(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement about delays at HM Passport Office.
Prior to the pandemic, HM Passport Office routinely processed approximately 7 million passports each year. Over the last two years the necessary restrictions on international travel meant only 4 million people applied for a British passport in 2020 and 5 million in 2021. This left about 5 million unrenewed passports.
In 2022 many of the customers who delayed their application are returning. We expect this year to deal with 9.5 million British passport applications and have been planning for this. Throughout the pandemic, HM Passport Office prepared to serve an unprecedented number of customers. Alongside technical solutions, staffing numbers have been increased by 500 since last April and we are in the process of recruiting a further 700. These preparations ensured passport applications could be processed in record numbers, last month seeing the highest total for any month on record, with HM Passport Office completing the processing of over 1 million applications, 13% higher than the previous record output.
Inevitably, however, faced with this level of demand applications will take longer. Consequently, in April 2021 guidance was changed to clearly advise customers to allow up to 10 weeks to get their passport, in recognition that a surge would arrive as international travel returned. The vast majority of applications continue to be processed within 10 weeks; in fact, over 90% of applications were issued within 6 weeks between January and March 2022, despite the much-increased demand. HM Passport Office also provides an expedited service where an application from the UK has been with it for longer than 10 weeks; 42 applications have been expedited under these criteria since 31 March.
With greater volumes of applications which are in the system for longer, levels of customer contact have inevitably risen. We recognise that difficulties in contacting HM Passport Office will cause concern for those wanting assurances about their applications. In response, the provider of the passport advice line, Teleperformance, has been urgently tasked to add additional staff as its current performance is unacceptable.
To finish, the team at HMPO are dealing with record numbers of applications and delivering a record level of output to match this. Their hard work will enable millions of British citizens to enjoy a holiday abroad this summer, and I thank them for that.
From listening to the Minister we would think that actually everything is all right, but my constituents fear their honeymoon may now be wrecked because their passports have not arrived even though they applied in plenty of time, and we have had cases of people cancelling jobs, parents trying to get a holiday for a sick child waiting since January, and huge and long delays by the Passport Office and the contractor, TNT. The message today on the one-week fast-track service is “System busy, please try again later”, and the online premium service has no appointments anywhere in the country. So people cannot get urgent travel such as to go to funerals or to urgent events.
The Minister has said more passports are being processed, which is clearly welcome, but it is not enough. The increase in demand this year was totally predictable. In 2020 and 2021, the Home Office was asked what it was doing to plan, but people are already losing holidays, trips to see loved ones and thousands of pounds that they have spent in good faith because of the lack of planning at the Passport Office and at the Home Office, which is in danger of becoming a “Stay-at-Home Office” instead for people this summer. So what grip does the Minister have on this? Is it going to get better or worse over the next two months? How many passports have already been delayed by longer than the 10-week wait, and how many does the Minister think will be delayed by more than 10 weeks over the next month or two?
On staffing, what is the percentage increase compared with before the pandemic? Is it true that the Minister tried to recruit 1,700 staff and got only 500? When will the fast-track services be reopened? What is his advice to a family who are planning to go on holiday in 10 weeks’ time, in July? Do they have any chance of getting their passport, or should they be trying to cancel right now? The problem is that there is a pattern here: delays in the Passport Office, in Ukraine visas, and in basic asylum cases. The Prime Minister said that the answer may be to privatise the Passport Office, but why do Home Office Ministers not just get a grip instead?
It is quite interesting to hear all the claims of how predictable all this was. I am struggling to remember the number of times anyone on the shadow Front Bench predicted any of this over the last year or two. I welcome their recently found interest in the Passport Office.
To give some numbers, as of 1 April, there are over 4,000 staff in passport-production roles and, as I say, we are in the process of recruiting another 700. I would also make the point again that 90% of applications were completed within six weeks, and the service standard is 10 weeks. My advice to anyone who is looking to go on holiday this summer is exactly what I said the other day: get an application in now.
We are making a range of efforts. Staff are working weekends; overtime is being incentivised. We are certainly confident that we will not need to change the 10-week target, but as I have said, this is a record level of demand and a record output, far in excess of what we have seen before. We will expedite the applications of those who have compelling and compassionate reasons to travel, such as funerals or family ill health.
We know there are challenges. The teams are working hard to deal with them. [Interruption.] I hear comments about staying at home, but I have not heard a great deal of support from the Labour party for the work of the Minister for Government Efficiency in getting people back into the office, but I am sure that he will welcome the comments we have just heard.
As we see on so many occasions, we are hearing lots of complaints from the Opposition but we are not hearing any solutions or plans. Having just heard from Captain Hindsight, it is no surprise that we are now hearing from Lieutenant Rearview.
My constituent, Mr Neil Jones, made an application for a passport at the end of February for his holiday, for which he is due to depart at the end of May. He sent his passport by ordinary pre-paid post—not by recorded delivery, unfortunately—and he was told by the Passport Office that it had never arrived. He then made a further application with a lost passport form, which has not been dealt with. He finds it almost impossible to speak to any representatives of the Passport Office, and he is under considerable stress as a consequence.
My hon. Friend says that the Passport Office is doing its best and that he recognises the difficulties, but I heard this morning that the Prime Minister has threatened the Passport Office with privatisation. May I suggest to my hon. Friend that he should not shy away from that? If the work can be done more efficiently by the private sector, for goodness’ sake, enlist the private sector.
Just to be clear, a range of private contractors are already involved in the passport process. The bit that is not undertaken by a private contractor is the decision itself. The customer advice line is run by Teleperformance, a private company. As I have already described, its performance is unacceptable and we are engaged with it.
There is already quite extensive use of the private sector in the process. To be fair, Thales and others have stepped up in the record output that we now require, which is far beyond what would have been expected in a month two or three years ago. The private sector is already being used in the vast majority of the processes in the Passport Office.
Like many other Members, I have constituents and family members who have lost a lot of money and had to cancel plans because of the passport delays. I share the concerns for those people, but I want to talk about the workers who, yet again, are about to be blamed.
It is a thankless task to work for a Government agency at the best of times but—worse—they are now being blamed for the Government’s failings. Could it be that they are under-resourced, understaffed and suffering from stress from the pressure to do more faster? In Glasgow, many passport staff were forced into further stress when they were redeployed to process universal credit claims with just five days’ training when it would normally be six weeks’ training. Could that be part of the reason for the backlog? It is certainly another source of stress for them.
Those same workers face the public’s understandable anger, but it is being directed at the wrong place. The Government are throwing them to the wolves: Ministers are leaving notes on desks suggesting workers should work a little harder—and that from a Minister who is known to lie down on the Benches in this place when he is supposed to be at work—and, although I do not have the exact quote, the Prime Minister said something like, “If they don’t sort out this backlog, I will privatise the Boris out of them.” How did that go with rail, energy and water? Is that the plan? Was it the plan all along? Is that why the Government did not foresee this? The Opposition cannot be expected to foresee these things—[Interruption.] I hear coughing; I had better ask my last question. Is there any chance that we can simply respect workers by increasing capacity, decreasing threats against them and sorting out this sorry mess for everybody?
I start on a point of consensus by thanking the many staff who are working hard and saw a record output last month. It was 13% higher than the previous record, so we are talking about it beating that record not by one but by some distance. As I said, there are 500 extra staff and we are in the process of recruiting more; between January and March, 90% of applications were dealt with within six weeks; and support is there.
The redeployment that the hon. Lady mentioned took place at a time when passport demand was significantly down. It made sense to redeploy people away from a role where there was not the demand and on to things such as universal credit and the EU settlement scheme. To be clear, those staff have now fully returned to passport production, and on 1 April more than 4,000 staff were working on it. Yes, there are issues, particularly in relation to the unacceptable performance of the advice line, which is run by a private contractor, as I have already touched on.
We continue to put in place a range of measures. If people are to travel somewhere, we advise them to get their applications in now. We saw a strong level of applications yesterday. We continue to do the work we need to do and to expedite those cases in which people have compelling and compassionate reasons for travelling.
Like Members throughout the House, I have a number of constituents who have been waiting for passports for a considerable time, who have had to pay even more for premium services to guarantee their trip, or who are frightened that they are going to miss holidays. I welcome the work that the Minister is doing to speed up the process, and particularly some of the things he said in his statement about people who have been waiting for more than 10 weeks and those who have a particularly urgent need to travel being able to expedite their cases, but will he tell the House how people in such circumstances can access the expedited service?
That will be partly through contact with the Passport Office, which is why we are moving to deal with the unacceptable issues in relation to the advice line. Some people come through their Members of Parliament—people get in touch about compelling and compassionate reasons for travel for a range of reasons. I reassure people that, as I touched on, 90% of applications were done in six weeks. The vast majority of people still get their passport done well within the 10-week timeline, but there is provision to expedite applications.
As I say, the numbers of people whose applications reach 10 weeks and so need expedition have been fairly low so far. Colleagues will understand that most of the cases that go beyond 10 weeks are ones in which, for example, there is suspicion that a document that has been submitted is not genuine, or particular evidence has not been included, but that would be true at any other time of the year.
I keep going back to the fact that record output is now being achieved. Our strong message to people, if they are planning to travel, is to get their application in now.
We know that the Home Office is under enormous pressure given the Ukraine visas, the Afghanistan scheme and the asylum claims backlog. It was pleasing to hear the Minister say that plans were put in place well in advance because everyone expected a surge in passport applications once people were able to travel. I have heard what the Minister has had to say. On reflection, why does he think he has been brought to the House today to answer an urgent question? MPs’ inboxes are full of casework in respect of passport delays. What has gone wrong with the plans that the Minister put in place to deal with the surge?
As we have touched on, we are seeing an unprecedented level of demand: we would normally process 7 million applications in an entire year and did 1 million last month alone. That is a record number. In January, we were seeing around 60,000 a week; by the middle of March we were dealing with more than 200,000 a week—that is output, not just applications. The service has rapidly expanded to meet the demand that has returned.
To be clear, we changed the service standard last year because we expected a surge and there would inevitably be a limit on how many passports could physically be produced in a week. That is why we advised people of the 10-week standard. As I said, though, in recent months 90% of people have still been getting their passport within six weeks and we retain the ability to expedite if people have particularly compelling reasons for travel.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response to the sharp increase in passport applications, but when he reviews passport application processes, will he make walk-in centres more widely available? Will he also properly resource the MP hotline so that we can intervene in individual cases if we feel it is necessary?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. We have increased the capacity of the counter service, which is similarly seeing much-increased demand. We certainly accept the point that there need to be significant improvements in the performance of the advice line and the MPs’ line, and we are already engaging with Home Office teams about how we can get more resources in so that people can have their queries answered, particularly when Members of Parliament raise issues on behalf of those with compelling and compassionate reasons for travel and therefore need their application to be expedited.
I have a passport office in my constituency; may I say gently to the Minister that his rather transactional and at times nonchalant approach will not go down well with constituents throughout the country? I have had queries from all over the country because of this situation, and delays have been reported for months on end. Will the Minister confirm whether the backlog is reducing or increasing and how significant that might be? Will he consider compensating those who may have lost holidays outside the times allowed, or the people who have even lost jobs as a result of the problems at the Passport Office?
I am disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments and the tone of them. We have not been nonchalant. Although others have not shown too much interest until now, the teams—including those in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—have been working hard. In some cases, they have been working extra hours over weekends—for which I pay tribute to them—to produce a record output that is far above any other Passport Office output on record.
What the hon. Gentleman says sounds rather odd when we are recruiting extra staff and making sure that cases can still be expedited if there are urgent demands. We were clear last year that we put the service standard at 10 weeks to make sure people knew that they may need to allow extra time. Last year, we sent 4.7 million texts to those who had not renewed their passport to try to encourage more people to get their passport applications in. Far from our being nonchalant or uninterested, a lot of work has been done. It is a shame that the passport teams working hard in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are perhaps not getting some of the credit they deserve.
I appreciate that the surge is such because people have not been able to go away, which was not unanticipated, but I have not heard of too many problems with the online system. People can do online applications and they have been fairly quick.
I have a number of cases, one of which is from just this morning. I will not mention their name in case they get a miracle and are able to go on holiday to Mykonos on Saturday 7 May—I would not want to advertise that they might be away. They have new twins so have to use the paper-based system. Has the Minister been to the passport office at Peterborough or anywhere else to see the volume of physical mail that is sitting at these offices? Is it that working from home has really not helped the system over this recent period?
Clearly, there were times over the past couple of years when people were working from home. I have to say that for things such as document scanning, the teams are in the office. A small cohort are employed to work fully digitally, but I have to say that they work on digital applications—for obvious reasons—that can be fully worked on at home. The digital system has provided a great help in dealing with the level of demand, given that it simplifies the process all the way through, including for the applicant. I accept that there are cases in which the digital system cannot be used for particular reasons.
On where we are with the process, things are getting through but, as I say, we advised people to allow 10 weeks, partly because we wanted to be up front with people about potential challenges, but also to ensure that we could get through applications and people did not miss the holidays they had booked. As I say, again, if there are compelling or compassionate reasons, we will look to expedite.
Last week my constituents Paul and Jacqueline Weir received the distressing news that their Finnish daughter-in-law had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in their son Daryl’s arms. She was only 34. Daryl and their young son are understandably distraught, and Paul and Jacqueline are desperate to go over to support the family. They applied for an urgent passport renewal and were told that proof of death is required, but those documents may not be available for weeks as the death was unexplained. Can the Minister’s team intervene to ensure that they can go as soon as possible?
There is undoubtedly a sense of frustration at the length of time it is taking to process passport applications, but we must not forget that those working in the passport offices, in Peterborough and elsewhere, are working extremely hard. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to thank everyone in the Peterborough passport office for all their hard work and reassure them that their efforts are appreciated?
I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. The efforts of the team at the Peterborough passport office are certainly much appreciated. As I have touched on several times, we saw record output last month, with over 1 million passports dealt with in just one month, whereas normally we deal with 7 million across a whole year. Many in those teams are working over the weekends to get through the applications. I am very happy to pass on my hon. Friend’s thanks, and I am sure that the staff in the Peterborough passport office very much appreciate his support.
The Minister asked for solutions, so I will give him one. One reason for the surge in applications is that UK airlines have been misapplying the new post-Brexit passport validity rules, and requiring people to have six months’ validity on their passports when they need only three. Today easyJet has finally put that right and will no longer require six months. Will the Minister get together with the Transport Secretary and tell the other airlines to start implementing the new rules properly?
I will happily relay that to the Department for Transport, because obviously we are keen that airlines should apply the rules correctly. Those are not our rules on entry; they are for entering the European Union. I do not expect that would massively mitigate the number of applications we are receiving, given that during the pandemic 5 million passports were not renewed, and we expect a lot of people will now want to renew, looking ahead to summer holiday travel, but I certainly welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s point.
In the year before covid, the aviation industry contributed £22 billion to the UK economy and £3.6 billion to the Exchequer through air passenger duty, and it is expected to be at 70% demand this summer, so we cannot put this at risk, for the sake of our economy. May I press the Minister on what extra resources will be allocated? I also re-emphasise the point about the MPs hotline. Our staff are working for hours each day on Ukrainian refugee cases, and now this is being added to their workload. My caseworker, having been on the phone for hours, then finds she has been cut off. That will not work for us while we deliver on our other responsibilities to our constituents, so can we please get the focus that he talks about?
As I have already said, the performance of the advice line is unacceptable and needs to change. I know that the relevant director general at the Home Office is meeting with the chief executive of the company tomorrow. It is not just about the MPs hotline; it is also about sorting out the public advice line. We certainly recognise that it needs to be sorted out, so that people can get answers about their applications, alongside the work to ensure that we are driving up output, which ultimately is the solution to these issues.
I am really concerned that the Minister does not understand the scale of the issue. Many of my constituents have been saving for their holidays for years but now risk losing them altogether due to unacceptable delays of well beyond 10 weeks. They are stuck in limbo, unable to get any updates on what is happening with their applications. I am told that constituents’ emails have gone unanswered, that the phone lines cut out and that the online tracking system does not always work. As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) mentioned, our caseworkers are working relentlessly to try to get updates, but with little success, with lines being cut off, often after queueing for hours to get answers. The Minister really needs to get a grip on this issue, fix the delays and, most importantly, ensure that the people who are waiting are given regular updates on their cases so that they know what is going on.
The Government fully recognise the scale of the issue. As I said, there are 5 million unrenewed passports and we expect 2.5 million of them to be renewed, and that is on top of the normal 7 million-strong demand each year. Last month we processed over 1 million applications, which is 30% higher than the previous record, and 90% of those between January and March were done within six weeks. We certainly recognise the scale of this and have put in extra resources. The message we want to get out to the public is that if they are planning to travel this summer, they should make their application now, and we will get through it in the time we have said, which is 10 weeks.
I want to put on the record my thanks to staff in our passport offices up and down the country, who are facing enormous pressures—I wonder whether the Minister has met the trade unions to discuss the issue. I have a constituent who made his application in February but was told this month that his documentation has been lost. He wants to visit his sick mother in Canada but has received no information and is deeply concerned about the delay. The Minister says that cases can be expedited, which is what my staff are trying to do. What can we expect and what is the timeline for resolving this?
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about passport office staff. As he knows, a large number of Home Office staff are based in Liverpool—we have fantastic staff in those decision-making hubs—so it is good of him to recognise their contribution. I understand that there is regular engagement with staff trade unions. Just to be clear, the weekend working is based on incentivised overtime, not on people being compelled to work. If the hon. Gentleman gives me the details of the individual case he raised, I will happily follow it up.
The Minister said in his opening remarks that over 90% of applications were meeting the timescales, but the particular problems, based on my own casework, seem to be with first-time applications and children. As we have seen with the Homes for Ukraine scheme, we are leaving families hanging while they wait for a child’s application to be processed. What assessment has he made of how the Passport Office is linking applications together, because too many families are losing out while waiting for one application to be processed?
Passport applications would not usually be linked together as such. It is not like applying for a travel visa, for example, when a family will travel together. This document confirms that someone is a citizen and lasts for 10 years. As I have said, the service standard of 10 weeks applies to paper-based applications and to the digital service, although adult renewals via the digital service will inevitably be quicker, and we would not delay issuing a passport if it was going through the paper process. Certainly, 90% between January and March were issued within six weeks, so not the 10-week standard, and over 1 million were issued last month. For a first passport it may take slightly longer—that is more likely to be a paper-based application—but the 10-week standard still applies.
In response to the Post Office fiasco, the Prime Minister said yesterday during an interview on TalkTV’s “The News Desk” that he does not care whether an institution such as the Post Office is public or private but it must deliver value and good service. That is why the likes of me have been speaking about the dangers of the privatisation of our NHS and the Tories’ ideological fascination with selling off everything in sight. Whenever there is a problem, why is it always someone else’s job on the line, rather than the Prime Minister’s and those of his Ministers?
People have dying loved ones who cannot be visited; long-awaited family holidays are being postponed or cancelled, and extra costs are being paid to get passports expedited despite the unprecedented cost of living crisis that households are facing. The Minister has acknowledged that there is a problem, so will he take this opportunity to apologise to my constituents for their distress as they wait due to this Government’s failure to properly plan and prepare for this eventuality?
As I said, where people have a compassionate and compelling reason to travel, such as having been advised that a loved one is entering their final days, then that will be expedited via HMPO. Again, if Members have examples, I am very happy to assist with that.
In terms of overall position, we advertised the 10-week service standard last year. We sent out 4.7 million texts to people who had not renewed their passports to point out that there might be a surge if they wished to travel in the following year. As I say, we are still managing to deal with most passport applications relatively quickly, with over 90% issued with six weeks. We planned, prepared for and delivered a record output last month. No other month has seen over 1 million passports issued.
There has been a spike in demand for passports, but that should have been anticipated since we know that 5 million people put off renewing their passport during lockdown. Clearly, more resources are needed, more staffing is needed, and, yes, the MP hotline needs to have better services. Dozens and dozens of my constituents have contacted me in utter despair after enduring very long delays, with some having to cancel travel plans and others left in limbo. The Minister’s response that it is being dealt with sounds hollow to those affected by these delays. What more will he do, now, to help my constituents and all those affected by these delays?
As I said, we have an additional 500 staff and we are in the process of recruiting another 700. We let people know that the service standard was being pushed out to 10 weeks last April, so we did not hide from the fact that there would be a surge. We are planning to issue an additional 2.5 million passports this year compared with what we normally do as business as usual. A large amount of work has been done and more is being done. Between January and March, we still saw 90% of applications being determined within six weeks.
I thank the staff at the Durham passport office and all the other passport offices for the excellent work they do. I mean no criticism of them; my criticism is of process, of senior managers, and, I am afraid, of the Minister. It is a bit rich the Minister asking those on the Opposition Benches for solutions. I wonder why we are paying him if he cannot come up with them himself. Further to my question at Home Office questions on Monday this week, can he confirm that he has made a decision, and is going to write to me, about the issue of the MP hotline? Again, can we have a direct line to a decision maker in a passport office who has access to all the relevant information and who can actually make decisions, rather than MPs and their staff having to sit for hours waiting on phone lines only to be passed from person to person, speaking to people who are unable to make decisions, answer questions or authorise the printing of passports?
While I do not agree with all the hon. Gentleman’s comments, he makes a fair point about the MP hotline, which certainly does need to be better. I am not going to hide from the fact that the performance of the phone lines has been unacceptable, and we need to improve and change that. I thank him for his recognition of the work that the team at the Durham passport office are doing, which has helped to contribute to the record output we saw last month.
The failings of private contractors suggest that privatisation is not a solution to passport office backlogs, so will the Minister do two things? First, can he confirm that private contractors have penalty clauses in their contracts, and if so, have they been actioned? Secondly, will he update the advice on the Government website, which says that someone will normally get their passport within five weeks? Not one Member of the House can confidently tell their constituents that, so will he update the Government website to reflect today’s reality?
I have already spoken about the involvement of private companies, the exception being the decision that is made, for pretty obvious reasons, by directly employed Home Office staff. In terms of the performance of contractors, there are clauses in particular contracts—certainly, as I say, those for Teleperformance. We do not believe that its performance at the moment is at all acceptable, and that has been made very clear.
We are looking at the information that we give, because there is a balance between telling people the time it roughly takes—for example, saying that 90% of applications were dealt with within six weeks between January and March—and being clear that the standard time to allow is 10 weeks. If there is a particular point on the website that does not make that clear, I will be happy to review it.
I echo the comments made around the Chamber about the work being done in the passport offices. It is really unfair to hear the criticism coming from the Prime Minister, who seems to be speaking at odds to what the Minister is saying. I, like many others, have had a great number of cases of people in my constituency who are struggling to get passports. A particular example is that of young parents with a two-year-old who has an autoimmune condition. They are desperate to get away following his treatment. Will the Minister grant me some time to discuss this, because their holiday is on 10 May and they really need to get away for the good of their child?
I pay tribute to Joseph and Christine from the Belfast passport office, who we have great contact with. All Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland have built up a rapport with those two excellent team leaders who are assisting, knowing how difficult it has been over the past three or four weeks. The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) raised the issue of six months being required by easyJet and other carriers. The Minister will be aware that access to the Schengen area requires a passport that has two aspects: first, three months’ validity; and secondly, being less than 10 years old. But, as he will know, people in the UK may have passports that are 10 years and nine months or 10 years and six months old. They are valid and have three months remaining but they are not less than 10 years old. The gov.uk website has indicated that engagement is going on between the Foreign Office and the European Commission, and has been for the past four or five months, yet we still do not have a resolution. People in this country with a valid passport are now putting more pressure on the passport system because they are unnecessarily applying for new passports. I hope the Minister can engage with this with the Foreign Office and find a resolution so that people with valid passports can travel.
The hon. Gentleman speaks powerfully and well on this point. I am happy to engage with our colleagues in Government. As long as the passport is valid, it can be used to come back into the UK. This is not a matter of our own rules; as he says, it is about the Schengen rules. However, I am happy to engage with my FCDO colleagues.
My constituent Bernadette submitted her application for a passport on 24 January. She chased it up multiple times and spoke to more than 10 different agents who tended to give different information. Some could not find her application; some said that it was closed. She was eventually transferred to the complaints department, who, after leaving her on hold for two hours, told her that her application had indeed been closed and to try again. She reapplied months ago and has heard nothing since. My office has engaged with this. We wrote to the Home Office on 6 April, some 21 days ago, and still have not even had an acknowledgement. What might the Minister say to Bernadette, and to Hannah, Shereen, Lee, Lisa, Stuart and Elizabeth, all of whom have engaged with us and recounted the various issues that they have had with the passport office in recent months?
It does sound as though something has gone rather wrong there, given that, as I said, back in mid-January the demand was not as high as it became in mid-March. We saw a very strong surge at the end of February and into March, and the output surged as well. As I said, 90% of applications submitted in that time were dealt with in six weeks. Clearly something has gone wrong and I am happy to look at the circumstances after the UQ.
I, too, thank the passport office staff. I am sure the Minister will be all too aware that the passport processing crisis is not new. One of my constituents has been waiting months for a new passport. They have called the passport office over 80 times since early March but have not received a useful response. With a holiday booked in May, they risk losing thousands and thousands of pounds if they are unable to travel. Can the Minister explain to my constituent why the communication has been so poor and when they should expect to hear back? My constituents need clarity and a resolution of the delays as soon as possible.
Again, I am happy to pick up separately the particular case. As I have touched on, the 10-week standard is there, and we have not had to expedite many cases beyond 10 weeks. I would not want to speculate on whether there are issues with the application, but I am certainly happy to look into the specific case and get an answer.
There are dozens of cases I could raise with the Minister this afternoon, but I will raise the case of Helen, about which my office has been on hold for just over two hours. She spent £7,000 on a holiday and is due to fly out on Sunday. She applied for her passport in January. My staff may get cut off again on the MPs’ hotline, so is there anything that the Minister can do to make sure that my constituent Helen will go on holiday? If she does not, what can she do for compensation, because that was a very expensive holiday?
I am certainly happy to pick up the point. Certainly if it has been going on since January, I suspect we are now beyond the 10 weeks, and something should be done. Obviously I do not want to get into speculation about issues with the application—that would not be appropriate on the Floor of the House—but if the hon. Member supplies me with the details, I will be happy to look into the case.
Over the past year, I and my team have been supporting Mr and Mrs Puri from Whitton in my constituency. Mrs Puri’s brother and sister-in-law in India both died of covid, leaving behind very young children without parents. Mrs Puri has been in India, separated from her children here, for a year trying to adopt her niece and nephew and bring them over. Thankfully, a little over two months ago they were granted British citizenship. She applied for passports for those children immediately. Despite my interventions, they are still waiting for their passports. Will the Minister please urgently look at this tragic and exceptional case and meet me, so that the whole Puri family can be reunited after a year and those young Indian children can start their new life here in the UK?
Obviously we are sorry to hear of the circumstances. There are issues sometimes with issuing passports overseas, particularly where, for example, there have been local restrictions, but given the circumstances, I would be very happy to pick up the case and see what we can do, or if we can arrange some sort of documentation to allow them to travel pending the passports.
We are hearing so many moving cases where there have been deep failures within the Home Office that are not being addressed and need to be addressed. I have no doubt that Passport Office staff are working incredibly hard, but they can only work effectively if they have the resources to do so. I find it astonishing that the Government are unable to manage a Government agency. I have a constituent who is a dual national and who has applied for her passport to be renewed, which took several months. That has been resolved, but she was told that she would receive her passport within two weeks, and it has been more than four weeks. She cannot get through to the Passport Office by any means, and my staff were cut off from the MPs’ hotline after 45 minutes, but they are persistent. Will the Minister agree to look at that case as well?
Like all Members who have spoken, I have had several constituents experience delays. One pinch point seems to be the private contractor responsible for delivering passports. Even once a passport has been processed, they seem to go on little holidays of their own all around the UK until they eventually arrive—or not—on the constituent’s doorstep. Can the Minister speak to that private contractor and perhaps look at options for people to collect their passports from a depot, rather than having to stay in all day in the hope that the passport might arrive?
There has been some significant engagement on performance and improvement with FedEx, the parent company of TNT, which does most of our delivery. Given the surge in demand, we have brought online DHL, which we use for our international deliveries, to increase the delivery capacity. Supporting documents are now also being returned via Royal Mail, because with the surge in demand, we have also had to surge our ability to deliver. Certainly there are issues there, although from our big bulk production sites it would actually take more time to fish passports out of a large pile than it would to allow them to be delivered to people directly, and there are obviously some security issues with ensuring that we give a passport to the person entitled to it.
My constituent made a passport application for himself and his daughter in June 2021. He provided his original marriage deed and his daughter’s birth certificate. These are Syrian documents, and because of the situation in Syria they are irreplaceable. These documents have gone missing and despite formal complaints, representations from his own lawyer, a phone call from my office and an email from my office, we are yet to receive a reply on what has happened. Will the Minister urgently look into this case?
The staff working at the Passport Office in my constituency of Newport West have been working incredibly hard under difficult circumstances, but they require additional staff to deal with the record demand to which the Minister has already alluded. The staff union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, has claimed that the Passport Office planned to recruit 1,700 new staff members to help deal with this increased demand, but only 300 have actually been brought in so far. Can the Minister confirm those reports?
I can confirm that we have increased staff numbers by 500 since April 2021, and we are in the process of recruiting another 700. As of 1 April, there were more than 4,000 staff in passport production roles. We are also offering incentivised overtime as well, for those who are prepared to work at weekends. We are increasing the resources and the staffing, and again I pay tribute to the staff working at the Newport passport office, who are doing a tremendous job under a lot of pressure.
I have a Passport Office in my constituency, and while I am sure they are all working hard, I am distressed to hear from my constituents about how they believe they have been let down and lied to by staff who they have been dealing with. Can I ask the Minister a very specific question? My constituent Sean was the victim of an unprovoked assault with a knife last year, and he has just discovered that his passport has a puncture hole and blood stains on it. Can the Minister give some advice on whether Sean needs to apply for a new passport before his holiday in a fortnight’s time, or will the one that he has suffice?
It might be worth discussing the specifics afterwards, depending on how badly damaged the passport is, but I suspect we need to look at dealing with that compassionately, as it is compelling, particularly where he wants to go on holiday with a passport that will immediately remind him of what happened. If we get the details afterwards, I know the team would be happy to help, particularly assuming that it is a straightforward adult renewal, which it sounds like it would be.
Did the Minister receive my letter this week that was signed by almost 100 parliamentarians on this very issue? I wrote to him because of the troubles we were having in my office, all of which have been more than adequately described by many people here today. Is he going to do anything to help people who have lost their holidays and not had all their money reimbursed? They put everything in with plenty of time. They have spent hours on the phone, as have my staff. In one example, a whole family going to Euro Disney did not get to go because the five-year-old’s passport did not arrive, all the other family members having got theirs. This cannot go on. He has made some effort to say what he will be doing, but does he really think that is enough?
Well, what we are going to do is on top of what we have already done in increasing staffing numbers and increasing production to record levels of more than a million in one month. We were also very clear to the public last year about the 10-week allowance for doing it and the ability to get applications expedited if they have been outstanding for more than 10 weeks. I would not want to speculate about individual applications —sometimes things will go beyond 10 weeks for particular reasons relating to the application—but we have done a lot already. We have got to a record level of output, and there is more on the way, with more staff being recruited. Separately, we are looking to sort out the staffing issues in relation to the advice line.
Last night, in response to a written question I submitted on average processing time for passport applications, I was told that the Department did not have the information available, which, given what we have heard today, does not fill me with confidence that the Department has a grip on what is necessary to deal with these issues.
Turning to constituency problems, which many hon. Members have already raised, I obviously also have many constituents who have had serious delays with the Passport Office. There are two families who applied in early February who have still not had their passports. They are due to go away in the next few days. They cannot speak to anyone on the telephone and neither can my constituency staff. They applied in time and have played by the rules. If I send the Minister the information, will he personally intervene to ensure that they get those passports in time?
To the latter part, yes. I am happy to have the details. As I have said, in terms of processing times, between January and March, more than 90% of cases were completed within six weeks. Although we advise people to allow 10 weeks, the vast majority of people are getting their passports much more quickly.
I appreciate what the Minister says about understanding the problems, but I feel that saying to people, “Get your applications in on time,” does not really cover it. One of our main problems is that when our staff call, they are asked whether it is passports, Ukraine or other. Most of the cases that need to be expedited come under “other”, but when they go on to that line, the people there say, “Email us.” We are already doing that and emails are lying there unanswered for two months. At the moment, in every area, the Home Office seems to be high on rhetoric and low on delivery. Can the Minister take back to the Secretary of the State that this is simply not working anymore and that drastic action is needed to knock the system into shape?
Advising people to apply strikes me as good advice if people are planning a holiday. I am pleased to note that since that advice was given we have seen more applications coming in this week. In terms of being low on delivery, we delivered more than 1 million passport decisions last month—a record number. There is a significant amount of work being done by dedicated teams. We are bringing in more staff to be able to do more. We have even expanded our delivery network to cope with the output that we now have, as touched on in an answer to a previous question. We recognise those pressures and those issues, but that is why we have advised for some time to allow 10 weeks. If people are looking to go on holiday this summer, our advice is firmly, “Get your application in now.”
Delays with processing passports are causing huge delays to my constituents and those across the country, as we have heard. The lack of planning by the Government, not to mention not providing enough staff to manage what everyone could see would be a huge demand, smacks of incompetence. We have an MPs hotline that cannot provide information to help constituents and that is currently not fit for purpose. In addition, I have constituents who paid a fast-track fee only for my staff to be told—after waiting for three hours yesterday—that paying the fee does not guarantee fast track. The Government have caused this mess and the undue pressure on staff in the passport offices, so when will they get a grip and sort the problem out?
Again, let us go back to what we have already said: 4.7 million texts were sent out last year; 1 million passports were issued last month—a record amount; more staff are being recruited; and existing staff, if they wish, are being given the opportunity to work incentivised overtime. There has been a large amount of planning and work done to meet the challenge, but inevitably, with 2.5 million extra passport applications due this year, on top of the 7 million that we expect to receive from those whose passports fall due this year, there were going to be pressures in the system. That is why we were up front in April last year in changing the service standard and doing some campaign work to remind people of that. We are now doing everything we can, including bringing in extra staff, to ensure that we can meet the surge of demand that is there. As I said, between January and March, 90% of people got their passport within six weeks.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. He has certainly been across his brief, so I thank him very much for that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) said, I pay tribute to staff in the Belfast office for all their hard work, particularly Christine and Joseph, who are exceptional when they are contacted. Honeymoons, family reunions and holidays postponed because of covid are all being affected. I am dealing with passport applications from January. A particular problem appears to be children, as was eloquently outlined earlier. Will the Minister outline when more fast-track appointments will become available? There are currently none available across the United Kingdom.
I thank the hon. Member for her kind comments about the staff in the Belfast passport office, following on from the similar comments of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). I know that they will be very much appreciated by the staff concerned. We release additional fast-track appointments every day. With the level of demand that we are seeing, they are taken up relatively quickly whereas normally there might be availability over a number of days. We have looked to expand the number of counter appointments, but she will appreciate that there is a limit to how many we can realistically offer each day. In some cases, some of the slots to do that sort of expedition would instead be used to deal with compelling and compassionate applications where someone urgently needs a passport to travel for some of the reasons that I have touched on.
I raise the case of my constituent Elliot Joshua Rees of Pontyates near Llanelli, who made his initial application on 8 February, more than 10 weeks ago. The application seemingly hit a series of barriers resulting from his parents’ marriage certificate, which is Austrian, despite the family providing a certified translation. The family are due to go on holiday in the next few weeks. Will the Minister please look at that specific case?
Certainly, if the application is over 10 weeks and the family are due to travel, I know that the Passport Office will be happy to expedite that and resolve it. It sounds like there has been a specific issue with it. I am happy if the hon. Gentleman wants to raise that with me directly.
There is no doubt that staff across the UK have been working hard, but a constituent submitted an application more than 10 weeks before travel. Her Majesty’s Passport Office made a series of mistakes and seriously mishandled it; it even lost my constituent’s documents. When my office tried to help, it told my staff on one occasion that the application had not been made until a week after our first contact with it about the application. I also wrote to its director general, who never responded. What is the Home Office doing to implement meaningful routes of escalation and to address where there have been failings in specific cases?
I am sorry to hear of the hon. Lady’s experience. As already touched on a number of times in this UQ, I accept that the current performance of the advice lines for members of the public and Members of Parliament is not what it should be. That does need to change. On the specific case, I am happy for her to raise the details with me after the session.
I thank the Minister for his industrious efforts to try to solve the problem; it is clear that he is trying to do that. I echo the comments about the staff in the Belfast office, who are assiduous in their response on behalf of our constituents. This morning, three more constituent families—on top of the dozens of others—have contacted my office to say that they cannot get their passports, which are in date but with six months’ life left on them. It is about solutions, so what discussions have there been with Brussels to secure a mutually beneficial extension to enable my constituents to have their holidays and them to get British moneys into the local tourist economy?
Certainly, colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office regularly engage with our European friends about the rules and about entry, particularly into the Schengen area where the common rules apply based on the European Union’s rules. Obviously, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we have a more flexible approach the other way around in terms of our visitor rules and entry to the UK. We regularly remind our colleagues that it would be nice if they replicated that and looked at the benefits that our more generous visitor routes bring to the UK, particularly Northern Ireland’s tourist economy.
We always save the best until last in UQs with the hon. Gentleman. I thank him for his kind remarks about the staff at the Belfast passport office, who I know will very much appreciate them.