal of money. They are in a total mess because of the Home Secretary’s failure to administer and her arrogant refusal to deal with individual cases. What is she going to do to put this right?
No, I was not aware of the e-mail that the right hon. Gentleman received from his constituent, but I am aware of it now. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be taking that matter up with Ministers and the Passport Office. I have been clear that I recognise that there are people who are having difficulties getting access to passport renewals or new passport applications. The current level of applications is higher than we have seen for 12 years. Action is being taken and will continue to be taken by the Passport Office to try to ensure that it can deliver on the normal rates that people expect. I am sure that as an experienced Member of the House the right hon. Gentleman will be using every opportunity that he has—
He has just done so.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe). The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) has used one of those opportunities, but there are other opportunities to bring those details to the attention of the Passport Office and to Ministers so that that case can be looked into.
Many people are grateful to have heard the announcement from the Home Secretary about the free upgrade process for people who need their passport urgently. Can she clarify exactly what that process entails and explain what counts as urgent? Many people need that reassurance.
It will be for people to bring it to the attention of the Passport Office that they have an urgent need to travel. We intend to make it clear on the website so that people can go online and see that in detail and see what the process is. In that way, they will be absolutely clear about what they need to do and how they qualify.
When the Government tried to shut Newport passport office a few years ago, staff and unions warned at the time that cuts would impact on the service, and they have been proved right. It would be good if the Home Secretary could at least acknowledge that putting the full processing function back into Newport, along with the jobs that we lost, would be a start. Will she also acknowledge that it is not only the customers who are suffering badly at present? The situation is putting stress on the staff, such as those in the Newport office, who are under immense pressure because of this Government’s incompetence.
At the time those decisions were taken, the point was raised in the House and Ministers responded to it. It is absolutely right, from the Passport Office’s point of view, that it should look at how it can provide services as efficiently as possible. I want to make sure that in going ahead, we review how it is providing those processes and how it is operating its system so that we make sure that customers are getting the best possible service. But I return to the point that we have seen demand levels—applications for passports—higher than they have been for 12 years. Action has been taken and is continuing to be taken to ensure that we can deal with those applications.
Will my right hon. Friend spell out to us in the Chamber today what the criteria are for an urgent need to travel, so that everybody knows? Will she make arrangements to ensure that constituents who wish to express concerns can do so directly to their MPs, and that MPs can have a special hotline to communicate with the Passport Office?
My hon. Friend’s point about the qualification for urgent travel was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), and as I said to him earlier, the Passport Office will of course put full details on its website. Either I or the Minister for Security and Immigration will write urgently to Members of Parliament with the full details, so that every Member of Parliament is aware and can advise their constituents fully.
The Home Secretary has come to the House today to announce a series of desperate measures in the Passport Service—extending passports, reducing security checks, fast-tracking some applications and adding in many more bureaucratic hurdles to getting a passport. Yet, as I know, Ministers receive weekly updates about the flow of applications and turnaround. It is beyond belief that Ministers were not aware of this problem before it was raised in the House. When will she and her Ministers take responsibility for this? As a former Minister, I know that I discussed ebbs and flows every time that I met officials in the Passport Service, and if there was a problem, I would be on to them about it. What is she doing to make sure that this never happens again?
First, I and the Minister for Security and Immigration have said in the House and I have said elsewhere that for some months—since the beginning of the year—it has been clear that the number of applications was increasing. The flow has gone up, has steadied, and has gone up and down. Over that period, the Passport Office has taken action by increasing the number of staff and by increasing the hours during which considerations are done. It is now operating seven days a week from 7 am to midnight, and it is looking at increasing those hours further. The hon. Lady said that we have relaxed the security, but there was no relaxation of security, as I made clear in my announcement to day.
Finally, the hon. Lady talks about a series of measures being taken. Yes, a series of measures is being taken. As I made clear in my statement, there is no single thing that will suddenly change the way in which the Passport Office is able to deal with these applications. What is necessary is not a grand political gesture, but the slow, careful consideration that we have been giving and which will now lead to urgent action by the Passport Office in increasing the number of staff.
As part of the very welcome review announced today, will my right hon. Friend consider an idea put to me by the manager of the Crown post office in Truro, which is that Crown post offices’ new capabilities in identity verification could be used in speeding up and further localising the application process for the renewal of passports?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the proposal from the Crown post office in Truro. I will ensure that it is fed into the review and given due consideration.
The Home Secretary is now announcing a series of measures; the problem has been ongoing and apparent not for a couple of weeks, but for months. Members of Parliament—myself and everyone else—have been inundated by constituents in panic and distress. Why has it taken so long for this problem to be recognised and for measures to be taken to address this issue?
The increase in demand was recognised earlier this year. HM Passport Office put steps in place to deal with that increased demand. The increased demand continued and, as a result, further steps were put in place. Those steps included increasing the number of staff available to deal with the applications, increasing the number of staff on the telephone helpline, extending the hours of operation of HM Passport Office, and working with couriers to ensure that printed passports were delivered within a very short space of time once they were issued. Over time, as the demand has increased, steps have been taken. It is clear that further steps need to be taken, and they are being taken.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the focus for all MPs at this difficult time of unprecedented demand should be assisting their constituents, not engaging in cheap, smug, self-satisfied, party political point scoring?
I am sure that every Member wants to help the constituents who have come to them with concerns, and they should indeed be doing that. We have increased the number of people who are available on the general helpline to individuals who wish to make inquiries about their passports, as I said, by some 650 members of staff. Previously, the figure was 350. Of course, all Members of Parliament recognise that people get in touch with their MPs about this issue because they have a genuine concern about what is happening to their passports. That is why we are addressing the issue and why the Passport Office has been addressing it over the past weeks.
Is the Home Secretary aware that none of her feeble excuses today can explain away the sheer incompetence and shambles that have again occurred on her watch?
I fear that I will repeat what I have been saying, which is that demand is at its highest level for 12 years and the Passport Office has taken action over recent weeks to meet that demand. There is still an issue with demand. We recognise the concerns that individuals who are applying for new passports or renewals have about timing. That is why further action is being taken.
Some of the most worrying cases that I have dealt with have involved British nationals overseas, so I welcome in particular the 12-month extension. The granting of emergency travel documents for the children of British nationals who are abroad is also extremely helpful and welcome.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right that a number of the more complex and worrying cases have come from those who are applying from overseas. That is why we are putting those measures in place. As I said in relation to the emergency travel documents, parents will still have to show comprehensive proof that the child is theirs, because child protection must, of course, be at the forefront of our minds.
Is the Home Secretary aware that it was nothing short of idiotic to take on the responsibility for processing passport applications from overseas at the very time when her Department was expecting the pre-summer surge, which happens every year? There is a bit more of a surge this year, but it is more or less in line with the extra people that she has. That was plainly just an idiotic management decision.
More importantly, will the Home Secretary explain to the House why there was not a single Government Back Bencher at the Adjournment debate on this issue to represent people’s interests, despite her plug for the debate earlier that day? The Minister for Security and Immigration, who is responsible for the Passport Office, reassured the House on Tuesday that
“We have not compromised on our checks, and will not do so.”—[Official Report, 10 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 526.]
How was it possible for him to give that reassurance when a letter had gone out the previous day doing precisely that? Why does she not—
Order. May I just say before the Home Secretary responds that there is a great deal of interest, which I am keen to accommodate, at least in part? It would help if contributions were brief. We have the business question to follow and the last day of the Queen’s Speech debate is exceptionally heavily subscribed. People will lose out, and they will lose out all the more if there is not economy.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will attempt to be brief in my response.
As has been made clear publicly, Ministers were not aware of the document to which the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) refers, and they asked for it to be withdrawn immediately.
May I say how much I appreciate my right hon. Friend taking pragmatic steps to deal with the situation, especially with the 12-month extension? If it gets worse, will she perhaps consider extending that to UK citizens in this country as a short-term measure? Does she agree that the Passport Office had to spend £257 million after being diverted to an identity card scheme, and that if it had been able to spend that money on its core offering, perhaps this would not have happened?
I have already referred, of course, to the identity card scheme.
My hon. Friend talks about the possibility of the extension to passports being brought in domestically as well as in overseas cases. We did examine that possibility, and it was what the Labour Government did when they had queues at passport offices back in 1999. To introduce that now would have meant setting up new centres and processes, which could have disrupted the work that the Passport Office is already doing. That is why I believe it is better to concentrate on dealing with the applications that are being made.
Speaking purely personally, I would prefer it if we did not talk about throwing Government staff around.
The families who have come to me to raise their cases have mainly been trying to get a child’s first passport. They have pointed out to me that the Government’s website said that they would get their passport within three weeks, which was clearly a mistake. I know of one family who have definitely missed their holiday. What can be done to ensure that families in my constituency get proper information?
The website has always indicated to people what the normal expected period for a straightforward application is. As I indicated earlier, if there is a problem with the application, it can take longer, but we are ensuring that the information on the website is as clear as possible to people. I have also asked for it to be ensured that it is absolutely clear what documents are required, because there may be issues to do with the type of birth certificate that is submitted, which can lead to problems for families.
A constituent contacted me on 25 April calling for a passport for his mother to go on a family holiday, and he received the passport by 30 April and sent my office a note saying:
“Thank you for your help—it saved our holiday.”
Another constituent contacted me on 3 June and received their passport yesterday, and they have sent me a note saying:
“Thank you for your effort. I shall look forward to a well-earned holiday.”
Does that not show that when urgent cases have been brought to the Passport Office’s attention, passports have been provided on time?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The point is that, as I have indicated, the vast majority of straightforward passport applications are still being dealt with within the time scales that people normally expect, and we should recognise that tens of thousands of people are having their passports sent to them and their applications dealt with to the normally expected timetable. When urgent cases are brought to the Passport Office’s attention, it is doing everything it can to deal with them expeditiously.
What would the Home Secretary like to say to my constituent Elizabeth Dey, who after more than four weeks of waiting may well miss her honeymoon in 10 days’ time?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman get in touch with the Passport Office—
I have done that already.
Then if the hon. Gentleman would like to give the details to the Minister for Security and Immigration, we will ensure that the case is pursued.
My constituents in Dover and Deal are deeply concerned about border security, and whatever pressure the Home Secretary may be put under by a Labour party that has a great tradition of allowing anyone to just wander in, will she ensure that the safety and security of our borders and passports are not compromised?
That is absolutely clear. That is the attitude that we have taken throughout the immigration system. For the first time ever, we have an operating mandate for our Border Force and our border security, and as I said earlier in response to the shadow Home Secretary, one of the reasons for bringing overseas passport applications into HMPO was to have greater consistency in how they are assessed and enable expertise to be used in better detecting fraud.
We all have constituents who have made straightforward applications within Home Office guidelines and who a day or two before they flew were forced to pay £55 for an upgrade to get their passports. What consideration is being given to repay that money?
I recognise that some people have paid sums of money to ensure that their passport application was upgraded, and I have indicated that for urgent travel in the future we will be doing that free of charge. I recognise that people have had those difficulties, and that there are still people with applications in the system that are concerning them. That is why we have taken the steps outlined today.
Like other Members, I have had numerous cases of people who were waiting for their passports. Fortunately, they have all been sorted out, although at very short notice in some cases. It is clear that cases are dealt with differently when people go to their MPs. How can we ensure that people who do not go to their MPs receive the same service and have their complaints dealt with in the same way as if they had gone to their MP?
MPs take up issues in many areas of activity, and they are dealt with perhaps more expeditiously than they would be normally. That is an aspect of the issues that we deal with in our constituency surgeries and so forth. However, the hon. Gentleman is right: we must ensure that information and advice is provided and that when people complain and apply to the Passport Office and raise an issue about their passport, they are dealt with properly and quickly and get the proper information. That is why more staff have been brought in to answer general inquiries, which are often from people chasing the progress of their passport. The Passport Office is making every effort to ensure that people get the service they require, so that it is not necessary for people to go to their MPs or feel that that is the only way they can get that service.
The Home Secretary will be more than aware that the Scottish summer school holidays come around a lot quicker than in England. This fiasco therefore has a more immediate impact on my constituents in Scotland, yet the Home Office has shed 150 processing staff in the Glasgow office, adding to the crisis. Will the Home Secretary acknowledge the particular difficulty in Scotland, and will she promise all those Scots who want to go on their summer holidays that they will get their passports?
As I have indicated, steps are being taken to address the demand we are seeing and increase the ability to process the applications. That is against the background of a real recognition that many people are applying to renew their passport or for new passports at this time because they want to go on holiday in the summer. We recognise that and are making every effort to address the issue.
May I, like others, welcome the changes for children who need to travel to the UK? I have constituents with a very poorly child overseas who may need to get back to London quickly for treatment, and they will welcome today’s announcements. Can the Home Secretary give the House more information? She mentioned urgent travel documents. Through what route can they be obtained, to save constituents such as mine from having to go all around the system?
The process for getting emergency travel documents would be to apply to the British embassy or high commission overseas, just as they would have done for their initial passport application.
My constituent was hoping to go on holiday in two weeks’ time. She applied in February this year for passports for three children. She called the Passport Office on 8 May to find out the progress of the application, and was told by a member of staff that they would call back. No call was received. She called again on 18 May and was told by staff that they would look into it. No call was received. She contacted the Passport Office again on 29 May, and was told by staff that her daughter’s birth certificate had been mislaid. On 30 May she sent another birth certificate by recorded delivery, and on 3 June she was told that the application was with the examination team. She will be going on holiday in just two weeks. My office has contacted the MPs hotline on several occasions, but after a bit it just goes dead. We have continued to ring, but not once has anyone answered the phone.
I accept that the service the right hon. Lady and her constituent received is not good enough. If she makes the details available, we will ensure that HMPO chases up that particular case. As I said earlier, more staff are being put on the general inquiries hotline to try to ensure that people do not receive the same response as she and her constituent received when they tried to get information—that was not good enough.
Does my right hon. Friend not agree that what hard-working constituents in Harlow are really concerned about is the fact that this Government cut the cost of passports for families saving for their holidays, whereas the previous Government used them as a stealth tax?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of that. In all the debates on the Passport Office, people have lost sight of the fact that the Government were able to cut the cost of passports. That will have been welcomed by hard-working people in Harlow and across the country.
Part of the anger and frustration is that these problems were not just predictable—they were predicted. They were predicted by the front-line staff. Will the Home Secretary review the correspondence of the past two years, at least, from Public and Commercial Services Union front-line staff representatives, who wrote consistently that
“the closure of 22 interview offices and one application processing centre and the sacking of 315 staff…around one in 10 of the workforce…has been a major factor in creating this current crisis.”?
She has set up a review. It is best to talk to the front-line staff doing the job. Will she meet a delegation of PCS representatives from the front line to talk about how we can go forward urgently and in the long term?
The point of the review, as the hon. Gentleman understands, is to see whether the processes are the best possible we can have in place. As part of that review, I would certainly expect information to be taken from front-line staff, not just from union representatives in the way the hon. Gentleman suggests. I will certainly look at the possibility, which happens anyway, of Ministers—either myself or the Immigration Minister—meeting front-line staff. That is what I think is important: to meet front-line staff. The views of a variety of people will be taken in the review, but I return to a point I made earlier and to which the hon. Gentleman did not refer: the very high level of demand experienced by the Passport Office. It has already taken steps to deal with that.
I welcome this balanced set of measures from the Home Secretary. Will she confirm that everything possible is being done to increase short-term staffing capacity, consistent with the need to uphold quality assurance and security?
That is absolutely right. It is not the case that one can simply take somebody with no experience of passport business and make them examine passport applications. We have security checks for passport applications and we need people who are trained to be able to do that. Every effort is being made to ensure we can bring more staff into the front line as quickly as possible, commensurate with ensuring they have the necessary level of training to be able to do that securely.
Two years ago, the lives of 150 loyal and efficient workers in my constituency were devastated by a closure that the Government described as creating a smaller but more efficient passport agency. Others predicted today’s chaos. Will the Home Secretary find it in herself to have the common sense and the humility to apologise for the ineptocracy the Government have created?
Yes, there have been changes in the way the Passport Office operates. The Passport Office has been operating efficiently and effectively in dealing with people’s applications since those changes were made. We now have a period of higher demand than we have seen for 12 years. That high demand is now being addressed by a number of steps that have been taken, but we will look at how the Passport Office should operate more efficiently in the future to ensure that it offers the best possible service.
I would like to thank HMPO staff for helping me to assist my constituents—the handful who have come to me. Interestingly, one of them said that the reason they applied for a passport was that, for the first time since 2008, they could afford to go on a foreign holiday. Does the Home Secretary acknowledge that part of the increased demand is down to a better economic environment?
In the current, improved economic environment, I am pleased that people feel able to go on holiday when they have perhaps been unable to do so previously. However, I am also conscious that there will be people who have sent in their renewal applications and are concerned about whether they will be able to do exactly what my hon. Friend says his constituents want to do. That is why I have put forward these measures, which HMPO will be putting in place, in addition to those it has already put in place.
Not a day goes by without more constituents coming forward because of delays, such as the constituent who contacted me first thing this morning, having applied for their passport over six weeks ago. Time is running out. Calls to the Passport Office go unreturned and constituents of mine face the prospect of losing out on their holidays, which they worked hard to pay for. What would the Home Secretary say to my constituent, who faces the prospect of losing hundreds of pounds because of this incompetence?
What I would say to the hon. Lady—as I have said to a number of others in relation to their constituency cases—is that the Passport Office will make every effort to ensure that the applications of those who have a requirement are met quickly and dealt with properly. As I indicated earlier, straightforward cases are normally dealt with within three weeks. If extra information is required or if someone is making a first-time application and requires an interview, that can take extra time. The straightforward cases are normally dealt with within three weeks, but every effort will be made to deal with the case the hon. Lady raises, as I am sure she is trying to ensure.
Did my right hon. Friend notice that the shadow Home Secretary made not a single constructive suggestion to deal with the present situation and that the collective chunter of Labour Back Benchers on this issue has simply been a cry to throw more public money at the problem, as it is whenever there is an issue? When the permanent secretary at the Home Office carries out the review, will he also consider why applications this year increased by some 300,000 on last year? There has clearly been an unprecedented increase in demand, which no one could have foreseen, but someone needs to give some consideration to how it came about.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course we need to look at that, which is part of the process of looking at HMPO’s work going forward, to see whether patterns and numbers are changing and to ensure that appropriate resource is available to deal with that. I note, as he said, that it is the Government who have been looking at this issue carefully, and we are putting in place measures intended to deal with it.
I raised this question in the House earlier this week and got answers that were not satisfactory to me or, more particularly, my constituents, given that the hotline is still not working. Will the Home Secretary take the decision today to reopen the office in Glasgow, so that passports can be issued to my constituents without them having to travel down to Durham or over to Belfast? It seems ridiculous that it is necessary to do that, rather than taking the decision, which she could take today, to reopen the Glasgow office to the public.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the MPs’ hotline in the House earlier in the week. My hon. Friend the Immigration Minister said that if he gave him the details, he would pursue the case. I am conscious of the concerns that a number of Members have raised about the MPs’ hotline, which is an issue we will pursue.
I welcome the extra staff working extra hours to tackle the exceptional demand. Many of the constituents contacting me are parents applying for first-time passports for children or renewals for younger children. Will the Home Secretary clarify the time scales that those parents should expect for their passport applications?
As I said, the straightforward applications for a straightforward renewal of the passport are normally expected to be within three weeks, but some are going beyond that. Where it is a first-time application and an interview is required, it can take longer. I would expect a child’s first-time application to be within normal times, but if someone does not present the absolutely correct documentation, the application will take longer, which sometimes happens. As I indicated earlier, either the Immigration Minister or I will ensure that we write urgently to MPs to set out the measures taken and relevant details such as when people will be able to demonstrate an urgent need to travel in order to be upgraded.
The Home Secretary’s definition of “straightforward” has changed five times in the course of the past hour—and it has just changed again. That matters because the number of delayed applications that the Prime Minister came up with yesterday depended on straightforward applications, so the real figure is far higher than 30,000, is it not? Will the Home Secretary apologise to my constituents—foster parents who applied for a passport for their foster child, Corry? Weeks later, they received a phone call from the Passport Office, saying that the passport was on its way, so they booked their holiday. Six weeks after that, however, they had still not received the passport, so Corry, the foster child, was unable to go on holiday with his parents. Will the Home Secretary apologise to them?
The hon. Gentleman suggests that the definition of straightforward cases has changed, but it has not. I have been very clear that straightforward renewal of passports is normally expected to be dealt with within three weeks. That is on the Passport Office’s website and it is what I have said today. I recognise that there have been some very difficult cases, such as the one that the hon. Gentleman describes. I was listening carefully and I think he mentioned the problem of the parents being told that the passport had been dispatched, but not then receiving it. I would be grateful if he would care to provide the details, as I may have misunderstood the case.
At Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition claimed that tens of thousands of people were having their holidays cancelled because of passport delays. Meanwhile, the Association of British Travel Agents has said that it is seeing no increase in holiday cancellations on account of passport delays. Whom should we believe—the Leader of the Opposition or ABTA?
I am tempted to say that there are those who have the figures to hand and know what they are, and there are those who make claims about them in this House.
The gov.uk website still says that it should take three weeks to get the passport, so would the Home Secretary care to correct it? Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie), will she please tell us whether my constituents who had to pay an extra £55 on top of the £72.50 they paid to get their “straightforward” renewal applications processed in order to go on holiday in the first place—they got the passport just in the nick of time—can now expect a refund?
The hon. Lady asks me to change the advice on the website. We are, of course, looking at the advice on the website, as is the Passport Office, to ensure that it is as clear as possible. The point is, though, that the vast majority of straightforward applications are being dealt with within the normal three-week period.
This is a serious issue, and we all agree that it is not satisfactory. In Kettering, however, I have had three complaints and I dealt with them all myself. As for the MPs’ hotline, the phone was picked up every time and each case was solved within the day to the satisfaction of the affected constituents.
I am grateful to those Members who have indicated that the cases they took up have been dealt with and that people have received their passports. Staff at the Passport Office are working very hard to deal with the cases they are seeing. As we have just heard, they are responding to the cases that MPs are raising—and I think we should not forget that.
This is the biggest problem that my constituency office has been presented with since the bedroom tax. My staff have often worked overtime to deal with cases such as those of the lady who phoned early one afternoon to say that her friend was leaving Glasgow airport at six o’clock the next morning and did not have a passport, and the man who, two months after sending off his application, received a letter saying that it had not been signed. My staff would want me to pay tribute to the—
Order. I am sorry. The right hon. Gentleman is an extremely senior Member and I treat him with the utmost courtesy, but we are very pressed for time. What we need is a one-sentence, short question.
I am happy to oblige, Mr Speaker. Will the Home Secretary address herself to the question put to her by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and personally meet front-line staff and union representatives who warned that this was going to happen?
As I thought I had made clear to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), we do meet front-line staff and will do so again in order to discuss this issue. For the purposes of the review, representations will be received from a number of people, both those involved in the passport service and those who, I am sure, have experienced similar kinds of customer service. The review is necessary to ensure that we are doing things in the best possible way in order to give the best possible service to customers, and front-line staff will of course be met during that process.
Many of my constituents have contacted me about this problem, including three British citizens who applied for passports for children born abroad. One has waited for six months, another for five months, and a third for three months. One child’s school admission has been delayed, another’s health treatment has been delayed, and in the third case flights were booked and then cancelled at a cost of £1,600. Will the Home Secretary tell us when her new measures may come into force, whether my constituents are likely to benefit from them, and whether there is any consistency in what the Home Office is saying? We have been told that the suggested time lines are intended as guidance, but the Home Secretary is now talking of advice that is on the website.
The time that it takes to process an application from overseas will vary according to the complexity of the case that is before the Passport Office. Obviously I cannot comment on the individual cases raised by the hon. Lady because I do not know the details, but, as I have said, I will write to Members explaining clearly when it will be possible to apply for the emergency travel documents—I referred to part of that process in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine)—so that they understand the new arrangements and can advise their constituents accordingly.
Several hon. Members
Order. I am sorry to disappoint Members who are still rising, but I know they will understand that I must have some regard to the overall level of demand for other parts of today’s schedule, and that we must now move on. I am sure that there will be further opportunities to explore these issues.