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Passport Office

Volume 584: debated on Monday 7 July 2014

Since January, Her Majesty’s Passport Office has been dealing with a higher demand for passports than for the same period over the last 12 years. The overwhelming majority of straightforward applications continue to be dealt with within three or four weeks, but we recognise that some people are waiting too long. A package of additional measures has been introduced to help HMPO deliver passports on time while still maintaining security. Ministerial colleagues and I are meeting the chief executive of HMPO on a regular basis.

Back in the real world, the situation is unfortunately getting far worse, not better. My office dealt with 17 urgent inquiries last week and has already received three this morning, including that of my constituent Andy Sheen, who has been waiting since May for a renewed passport for his two children. When can my constituents and others hope to have anything like a normal service again?

The Passport Office has introduced a number of measures and is increasing the number of passports being dealt with each week. I recognise that right hon. and hon. Members are raising individual cases, which is why we have strengthened the MPs’ service and put in place the seven-day upgrade arrangements so that passports can be delivered to people who need to travel.

Over 40 constituents have come to me about late passport applications. It is not just about their passports; it is about their family holidays and individual holidays this summer. Surely the Minister should have foreseen these problems, given the massive increase in foreign applications. What percentage is due to the massive increase in foreign applications and what will he do to ensure that this does not happen again?

The pressure has been the result of a significant increase in domestic applications. The forecasting that HMPO has undertaken, and its expectation, is that it is domestic applications that have really added to the pressure and led to the highest level of applications in 12 years. Clearly we are focused on those individual cases, which is why additional resources have been put into examination, but there is also the specific measure, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary mentioned, to ensure that there is a focus on those who need their passports to travel and to go on their holidays.

My constituent Ms Papafio-Gordon is today celebrating her 21st birthday, but she faces the prospect of not being able to go on holiday tomorrow because of delays in renewing her passport. She has already had to cancel two holidays. She booked tomorrow’s flights only after being told that her passport would be couriered to her home yesterday, but it never arrived. Will the Minister look into the case to ensure that my constituent, on her third attempt, can go on holiday tomorrow?

The hon. Lady raises an individual case. I know how hard Passport Office personnel are working to ensure that passports are delivered on time to enable people to travel. If she gives me the details of her constituent’s case, obviously I will look into it.

May I commend the staff of the Passport Office for dealing with constituents from Bedford and Kempston who have had passport difficulties, and the Minister for his calm handling of the issue? When looking forward on the handling of passports, will he consider advising people a year early that their passports are due to expire so that they can renew them without having to wait until the last minute?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recognising the incredible work being undertaken in passport offices up and down the country to meet this exceptional demand. Clearly we will reflect carefully on a range of issues once we get through this exceptionally busy period to see where further improvements can be made and to ensure that service is improved further in the years ahead.

I, too, would like to draw attention to the service that my office has received from HMPO, whose staff have been incredibly courteous and helpful in difficult circumstances. It is important that long-term lessons are learnt. Will the Minister assure the House that the review of operating procedures will focus on improving efficiency and ensuring that customer service is at the heart of all HMPO activities in future?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about focusing on customers and further improving operating procedures. A real focus will be put on that once we have managed this period of excessive demand. Indeed, with regard to forecasting, we are bringing in the Home Office’s scientific lead to examine those projections as well as ensuring that any changes that can be made to improve performance will be made.

It is important that we learn the lessons and improve the operation of the Passport Office, but I want to take this opportunity to put on the record my thanks to the Minister and to the staff of the Passport Office for going the extra mile to ensure that all the constituents who came to me received their passports in time to travel, including arranging for them to be couriered to those who live in remote locations.

It is worth recognising that many people working in the Passport Office are going the extra mile to see that people are receiving their passports in time for travel. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for enabling me to highlight the exceptional work that is being undertaken in passport offices.

On 8 June, the number of passports classed as “work in progress” stood at 493,289. Figures I have obtained show that two weeks after the emergency measures were brought in by the Government, on 22 June, the figure stood at 537,663. Will the Minister update the House on whether the “work in progress” figure is less than when he introduced the initial emergency measures?

This is an exceptional period of demand. To put this into context, the Passport Office would usually handle about 5.5 million applications per year, and this year it has received about 4 million applications already. That gives some context to the work that is involved. “Work in progress” figures will run into hundreds of thousands because of the output that the Passport Office is delivering—about 170,000 a week. That gives a sense of the scale of the work that is involved. Yes, there are pressures there, but the Passport Office is responding to the challenge.

What matters when Departments miss their targets is how everybody reacts, and the Home Secretary and Ministers have reacted with energy and determination to resolve this problem. May I thank the Passport Office, which so far, even though it has been a close-run thing in several cases, has managed to resolve 100% of my constituents’ problems so that they can travel on time? Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking my constituents for their patience and my constituency office for its resilience in making sure that so far everybody has got away on time?

I am pleased to give that recognition to my hon. Friend’s constituents, and, of course, constituents across the country who are working with HMPO to see that issues are resolved. We have put additional measures in place to assist colleagues from across the House with their individual inquiries, recognising the need to ensure that passports can be delivered to enable people to travel on their holidays.