I beg to move,
That this House expresses concern at the experience of constituents applying for passports at HM Passport Office, including lengthy delays and consequential cancellations of holidays and business visits; notes the Government’s response to the Urgent Question from the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford of 12 June 2014, setting out emergency measures to deal with the passport backlog after an increase in demand; further notes that HM Passport Office is taking over responsibility for issuing an estimated 350,000 passports to citizens overseas from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office this year; believes that the Government failed to properly plan to meet the level of demand this year; calls on the Government to expand its emergency measures by compensating passport applicants who had to pay for urgent upgrades in recent weeks because of internal delays with HM Passport Office; and further calls for the Secretary of State for the Home Department to publish monthly figures for passport applications from within the UK and abroad compared to previous years to monitor performance at HM Passport Office.
The Opposition have called this debate because we are still not getting answers about what is happening to get people the passports and travel documents they need. In answer to a question earlier, the Prime Minister suggested that the Home Secretary might have more to announce today. I hope that that is the case, because the action taken so far is clearly not enough. It is disappointing that we get answers and action only when the Home Secretary is called to the House of Commons. Nevertheless, this is an opportunity to make further progress.
Since we last heard from the Home Secretary, MPs have had yet more constituents get in touch to raise their concerns and problems.
Will the shadow Home Secretary join me in wishing well my constituent, Jordan Frapwell, at the European triathlon championships in Austria, and extend her thanks to the Passport Office for making sure that he could get there in time to compete?
I certainly wish the hon. Gentleman’s constituent all the best, and I am glad that he got his passport in time. I also hope that he did not face undue stress over any delays. Other hon. Members have constituents who have been attending international sporting competitions and have had to drive halfway across the country to Durham the night before they were due to fly out to make sure that they had their passport on time.
About 23 minutes ago, yet another constituent contacted me with the problem of a delayed passport—that makes almost 30 cases I have had since this episode started. That constituent may benefit from the free upgrading service announced by the Secretary of State last week, but I had an e-mail this morning from another constituent who has spent a total of £176.50 on upgrading passport applications for herself and her children because their passports were delayed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such people should get a refund?
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the case of my 94-year-old constituent. She was going on a cruise—her first holiday for 20 years—and we managed to get her passport, thankfully, the day before she was due to travel, but she had to pay an extra £55. Her daughter told the Daily Mail:
“They’re holding people to ransom. It’s disgusting”.
The family had to pay the money, because otherwise their relative would not have been able to go on holiday, but why should she have had to pay when she applied in good time for her passport?
My hon. Friend is right. So many people have worked hard to save up for holidays, for months and sometimes years, and they do not want those precious holidays that they have been looking forward to put at risk. That is why they have been forking out, but it simply is not fair on people such as my hon. Friend’s constituent.
Does the right hon. Lady share my concern that at yesterday’s meeting of the Home Affairs Committee the PCS refused to rule out strike action? Does she agree with the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) that it would do nothing to enhance the reputation of the PCS if it strikes while hard-working taxpayers are waiting for passports for their holidays or to go on business?
I was very interested to hear the intervention by the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), who is no longer in his place. I have received an e-mail from a constituent whose son applied for a passport in March to go to Austria at the end of this month as part of achieving his explorer badge with the Scouts. Does my right hon. Friend hope that my constituent is able to get his passport like the hon. Gentleman’s constituent did?
I have also had constituents contact me with concerns, and in most cases those have been sorted out, but in addition I am being contacted by constituents before the target time has been exceeded. Does the right hon. Lady share my concern that perhaps people are unnecessarily getting the message that they should be anxious about their passport applications?
The unfortunate thing is that the message on the Government’s websites and helplines still says that passports will be processed within three weeks. Families are making decisions on that basis: they think it will be done within three weeks and then it is not. It can be delayed by many weeks, and that is a huge problem, because they have made plans and invested in booking holidays.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that staff in places such as Liverpool passport office are doing their best with the backlog, and that this is a systemic failure on the part of the Government and not the fault of people who have been put in an intolerable position by staff cuts?
Does my right hon. Friend think that my constituent should be refunded? She was standing in the queue at Newport passport office being asked to part with £55 for the privilege of getting her delayed passport at the very moment that the Home Secretary was on her feet last week saying that charges would be waived from the following Monday. Should she not have that £55 refunded, as well as a letter of apology, perhaps?
My hon. Friend is right. It is unfair on British citizens across the country who have been asked to pay more money in order that they can go on holiday simply because of the Home Office’s incompetence. Carla McGillivary and Dean Anderson applied for a passport for Dean more than six weeks ago. He cannot get an urgent upgrade because his is a first-time adult application. They paid for their holiday to Portugal out of Carla’s redundancy pay. Her new job is a zero-hours contract, so she does not know when she will be able to book a holiday again. They have been looking forward to this holiday, even arranging for their son to go swimming with dolphins. They fear now that they will have to cancel their holiday or risk losing all the money—they are supposed to pay the remainder of the deposit today. They have not got Dean’s passport and they do not know when it will arrive. Carla said:
“This is our first family holiday. I have no idea when we will be able to go on holiday again. I just don’t know what to do.”
One family had to leave their young son behind with his grandparents, because his passport did not come in time. One man missed his brother’s wedding in Greece because his passport did not come in time, despite his applying weeks in advance. People have saved up, worked hard and looked forward to a precious holiday for months. People have weddings, funerals, family events abroad, business trips, conferences, meetings and deals to make. Some people who are living abroad are keen to come home or just want to make sure that their visas are still valid.
Today we need to know whether the Home Secretary yet has control of the problem, whether she knows when things will be back to normal and whether she understands what went wrong in the first place. We also want to debate the new policies that she has announced. Are they working and are they enough to solve the problem? So far we have had little reassurance that the Home Secretary has been on top of the problem. Just last week she and the Minister for Security and Immigration were saying that there was no backlog. Now we know that it is hundreds of thousands. Last week the Home Secretary said how pleased she was that the Passport Office was meeting the service standards and that 99% of passports were being sent out within four weeks. Yesterday we learnt from the Passport Office chief executive that tens of thousands of passports every week are missing those service standards.
My hon. Friend is right to say that people are facing long waits. The Home Office simply does not seem to know what is going on. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), the shadow Immigration Minister, has asked countless questions to try to get to the facts of what is happening. A typical answer from the Minister reads, “The Home Office has indicated that it will not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period. An answer is being prepared and will be provided as soon as it is available.” The Home Office cannot even answer questions, never mind get people’s passports to them on time.
The Home Office does not seem to understand the financial realities for people affected by this situation. One of my constituents is stuck out in Saudi Arabia. His work has ended but he cannot return to the UK. He is broke, but the Home Office does not seem to be doing anything urgently about the problem.
We share a concern to make sure that people get their passports as quickly as possible, as I hope everyone would agree. Can the right hon. Lady point me to any line in her motion that would help someone who is currently waiting for their passport? What has she proposed that would help someone, as opposed to putting blame about?
On the subject of what the Government could and should do, I asked the Home Secretary last week about the wording on the Government’s website on the three-week time. We have already heard the estimates my hon. Friends have made of the cases they have seen. The wording gives every indication that it should take three weeks—no more, no less. Is it not that that is causing the problem? What does my right hon. Friend think the Government should do right now to help people?
My hon. Friend is right. People rely on the advice they are given on the website and via the helpline. When they go to the post office to do the check and send they are given information, but they have had no response or further information from the Home Office to tell them that something is going wrong. They make plans accordingly, and as a result they suddenly find themselves in the lurch.
I will make a little more progress and then come back to my hon. Friends.
We do not even know whether the Home Secretary has got to the bottom of why she is in this mess in the first place. Why was the increase in passport applications such a surprise to the Government? Ministers tell us that demand is up by 300,000 compared to last year, and the Passport Office chief executive said it may be 500,000 higher over the course of the year. Why were they so surprised by that? Last year already saw a big increase, with applications going up by 400,000 compared to the year before. Was it really beyond the wit of the Home Office to ensure that it had plans in place in case the number went up again, especially when Ministers’ own decisions were pushing up demand?
The Home Secretary agreed to close the international offices and bring passport applications for overseas residents back home this year. She did not make sure there was enough capacity to cope. According to the Passport Office chief executive, that decision alone has led to an increase of 400,000 more applications to the Passport Office this year. Those cases have seen some of the longest delays of all. It used to take 15 days to sort those passports out—that is what it says in the Foreign Office annual report—but now some of those families are being told it could take nine or 10 weeks. That is affecting everyone else’s applications, too. This is what one mother from Liverpool was told when she tried to chase her son’s passport application. She said:
“I called the Liverpool office again. A lady said they were much busier than normal as they are now processing passports for all over the world not just for the UK and passports are taking 6 to 8 weeks to process.”
The right hon. Lady is very generous, but I fear she has misunderstood the evidence that the Home Affairs Committee heard from the chief executive of the Passport Office. He was very clear that the increase in demand was not solely from processing foreign applications but from a whole range of sources, and that it was conducting a review to find out exactly what they were. Foreign applications were not the reason why it was experiencing an increase in demand.
Does not the hon. Lady have some concern that neither the Home Secretary nor the chief executive of the Passport Office have been able to break down the increase in demand? They simply have not told us how much is due to the increase in foreign residents’ applications, which we know is taking place as a result of their policy decisions, and how much is increased demand from British residents. She simply has not given us those facts.
Whatever Mr Pugh said yesterday, let me read what he put in his annual report only a year ago. He said, on the transfer of work in 2014, that
“IPS will be providing passport services for approximately 350,000 additional customers worldwide annually.”
That is the increase in demand that he predicted.
Exactly. We know there has been a substantial increase as a result of foreign residents applying for their British passports to be renewed, or applying for new passports for their children. Those who are living abroad are often the most complex cases, yet it is clear that the Home Secretary has not put in place the capacity to cope.
My right hon. Friend might be aware that yesterday the Home Affairs Committee spoke to the gentleman representing the union. He said that the unions and the people working in the Passport Office had told the management there were a lot of applications and that the cuts in numbers were not helping. This matter was raised with the management on many occasions.
My hon. Friend is right. I know she raised that point in the Committee’s evidence session yesterday. People have made it very clear, including the very nice lady who spoke to a constituent at the Liverpool office, that it is having an impact, because they are having to process so many more foreign applications. That was a decision taken by the Government, by Ministers, and yet they failed to put the additional capacity they needed in place.
Does the right hon. Lady not agree that the UK has a very cumbersome process for passport applications? A constituent of mine in Hong Kong applied months ago for a passport for her new baby son, but after months of delay with not much happening she has now decided to apply for a Canadian passport for her son, as the father is Canadian. She is choosing Canadian citizenship for their child over being a British subject because the passport will be given solely on the basis of the father’s birth certificate, as opposed to sending passports away to a passport office in another country. The passport application process is done far more easily in Canada in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost. Is there not something the UK can learn from places like Canada?
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that it used to be done in a fraction of the time. The British Passport Office used to be able to process passports much more rapidly. The international centres used to be able to process passports within 15 days, but they are not doing so now because of decisions Ministers have taken.
The majority of the delays I have seen have been for parents with very small children and babies. They have been very distressed. The problem is not just the delay in itself. As she said, my constituent, Mr Martin Griffin, had to drive up to Durham, after paying extra money, the night before the holiday. He talked about days and weeks of distress and very poor contradictory advice, with different things being told to them every day. While his wife was trying to care for their little baby son, they were very anxious about their holiday. Day in, day out they were told different things. There is no excuse for the delay, but there is no excuse for all that confusion either.
My hon. Friend is right. It is clear that a lot of the cases being raised are where there are long delays for families applying for their child’s first passport. Those applications should be relatively straightforward, but families are facing very long delays and that is jeopardising family holidays.
Is not the fundamental issue a complete lack of confidence in what the Home Secretary and the Immigration Minister are saying? Two constituents contacted me on Twitter yesterday to say that promised emergency travel documents were still out of reach and that the embassy in Qatar was clueless on how to issue them. They have newborns still stuck here. What seems to be consistent is that they are hearing one message from the Home Secretary, but when they try to deal with the system, it does not follow through.
That is a very important point and I will come on to some of the problems with the emergency measures the Home Secretary has introduced, because it is clear that they are not yet working.
The problem is that the Home Office simply did not listen to the warnings. Why did the Home Secretary not act in January when the Passport Office says it first realised there was a problem? Why did she not act in February when applications kept going up? My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn, the shadow Immigration Minister, wrote to the Immigration Minister in March, three months ago, to warn him about the problem. Why did she not act then? [Interruption.] The Home Secretary sits on the Front Bench and says that she did act. How come so many people are still waiting so long for their passports, when they have paid so much extra to get them on time? Why did the Home Secretary not do enough in April, when more and more MPs’ complaints started coming in? Why did she not act in May, when diplomats warned her the system was not working? Why, even in June, did she spend days denying there was a backlog, denying there was a problem and boasting about meeting all the targets?
The Prime Minister claimed last week that the Home Office has been on it since January. On what? It certainly was not on it even last week. The Home Secretary did not have her eye on the ball. She was too busy dealing with the Education Secretary’s hissy fits and too busy blaming everyone else. She said last week it was the seasonal upsurge. How British—it really must be the weather to blame! She then said that the problem was an unprecedented increase in demand—the Home Secretary blames the passport crisis on people wanting passports. The Prime Minister blamed identity cards. Conservative Back Benchers even claimed it was a crisis manufactured by the Opposition. With this Home Secretary, it is always someone else’s fault. She blames the weather, the holidaymakers, the economy, the Labour party, the civil service and even the Education Secretary—we will join her in that, but round in circles they go. We have known for some time that the Government are not going anywhere, but now no one else is going anywhere.
When will the crisis be over? Two weeks ago, the Home Secretary said that 98% of targets were being met. This week, the Passport Office chief executive said that 90% were being met. It is getting worse, not better. How many months will it take to have the system back on track? What difference will the new measures make now? The Home Secretary has said that there will be 250 extra staff. It is clear from the Passport Office chief executive that many of them are still being trained. In addition, they are coming from other parts of the Home Office, including borders. Just as this is a busy time for the Passport Office, it is an increasingly busy time at our borders. We know that customs checks are not being done, so what else is being put at risk? Is the Home Secretary confident that she now has enough staff in place to clear the backlog? If she has enough, surely she can give us a timetable on when applications and processing will be back to normal, and when families can be reassured that they will not face delays.
My right hon. Friend will appreciate that many of the staff in Liverpool are constituents of mine. They are extremely concerned at the lack of urgency that she has very well described. Does she agree that the Passport Office refusal to meet the trade union after repeated requests demonstrates what a fiasco this is, and how badly the problem has been approached? The union is attempting to help resolve the issue. Surely that offer of help should have been taken at the earliest opportunity.
The Home Affairs Committee was very surprised when we heard that the amount of work in progress was 493,000, because we have not yet reached the peak of the application period. However, we were even more surprised when no timetable was given. The chief executive said it would be done in a reasonable time. When we asked him what a reasonable time was, he said, “How long is a piece of string?” We need a timetable to get work in progress quickly.
The Home Affairs Committee work in taking evidence has been important, because my right hon. Friend is exactly right that we need a time scale. We need to know how long this piece of string is. Is it a short piece of string or a long one? Are we talking about a few weeks or a few months, or about this time next year? People who have holidays in September or business trips in October need to know how far in advance they should plan and whether they should be worried. Ministers are not giving us answers on how long it will take.
The Home Secretary has said that there will be 650 extra staff on the telephone helpline, which means more extra staff for the helpline than for clearing passports. How much does she think that will help? Currently, most people’s experience of the helpline is that people take messages and promise that someone else will call back. The person who is supposed to call back does not do so, and the people on the helpline do not know the answers.
That system is doing people’s heads in. We heard from Ria Runsewe and her family in Bromley. On 5 May, they applied for a passport for their 10-week-old son, and then heard nothing. She said:
“I called the helpline to check its progress…I was told someone would call me back within 48 hours, but I missed the call while I was changing my son’s nappy. Ten minutes later, I called back—only to be told that I had gone to the bottom of the queue and would have to wait another 48 hours.”
She eventually got through to someone and asked to upgrade to the premium service, and spent two more weeks chasing before someone else called her back to take payment and promise that the passport would be there the following day.
Another family gave us this account of their conversation on the helpline. Passport Office: “We can’t guarantee when your passport will be sent or when you will receive it.” Me: “What can I do?” Him: “You can’t do anything?” Me: “Can’t I pay to upgrade?” Him: “We can’t talk about that. You have to ring another number.” Me: “But that is your number.” Him: “We can’t talk about it until you mention it.” Me: “Okay. I’m mentioning it, and, in fact, I can categorically say I want it.” Him: “We can’t guarantee that they will do anything and they may not respond to you, but you can apply again for an urgent upgrade after that, and you may be lucky that time.” That is not even Kafkaesque; it is Monty Python. We do not need a system that simply has more staff to take messages. We need staff in place to clear passports and ensure that constituents throughout the country are told what is going on.
I have just had an e-mail from Michelle Morris, a member of my staff who has been waiting for three days to hear back from the helpline about her case. She has had a phone call in which she was told that the case is too complicated. She was due to leave today from Gatwick with her son. The travel agents have rescheduled the flight for Friday. The question is whether the helpline will ring back to tell us that the passport will be sorted out by then.
We have been listening to the debate for about half an hour and, so far, unless I am mistaken, I have heard not one solution from the right hon. Lady. Can she tell us what the Labour Government learned from the 1999 debacle? Can she provide advice on how to put the current situation right?
The right hon. Lady will be pleased to know that there is a Welsh language helpline. However, Sian Burton, my constituent, applying for a passport for her son, called the Welsh language helpline repeatedly over several days and never managed to get through to an adviser. She was eventually put through to an English-speaking adviser. She speaks English and so eventually collected the passport from Liverpool. She told me that staff in the Liverpool office were friendly and helpful, but clearly under very great stress. She is going on holiday this afternoon—she is flying now.
We are talking about people who are unable to go on their holidays, but my constituents are stuck in India with their newborn babies, unable to get home. They get no response from the helplines. In fact, their passports would have been issued by the Hong Kong office had it been open. They are desperate, running out of money and stuck in a hot hotel room in India.
My hon. Friend makes an important point on some of the difficult cases and long delays faced by British citizens overseas, not least as a result of the decisions that the Home Secretary has taken. I, too, have constituents who are abroad who are waiting for passports to be returned because they depend on having up-to-date papers to meet their visa conditions. They are worried that they will be penalised in the country where they are resident because their papers will not be valid unless they get their passports back in time.
My case is like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling). My constituent lives in Stockport, but his wife and their son are stuck in Mumbai. The baby was born on 18 January. They still do not have a passport or a resolution. The hotline advice was for them to travel from Mumbai to Delhi. Of course, they cannot do so because they do not have a travel document for the baby. What kind of advice is that?
These are the kinds of difficulties faced by British citizens across the world, many of them working hard in jobs abroad, including families who want to return home, but are unable to get the papers they need to return with their young children.
The Home Secretary outlined some measures to deal with British residents overseas. They are belated, but she has announced some measures to respond and we welcome that. However, there are still questions about those measures. She has said, for example, that British citizens overseas can now simply extend their existing passports and that children abroad can get emergency travel documents. However, people who have applied and are already in the system have been told that if they want to do that, they will have to withdraw their existing application, that that might take two weeks and that they will have to wait for their existing papers to be returned before they can apply for the emergency provisions and emergency travel papers instead.
My right hon. Friend is being extremely generous in taking interventions. I have a constituent in Abu Dhabi waiting for children’s visas who is being charged on a daily basis until the problem is sorted out. Therefore, in addition to waiting, my constituent is also being penalised financially.
I think that goes to the heart of the problems faced by a lot of families, who are experiencing stress and delay, but also having to pay for it.
The Home Secretary has said that British residents will be able to get a free fast-track upgrade if they are due to travel. Again, that is welcome, but even that is causing problems. One family who drove to Durham told us:
“My husband queried the fee and they said it’s not true about the fee waiver and it was just a rumour.”
Another was told that if they wanted to fast-track, they would have to cancel their existing application and that that would take 14 days. People who submitted their application online are being told that they cannot get a free upgrade. Even for a fast track, people have to make an appointment. One family were told that the only appointment in the next three weeks was in Durham.
According to the helpline today, the soonest that anyone can get an appointment anywhere in the country is Friday in Durham or Sunday in London, and even then it could take them an extra week to get their passport. Anyone who wants the premium service—to get their passport the next day, because they are about to travel urgently—will still have to pay. According to the Home Secretary, only the fast-track upgrade is free, not the premium service, despite the fact that some people applied for their passports many weeks ago and are now right up against the line.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Did she notice a Monty Python-esque moment in the Home Affairs Committee yesterday? It was very similar to the salesman’s explanation that the parrot was not dead, but was very deeply asleep. When the chief executive was asked about the logjam, he said there was no logjam. When he was shown published photographs of rooms of chairs and tables filled with passport applications, he said, “That’s not a logjam; that’s work in progress.” It was pure Monty Python.
We have heard that point made by Ministers, the Home Office press office and officials—“Backlog? No backlog.” Yet that is not the experience of families across the country.
What about those who have paid already, one of the key issues in our motion? Martin Cook from Ipswich, who applied many weeks ago, before the three-week deadline, has now had to pay £65 to upgrade, so that he and his wife can go on a romantic break to Prague. Audrey Strong’s 94-year-old mother—whom my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy)mentioned—has paid the extra to upgrade so that she can go on her cruise. She feels like she is being held to ransom. After weeks of delay, Anne Dannerolle from Hull paid for the upgrade to next-day delivery. Her passport still did not come and she had to drive a 200-mile round trip just hours before her flight. Roy Pattison, a security guard from Worcester, applied seven weeks ago, before his holiday to Turkey. Finally, on Friday he paid to upgrade to the fast-track service, but his passport still did not arrive on time.
The Passport Office has made money out of those families. Too early to get the Home Secretary’s fast-track offer, but too late to wait any longer before they travel, they have been forced to pay out. I therefore urge the Home Secretary to agree today that those families who have already had to pay out because of her delays should also be refunded the cost of their fast-track service.
We still do not know when things will be back to normal. Families still do not know how long they can expect to wait. We still do not know whether the Home Office has a grip, but families want answers now. We want to know when things will be back to normal. The Home Secretary should look again at the system for processing overseas passports, because it is not working. She should look again at the staffing, to ensure that she has enough staff in place to get the backlog down fast. She should look again at other measures to get through the summer, such as more support for check and send to reduce errors at this difficult time. She should look again at the fast-track and premium services, because they do not seem to be working well enough. She should also look again at compensating people who have paid extra fees through no fault of their own.
Would it be too much to ask for a little bit of humility from the Home Secretary when she stands up today, given the holidays she has put at risk? Yesterday the chief executive of the Passport Office gave an apology; last week the Prime Minister gave an apology; so can we have an apology from the Home Secretary, as the Minister in charge of it all? Why doesn’t she begin her speech with that apology to those families now?
As I told the House last week, Her Majesty’s Passport Office is dealing with the highest demand for passports in 12 years, while the surge in demand usually experienced during the summer months started much earlier in the year. As a result, a number of people are waiting too long for their passport applications to be processed. I would like to say to anybody who is unable to travel because of a delay in processing their passport application that I am sorry and the Government are sorry for the inconvenience they have suffered, and we are doing all we can to put things right.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for apologising and for allowing me to intervene, but will she address the pertinent point, which has been raised, that the Passport Office told the Home Secretary in its annual report that there would be a rise of 350,000 passport applications for her Department to process. Why did she not address that? She was given notice.
The hon. Lady asked to intervene on my speech at a very early stage. If she just has a little patience, I will address that question.
Before I turn to the detail of the problems faced by HMPO and what we are doing to address them, I would like to make it clear that, despite the unprecedented level of demand, the overwhelming majority of people making straightforward applications are still receiving their passports within three weeks as usual.
This morning two of my constituents reported to my office that they had been told by travel agents that they would not make arrangements for travel until they produced a passport. Has the Secretary of State or anyone in her Department been in touch with the Association of British Travel Agents?
We have been talking to the travel industry and the Post Office, which receives applications for passports through the check-and-send process. We are dealing both with those dealing with people who are travelling and with those dealing with passport applications to ensure that the messages people are getting are the correct ones.
To return to the figures I was talking about, over the first five months of this year, HMPO has processed more than 97% of straightforward passport renewals and child applications within the three-week target turnaround time. In the first two weeks of June—up to 15 June—89% of straightforward renewals and child applications were still being processed within the three-week turnaround time, so the majority of people have been receiving their passports within three weeks. Over the first five months of this year, more than 99% of straightforward applications have been processed within four weeks.
I have to tell the Home Secretary that for people who have had to wait weeks and faced a distressing situation—those with a small baby who have faced the knowledge that they might not be able to go on holiday and then had to pay extra and drive up to Durham to get their passport—there is nothing more irritating in the world than to be told that other people’s passport applications are being met in three weeks. I never think it is helpful; indeed, it is the worst thing imaginable to say to people, “Other people are all right. Sorry about you.” Will the Home Secretary say now whether my constituent, Mr Martin Griffin, whom I mentioned earlier, can be refunded for having to pay extra and drive up to Durham after weeks and weeks of stress for his wife—who is trying to look after their small baby—over whether that child would get its first passport? What the Home Secretary has said today is no help to him and he will be very angry indeed to hear it.
I absolutely recognise that some people have been suffering delays and have not received their passports within the three weeks. I say to the hon. Lady and to her right hon. and hon. Friends that it is important that people out there who are applying for their passports understand what the situation is—and the situation remains that, thanks to the very hard work of Passport Office staff in passport offices up and down the country, the vast majority of people are getting their passports within three weeks. The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) has spoken about an individual case, and other Members are raising individual cases, too. I understand why they are doing so, and I shall explain later how we hope to enhance our ability to deal with MPs’ queries on these matters and, as far as possible, to ensure that people are able to travel when they have booked their travel, and that they are able to get their passports in time.
I noticed that the Home Secretary said that the proportion of straightforward applications being processed on time had dropped from 97% previously to 89% over the last couple of weeks, so the situation is getting worse. Will she clarify exactly what she means by “a straightforward application” and what proportion of passport applications are not “straightforward”?
The vast majority of applications are straightforward: renewal or replacement applications for which the forms have been properly completed and all the required documents are available. Those applications are processed more easily than first-time applications because the individual has all the information that they need to provide. It is the case that first-time applications take longer than three weeks, and we have always been clear, as the Passport Office has always been clear, that first-time applications take longer because, of course, an interview is needed. That is part of the security that was introduced for passports, and I think we were absolutely right to introduce it. I shall see if I can get a precise figure for the right hon. Lady.
I was clear last week and again this week that we are making particular arrangements for people who find themselves outside the three-week timetable and have to travel within the next seven days, to ensure that they can be upgraded and receive their passport in time, and that those individuals will receive a refund.
I respect the Home Secretary for saying sorry, but under the circumstances, “sorry” is an easy word. What has happened is that people have been harmed: they have lost money, they have lost holidays and they have incurred costs. If the Home Secretary is sorry, will she back it up by ensuring that people are recompensed?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s approach as I welcome the measures she has put in place to deal with these matters. In response to what the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) has just said, will she confirm that, particularly in the case of first-time applications and cases that are not straightforward, these are important and sensitive documents, and security must always come first?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why those applications take more time and why it is important to have first-time interviews. Some people may have applied thinking that they had a straightforward case, but because documents are missing, the form has not been completed properly, or the Passport Office has a query about the information provided, their case ceases to be straightforward and becomes more complex, thus taking longer to deal with.
If I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope to say further things later. The Home Secretary is evading a simple question. Many people have incurred extra costs because of the incompetence and bungling that, as the Select Committee evidence made clear, sadly exists within HMPO. They are now writing to their MPs asking us to press the case on the Government, particularly in respect of the extra £73 they have had to pay through no fault of their own. Any private sector company would have to make allowance for that and reimburse people. That is what we look to the Government to do. Irrespective of whether the Home Secretary has an answer now or later, the question will not go away.
The hon. Gentleman characterised the Passport Office in a particular way, which I think was unfortunate in respect of the staff. [Interruption.] No, the hon. Gentleman referred to what was happening in the Passport Office in a particular way, and I am simply saying that the staff—my hon. Friend the Immigration Minister and I have met and spoken to them—are working very hard to try to ensure that they turn round passports. As I indicated here last week, we have set in place arrangements—they have been in operation over the last weekend—to help those who find themselves unable to travel within seven days. Those are the free-of-charge arrangements that we have put in place—it is not a refund, as people are able to upgrade free of charge within those time scales.
Clearly, there are issues at the Passport Office that need resolving. However, I would like to pass on my thanks, through the Home Secretary, to our hon. Friend the Immigration Minister and his officials who have done a sterling job in helping me and doubtless other colleagues to deal with some urgent applications, ensuring that many people who were worried about not receiving their passports on time did get them on time. I am very grateful, and I want to put that on the record. The immigration Minister has been magnificent, and I hope that that sort of service will continue while the problems are ironed out.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. A lot of people are certainly putting in a lot of effort to make sure not only that those applying in the normal way get their passports within an appropriate time scale, but that when cases are brought to the attention of the Passport Office, they are dealt with as expeditiously as possible so that people can travel.
I have been generous in granting interventions, but I am barely into the start of my speech. I will continue to be generous with interventions, but Opposition Members need to understand that at this stage I would like to make a little progress with my speech.
I have explained that HMPO is dealing with an unprecedented surge in demand for passports. HMPO has issued 3.3 million passports in the first five months of this year, compared with 2.95 million in the same period last year.[Official Report, 7 July 2014, Vol. 584, c. 2MC.] That is an additional 350,000 applications for passports and renewals in comparison with last year. Ever since this increase in applications became apparent back in January, HMPO has been putting in place measures to meet the demand. Some 250 additional staff have been transferred from back-office roles to front-line operations, while 650 additional staff have been provided to work on HMPO’s customer helpline. HMPO has been operating seven days a week since March and couriers are delivering passports within 24 hours of them being produced. On Monday, new office space was opened in Liverpool to provide the Passport Office with additional capacity. As I said to the House last week, however, even with those additional resources, HMPO is still not able to process every application it receives within the three-week waiting time for straightforward cases.
The Home Secretary has set out some things that the Passport Office is doing to resolve the issue, but it could all have been avoided. We heard at yesterday’s Home Affairs Select Committee meeting that Mr Jones, who represents the Public and Commercial Services Union, that for a number of months—not just two months, but for the last year or two—the union has been explaining to the management that they simply do not have enough staff to deal with the number of applications. That message was repeated to management time and again, but the management wilfully refused to engage with their staff on that issue. Had they done so, this would not have happened.
If the hon. Lady will be a little patient, she will hear me address the issue of staffing later in my speech. Let me now repeat what I have just said. Since January, Her Majesty’s Passport Office has been increasing the resources that will enable it to deal with passport applications in response to an increase in demand from the public, and the overwhelming majority of passports are being issued within service standards.
Will the Home Secretary, on behalf of my constituency staff, thank the staff who man the MPs hotline? They have been offering us a very good service, enabling us to work with our constituents to ensure that they receive their passports in time.
I thank my hon. Friend. As I shall explain shortly, we intend to increase the support that is available to Members of Parliament.
As I was saying, the overwhelming majority of passports are being issued within service standards, but, as I said earlier in response to an intervention, that is no consolation for people who are experiencing delays, or are worried about whether they will be able to go on their summer holidays. I entirely understand the deep frustration and anxiety that that must cause, which is why I want to ensure that people obtain their new passports as quickly as possible.
The Home Secretary is boasting about all the extra support that is being provided. My constituents Paul and Isabelle Chambers applied for a passport in March, and are due to travel on 14 July. Mr Bagnall also applied in March. Kimberley Bullock, who had married and changed her name, applied for a new passport more than six weeks ago, and is due to travel on 9 July. What guarantees can the Home Secretary give those people that they will receive their passports in time?
The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to be able to comment on an individual case when I do not know the details. I assume that he has been in touch with the MPs helpline, but obviously I will try to ensure that appropriate follow-up action is taken in relation to cases that are raised in the Chamber this afternoon.
As I have said, I entirely understand the frustration and anxiety of people who are worried about whether they will receive their passports before they are due to travel. That is why, last week, I announced a package of additional measures to help the Passport Office to meet demand and deliver passports on time, while still maintaining the security of the document.
Does the Home Secretary accept that there is something wrong with the support system for British citizens who are living overseas when they are having to phone my constituency office to ask me to intervene on their behalf?
There are a number of issues that I shall address later in my speech, but let me say this to the hon. Lady. We want a passport system that ensures that people can apply for their passports and receive them within a reasonable time. The majority of those whose applications are straightforward are receiving their passports within the time scale that has been set, but when we deal with passport applications, it is important for us to carry out the necessary checks. Sometimes information will not have been submitted, or someone will not have filled in the form correctly, and it will be necessary to contact the person again. That means that delivering the passport will take longer.
The Home Secretary said a few moments ago that 3.3 million passport applications had been received, as opposed to 2.95 million last year. One would expect foreign residents to account for at least half that increase, as a result of her decision to close the international centres. Can she tell us what proportion of the increase in demand is due to overseas applications, and what proportion is due to applications from domestic residents?
No, it is not, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am seeking clarification from you. Opposition Members have been told that if they have a problem with an individual case, they should pursue it through the MPs helpline or the usual channels, but it was made clear in a response to a similar intervention by a Government Member that the Immigration Minister had been contacted directly. I ask for your support, Madam Deputy Speaker. As someone who speaks up for all the representatives in the House, do you agree that the same facility should be afforded to all Members, regardless of political party?
Opposition Members have indeed been getting in touch with the Immigration Minister. The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), texted me on Saturday, and I was able to ensure that someone from the Passport Office—[Interruption.] I hear some complaints from behind me from colleagues who are not able to text because they do not have my number.
I thank the Home Secretary for that welcome clarification. May I ask her to state clearly that those such as me who are dealing with individual cases that it has not been possible to sort out via the usual channels of the back office or the MPs hotline—including cases of people who have been charged for the privilege of sorting out this mess while she was on her feet last week—can take those cases directly to her or to her Immigration Minister?
I recognise that Members of Parliament have been anxious to ensure that they receive a proper response from the MPs hotline. I shall explain shortly what we will do to improve the service, so that the hon. Gentleman will not feel the need to find an alternative way of dealing with such cases.
Will the Home Secretary confirm that the Immigration Minister receives weekly updates on passport performance? Back in 2009, when I was the passports Minister, we saw a big dip in passport applications, and at that point we discussed what would happen when the inevitable increase came, as it now has. All the talk about solving problems is a sticking plaster to cover a problem that should have been identified by Ministers in good enough time for them to tackle it.
Of course Ministers receive regular reports on what is happening in the Passport Office, just as other parts of the Home Office receive regular reports on various aspects of the immigration system. Of course, the Immigration Minister is currently receiving updates more regularly than is usually the case. [Interruption.] Members are asking me a number of questions which I shall be able to address later in my speech if they will be a little patient and allow me to make some progress.
Let me now say something about the package of additional measures that I announced last week. First, as I said earlier, when people have an urgent need to travel and their applications have been with the Passport Office for longer than three weeks through no fault of their own, the Passport Office will fast-track them without charge. To qualify, they must have booked to travel in the next seven days, and they will need to provide proof of their travel plans. The upgrade will be available until further notice, and I can tell the House that since its introduction, 800 customers have used it to ensure that they receive their passports.
No. I am going to make a bit of progress.
Secondly, those who apply from overseas to renew their passports for travel to the United Kingdom will be given a 12-month extension of their existing passports. To prevent abuse, this will be limited to people who have an existing passport that expired within the last six months, that is valid for three months, or—where a customer needs to travel to a country that requires a minimum of six months’ remaining validity on a passport —that is valid for seven months. This service, which is also free of charge, is being implemented by consular and embassy staff in the country of application. Overseas posts have been provided with stamps to provide this service and customers are already booking appointments for this service, which will be available from Monday. Where a customer has had their passport extended in this way, HMPO will contact them later to arrange the next steps for getting a new full passport.
Thirdly, The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is now issuing emergency travel documents for children who need to travel to the UK.
Will the hon. Gentleman have a little patience and let me complete my paragraph?
As I said to the House last week, parents will still have to provide comprehensive proof confirming identity, nationality and parental responsibility for the child before we issue these documents, as we are not prepared to compromise on child protection, but this should help to relieve the administrative burden on the Passport Office.
If what the Home Secretary has said is true, why are constituents of mine contacting me from Qatar saying that they are unable to get these emergency travel documents at the British embassy there? Does it not just add to the sense of complete chaos and the lack of confidence in this process if people are not able to get the answers they need from FCO officials abroad?
I will of course ensure that inquiries are made into what has happened in relation to Qatar, but information has gone out from the Foreign Office to its posts—to our embassies and high commissions—about all the measures that have been put in place in relation to overseas applications. The hon. Gentleman has raised a particular point in relation to a particular country, however, and I will ensure that it is followed up.
The Home Secretary has been very generous with her time. The Indian Government are saying that they will not allow emergency documentation if people have already applied for a passport. They have either got to cancel their application for a passport or get the emergency travel document, but that does not necessarily guarantee that they will be able to travel on it from India because the Indian Government have previously said they will not recognise it. This is a dire situation for a number of people trapped in India at the moment, particularly those who have gone there to collect surrogate children. Will the Home Secretary look at this issue seriously and urgently?
I recognise that the circumstances that sometimes apply to individuals who have gone abroad to collect surrogate children can be complicated. The hon. Lady mentioned a particular issue about emergency travel documents. We have been very clear that they are for children who need to travel to the United Kingdom, and there is obviously no question but that those will be recognised here. As I have made clear, we must ensure that it is possible to provide proof of the relationship with children and the parenthood—in this case the surrogate parenthood—of individuals with children, because we want to make sure that we are looking securely at cases that may relate to child protection. The Foreign Office is talking to some other countries about these issues, however. These are not new documents that are suddenly being issued. The emergency travel documents are issued in other, normal circumstances, where it is necessary for somebody to have a document to travel, perhaps for compassionate reasons. So it is not the case that any different approach should be taken to them in the current situation. Again, however, the hon. Lady has raised a particular issue, and I will ensure that she gets an answer in respect of India. As I have said, there are complications in terms of surrogacy; these applications are not straightforward. I am sure she will understand the reasons why I say that.
On overseas applicants, may I press the Home Secretary on the constituent I mentioned earlier? Having abandoned her UK application and having now opted for a Canadian passport for her son, she is still waiting for her passport to come back from the UK Passport Office. Will the Home Secretary guarantee that if that passport does not arrive in Hong Kong, carried by DHL, in time for her booked flight at the end of June, she will be able to travel back to Scotland for a christening? Further, how many of these passport applications are for people travelling in the first instance to Schengen countries?
After this debacle, the constituent in Hong Kong is now awaiting the return of a passport from the UK Passport Office. She has already waited two months. She is worried it will not arrive in time for her travel. I am merely asking the Home Secretary to guarantee that if it does not return in time to her home in Hong Kong, she will allow her to travel back to Scotland for a christening at the end of the month.
Of course I cannot stand up in the House of Commons and give a guarantee that somebody will be admitted across the border when I do not know the circumstances. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is making every effort to ascertain from the Passport Office when a passport will be issued and whether it will be with his constituent in time for her to be able to travel for this event, and I am sure he will take that matter up with the MPs hotline.
In addition to the contingency measures I announced last week, HMPO is continuing to ramp up its operations. More people are being trained so that we can increase the number of examiners and call-handlers. An additional 200 people will soon be supporting front-line operations. As I have said, the number of people handling calls on the helpline has increased from 350 to over 1,000, and HMPO expects this number to rise to over 1,300 by the end of June.
In addition to these measures, I have introduced changes to improve the service provided to Members of Parliament who are seeking information about constituents’ passports. From Monday of this week, 20 additional staff were assigned to respond to those queries.
I also want to assure the House that HMPO staff are working extremely hard, around the clock, seven days a week, to ensure that people get their new passports as rapidly as possible. I have heard of numerous cases where HMPO staff have been praised for their helpfulness and professionalism and the compassion they have shown to people in difficult circumstances. I have met staff at the HMPO office in Peterborough and spoken to HMPO staff in several offices, and I would like to place on the record my gratitude for the extra lengths to which those staff are going in order to fix the problem, meet the demand and continue to serve the public.
The Home Secretary is being very generous with her time. I would also like to add my thanks to the Passport Office.
Over the past few weeks, several constituents of mine have had their passports delayed. The worst case involved people who were meant to be travelling today and had to have their lost passports—they had been sent to the wrong address—couriered over to them.
Why have contingency arrangements only just been introduced? This situation should have been foreseen. Who was responsible for this?
I am sorry if the hon. Lady did not hear what I said earlier in my speech. Contingency arrangements have not just been introduced. Contingency arrangements have been being introduced since January of this year when it became clear that there was an increase above forecast in the demand for applications. As the demand has increased, and as the increase has been greater than that initially experienced, of course the Passport Office takes greater measures. That is right and proper. The Passport Office has increased its capability.
I join the Home Secretary in congratulating the staff on their hard work, and I think that that is shared across the whole House, but is she aware that Passport Office staff are paid £3,000 less than equivalent grades in the Home Office?
There was a mechanism in the Passport Office where if the backlog got to 150,000, measures would automatically be put in place to deal with it. Management took the decision to increase that figure to 350,000. Was the Home Secretary aware of that, and why did it happen?
I am, of course, aware that there are different pay structures for HMPO and Home Office staff, and I will come on to address the issue of what people are referring to as a backlog and whether the figures people are referring to as being a backlog are actually a backlog. I take issue with the figures the hon. Gentleman has given. I want to turn to some of the claims that have been made.
Just before my right hon. Friend moves on, may I ask her about something that I raised earlier with the shadow Home Secretary? A number of my constituents have had concerns about their passports taking longer than the established time to arrive, and many of those concerns have been addressed. But I have also been contacted by constituents who are within the normal time for passport applications. Is my right hon. Friend concerned that raising people’s anxieties unnecessarily is making the situation worse, because they are chasing for the return of their passport in a shorter period than normal? What is her advice to people in those circumstances?
My hon. Friend is right. When I was at the passport office in Peterborough, staff told me that a number of people, on hearing the publicity, had been contacting them about what was happening. These were people who would be getting their passports within the time frame, but their anxieties had been raised by what they had been hearing about the Passport Office. As I said, we must be clear that while some people have not been getting their passports within the normal time frame and while some people have been having difficulties in relation to their travel—we have been taking steps to alleviate that, as I announced last week—the vast majority are still receiving their passports within the three-week period. It is important that we provide that reassurance to people.
Before I deal with some of the Opposition’s claims about what is behind the surge in demand for passport applications, I should emphasise that it is clear that HMPO’s modelling failed, and we will need to address that. Likewise, there will undoubtedly be measures that we will need to take to improve the productivity and efficiency of the organisation in future. I have already said that I am considering removing HMPO’s agency status so that it can be made directly accountable to Ministers. I want to correct some of the claims that have been made in the past week or so. First, it is not true that this happened as a direct result of the decision to move the processing of overseas passport applications to the UK. HMPO and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office estimated that demand for overseas passport applications would be between 350,000 and 400,000 per year. Coincidentally, the surge in demand for passports represents about 350,000 more applications than last year. The vast majority of the surge is caused by domestic applications.
Secondly, it is not true that the delay in processing applications was caused by staff reductions. In fact, over the past couple of years, staff numbers in HMPO have risen, not fallen. On 31 March this year, HMPO had 3,444 full-time equivalent staff, up from 3,260 in 2013 and 3,104 in 2012.
I will get the exact figure checked and give it to the right hon. Lady.
The Opposition have repeatedly compared current staffing levels with those in 2010 but, as they well know, HMPO was not just a passport office in 2010. It was called the Identity and Passport Service because of the previous Government’s plan to maintain an identity database and introduce identity cards. One of the first things this Government did in 2010 was scrap ID cards and destroy the identity database. The Opposition know therefore that their comparison with 2010 does not stand up to scrutiny.
Thirdly, it is not true that the delays have been caused by the decision to close certain premises.
The hon. Gentleman has been ploughing this furrow for some considerable time. He knows full well that, as a result of doing away with the ID card scheme and the identity database, it was possible to take action both in relation to staff numbers and to the closure of certain premises. The Opposition consistently raise that issue. They say that the delays have been caused by the decision to close certain premises. Those measures were taken because HMPO had too much office space after we scrapped ID cards. The Newport passport office continues to operate as a customer support centre and to offer face-to-face passport application services for premium and fast-track customers. It has 150 full-time equivalent posts.
Sadly, the Newport office is closed. It is no longer a fully fledged office. It does not have the ability to deal with postal applications. In this crisis, hundreds of people have been forced to go to Liverpool to get their passports. We have half a passport office in Newport, which is a disgrace, as Wales deserves at least one fully fledged passport office.
Obviously, I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s very particular constituency interest in this issue, but he does make the statement, as others do, that the Newport passport office has closed. The Newport office continues to operate as a customer support centre with 150 full-time equivalent posts.
I also want to address the allegations about a backlog and this issue about the figures. It is usual during peak periods for HMPO to operate with high numbers of passport applications in the system at any one time. This is normal work in progress. There can be 350,000 to 400,000 applications being processed at any given time. The overwhelming majority are dealt with within the three-week service standard.
As things stand, HMPO is receiving up to 150,000 domestic applications each week, and around 9,000 overseas applications. Around 480,000 applications are currently being dealt with, compared with 350,000 to 450,000 in normal circumstances. The figure will vary from week to week depending on passports issued, applications withdrawn and applications received. I should be clear about the figures. The right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford said that there was a backlog of hundreds of thousands, but there is no backlog of 480,000 cases. That number represents the total number of cases in HMPO’s system at present.
As the Prime Minister told the House last week, there is a number of straightforward cases that would ordinarily have been processed within the three-week service time that are not being processed quickly enough. That number, as of the beginning of this week, is approximately 50,000.
Although the changes to the passport process are appreciated and welcomed, I must point out that in Scotland the holiday period comes earlier. For my constituents, the traditional holiday period starts at the beginning of July, so they have been through the turmoil. Will the Home Secretary reimburse them for the extra money they have had to pay out to get their passports?
I am well aware of the holiday period in Scotland. I have spoken to the manager of the passport office in Glasgow, and he told me about the arrangements that have been put in place to ensure that the office is dealing with the increased number of applications. For example, extra appointments are available for people who wish to bring in their applications in person.
The Glasgow office is making every effort to ensure that people’s passports are being dealt with in time. It is the case that sometimes passport applications are being dealt with by other offices, but that is only when those offices have some flexibility within their system to be able to deal with those cases. This is about trying to ensure that we are dealing with the applications so that people get their passports. I am sure that that is exactly what hon. Members of this House would expect the Passport Office to do.
Her Majesty’s Passport Office has issued 3.3 million passports in the first five months of this year, compared with 2.95 million in the same period last year.[Official Report, 7 July 2014, Vol. 584, c. 2MC.] That is an unprecedented surge, but striving to meet customers’ expectations is vital even during busy periods. As I made clear last week, in the longer term the answer is to ensure that HMPO is running as efficiently and effectively as possible, and that it is as accountable as possible. As I told the House last week, I have asked the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill, to conduct two reviews. The first will ensure that HMPO works as efficiently as possible, with better processes, better customer service and better outcomes. As part of that review, the head of Home Office Science will be reviewing HMPO’s forecasting model.
I am coming close to the end of my speech.
Mark Sedwill will also be reviewing HMPO’s agency status and looking at whether HMPO should be brought back 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.
Passports are important security documents, but they are also the important means by which people live their lives. Likewise, the numbers we have talked about today are not just statistics but people who want to know that they will get their passports in time for their holidays and for other pressing travel plans. As I said, a number of people are waiting too long for their passport applications to be processed.
I thank the Home Secretary for giving way; she has been very generous. She obviously has not been able to get the precise figure that I asked for before she sits down. I hope that the Minister for Security and Immigration will be able to get that before he stands up. As I understand it, she said that the Passport Office is experiencing 150,000 domestic applications and 9,000 overseas applications. Given the figures that she has also given us about the 2.95 million last year and the 3.3 million this year, those figures suggest that the overseas applications account for at least half the increase in applications that we have seen. Can she say whether that is the case, and will she take one final opportunity to tell us whether she will refund the extra fees that people have paid in order to get their passports on time? They have already paid the fee. Will she refund it?
Of the 3.3 million figure, about 6% are overseas applications. That is why I said what I did about the surge that has been coming through.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, a number of people are waiting too long for their passport applications to be processed. To anybody who is unable to travel because of delays caused by HMPO, the Government are sorry. It is important to remember that the vast majority of people—
The Home Secretary said that the figure had gone up from 2.95 million to 3.3 million. That is about a 10% increase. She has now said that 6% of that was overseas applications. They were not happening in previous years. Therefore, there has been only a 4% increase in domestic applications. Can she confirm those figures?
The right hon. Lady is wrong on that, which is why I suggested that it is perhaps better if I set out the figures to her in writing so that she is absolutely clear about them, rather than trying to make back of the envelope calculations in the Chamber.
It is important to remember that the vast majority of people are still receiving their passports within the expected three weeks, but the Government are putting in place measures to make sure that HMPO can process passport applications without the delays we have seen. HMPO staff are working tirelessly. The pinch points are being addressed, more staff are being trained and brought on board, and the measures I announced to the House last week are being implemented. More passports are being issued, and people who need to travel urgently can have their application fast-tracked without charge if their application has been with the Passport Office for longer than three weeks.
We are not going to be able to wish this problem away or fix everything overnight, but the measures that the Government are taking mean that HMPO can get to grips with its work load, meet the demand that it is facing and make sure that the public get the service they deserve. That is why the House should vote against the Opposition’s motion and vote with the Government today.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is a strictly time-limited debate. The speeches of the two Front-Bench spokesmen have taken between them an hour and 26 minutes, and one reason for that is the acceptance of intervention after intervention after intervention from Members, many of whom have left the Chamber without bothering to listen to the rest of the debate. The consequence of that is that the rest of us have only six minutes, in which it is impossible to develop any kind of coherent or articulate argument. When will this be put right?
Sir Gerald, that point of order has just taken more time from the debate. As you will know, how long Front-Bench spokesmen take to open the debate is not a matter for the Chair. This is a time-limited debate, and we now do not have enough time for every speaker who wishes to contribute.
I agree, Sir Gerald, with your point with regard to interventions being made by Members who then leave the Chamber. The convention is quite clear. Those Members should have stayed, at least until the Home Secretary sat down. I have drawn this to the attention of the Whips, and I hope that those Members will be told that interventions take other speakers’ time.
We have a six-minute time limit. We will start with six minutes. Not every Member will get in if it remains at six minutes, so I will have to review it. Some Members may decide to withdraw their names; let us wait and see.
The former Minister for Immigration, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), described the passport service as gold-plated, but it has gone from being a swan to an ugly duckling in just 12 months. After the Home Affairs Committee took evidence from the chief executive of the Passport Office, there is no denying that there is a crisis. I welcome what the Home Secretary has done during the last seven days. These are important measures that I hope will alleviate the real distress that many of our constituents have suffered during the last few months. I wish those measures had been put in place much earlier, but it is far too early to judge what Ministers did or did not do at the relevant time. Suffice it to say that it is important that we deal with the crisis as quickly as possible.
The Home Secretary is right: 493,289 cases represent work in progress. But the word “backlog” is used quite a lot. One of the problems is that those in the Home Office regard a backlog as being everything outside service standard times. They also define a service standard time. For many years, the Home Affairs Committee, in our reports, has not accepted the use of that phrase. We have looked at the amount of work in progress; what the public want is to be able to submit a passport application, pay a fee and get good value for money. We should not have to praise the Passport Office and say it is doing a good job because we can ring to have complaints dealt with. Frankly, that is what it should be doing all the time.
We must remind ourselves, Madam Deputy Speaker—I congratulate you on your appointment as a dame—that we should not need to wait for facts and figures. I want to spend the very short time that I have, which is getting even shorter, on the evidence given by the chief executive of the Passport Office. I was hugely disappointed by what Mr Paul Pugh had to say; he is, after all, being paid more than the Minister for Security and Immigration. I would have expected the chief executive of an agency of the Crown to be able to judge the huge increase in passport applications that began earlier this year.
The Select Committee asked for the facts and figures that the Home Secretary was unable to give us today—she clearly does not have them all with her—to be delivered to it before the evidence session. At 2.45 yesterday afternoon, when the session began, and by implication the entire staff would have been present at the hearing, we received an e-mail saying that the figures had not been verified. These are normal statistics that should be on the desk of Ministers every week.
It is a long time since I have been a Minister, but when I had responsibility for entry clearance, I demanded on a weekly basis the number of cases that were going to appeal, partly because of the letters I received from my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), to make sure that the backlog was brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible.
The Home Secretary was right to visit Peterborough. I visited the Passport Office in London last Friday and I agree with her—there are some extremely hard-working staff there who are putting in a lot of hours. Many of them are working overtime, but many are very new. Of the four members of staff I spoke to on reception at Globe house, all had been appointed in the past fortnight. I am not sure whether they have the necessary training. They were all very pleasant and courteous and were doing their best, but it looks a bit like management by panic, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) said yesterday during the session. We do not expect that of an agency with the kind of reputation that the Passport Office has.
I will not, as time is short.
I, too, have had to contact the Home Office over urgent cases. I rang the Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), a second after I rang the head of the Passport Office on Saturday. The hon. Gentleman was obviously on constituency business. I do not blame him; he is always good at returning my calls. I then texted the Home Secretary to tell her that I had a constituent outside Durham who was not able to get a passport to catch a plane. She responded. I have been offered money for her phone number, but I am not giving it away. I am keeping it to myself in case I need it again.
We should not have to ring the Home Secretary to get these things done. They should be done by the chief executive of the agency, and he should be able to complete his work properly. I commend the work of his private office. When we have raised cases, the staff there have been very good, Farooq Belai in particular, and so has the Home Secretary’s own private secretary, Alison Samedi.
The matter rests with Mr Pugh. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) said sorry is an easy word. Sir Elton John said, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word”. It took Mr Pugh three attempts to say sorry. Enough of apologies. Let us get on with a clear timetable and let us restore the issuing of passports in the posts abroad as the best way of dealing with the problem.
I should start by putting on the record my regret for those four constituents who contacted me because they were experiencing difficulties. Three of them were dealt with immediately and just one had to wait one extra day for a passport.
I confess to being a little surprised that the Opposition have used this first Opposition day for a debate on this subject, given that the Government have responded so fully over recent days to take the action necessary. In the hour and a half I have been sitting in the Chamber, nobody has answered the question why there has been such unprecedented additional demand. I suggest that in addition to continued falls in inflation and unemployment, the demand for passport renewals and replacements—at its highest for 12 years, with over 350,000 additional applications lodged compared with the same time last year—is a clear sign that overseas travel is higher on the agenda for many businesses and families than could have been anticipated earlier this year.
The Opposition frequently inform us that we should learn the lessons of the past. I agree—it is important that we learn from previous experiences. The Passport Office currently has a considerable number of applications to process, but 15 years ago, under the previous Administration, the number was not 480,000, but 565,000 at the height of the 1999 crisis. But the most important figure is that of the 480,000 cases currently in progress—just 30,000, or six in every hundred, are being dealt with outside the normal three-week waiting time.
No. Given the limitations on time and given what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said earlier, I shall carry on.
More than 500 people missed their travel dates in 1999, and the Government then paid out over £124,000 in compensation for missed holidays, honeymoons and business trips. More than half of all calls failed to get through to the agency. The emergency measures put in place by the then Government cost a total of £12.6 million, including £16,000 spent on umbrellas for people queuing in the rain for hours.
It is important that today we reflect on what happened 15 years ago. It took the Government five months to get a grip of the problem and to put emergency measures in place, in stark contrast to what we have seen from this Home Secretary and this Government. The Government are not simply throwing extra resources at the difficulties; they are taking proportionate steps to reallocate 250 staff and add 650 staff to customer helplines. That action was taken quickly. The wider concerns that have been generated have increased unnecessary calls, leading to an extra administrative burden on the Passport Office. Let us put the situation in context. Between January and May, 99% of passports were issued within four weeks. That is a pretty impressive outcome.
As I said earlier, four constituents contacted me. One of them had to delay his holiday by one day, which is incredibly significant for him and his wife. I very much hope the Government will make it clear how compensation in such circumstances can be gained and the best way to approach that. I also hope that this afternoon’s debate is an opportunity for the Government to outline once again the considerable and sensible steps they have taken to ensure that people can receive their passports as soon as possible.
My councillor, Ian McLennan, a tenacious Labour councillor, was hoping to depart on a cruise with his wife but unfortunately the passport reached them one day late. He is the only constituent of mine who has experienced any meaningful problems. I see no reason why my constituency should be any different from any other. I hope that when the reviews take place, we look at some—
No. I shall carry on because time is so short, as I said earlier.
It is important that when the reviews are undertaken, we look at new ways of improving processes so that seasonal demand is reduced. We know when people’s passports will expire. Why they cannot anticipate that and apply several months before they need to, and be encouraged to do so by the Passport Office, should be investigated. I conclude by commending the actions taken by the Home Secretary and the ministerial team under difficult circumstances. I am surprised that the Opposition have wasted valuable time on this subject.
The Home Secretary is shuffling out, as she always does when anything sensible is being said—the worst Home Secretary of my 44 years in the House of Commons, as we have seen today. There she goes, useless and arrogant. This week, she announced a new priority visitor visa system for tourists from China—a country that carries out executions and torture, imprisons without trial and gags free speech, while British citizens are harassed, delayed and fended off by an unresponsive lack of a system bizarrely called a “responder hub”.
I get an incessant flow of passport cases; the pile I have here has arrived since Thursday. Time and again constituents tell me what they are going through. Here is one example:
“I am making myself ill with worry…I continue to be fobbed off by the 0300 helpline. I am so frustrated as I cannot even discuss this with anyone as they will not even give me a direct number for the Liverpool office!”
Here is another:
“We have been wasting time and money running after solicitors and the British embassy, who are not helping us or guiding us about the process.”
Here is another:
“I will now need to take 2 days off work and also pay the last-minute travel costs to get from Manchester to London and back (twice) in order to apply for a visa”.
“The main advice line for the passport office constantly gives incorrect information, which leads to a phone call every day as we are now panicking and worried sick… I suffer with anxiety and panic disorder and this is causing me so much stress each and every day.”
“I applied for a renewal passport on May the seventh 2014 and today still have received nothing. If I do not go on 20th, I will have to lose a lot of money.”
I could read many more.
The situation is a scandal caused by a lack of concern and interest not lower down the organisation—those people do as they are told—but at the very top. It was typical of the Home Secretary to scoot out of here after listening to only two Back-Bench speeches; she goes off to do a job that she is incapable of doing anyhow. I have been a Member of this House for 44 years, and in that time there have been 18 Home Secretaries—10 Tory and eight Labour. They have varied in quality, but every single one of them, Tory and Labour, made themselves accessible to me as a Labour Back Bencher. Douglas Hurd would invite me to his office to discuss immigration and deportation cases, and William Whitelaw was a serious Home Secretary.
I do not know what elevated ideas this Home Secretary has about her quality and personality. All I can say is that this coming Saturday—my birthday, since I am talking about anniversaries—she will become the longest serving Home Secretary of all the 18 I have known in this House, yet she has done less than any other because, unlike them, she will not touch an individual case. Douglas Hurd, William Whitelaw, David Waddington and all the rest did, but she does not. I simply cannot understand why she thinks that she is too good for the rest of us. That is the attitude she is taking in this situation. She is not accessible in any way.
If the Home Secretary dealt with cases, she would know the problems of administration and understand what is going on, but she is at a distance. We have to drag her here, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) did last week, to get anything out of her. She has done nothing to sort this out. She can babble on as much as she likes about identity cards, but four years and one month later that has nothing whatever to do with it. This mess is the Home Secretary’s personal responsibility, and our constituents will remember that.
I normally like to say that it is a pleasure to follow a Member who has just spoken, but I am afraid that I cannot do so on this occasion. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) should be ashamed of himself. Having listened to his diatribe, I hope that he has tried to contact the Home Secretary, because if he has not he should explain that to the House.
I want to start by congratulating the Home Secretary. There will always be issues, crises and developments in Departments such as the Home Office, as we all know on both sides of the House, so it is not the avoiding of a problem that is the measure of a Home Secretary; it is how they deal with it when it arises. How has the Home Secretary dealt with this problem? She has done so in an exemplary fashion. Her Majesty’s Passport Office has been responding since the start of this year, not at the height of the season, during the summer months, because staff were brought in to respond to extra demand in January.
We must ask ourselves why there has been this substantial increase in demand, the biggest intake at this time of year for 12 years. Perhaps it is something to do with the improving economy under this Government. The economy is up because the long-term economic plan is working, so more business people need passports to travel and more people are going on holiday. How else could one account for the enormous increase in the millions of applications? To deal with that, 200 staff have been redeployed from office roles to front-line operations, the passport helpline now has 1,000 staff dealing with the situation, and the Passport Office is open from 7 am to midnight seven days a week. That has resulted in a considerable improvement in the number of straightforward passport applications being dealt with within the stipulated time frame.
However, between January and May more than 97% of straightforward passport renewals and child applications were processed within the three weeks advertised on the website—by the way, the website gives three weeks as a recommended time frame, not a guarantee—and 99% have been processed within four weeks. As it happens, I do not think that we can say that is good enough, because even 1% represents a large number of people who have been seriously inconvenienced.
We should not allow the message to be transmitted that somehow this service is completely collapsing, as the Labour Opposition are trying to do, to the detriment of Passport Office staff across the country who are working extremely hard, as we can see, for many hours of the day and night to get the job done. Let us give them credit and accept that a 97% success rate for any branch of government is extremely impressive. If we could arrest 97% of burglars or stop 97% of fires, we would be doing rather well. However, I accept that even 3% or 1% is too large and that we always have to do better. That is why the Home Secretary has put in place the resources that we have heard described in detail today.
We have again heard allegations that this situation is the result of job cuts, but the contrary is actually the case. On 31 March the Passport Office had 3,444 full-time equivalent staff, which is more than in 2013 and 2012. Comparisons are inaccurately drawn with 2010. As has already been explained, in 2010 this Government rightly scrapped Labour’s ID cards policy, so the Passport Office, as it is now constituted, is dealing with different things. Staff numbers have gone up.
We must also bear in mind the paramount importance of security. This country has a gold-standard passport service, and our passports are considered to be the gold standard by other countries, including those in the European Union. Other countries respect the fact that a British passport is a document they can trust, because they know and acknowledge that a vast array of security checks are done before a passport is issued. We must ensure that there is no circumvention of those checks, because they are of paramount importance. There will be complex cases, because we have a very cosmopolitan society and people want passports from around the world, and sometimes the checks take a while to complete, particularly because the other countries have their own time frames.
I acknowledge that there is a problem, but we have to bear in mind the points I have raised: resources are being put into this; the figures are improving; and the number of staff has increased. The so-called backlog is a misapprehension. We cannot count those figures that we would normally expect to see—150,000 a week—as a backlog. The figures for the past three weeks amount to a vast number, and they will continue to increase.
I first want to thank and congratulate the front-office staff in passport offices. Someone said that they are only doing their job, and asked why we should thank them. I think that to have worked under the pressure that they have worked under, to have had angry people on the phone every time they pick it up and to have been badgered by MPs is to have done a tremendous job. I have had nothing but kindness, patience and tolerance when I have been in touch with staff in Belfast, Liverpool and, above all, Durham. I just think that they are worth more than the money that the Government are paying them, and I hope that they remember that.
However, I cannot say the same for the parliamentary hotline. Too often it has rung out—nobody has answered. The only job staff seem to do is to pass complaints to the passport office. Now that we have discovered a line that gets us through to Durham, we in Leeds have found that it is easier to speak to the ordinary staff: it gets the job done quicker, and we can speak to staff who have more knowledge. I expect more from a parliamentary hotline.
While I am getting out all my bad temper, I must say that I cannot understand what has happened to the invisible management. Normally, when we get through to an office, if the poor person who answers cannot deal with the problem, we ask to speak to a supervisor or a member of the management. It is impossible to speak to such a person. I have, however, noted that we can speak to the Minister for Security and Immigration, and that will be marvellous when we cannot get any answers.
I agree with what has been said about its being too soon to judge. For the people involved who are watching this, it will be quite painful to see Members from the two sides battling over figures, times and numbers, and over who is to blame. The dust will settle, and the Home Affairs Committee and other places will find out the facts and agree a sensible way forward.
The Home Secretary has put some stuff on the table that we hope will work. The hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) said that we should congratulate her. The jury is still out, but she has not satisfied the minority who are bruised, harmed and out of pocket, or who have had real stress and worry about the whole exercise. Members are upset about the minority who have had to cancel holidays and to pay for delayed holidays, or who have been told by a passport office that they could have their passport if they paid an upgrade, which sounds terribly like blackmail. It sticks in the craw when we are told, “Look, things happen.” As the hon. Gentleman said, this is about how we react to what happens.
Ordinary people have gone through a terrible time. I have a story about an individual who put in for four passports before time: one came through, but the other three did not, and he had to pay about £180 to get them, and to travel 70 miles to Durham to pick them up. All that I and many Members in the Chamber wanted to hear from the Home Secretary was an acceptance that we all make mistakes, as do Governments of all hues. What should a Government do when they make a mistake that hurts someone? If they have caused distress or cost a family £180 to pay for another flight, it is not enough to say sorry. If this was a private firm, the Government and Members would be up in arms, saying, “Give people recompense. You’ve let them down.”
The point is that the Government knew for five months that they were running into trouble. Did they alert anyone to that fact? The answer is no. They did not change the website, and people put in for passports—putting their holidays in danger—because the Government did not come clean. My view is that they should kill the argument by saying, “We will give recompense. We will review every case put forward for recompense, and we will look at the individual circumstances.” That would have settled the matter. People have been hurt and mistakes have been made but, however those mistakes happened, we cannot let ordinary people suffer because of incompetence or such mistakes.
Finally, when I raised the issue with the Home Secretary last week, she did not answer my point about retrospective recompense, but she said that such a service would be free in future. That is confirmed by a document from the Library, but it points out that the free upgrade
“is only available to first time passport applicants if there are valid compassionate circumstances.”
That is the sort of nonsensical, empty phrase—with too many qualifications—that does this House no good. I genuinely hope that the Home Secretary has done her arithmetic, because that may be the problem. Arithmetic is nothing, however; we as politicians must keep our faith with ordinary people, which means that when we make a mistake or do something that hurts them, we put it right.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), I want to put on the record the number of my constituents affected. So far, we have taken up nine cases with the passport office in Northern Ireland, and those cases have been dealt with. We have three more outstanding cases, but we are waiting for information from the constituents concerned. The processes that have been put in place are therefore working. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) that it is a personal tragedy for every single person affected and their families, and we would hope not to be in such a situation.
I should declare that I worked at the passport office in Liverpool of an evening to work my way through university, and I spent many a pleasurable hour there. [Hon. Members: “We need you.”] Hon. Members will be delighted to know that when I was there we printed passports on a dot matrix printer, and we did 125 a night. Some of them were wonky, but people got their passports in the end. Mine were all pristine, and were always passed through as top quality. My point is that the staff in the Liverpool office have done a fantastic job, as have staff in other offices around the country.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking very highly of the Liverpool passport office. Does he not agree that Scotland, as a constituent part of the United Kingdom, deserves to have its own fully functioning and comprehensive Passport Office? It would of course have one after independence, and I am sure that some hon. Members in the Chamber would get an honorary passport.
If the hon. Gentleman is so confident about independence, I have no need to answer that question.
During my wonderful time in Liverpool, earning a bit of money to get myself through my university years, the staff did a good job. Many of the staff are still there, although there have been a number of reorganisations. One key thing is that there were backlogs in those days. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury made the key point that, between January and May, 99% of passports were processed in four weeks. I can tell hon. Members that that was not the case when I worked in the passport office in Liverpool. It took a lot longer than that, and we used to look at the passport applications, wondering why it had taken so long for them to reach us to be printed.
My brother and sister also worked in that passport office in Liverpool. There are many of us, and such things are often family affairs in the great city that I come from. They had different roles. My brother was one of the examiners responsible for identifying whether somebody had the status to be given a British passport.
Hon. Members may not appreciate that once somebody gets a British passport, they can use it as a gateway document to enable them to access a variety of benefits and services within the United Kingdom, so it is incredibly important. One issue with delays for a specific passport is that we may have to be very careful about the security of the application to ensure that the person who will get the passport has a right to services in the United Kingdom. Failure to do so or a knee-jerk reaction—
I will not give way again, because Madam Deputy Speaker wants us to make progress so that other Members can speak.
The passport is a key document. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury gave the important statistic that there were 565,000 documents in 1999. I should like to discuss my experience, because hon. Members will be shocked to discover that I was actually there when the work of the Passport Office was outsourced by the previous Government. In 1998, the Labour Government outsourced me to Siemens Business Services, which wanted to replace my dot-matrix computer with 125 passports on it with some high-falutin’ laser printer based in Manchester. We would examine the passports in Liverpool, and when we pressed “print” on our computers, they would be sent off to Manchester to be printed.
People will be shocked to discover that, during that period, there was complete and utter chaos. The roll-out was so poor that it was actually delayed in all the other passport offices in the United Kingdom. We had spoken to the unions, and to the Ministers involved, and they had been warned for more than 12 months that there would be utter chaos. I left the Passport Office in March 1999, and after it lost my services, there just happened to be a passport crisis that summer. I have no idea why that happened. I was beavering away doing the best I could, and when I left, there were problems.
There were huge problems in 1999. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury has mentioned the fact that £12.6 million was paid out. My brother and sister were working in the passport office at the time, and they remember that angry people from all over the country, with their umbrellas, were forming huge queues round the India buildings. They were having to pay out, and it was a huge problem. Every one of those cases was a personal tragedy.
I find it upsetting that some Opposition Members have tried to suggest that the situation today is similar. What has happened over the past few months has been difficult for the individuals involved, but it is nothing like what it was then. I worked there; I experienced it and I can assure every Member that the word “chaos” does not do it justice. Towards the end of 1998, it was so bad that I was paid treble time to work on Sundays, with an extra £10 an hour just to turn up to work. I left university with no debts as a result of that, for which I am grateful to the previous Government. I took advantage of that overtime as much as I could. The reality was, however, that there were huge problems. What the Home Secretary has done over the past few months has resulted in a huge step forward from what I experienced when I was there some years ago.
I would like to put on record my gratitude to the staff in the Passport Office who have helped me and my constituents to get the nine passports that we have contacted the office about over the past few weeks. I give the Passport Office warning now on the Floor of the House that I shall be contacting it in the next few hours about a further three cases, when I have received further details from my constituents, and I hope that they will be processed just as fast.
We have to remember that there are human beings involved, and that the staff who are doing the examining and the printing are all doing the best they can. I was a little disappointed that the shadow Home Secretary saw fit to mock someone who was working on the advice line. I have been in that position myself, and it was very difficult when people were ringing from different countries and I was constantly fielding their concerns. That person will no doubt be disappointed to hear what she said. I want to put on record my thanks to the Home Secretary for her action to try to deal with the situation.
Order. The hon. Gentleman has sat down. He has run out of time. I am reducing the time limit to five minutes in order to ensure that all Members can speak in the debate. I hope that it will not be necessary to reduce it further, but this is a time-limited debate. I call Mr Geoffrey Robinson.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate you on your honour.
The Government are evading two fundamental questions, and if we do not get answers to them today, we shall go on pressing for them, because we are rightly being relentlessly pursued for answers by our constituents. The first question is: why are we in this crisis, and why is there such a shambles in the Department? We have not had an answer from the Government that makes any sense. They have tried to blame the massive increase on new people applying for passports, but their figures do not show that to be the case.
I have written a letter to the Minister for Security and Immigration, the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), but he has not yet replied to it. I have not even had an acknowledgement, let alone an invitation to meet him. I have been received by many of his predecessors, as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who has referred to Mr Waddington in particular. Those Ministers met constituents when there was a problem. That course of action worked well, and I would recommend it to the Minister who is now in charge, even though he does not seem to be terribly interested in what I am saying.
The Government have increased the manpower. The crisis blew up during the January to May period and the Home Secretary has stood at the Dispatch Box and announced crisis measures to deal with it. What remains unclear is whether holidays for which flights and hotels have been booked will qualify as urgent business. I have not heard a clear answer from the Government on that yet.
This takes me to the main question. The Government have said that they are sorry, but if they say sorry, they have to mean it. Saying sorry means making amends; otherwise, it does not mean anything. It is just a word without a meaning. The Home Secretary has evaded the question three times when we have put it to her, but the Government must tell us what they are going to do in the cases where our constituents had done everything correctly and HMPO was at fault, resulting in them not getting their passports in time. Many of those people have lost money just trying to get their passports, never mind losing money on holiday bookings. The Government have to give us an answer to that question.
We need to know who took the decision to bring all the overseas passport work into the Department at the very time we were having a seasonal surge. I think it must have been the Home Secretary because she went out of her way to defend it today. However, she could not give us the basic statistics. If the relevant figure is 6% of 3.3 million, that equates to about 175,000, which is a good half of the 350,000 extra cases that came in this year. So it was clearly a bad—indeed, almost idiotic—management decision to take in the overseas passport work at that time.
I want to mention the case of Mrs Joanna Hughes. She applied online on 23 April to renew her daughter Ella’s passport, which she would need for a trip to Belgium for the world war one centenary celebrations on 19 June. The Passport Office advised her that the application would take up to three weeks to complete. About three weeks later, on 10 May, she received a letter from HMPO to tell her that the passport and photos had been lost within the passport department. It advised her to forward a new application form and photographs, which she did on 12 May. There was no delay there; she got on to it straight away. She sent the documents to the Glasgow priority handling office via Royal Mail special delivery. She told me:
“I finally received a call back on 29 May to be told that my application was with an examiner in Belfast, not Glasgow as previously advised.”
We can already see that there was a muddle in the department. There were a lot of people working on the application, but if there is criticism to be made, it is not of the people working on the process but of the organisation, of the ministerial decisions and of Mr Pugh himself. The problem lies with the organisation of the department itself.
Mrs Hughes continued:
“I was advised to send a Lost and Stolen form with a covering letter to Priority Handling Belfast which I had to download online to advise the very department who had lost the passport! Another special delivery was posted that day.”
I agree with her conclusion:
“I would like to receive a full apology and investigation into why my daughter’s old passport and photos were lost in a Government office and I want to receive full compensation for all the further expenditure I have had to make”.
She gives details of the expenditure, which comes to the best part of £153. The Government are responsible for that. What are they going to do—
The Newport passport office was closed in 2011, despite fierce opposition from all the political parties in our area and from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden). It was a tragedy from which the city has never recovered. It took the passport office out of the heart of the city. We now have half a passport office service there. The decision was taken for managerial reasons, and authorised by a civil servant. I am sure that her career will have prospered. However, the lives of 150 people in Newport were devastated by the change.
It is nonsense to say that the closures did not lead to this crisis; of course they played an important part. There would be 150 trained, skilled people working there to keep the backlog down if it had not been closed. When the Government start to restore the emaciated passport service that is left, they have an obligation to put the jobs back into the places from which they were so cruelly torn away in 2011.
I believe that this foul-up will become one of the signature foul-ups of this Government. They will be rejected by the public not because of Europe or any other great issue, but because they are guilty of creating an ineptocracy. Virtually nothing that they have done has worked. What has happened with Atos, Capita, G4S and the rest of those great enterprises that have been set up—with the mountain of complaints, hurt and anger from the public—will be the reason why the Government are rejected.
The Government’s reaction to the crisis has followed the usual pattern. First, they say that there is no crisis and ignore it, thinking that it will go away. They deny that the crisis is taking place. When it becomes a national scandal, as this one has in the past fortnight, their response is panic. There is management by panic. The Home Secretary came to the House and introduced half a dozen new measures. That is no way to run the place, when the whole crisis was predictable and, indeed, predicted. There is then a refusal to take responsibility and to accept blame. I asked the Home Secretary last week whether she had the humility and common sense to apologise. She did not.
Paul Pugh did apologise yesterday, but he then put forward the preposterous argument that, having been responsible for the foul-up, which he admits, he is the only person who is qualified to put it right. That is like saying that the greatest criminal is the best person to run the police service. It is an extraordinary argument. There would be great satisfaction among the many people who have been badly treated by this Government and Mr Pugh if he resigned. It would please those people and it would be no loss to the country.
We look forward to seeing what can be done with the passport service. It is a service with a great history. I have represented passport workers since 1972. The passport office came to Newport in 1967. I was a local councillor at that time and I know the service well. The last crisis that everyone made a big fuss about was a computer disaster. We virtually had two passport staffs—one employed by Siemens and one employed by the passport service—running in parallel.
That crisis was nowhere near as bad as this one. At no time has there been such a sense of anxiety and of being betrayed, with trips being made to places so far away. It is unprecedented. The public will not forget this and will not forgive the Government for it. When the reckoning is made, we will find that the costs have been enormous. The Government are not coming up with any figures at the moment, but they are compensating people here and there for lost holidays and all the rest of it. The huge amount of compensation will dwarf any savings that the Government made through their cruel cuts in 2011. The people of Newport will remember that and I am sure that they will do the right thing when they vote next year.
This is a Government of incompetence who have created an ineptocracy. That will be their political doom.
It is very good to follow my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn).
Like many Opposition Members, I want to speak up for my constituents who have incurred such difficulty and expense, but I will also speak for my constituents who work in the Newport passport office, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West, who is a strong advocate for the office. The staff have warned repeatedly over the past four years that the cuts to Passport Office staff would hit the service and affect customers. They and the Public and Commercial Services Union have been proved right. The Minister should at least acknowledge today that some of the decisions that have been made over the past few years have led to the backlog and the chaos. It is important that we have a chance to put that on the record today.
The Government did not foresee the increase in the demand for passports. They should at least have foreseen the effect of giving the responsibility for overseas passports to the Passport Office, because that was their decision. As has been outlined this afternoon, we are all dealing with many cases of people’s travel plans being put in jeopardy.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It was a good point, well made. I am sure that the same is true of the cases in my office.
Like other hon. Members, I will outline the cases of a couple of my constituents whose travel plans have been put in jeopardy. One woman applied for her son’s passport at the beginning of April, believing that she had plenty of time. According to the website, it would take three weeks. Eight weeks later, after numerous interventions, she was finally one of the lucky ones and received the passport. However, that was only after she had paid for the fast-track service and been told to go for an interview in Durham, which is 290 miles away. After we intervened, she did not have to go to Durham. However, by that stage, she had spent £42 on the initial application, £87 on the one-week fast track, £15 on a replacement birth certificate and £95 on a flight to Durham that she did not need. I know that the Home Secretary has offered some concessions, but we need many more and they need to be backdated.
Another family, after an intervention from the office of the Minister for Security and Immigration, received their passport by courier. Finally, after contacting the helplines repeatedly, they got the passport specially delivered from London four hours before they were due to get on the plane at 11 o’clock. Like other hon. Members, I thank the Minister for the effort that he put into that case, but that is hardly the way people should receive a passport.
In the majority of the cases that have been dealt with by my office, people have effectively been forced to pay for the upgrade. The message seems to be, “If you can afford to pay for the upgrade, you can get your passport; if you can’t afford it, that’s tough.” It would be interesting to know how much money the Government have made from upgrades over the past few months.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West said, the Home Office tried to close the Newport passport office in 2010, which would have meant the loss of 300 jobs. After a strong campaign by the staff, the PCS union and the South Wales Argus, which had the support of local politicians, the office remained open, but lost the postal processing service. It retained the counter service and the customer complaints service. Some 150 people lost their jobs, which was a huge hit to the local economy. I believe that it also caused the biggest hit of any of the cuts at that time to the service across the UK.
The then Minister for Immigration, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), talked repeatedly in our debates about excess staff in the service. Today, the Home Secretary talked about excess office space. However, almost immediately after the redundancies, overtime was offered in other offices around the service. The staff felt that that added insult to injury.
As the unions and hon. Members have pointed out repeatedly to Ministers, after the postal work was taken out of Newport, management had to close customer counters early or for one day a week to deal with the backlog. The Identity and Passport Service filled the gaps with staff from other departments and agency staff. Higher grade staff were working overtime to deal with straightforward applications, which is four grades below their normal work.
In April 2012, we wrote to the Minister to ask why, a month after the staff in Newport were made redundant, the agency announced that recruitment was necessary. That showed a complete disregard for the staff who had lost their jobs.
The Welsh Affairs Committee warned in its report in 2010:
“The Newport Passport Office has a reputation for excellent customer care. The closure of the Newport Passport Application Processing Centre would result in the loss to the service of skilled people with significant experience… The Government must guarantee that the same high level of service will continue to be provided”.
Clearly, that has not happened.
I do not understand why the current delays have come as a surprise to the Home Office. The signs have been there for years, but it has insisted on pursuing the cuts, with little regard for the effect that they are having on customer service and on the staff who do a great job in Newport and at other offices, and who are under immense stress. As the Government try to solve the problem, they should look to restore the 150 jobs that were lost in Newport. We have the space and the experience for that to happen. That is important if customers are to get the experience that is advertised to them, and it is important to our city.
I will try to be brief. Before I say anything else, in case I run out of time, I would like to add my compliments to the staff who are working so hard and to my own office staff, who have put in a great deal of work on the matter and dealt with some very distressed people over the past wee while. The Foreign Office warned nearly six months ago that closing overseas passport offices would lead to passport delays. In January this year, we on the Foreign Affairs Committee were informed of that by Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials. We all know now that the Government’s decision to shut down seven overseas offices has been identified as a key reason for the passport delays affecting thousands of our constituents, whatever the Minister says. Control of overseas applications for passports by British expats has been handed over to the Home Office, and that decision has meant that since January, British passport offices have had to deal with an extra 350,000 applications for travel documents.
I will not give way, if my hon. Friend does not mind, so that other people can get in.
Hon. Members may be aware that the Foreign Affairs Committee is currently holding an inquiry into consular services. One of the most fundamental matters that expats expect, quite rightly, of the Government is an efficient and timely passport service. On passport applications, the FCO told the Committee:
“For most overseas customers the timescales for passport applications remain the same: four weeks for renewals and six weeks for first time applicants. In some countries this may take longer owing to the need for additional time required to complete checking procedures.”
Not surprisingly, it takes longer for officials in the UK to check details on applications from Britons overseas.
When former diplomats Sir Michael Arthur, former ambassador to Germany, and Mr Giles Paxman, former British ambassador to Spain and Mexico, gave public evidence to the Committee, I asked them whether the decision to transfer responsibility to the Home Office had been a good one. If people think that it is hard to get a straight answer to a straight question from a politician, they should try getting one from a diplomat. In typical diplomatic language, Sir Michael Arthur said:
“It was unpopular in Germany where it was felt that the distance made it more difficult to get a passport.”
Mr Paxman stated the obvious, saying:
“The need to transport the application back to the UK and then the final transport back out again is bound to add a little bit of time.”
That is an understatement, at best. However tactfully they put it, it was clear that they were acknowledging that the decision to transfer responsibility to the Home Office had led to a deterioration in service.
Does the Minister think that the transfer was a good decision, and why was no account seemingly taken of the totally predictable delays that it would cause? Are applications from people who live in Britain being delayed because of the need to process applications from expats? As late as 9 June, Mr Pugh stated that delays were due to an exceptional early summer demand for passports because of the improving economy and a rise in holiday bookings. That is not the case in Scotland, where it has been in the news this week that people are staying at home this year for their holidays.
The Minister did not even mention the key problem that has been caused by the change in the system. The Prime Minister has accused the Leader of the Opposition of trying to frighten people, but he does not need to do so because they are already terrified. Like so many other Members, I and my office staff have dealt with several tragic cases in the past few weeks, and I would like to highlight one. A constituent wrote to me:
“I am writing in tears and in desperation, both my son and I are waiting for our passports. I have tried for days to get information and find someone who can help us. My son is 18 and is now applying for his first passport, he was previously on my passport so I sent our applications away together on 13 May.”
They are having all sorts of problems getting their passports, and the woman has already put out £400 to get her son insured because he has a very serious illness that could cause sudden death. That is only part of the extra expense that they have incurred. I think we should all be ashamed that in this day and age, this is happening in our country. It brings shame on our country and on the Government.
I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) has said. I praise those who are working extremely hard to try to help people who are suffering as a result of this fiasco, namely the staff in passport offices up and down the country. I particularly want to place on record my respect for Farooq Belai from the MPs hotline, who has been very helpful, even when I have called him from home at the weekend. My constituency staff, James, David, Pat, Emma and Darren, have also worked extremely hard alongside me during the past few weeks to try to help my constituents. I will pick out a couple of cases to highlight the stress under which this problem has placed my constituents and use those cases to illustrate some of the points that the Home Secretary did not address in her opening statement. I hope that the Minister will address them in his closing remarks.
First, however, I want to come back on a couple of points made by Government Members. The whole speech made by the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), who is no longer in his place, was based on the assertion that there is a 97% success rate and the situation is getting better. He must have heard a different speech from the one I heard from the Home Secretary, because she was clear that the success rate is 89%, so it is getting worse. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) said that he had only had four cases and that he had also worked to try to help his constituents, but I feel he was trying to imply that the Opposition were making a mountain out of a molehill. I have 30 cases at the moment, and even the Prime Minister’s figures show that, on average, there are 46 cases in each constituency, so I have not got as many cases as some hon. Members.
The first case that I would like to highlight is that of Emma Goldie. She applied on 24 April so that she could go on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to New York with Caldervale high school in my constituency, and her family saved up to pay the £1,200 that she needed to go. I have been fighting with the Passport Office for the past few days to get her a passport, because she has not heard anything. I was told last night that the staff would try to get her an interview in Glasgow today. Unfortunately, she got a phone call this morning to say that her passport would not be ready for weeks. I apologise for the fact that I have been doing a lot of texting and emailing while I have been sitting in the Chamber, but we have managed to get her an interview in Glasgow.
That case raises two points. First, I tried to contact the Durham office, which is dealing with our case, through the MPs hotline yesterday, and I was told that it is no longer picking up the phone not only to inquiries from Members of Parliament, but to the MPs hotline itself. I asked for that to be confirmed in writing, by e-mail, and I was told that the gentleman I spoke to was not authorised to do that. However, he sent me his contact details, so I can pass them to the Minister if that is helpful.
Secondly, my constituent was repeatedly put off because her travel date was not until this Friday, 20 June. I understand that the Passport Office is dealing with cases in order of travel date, and I can see the logic in that when we are in such a crisis, but the date of travel is not always the date on which someone needs their passport. If someone has to apply for a visa, for instance—or, if they are travelling to America, an electronic system for travel authorisation visa waiver, which was the case for my constituent—they will need their passport before the date on which they travel. Will the Minister take on board the fact that the date on which the passport is needed is not necessarily the same as the date of travel? Will the Passport Office look at that, ask applicants for the date on which their passport will be needed and change the order of applications to reflect that?
The other case I want to raise is that of a gentleman who missed his first day in a new job abroad this week. He and his family are now terrified that he has lost the job, and I am supporting them and hoping that that is not the case. That happened through no fault of his own, because he applied for the passport a while ago. The same gentleman and his wife have also been saving for three years to take their children to Disneyland later this week, but he still does not have his passport. He has been asked to go to Peterborough for an interview. Why are Scottish people not being given interviews at Glasgow passport office? We are fighting for that, but I have had constituents going to Durham and Peterborough. All Scots should be going to Glasgow.
Finally, I reiterate the points that have been made about compensation. The Minister has said that the success of the economy has led to the influx of passport applications. If those applications are from people who have not been able to afford a holiday until now, I suggest that those people will be the least able to afford the extra costs that they have incurred as a result of this situation, and I ask for them to be compensated fully.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash), who aptly outlined the serious consequences of some of these cases for people’s lives. I have seen very many similar cases myself. I add my thanks to the many staff with whom my office have been dealing. I thank my own staff, who have been dealing with people in great distress about the consequences of not being able to get passports or travel documents in time, for all sorts of reasons, and in many countries around the world as well as here in the UK.
I particularly thank the Minister’s office for dealing with a couple of the most extreme cases. However, this exemplifies the whole problem. Why am I and other Members having to speak to the Minister’s office late on a Friday evening and put those staff under additional pressure to deal with people who are clearly under a lot of pressure themselves? The fact that we have arrived at that situation exemplifies the problems that have been experienced all over the country. Among many of the constituents to whom I have spoken, there is a real loss of confidence in the Home Office’s ability to deliver one of its most basic functions and one of our most basic rights—that of being able to prove our citizenship and to travel freely around the world as a result.
One case of which the Minister will be aware involved a couple and their child in China who were being threatened not only with fines for not having a passport for their child but, potentially, deportation or even jail if they did not get their passport, causing them great difficulties. When we are supposed to be promoting constituents trading and engaging in commerce all around the world and expanding Britain’s links with countries such as China, it is terrible for them to have to go through that experience and potentially have to leave China, with great consequences for their business there.
One of the other key concerns, sadly, has been about the service that several people have received when they have tried to get in contact with the Passport Office by phone. That is not in any way to denigrate the efforts of the staff, who are under an awful amount of stress and clearly have not been given the resources and backing to be able to do their jobs. Some people have been told that they are going to be called back within 48 hours but that has not happened. Others have called from countries where phone calls back to the UK are very expensive, been put on hold for ages and then told to phone back because the computer systems had broken down or told that they would be phoned back when the computer systems were working, but that has not happened. A constituent told me about a case that arose only yesterday. She says:
“I had a call back from the passport office today who said that despite me being told I was going to be fast tracked…I have delayed this process more by calling them”
to find out how the application is progressing. She continues:
“Every time I ring it logs my call and then they have 2 working days after my call to respond. So I now I should not hear from them until Friday. Surely this can’t be how the process works?”
The sense of absolute exasperation that people are feeling shows the serious problems that we are facing.
There is a lack of clarity from the Home Secretary about several issues, particularly refunds. Another issue is the contradictory or unclear information that we have been receiving. We have heard a lot about the state of the information on the website, and I have experienced that myself. As regards the information that is being provided, or not provided, to our posts overseas—to embassies and high commissions—the system is not working. I mentioned Qatar, but I am aware of other places where officials are clearly not being empowered to be able to support our constituents. It is a shame that we do not have a Foreign Office Minister here. I hope that the Immigration Minister and the Home Secretary will be in regular contact with Foreign Office officials to make sure that these issues are dealt with swiftly. Unfortunately, this situation represents a much wider problem at the Home Office in terms of information that is provided on websites and to constituents. I repeatedly deal with cases of people getting false information about processing times, guidance on visa applications, and all sorts of other things. There needs to be a deep and radical look at what is happening about the information that is provided to the public.
Having heard today’s speeches, I am left in no doubt about the causes of this situation. I fully associate myself with the comments by my hon. Friends the Members for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and for Newport East (Jessica Morden) about the cutbacks in the service in Wales, as well as the comments by the Public and Commercial Services Union about the overall cuts to the service. The changes to overseas applications have had a massive impact. There has been a lack of serious oversight and management of the issue at senior levels within the Home Office. That goes to the heart of the matter. I hope that the Minister will be able to outline some of the costs to the system as a whole as a result of this—not only in terms of diversion of staff time, overtime costs, and other costs to the Home Office, but the costs to staff through the additional stress they have been put under. Sadly, I have a list of six or seven cases that we have yet to resolve in addition to the existing caseload of nearly 30. I will share those with the Minister’s office, and I very much hope that he can help in addressing these concerns.
This crisis was not only predictable but predicted. I pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friends the Members for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and for Newport East (Jessica Morden) in raising these issues for a very long time. As a member of the PCS parliamentary group, I regularly attend its briefing sessions for MPs giving its perspective on the issues facing its members. This issue has been very much on its agenda and it has been briefing MPs about it for a very long time.
This is not just about how the Home Secretary is dealing with the problem or how she has dealt with it over the past few weeks, or indeed the past few months; it is also about how she has helped to create it. The previous Labour Government went to a great deal of trouble to open up passport offices throughout the country.
I will not, because I understand that a number of Members want to speak and we are going to have the closing speeches shortly. I would not want to take time away from someone who has been waiting here all afternoon to speak.
When the Conservative Government were elected, they introduced a policy of closing passport offices throughout the country. They closed 22 passport offices and one processing centre. There has been outsourcing of work, and it is feared that there will be more. That is very significant in this context, not only because of the numbers of staff who have been lost but because of the reorganisations that have been taking place, which, in themselves, cause a great deal of concern.
The Home Secretary spoke about the additional staff she has been bringing in to do this work over the past few days and weeks, perhaps longer. Those staff have been transferred from other parts of the Home Office, particularly the immigration and visa sections. It would usually take at least six weeks to train up a member of staff to do such work, but the people being transferred are being trained over the weekend, or in a few days, to do jobs that are incredibly important for the security of this country. It is vital that this work is done properly.
The other way in which the Government have been dealing with this issue over the past few months is to allow staff overtime—not only staff who usually do these jobs but those on far higher grades with far higher salaries who do not usually do this kind of work and, frankly, are not best equipped to do it. We have to learn the lessons of similar crises in the past. We must ensure that we have sufficient, properly trained permanent passport staff in place to deal with work that needs to be done at every point in the year.
In the last financial year, the Passport Office made profits of £70 million, so it is not a sector of Government that should be affected by the austerity cuts. The Government have treated it like other Departments by insisting that there should be cuts in staffing, but people pay for this service, and there is an obligation on Government to make sure that they get an efficient service.
My constituents, like others, are travelling all round the country to try to get a passport. Over the past few days, I have heard from constituents who have been going from Ayrshire on the west coast of Scotland to Durham, Liverpool and other parts of the country. Some have been asked to go to Belfast, although I think we have managed to make sure that they have not been required to cross the Irish sea to get their problems sorted out. We need to review the idea that closing the network of passport offices has been a success, and I hope that this debate will take that forward.
A number of constituents have already lost their holidays as a result of what is happening. I would like to raise one case of the many cases that have been raised with me. My constituent, who had lost her passport, went from Ayrshire to the Liverpool passport office on 10 June. She was due to fly out of the country on Monday 16 June but has still not done so. She is hoping that if she could fly out tomorrow or later this week, she could at least have some of her holiday. If I give the Minister the details of that case, will he look into it?
As we have heard, the Government’s own passport advice website clearly states:
“It should take 3 weeks to get the passport”.
It still said that the last time I looked at it, despite the crisis outlined in detail today. One of the first things the Home Secretary could have done was update the website in order not to give people the expectation of a three-week wait. Constituents started contacting me eight weeks ago about the delays and problems they were experiencing in getting passports. As I have said, the Scottish holidays come that bit earlier and the traditional holiday period in Inverclyde means that the majority of people plan to go on a two-week holiday at the very start of July. I have seen this problem coming for some time.
The problems that people come to my office to tell me about focus largely on first-time passports for adults and children and, of course, name changes. Some of my constituents who have needed to update their passports have even been asked to travel to Liverpool. That means travelling some distance, and we can only imagine the expenses they will incur to go there and get a passport.
The delays have caused widespread misery and panic for many of my constituents who want to go on holiday or need a passport for identity purposes, including getting a job. The Home Secretary referred to the courier service, which my constituents have experienced; it has not been delivering during out-of-office hours, including the weekend, so it has been a restricted service. I hope the Minister will be able to confirm that that will not continue.
The Passport Office said in its defence that there was no backlog and the Home Secretary backed it up, but a leaked e-mail from its interim chief executive said that there was trouble. Newspapers have reported that requests for passports are up by some 300,000 on the previous year, and the Passport Office has been advising some holidaymakers to pay a fast-track fee up front, to make sure they get their passports in time. As I said, even those of my constituents who have received their passports have been told they must drive to other passport offices to collect them.
During the second week of June, the unions claimed that the backlog in passport applications was surging above 500,000, despite the emergency plans that had been put in place at the time. The unions made it clear that the agency was in crisis due to job cuts and office closures. The Passport Office, however, was not short of money. It recorded a surplus of £72 million in 2012-13, so why has it been cutting staff? While the Home Secretary has been focusing on arguments with her colleagues, she has taken her eye off the ball and let this crisis get out of hand. I welcome the fact that she has apologised today.
As I said, my office has been speaking about constituents with the passport service for many weeks. I thank the passport service for the work it has done and my office staff for the many hours they have put in to make sure that my constituents will be able to go on holiday. My office are still dealing with requests for passports. One of my constituents was due to go on holiday but had waited until the last minute. Last week, he paid the premium and finally got his passport on Friday the 13th. He was due to fly that weekend, so the date was not unlucky for him. My constituency office is still being inundated with cases, so Members can imagine the panic and upset the situation is causing.
The Home Secretary has said that fees for the premium service will be waived. I welcome that, but it is too little, too late for my constituents, because they have had to put their hands in their pockets and stump up the premium payment to get their passport so that they can travel. Many have scrimped and saved all year round to be able to afford a family holiday, which is not easy at a time of a cost of living crisis. They deserve at the very least to be reimbursed.
I would love to talk in detail about the 21 families who have contacted my office and discuss the run-around they have been given, the call-backs they never get and their wasted trips to Liverpool and Durham. I would like to talk about the work time I have lost and the difficulties that Mathew, my fantastic caseworker, has had with the parliamentary line. He has waited on the line for 90 minutes; he has not been able to get through at all at other times. It takes 24 hours to get a reply to a complaint and he cannot ring back the person dealing with the case. Furthermore, the tracking line is constantly engaged.
In the short time I have, however, I want to talk about my most dire case. After nearly 12 years of trying for a baby, my constituents Kiran and Bina took the brave decision to use a specialist surrogacy clinic in India. After five attempts, they have been blessed with twins, who were born on 3 March. The babies were very premature and had a very low birth weight of under 3 lbs. The couple got citizenship for their babies within a week and were told they would get their passports within six weeks. Before the cuts, those applications would have been dealt with in Hong Kong, but now their documents have been sent to Liverpool and they have been told that the process will take 16 weeks. They were promised calls back from the Passport Office, but they never materialised. E-mails have not been received and they are desperate. I have contacted the Minister and, although there is some movement, there is still no resolution.
Kiran and Bina tell me that they and their tiny babies are literally prisoners in their hotel room because of the 45 degree heat. They are not staying in the Ritz; it is a cheap hotel with very basic amenities and terrible air conditioning. They are running out of money; Kiran is now on unpaid leave and they are worried about their mortgage and bills at home. He is worried that he may lose his job and, with the onset of the rainy season, they are terrified that their babies will get malaria.
Kiran and Bina are the proud parents of premature twins and are desperate to bring them home to meet the rest of their family and friends, to be close to medical care and to start their dream life as mum and dad. Instead, they have already wasted three precious months of their babies’ lives stuck in a hot, uncomfortable hotel room with peeling wallpaper.
They are just one family out of many. Mr and Mrs Patel’s baby was born in January. Mr Patel is on unpaid leave and they are also running out money; their health is suffering because they cannot afford to eat properly. Their baby has spent six months stuck in a hotel room. What is the cost on his development?
Of course, it is not just new parents and babies who are suffering. The daughter of the Patels’ surrogate cannot start school because her papers are with the Passport Office. Why cannot there be an expedited system for passports for surrogate children, as is the case with citizenship? The Home Secretary said earlier that these situations are complex, so why is there not a specialist team dealing with these cases?
This is not just about the awful conditions these families are in. They have to apply for parental orders in the UK within six months of the birth of their children. Their visas are running out and they have been told that emergency travel documents are not the answer, because they would have to withdraw their applications for passports and retrieve their documentation before they could get them. In addition, an exit visa is required for all newborns to be able to leave India, but it cannot be obtained without a passport. The Indian high commission continues to say that, as first-time applicants, these babies cannot travel on emergency documentation.
I am pleading with the Home Secretary to help these families and directly intervene: please help Kiran and Bina and the other families to bring their babies home.
I echo the concerns raised by many hon. and right hon. Members about the problems that delays in issuing passports are causing constituents. The situation is distressing for many of them. I have witnessed that with regard to not only my own constituents, but the many people from across the country who have had to travel to Durham to sort out issues with the Passport Office and have ended up in my constituency office. Overseas citizens have also made representations to my office. I say to the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) that if he thinks that Opposition Members are in some way concocting the problem, he should try being a member of staff at my constituency office.
I want to focus on the impact the debacle is having on Passport Office staff. It has an office in my constituency and I know how hard the staff have been working in recent weeks and months to try to alleviate the crisis. We need to thank them, because if so many of them had not gone the extra mile, the situation would be worse than the one we are facing today.
Let us be clear: responsibility for this dreadful situation rests with the Home Secretary—I am glad she is back in her place—and her Government. The Government have inadequately resourced the Passport Office, despite the fact that it is paid for by users of the service. We heard from my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary, who gave an excellent speech, that the Home Secretary will blame anyone but her Government for this shambles. I want the Home Secretary to take responsibility for this issue and answer some of my questions so that I can better understand why my constituents who need to use or work in the Passport Office, are currently experiencing such a stressful situation.
When and why was the decision taken to transfer responsibility for issuing passports to citizens living overseas to the UK, without any proper assessment of the additional strain that that would put on the system here? I have heard that in Durham alone that means processing a few hundred thousand extra passports. If those on the Government Front Bench dispute those figures, they need to give me the accurate figures as I have not been able to obtain them from the Department. When did the Home Office realise that there was a problem in trying to process applications from citizens living overseas, and when did it move experienced staff from other areas to that section, thereby growing the backlog in other areas?
What is the situation regarding the reduction in staff numbers? The Public and Commercial Services Union has stated that 600 fewer staff are now working in the Passport Office than in 2010, and today we heard that that was because of the withdrawal of identity cards. I understand that most identity card work was carried out in the Durham office, and in 2010 the Home Office told me that that meant a reduction of 68 staff, not 600. We need clarity on that.
Why has there been a delay in paying overtime to staff? Those staff earn between £7 and £9 per hour for processing work and checking passport applications. Apparently, they have to process about 17 passports every hour, yet only in June were they given double time for working additional hours—a very laggardly response from the Government. Is the Home Secretary satisfied that overall staffing levels and levels of remuneration are correct, given the sensitive nature of the job? Staff are now dealing with very frustrated and often distressed and angry people. What training have they been given to enable them to work in that situation? Sometimes people manning the call centre have more than 100 calls waiting. I hope the Home Secretary will tell the House what she will do to compensate staff who are dealing with that dreadful situation. They have not done anything to create this situation, but they are doing their utmost to help sort it out.
I will speak as briefly as I can at the end of this long but important debate. Although a lot of statistics have been presented, each case is personal. As we heard during the debate, for anyone who needs to travel, waiting for a passport can be highly distressing.
I checked with my caseworkers how many people have got in touch with us, and the state of those applications. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), we had four cases that have been processed, including one where a new passport was sent to Nepal and arrived in time for the person to travel. One of my constituents was in China—there has been some debate about people in other countries getting documents. He was not able to receive his passport in time, but he has successfully contacted the British embassy in Beijing and has emergency travel documentation to allow him to make his journey.
I am afraid I have very little time, but if I finish early I will come back to the hon. Lady.
I had one case where, unfortunately, someone was not able to get their passport in time. That was not a straightforward case, as the Home Secretary set out—it was a first- time passport for a child, and travel plans had been made in a hurry because of a family situation, so the trip had not been planned for long. I am sorry that my constituent was not able to get the support they needed, but in my constituency that has been the only such case so far.
There has clearly been enormous demand for passports. The Home Secretary spoke about a 12-year high in the number of applications, and any organisation would find its resources strained by such a large increase in demand. A 10% increase in passport applications on the previous year will clearly put strain on the system. Quite properly, the debate is about whether the Passport Office should have anticipated that extra level of demand and put resources in place to cope with it. I am interested in the Passport Office’s recruitment levels, and whether such planning took place.
We said there was a 10% increase in applications, and the shadow Home Secretary asked—quite properly—whether that surge was due to applications from overseas, and what proportion of that 10% were overseas applications. The Home Secretary said that overseas applications made up less than half of applications, and we are waiting for further information on that. It may not be as straightforward as it seems, however, because some people previously living abroad may have applied for a passport in the UK, rather than through an overseas office, and the data may not be quite as straightforward.
Let us say for argument’s sake that around half of the increase in passport applications has come from overseas. I note that Passport Office staffing levels have risen by about 10% over the past two years, and are about 6% up on last year. If there was an increase in staff of about 6% from 2013-14, and if an uplift in overseas applications of about 5% was anticipated, it seems that reasonable preparation in terms of staffing levels was made. Therefore, the pressure has come not from the change in how passports are issued from the UK instead of from overseas, but because of an unanticipated level of normal applications. The 6% increase in staffing levels year on year in the Passport Office shows that preparations were made and put in place for anticipated extra demand, but that demand went far beyond what could have been reasonably expected.
I was pleased when the Home Secretary said that the permanent secretary is conducting a review into the workings of the Passport Office to see what lessons can be learned. There is clearly an issue this year that the Home Secretary and her team are working hard to address, and we do not want to be in this position in the future.
What drivers of passport applications should be fed into the system? Should we give more consideration to the impact of an economic uplift, which may lead to more travel? Should we look at birth rates, or at renewal rates so that we can more easily anticipate when extra passports are likely to be applied for and ensure that that is factored in? As the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) said, users are paying for this system; passports are not issued for free and people pay for them. It is, therefore, reasonable to expect the Passport Office to put in place the resources it needs to anticipate demand. Could we be cleverer at working out ways to anticipate demand?
As I said earlier, looking at the year-on-year figures and at the increase in recruitment to the Passport Office in the past year, it would certainly have coped with extra demand placed on it from overseas applications. We must ensure that we are ready for next year if there is a further surge in passport applications, particularly if that is driven by the economic confidence coming from the growing economy.
We have had a very useful debate today. I echo many right hon. and hon. Members across the House in thanking the hard-pressed Passport Office staff, the people working on the helpline and, dare I say, the Minister’s office for the efforts that they are making for constituents who have received their passports following the interventions of Members of Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash)—and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), who has a passport office in her constituency—have made that point. Indeed, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) also made that point, although I cannot compete with him in making my own passport as he said he did in a former career. He would probably need a passport to go back to Liverpool now, given his current political affiliations.
I have no quibble with the hard work, dedication or efforts of passport staff, especially on last-minute cases, to ensure that people have their holidays. But I must echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) when he said that constituents should not have to involve Members of Parliament to get their passports on time. People are paying for the service, which made a £73 million surplus last year. The hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), who is no longer in his place, was in denial about the impact of the problems on constituents across the country.
Clearly, despite the efforts of the staff, there is something wrong with the delivery of passport services at the moment. The motion makes three points. First, it expresses the frustration of Members of Parliament about the experiences of their constituents who have applied for passports, including lengthy delays and the consequential cancellation of holidays, business trips and visits. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) made great play of his concerns about the number of individuals he has had to deal with.
Secondly, the motion points out how the Government have failed to plan properly to meet the level of demand this year. Thirdly, and crucially, it calls on the Government to expand their emergency measures and to look at compensating passport applicants who have had to pay for urgent upgrades. I shall consider each issue in turn to scrutinise the Government’s record.
We have yet another Sedwill review, and the last one resulted in the abolition of the UK Border Agency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should review the decision taken by Ministers to stop applications being made abroad? It is time to look again at that decision and allow people to make applications by post.
I know that my right hon. Friend’s Committee looked at these issues yesterday. I understand the reasons behind that decision—Ministers are concerned about consistency and security—but we need to review whether those are concerns in all cases. We also need to review the procedures that have been used to repatriate the process, because they have not worked, in my view. There were discussions yesterday and today about the issue, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) said, the passport website still has a three-week web promise for passport delivery. I would like to know from the Minister whether that is still the norm for delivery of passports. Will the Minister commit today to maintaining the three-week delivery time? The Passport Office chief executive has said that we had a 16% under-forecast of demand. We initially thought that the extra demand was 350,000 applications, but the chief executive confirmed yesterday—in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)—that it is 400,000. The Passport Office has now ordered an independent review of forecasting. Yesterday, the chief executive said that 493,289 passport applications were “in progress”. The Home Office does not use the words “delay” or “backlog”: everything is “work in progress”.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) tested the Home Secretary on the figures before the House today. The Home Secretary said that applications this year are 3.3 million, up from 2.95 million last year—an increase of 350,000. She also said that 6% of the 3.3 million applications were from overseas, and that is 200,000 applications. Last year, those 200,000 applications were dealt with by the Foreign Office, so—as my right hon. Friend said—200,000 of the 350,000 increase came from overseas. I hope that the Minister will tell us what has caused the increase in demand.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) asked that question. Is it because of the repatriation of dealing with overseas residents’ passports—about which my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) asked pertinent questions at the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing—or is it because of the closure of offices at home, a point raised my hon. Friends the Members for Newport West (Paul Flynn), for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark)? Is it because, even today, there are not sufficient staff to deal with current needs, or is it because, in some twilight world—as the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) said—the bright economic future has led people to book their holidays early? Only yesterday, the annual figures showed that inflation outstripped wages yet again. People’s earnings are not keeping pace with inflation.
I agree with every word my right hon. Friend says. We have had no explanation from the Government on what has caused this crisis. It can only be incompetence at the top, lack of ministerial direction and attention, and the organisation of the HMPO, which the Select Committee earlier this week exposed as being very inadequate.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. I also welcome the Home Secretary’s apology, but an apology is not enough. We need a clear exposition on what has caused this problem. A range of points have been put forward today, but we have had no clarity from the Government.
The human cost of this crisis was exposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). May I just note in passing that he celebrates 44 years in the House today? The human cost was also mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Airdrie and Shotts and for Cardiff South and Penarth. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) looked at problems relating particularly to India, and the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) accepted that there are challenges in the system.
I put the problem down to a failure to plan. The HMPO annual report last year stated that there would be approximately 350,000 additional customers worldwide annually, so why did the Minister not act? We knew the Foreign Office changes were being introduced. My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said that overtime has increased. We heard about the January rise. We heard that on 23 May extra staff were deployed. In an Adjournment debate secured in June by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West, the Minister said:
“HMPO will have deployed 250 additional passport examination staff”—[Official Report, 10 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 524.]
by the end of June. If this was a problem in January, why is that the case? The issues of training and recruitment could all have been anticipated by the Government. What has been the impact of moving fraud staff and others on to passports? Confidence in the measures announced by the Home Secretary has not been clear from Members here today.
In the one minute I have left I will turn to compensation. Will the Minister tell me, either today or at a future date, how many extra payments have been made by people to ensure they receive their passports on time? Why is the offer applicable only from Thursday to a limited section of people? Will the Minister commit himself to looking at the number of people who have been hit by the extra charge for fast-tracking and say whether he will repay them? Will he look at the issue of the date, rather than the date of travel, for the reasons set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts?
It is clear that the problem was known. It is clear that inadequate action was taken. It is clear that there is still a problem now. It is clear that Ministers were not on top of the job and not on top of their work. It is clear that they failed the public who pay for this service. The Minister probably needs to take a holiday. Will he take it after he has sorted out everybody else’s passport? Will he ensure that the Home Office does what our constituents are paying it to do: to deliver a quality service on time and on budget to ensure that people are able to take their business trips and enjoy their hard-earned holidays?
May I say at the outset that I understand entirely why so many right hon. and hon. Members across the House have sought to bring to Ministers’ attention a number of individual cases? That is precisely what Members of Parliament are for—to represent their constituents. I understand why they have sought to use this debate to do that. This debate has underlined the work of the Passport Office in seeking to respond to and address the concerns that have been flagged. Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I pay tribute to the hard work, dedication and professionalism of HMPO staff who are working to process applications and respond to individual customer and MP inquiries. We recognise the need to service MPs’ individual requests. That is why, from the start of this week, the MP team was strengthened to ensure that a service is provided to deal with those individual cases.
I note the number of individual cases and circumstances that have been flagged. Sadly, in the time available, I will not be able to respond to each of them, but a careful note is being taken of a number of them. A note is also being taken of some of the points that have been made, for example on the courier services. I have heard that DX is working late evenings, but we will look at each case. We will also look at each point that has been flagged on individual countries.
I underline our commitment to focus on those individual circumstances that have been flagged, but I also underline the Home Secretary’s message. We apologise to anyone who has been affected by their passport not being delivered when expected through no fault of their own. I understand the concerns that have been flagged and the individual cases that have been raised. I understand the concerns of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and his desire to raise individual cases, but I say to him in careful terms that the tone and nature of his contribution did not fit the debate.
I should like to underline some of the individual actions we have taken to address the current high volume of passport applications. Her Majesty’s Passport Office issued 3.3 million passports in the first five months of the year, compared with 2.95 million in the same period last year.[Official Report, 7 July 2014, Vol. 584, c. 2MC.] We have had an additional 350,000 applications compared with last year, and the highest demand for passports in 12 years.
I stress to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) that our actions have not just happened in recent weeks. Since January, HMPO has put in place measures to deal with the increase, and the vast majority of customers have received their passports on time and straightforward renewals of passports within the three-week period. I stress to him that the website advises:
“It should take 3 weeks to get the passport - use a different service if you need the passport urgently…It can take longer if more information is needed or your application hasn’t been filled out correctly.”
The Minister is correct that applications are roughly 10% up on last year—this is in my letter to him, as he will see when he gets round to replying—and that manpower was increased from January to May by 10%. Is not the point that, if we had all that planning, why has the crisis arisen? Is it not because of the decision to incorporate into that planning system the different volume of requirements for overseas applications?
We have had sustained demand and the demand has come earlier in the year than would normally be the case. Therefore, that increase and the period in which demand was sustained is an important factor. That is why HMPO has been operating seven days a week since March and why passports are delivered within 24 hours by couriers.
Some 250 staff were moved from back-office roles to the front line, and an additional 200 people will soon be supporting front-line operation. The focus has been given to getting passport applications turned round. I also stress that 650 extra staff are working on the customer helpline—an increase to 1,000. We understand people’s anxieties and action has been taken.
As the Home Secretary has said, we are ensuring that those who need to travel in the next seven days whose applications have been outstanding for more than three weeks through no—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
To confirm, we have taken action on those needing to travel within the next seven days whose applications have been outstanding for more than three weeks through no fault of their own. They will have their applications fast-tracked without charge.
We have introduced processes overseas for those wishing to renew their passports to travel to the UK. Customers can apply for an extension to their existing passports at consular offices overseas. Overseas posts have been provided with stamps and customers are booking appointments for this service. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is now issuing emergency travel documents for children who need to travel to the UK.
Staff at HMPO are working hard to process passport applications. Again, I underline the Home Secretary’s thanks to them for their dedication at this time. To give a sense of the scale and nature of the work being undertaken, let me give some numbers to put the issue into context. Almost 160,000 passports were issued in the past week
I appreciate that he was not the Immigration Minister when the decision to close the overseas posts were made, nor was he the Minister earlier this year. However, when was he told personally by Mr Pugh that there would be a problem with the number of applications and does he still have confidence in the chief executive of the agency?
The Chair of the Select Committee took evidence yesterday from Paul Pugh, who was right to say that his focus is on dealing with the issues at hand—the increases in demand and some of the points that have been flagged up to the House this afternoon. Obviously Ministers receive regular updates from HMPO, which indicated that additional measures were being put in place to deal with demand.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, HMPO’s performance figures up to May show that 97% of straightforward applications were dealt with within three weeks and 99% within four weeks. When it comes to claims of a backlog, it is important to note that there are approximately 480,000 active applications currently being processed. It is not unusual during peak periods for HMPO to operate with high numbers of applications in the system at any one time, with this year seeing the highest level for 12 years—as I have indicated, some of the inflow and outflow gives a sense of that. HMPO is a fast-moving, demand-led business. It receives up to 150,000 domestic applications and around 9,000 overseas applications in any given week. Those applications are necessarily at different stages of the examination process, on what we might describe as a production line, and they have to be scrutinised carefully, for the reasons that have been underlined—security and to ensure that the gold standard of the British passport is maintained.
Hon. Members raised the issue of the Newport passport office, which continues to operate as a customer service centre, offering face-to-face passport applications for premium and fast-track customers, with 150 full-time equivalent posts.
I am conscious of time.
In Scotland, extra resources have been put in place to focus on ensuring that people receive their passports in good time, recognising the earlier school holidays. To address the point made earlier, we are also in close contact with the Glasgow office on the availability of individual appointments. On the staffing point, I again underline what the Home Secretary said—and, indeed, the point my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) made—about the increase in numbers since 2012. We now have 3,444 full-time equivalent staff.
However, we recognise how important passports are, as well as securing people’s renewals in as short a time as possible. Passports are not just dry official documents; they are the key to eagerly anticipated holidays and facilitating international business travel. We recognise the need to review what has happened, which is why it is right that the Home Secretary has commissioned the reviews that she has. On the overseas transfer, that change was made to ensure greater scrutiny and security, ensuring that the gold standard of the British passport is maintained and securing greater continuity of service between all the different parts of the service.