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Draft Passport (Fees) Regulations 2022

Debated on Thursday 26 May 2022

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Judith Cummins

Afolami, Bim (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)

† Bowie, Andrew (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con)

† Bridgen, Andrew (North West Leicestershire) (Con)

Bristow, Paul (Peterborough) (Con)

Carter, Andy (Warrington South) (Con)

† Davies, Gareth (Grantham and Stamford) (Con)

† Elmore, Chris (Ogmore) (Lab)

† Foster, Kevin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)

Gardiner, Barry (Brent North) (Lab)

† Jones, Sarah (Croydon Central) (Lab)

† Lavery, Ian (Wansbeck) (Lab)

† McDonald, Stuart C. (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)

† Mann, Scott (North Cornwall) (Con)

Osamor, Kate (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)

Qureshi, Yasmin (Bolton South East) (Lab)

† Sunderland, James (Bracknell) (Con)

† Vickers, Martin (Cleethorpes) (Con)

Jonathan Finlay, Laura Caccia, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 26 May 2022

[Judith Cummins in the Chair]

Draft Passport (Fees) Regulations 2022

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Passport (Fees) Regulations 2022.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Cummins, as always.

Before I move on to the draft regulations themselves, I will touch briefly on the issue of passport applications to put the regulations into context. I hope that colleagues understand that I will not get into specific or individual cases in a public forum, but I remind Members that they may use the dedicated MPs’ hotline and, for the most urgent cases, the passport surgeries at Portcullis House, to which staff of Her Majesty’s Passport Office have been deployed to answer passport-related inquiries.

I am sure that every Member present has dozens and dozens of cases outstanding with HM Passport Office. I thank the staff—they are at home and doing a fantastic job—but it still is not working. Hundreds of people are without their passports. This draft delegated legislation is about premium and fast track, but none of it is working at this moment in time.

Perhaps I should go on to point out what HMPO staff are doing. At the moment, they are working hard to process approximately 250,000 applications per week, and have been doing so since the beginning of March this year. That is a large increase in the number of applications and in output since January, when latent demand started to return. They are focused on maintaining a high level of service and on ensuring that people receive their passports in good time for the summer holidays.

In the vast majority of cases, applications are being processed within the advertised 10 weeks. Nearly 2 million passport applications were dealt with in March and April alone. For the benefit of the Committee, HMPO usually deals with 7 million in a year—that is the scale of the numbers. Our advice, however, remains to allow up to 10 weeks when applying and, if planning travel this summer, to apply now if a new passport is needed.

The draft regulations will set the fees payable for products and services offered by HMPO, as well as providing for fee waivers in a number of circumstances. The regulations revoke and replace the Passport (Fees) Regulations 2018, making minor changes to the fees schedule and specifying priority services fees, including a booking fee, which will not be refunded in certain circumstances. At the outset, I want to make it clear that no fee levels are being changed. The cost of applying for a passport is not increasing under the draft regulations.

For customers requiring a passport more quickly than can be provided under the standard service, HMPO has for many years offered optional priority services that are available for an additional fee: the fast track service and the premium service. For background, given the intervention of the hon. Member for Wansbeck, between 6 February and 8 May 2022, on average, 9,000 fast track applications were submitted in person per week, and 4,000 digital premium appointments were booked online per week.

Frustratingly, given the demand for the services, over the past year about 5% of customers have not attended their priority service appointment. When a customer simply does not attend their appointment and fails to notify HMPO, the slot cannot be reused. That has a knock-on effect for others seeking to use the priority services, especially when there is high demand for slots. For that reason, the priority service fees will now include a booking fee, which will not be refunded where a customer cancels their appointment with less than 48 hours’ notice—that is, too late for us to be able to readvertise the appointment to those seeking to book one.

The booking fee will be £30, which reflects the costs incurred by HMPO up to the point of the appointment and as a result of not being able to reuse the appointment. As I said, that will not result in an increase in the total fee; it forms part of the existing priority service fee and will not lead to customers being charged more for their appointment, provided that they keep it and use the service.

If a customer misses their appointment and fails to notify HMPO altogether, HMPO will retain the whole fee. That incentivises customers to ensure that they notify HMPO when they are not able to attend, and helps to provide a service that is more cost-effective for the taxpayer while ensuring much wanted slots are not wasted. To clarify, if the customer does not attend their appointment but meets the compassionate criteria—for example, there is a medical or family emergency that means they cannot attend their appointment—HMPO will refund the full fee.

We are also making minor drafting changes to the descriptions of our priority services. The changes will not impact on the services provided to customers, nor the cost to them. We have also made several amendments to the regulations to make them simpler, more concise and transparent for customers. The regulations set out clearly what actions are taken as part of the administration of an application, when an application is deemed to have been made, and when a fee will be retained by the Passport Office.

The schedule of fees has been reduced in length, and we have made the cost of priority services clearer by setting the fees separately. Previously, the fees set in the regulations included the cost of administering a passport and a priority service. Again, we now want to make it much clearer what people are paying for when they pay for the priority service that they book through that system. I hope the Committee will accept the regulations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the Minister for introducing the regulations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) has already pointed out, at this point in time across the country there are thousands of people who believe that the passport system needs to change, but it is fair to say that the tweaks we are debating today would not be top of their list.

The shadow Home Office team has been inundated with examples of Government failure—primarily the failure to predict and adequately prepare for the surge in demand for passport renewal after the covid travel restrictions were lifted. That is despite being warned of the problems as far back as November in this House by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). We have heard of family holidays being cancelled because passports did not arrive on time, a seriously sick child unable to take a long-awaited trip of a lifetime, of work missed, honeymoons threatened, and the huge costs incurred from cancellations, rebooking, and paying for the fast-track service and multiple applications.

The worst is not over. Leaked Passport Office documents reported by The Times at the weekend revealed that the 500,000 application backlog is growing. How will the existing regulations be made fit for purpose when the existing system is said by staff not to be fit for purpose?

I agree that we are all hearing from constituents who are waiting for passports. People who did not renew their passports during covid now suddenly want to use them. Does the hon. Lady agree with me that, despite the current huge demand for passports, for security reasons all relevant checks must be made on everyone applying for a UK passport, and those should never, ever be passed by because of the huge demand that the services face at the moment?

The hon. Gentleman is right. All MPs have had cases of people desperately trying to get their passports on time, and of course he is right that security is important. We must make sure we do these things correctly. Our argument is that we should have seen the problem coming and done a lot more about it.

The article in The Times reported that the existing pressures are only going to get “heavier” and that people are being given “poor, misleading advice” by the advice line provider. Yet despite these well-documented problems, the Minister in the other place, Baroness Williams, told my colleague, Lord Coaker, that the Department

“did prepare extensively for elevated demand with no restrictions upon international travel, and those preparations have ensured that passport applications can be processed in higher numbers than ever before.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 May 2022; Vol. 822, c. GC52.]

That is the argument the Minister made, but it is not good enough. I have to say to him that that will be news to many of those who have been waiting. Given the scale of the problem, we are unconvinced that an SI that will slow down the fast track process by one day is a proportionate response to those realities.

Baroness Williams told the other place that the Department estimates that it will receive a total of 9.5 million applications in 2022. She insisted that the Department was

“on target to deliver those”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 May 2022; Vol. 822, c. GC52.]

So did this Minister. Can he explain to the House how he can be so confident, given the backlog? What urgent work are the Government and the Home Office doing ahead of the summer to prevent millions of families from being put through chaos before their summer holidays?

Despite our sense that this SI tinkers around the edges of what is a much more serious systemic problem, we largely do not object to the measures in it. As I said, the SI will slow down the fast-track process by one day. How many applications are currently missing the seven-day deadline? Slowing down the fast track is an admission of failure. Why do Ministers not believe that the system can get back on track, and meet existing targets, in the long term? We have no concerns about the purely technical changes that set out passport fees more simply and we believe that it is fair to look at keeping the booking fee where a person books a priority appointment but fails to turn up.

The new schedule shows that a higher fee is added for children aged under 16 to use priority services—£73 for the fast track and £102 for the premium service—than for adults, who pay £66.50 for the fast track and £101.50 for the premium service. Why is there that difference between children and adults?

I have a question on the detail. The Minister touched on this, but perhaps he can clarify it. My understanding is that if an appointment is missed—sometimes people make an innocent mistake—this measure provides not only for the booking fee and priority fee to be non-refundable, but for the standard application fee to be kept. Does that mean that if a person misses their appointment, they will not only lose the fees for that appointment but lose the application altogether? Will they then have to find the money for the standard fee to start the whole process again? If the failure is the system’s rather than the applicant’s, what happens to the person’s priority fees if the system fails to deliver their passport within the appropriate deadline? And what about where a person misses an appointment with good reason, which may happen? The Minister talked about a refund on compassionate grounds, such as medical or family emergencies. Can we have more information on that policy? Will it be a discretionary decision that individuals in the Passport Office make, or will there be a complete list of criteria? If so, could we have more detail? There is no information about that in the explanatory memorandum.

Baroness Williams said in the other place that the Department has

“employed 500 staff since last April, and there will be a further 700 this summer.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 May 2022; Vol. 822, c. GC52.]

May I ask when those new staff will be in place? The word “summer” is quite vague, and often the Government count autumn as summer. We hope that that is not the case here; and obviously many families will need passports before the summer holidays begin.

Finally, Baroness Williams insisted that the Department was on course to deliver the 9.5 million passports, but she was unable to say what the current backlog is. Could this Minister fill in that detail for the House now? I look forward to his response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I, too, thank the Minister for introducing the draft statutory instrument. As he said, most of this is pretty technical and the changes are not hugely significant. For that reason, we will not be opposing it, either. But I will make two or three short points.

Obviously, and as the Minister acknowledged, the background to all this is the challenges and difficulties facing the Passport Office at the moment and the fact that we all have large numbers of constituents who are struggling to get hold of passports in time for their holidays. I have said quite a bit about that in the Chamber already, so I need not repeat what I have said previously. However, to justify the passport fee, we need transparency from the Passport Office as to how it is performing. The Minister said again today that 250,000 passports are being processed every week, but we also need to know how many applications are being made and what the up-to-date position is on the backlog. If there could be more transparency about exactly where the Passport Office is on that at any given time, that would be hugely helpful.

Another aspect of transparency is about the policies that staff are operating to. Hon. Members have already mentioned the very helpful desk being operated at Portcullis House. I pay tribute to the staff there for their patience in the face of overwhelming demand. However, it does seem to be a very fast-moving and complicated policy picture. I understand that this week, for example, a rule was introduced whereby someone would not be able to escalate or accelerate the passport process unless they had been waiting for six weeks. It would be useful to know whether there is a place where MPs can go to see the policies that staff are operating to, so that we can understand exactly how things are operating. There have been cases where I have gone away from PCH with a certain piece of advice, only for the constituent to tell me that they eventually got through on the phone line and were told something a little different, so a little more transparency and clarity about exactly what rules and policies are in place at any given time would be useful.

In relation to that specific, six-week rule, I can sort of understand it in the context of people who had allowed their passport to run down and perhaps at least should have been aware of the need to apply in advance. There is a specific issue about those who have lost their passport. I have a constituent who has applied for a passport three or four weeks in advance of their holiday. That is not because they had got complacent or allowed their passport to run down, but if the six-week rule then prevents them from accelerating the process, that causes difficulty, so I wonder whether there is a way to apply a different rule for those who have lost their passports or had them stolen.

I mentioned the telephone line. Lots of constituents are still complaining that they are struggling to get through. They are having to wait hours and racking up significant phone bills. Can the Minister say a little more about what work is being done to address that and, as I said, the sometimes slightly inconsistent responses that we get?

As the Minister said, these regulations do not increase passport fees, but as I understand it, they do continue the system whereby citizens are charged a fee that is actually higher than the cost to the Passport Office of producing the passport. We have complained about that before and we again place on the record our objection on the basis that this is really an essential Government service to our citizens, and the idea that the Passport Office is making a profit sits uncomfortably with us. The Minister will say that it is reinvested elsewhere, in Home Office policy areas. To our mind, that argument could be made in relation to visit visas, for example, but this is something a little more fundamental. It is about people’s citizenship, and it is inappropriate to be making a profit on that.

To their complete credit, the SNP spokesman and the shadow Minister are raising some really good points, and I endorse all that has been said this morning. My question is simple: does the hon. Gentleman agree that, ultimately, the statutory instrument in question will speed up the process and provide a much more efficient process for the benefit of all?

I am not sure that this statutory instrument will make much difference in the grand scheme of things. I will come to the one element of it that appears to be designed to address that. It is about increasing incentives to ensure that people actually turn up for their appointments and therefore we are not losing the slots. I support that, and it might make a little difference. In fact, the deadline for priority passports has been slowed from seven days to eight days, so this will not fundamentally alter the way things are happening.

I have made a point about the profit. Moving on to the idea that application fees will not be refundable, I absolutely get the idea in relation to the 48 hours and not getting the booking fee back. That seems absolutely fine. But failing to refund even the cost of the actual passport application for people who do not show up seems to me a little harsh. I think it might end up making a rod for the Minister’s back. Again, why not just leave it at the booking fee or perhaps a proportion of the application fee? He has mentioned that there will be a policy of giving refunds in compassionate circumstances, but that would not cover, for example, someone who gets stuck in a traffic jam, a tube breakdown or anything like that. I think it is going to be difficult, so I wonder whether the Minister could look generously at what that policy will be and perhaps move it beyond compassionate circumstances.

As I said, on the whole, there is nothing too controversial about all this, and I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the background.

I thank my two shadows, the hon. Members for Croydon Central and for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, for the overall constructive nature of their remarks. Perhaps I can start on the question whether we are slowing the fast track through these regulations. What we are actually doing is providing clarification. This partly reflects a longer-term policy for customers of the service whose appointment is after the local cut-off time. The fast track performance is measured as the passport being printed within 144 hours —to be exact—of the application being received, which also allows the 24-hour delivery service level. There was a query about what this says about the target and whether we are meeting it. Between January and April, 94% of fast track application passports were printed within these times. Again, it is perhaps more of a clarification than an actual change in the time within which people will receive their passports.

In a fair challenge directly related to the draft regulations, I was asked why keep the whole application fee, rather than just the priority fee. Fundamentally, if someone does not turn up, it is not just the appointment slot that is wasted; it is a slot in which we would have considered a passport. Literally, a decision maker might have to sit there when they could have been processing and dealing with a passport for someone. That is why we believe the measure to be proportionate if someone simply does not turn up and does not tell us in advance that they will not be there, even within 48 hours. So, before 48 hours, free cancellation and, within 48 hours, 30 quid booking fee. If someone just does not show up, it is not unreasonable—as with many other services many of us use—for them still to pay the fee for the service, because in effect that service has been wasted.

Will we draw up a full list of all the circumstances? No. As with our exchanges about the EU settlement scheme and late applications, in particular with the SNP spokesperson, we could probably all sit here and draw up a reasonable list of good reasons why someone did not attend a passport appointment—an unwell child, an emergency care reason or an urgent work thing that day—only for someone to walk in the door and give another example that could also be a fair reason. The classic example is someone, or their close relative, being taken into hospital, which is a compelling circumstance. But if we draw up an exhaustive list, we might end up being harsher than if we have a clear set of principles for when we will refund the fee.

Will the Minister explain to the Committee what happens when someone does not show up without notice for their appointment? How is their application dealt with following that? Are there instances of people making another appointment and again not showing up? How is that dealt with?

People have not made the application, if they do not show up—we have no application to consider, but they have just wasted a slot. In particular for showing up in person to make an application, it is not as if we can sit there and progress something that has already been received; in most cases, we will have literally nothing to process. Have there been examples in the past? Going back some years to before we changed our booking system, there were examples of people repeatedly not attending appointments. Fundamentally, time gets wasted, so the measure is proportionate, subject to being clear that if someone has good reason why they could not attend their appointment, it is fair to give them a refund. It is not unreasonable to ask people to do the simple job, one or two days before, of ringing us up to say, “Actually, I can’t make that day. May I make another appointment?”

I want a little clarity. At one point, there was reference to compassionate circumstances, which to me sounds rather more limited than “good reason”, such as a broken-down train or whatever.

For example, someone might have glued themselves to the road outside or to the door, or witnessed a crime on the way. Again, we could get a very long list of reasons why people, through no fault of their own, were unable to get to an appointment. However, we will not draw up an exhaustive list, because we could be here all day doing that, only for someone to say, “Have you thought of this?”—so no. We intend to be generally flexible, but if someone just forgets, does not bother or whatever, that is the point at which we have to say, “Well, I’m sorry, but public resource was wasted. A slot that could have been used to process a passport for someone else was wasted.”

Furthermore, the issue formed part of our planning to deal with the surge: we felt that it was appropriate to be clear and proportionate. If someone rings us up beforehand, it is £30, and if someone rings us up more than 48 hours before, completely free of charge, because someone cancelling with 48 hours’ notice allows us to readvertise the slot and, at the moment certainly, we know that other people will be only too happy to take up the slot. We felt that that was proportionate, because most people will ring up and cancel. We feel that £30 is not a huge cost barrier, but is enough to be an incentive to ring up and cancel at a point when we can readvertise the slots to someone else.

I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire that all appropriate security checks continue to be done on all passport applications. A number of checks are in place. Colleagues will appreciate why, for example, child passports might take slightly longer—certain checks apply for travel by under-18s.

I have two quick questions. First, when will the policy take effect, and will customers be given sufficient notice of the change in policy? Secondly, if an appointment is cancelled with sufficient notice, is the Minister completely confident that that appointment will be reallocated to somebody else in the queue?

The regulations will come into force 20 days after they are made. It is only fair that we make that clear so that people can book appointments. At the moment, we can say that slots will definitely be readvertised, and if there is high demand it is very likely that people will book them. In more normal circumstances, will every slot that is freed up be booked? Possibly not, but if there is less demand on the day for fast-track or priority, people can be reallocated to do other work in the Passport Office, rather than work on the counters and potentially spend all morning wondering where people are. We cannot say that absolutely every slot will be used, but the Passport Office will at the very least be able to plan the day more effectively rather than have people sitting and waiting for applicants who do not turn up.

Are we confident about the wider system? I have been asked about getting through 9.5 million applications this year. We have got through 2 million in two months, and I am sure that most of us can calculate what 1 million a month equates to. On staffing numbers and preparation, we have already increased staffing in the Passport Office by more than 500 since last April, and a further 700 are on the way and will have joined by the summer.

What “summer” means? Well, it is a time of year when it is nice and warm. In terms of the backlog, we are getting more applications every day, and the sheer volume of passports we are getting through is such that demand in March was almost unprecedented and more than 1 million were dealt with. The vast majority —98%—are dealt with within the service level agreement. I have heard media reports, but they are not descriptions that we recognise, given the scale of the Passport Office’s output.

I think that everyone recognises that these regulations are a small part of our service. They release some capacity—potentially hundreds of appointments a week—against the backdrop of hundreds of thousands being dealt with overall. We disagree with some of the points that have been made, but we welcome the broad support for the regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.