My Lords, it is necessary for the safety and protection of the child that we undertake a full and careful assessment of each application. First-time passport applications for children are subject to additional checks and overseas applications can require documents to be verified in the country of issue with the relevant issuing authority.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful and sensible Answer. Since I put down the Question, luckily, the eight-week advised wait for a newborn baby’s passport did not occur; it arrived nine days after application and the Home Office is to be commended. However, I would still like to ask the Minister for his reassurance that a minimum eight-week wait is not the norm but something of the past for low-risk areas, so as to alleviate the anxiety of new parents?
My Lords, we are always pleased to hear about a satisfied customer of the passport services, especially this year. That is good news. The reality is that delays can occur for three reasons. Sometimes they are caused by the passport service, and we are trying to bear down on that and improve on it. Sometimes the cause is the applicant not filling in forms or providing the necessary documents. Sometimes it is the country from which parents are applying for the overseas passport not giving in the documents in sufficient time. I agree that we should be doing much better.
At the peak of the summer holiday season, the Passport Office had a backlog of more than half a million passport applications. Thousands of people who had booked and paid for holidays were left uncertain whether they would be able to travel. In an editorial on 10 July on the great passport backlog, the Times wrote:
“The Passport Office has failed. The minister responsible … has failed”.
The Times was right. What guarantees can the Government give that there will not be the same shambles in the first half of next year?
There was a failure. That is why the Home Secretary intervened to annul agency status and to bring the problem into the Home Office to get a grip on it. That is why the delay in the process time for applications—which had sunk as low as 20%, which is appalling and for which we apologise—is now above 50% and heading towards 60% to 70%. That is as a result of the actions that have been taken and the grip that the Home Secretary has on the situation.
The ultimate responsibility now lies with the Home Office. We have taken that decision. Sometimes in the history of government it has been the case, when there was a problem, that we push it out and call it “agency status”. Here we have brought it in-house to get a grip on it. That is clearly happening.
May I ask the Minister what the position is regarding records, in view of his last statement? Every time I have to apply for a right of abode every time I get a new passport—I still have only my Australian passport—I am asked to provide all the original documents of my husband’s birth, his parents’ marriage and my marriage. I do not know whether the documents are going to give out or whether I am going to be dead first. Is there no way that these things can be kept on record?
Documentation is, of course, a critical element of this. The British passport is arguably the most prestigious travel and residence document in the world because of the security and steps we take to maintain its integrity. We cannot do that without having documents verified in-country to ensure that we award passports to people who are entitled to receive them. That is a key part of what we are trying to do.
The most important thing we have to do is to get a grip on the situation to ensure that the problems that led to delays last year—an increase of some 1 million applicants over what was normally forecast and expected—are dealt with, that people get the service that they expect and that we keep the security of our borders as our highest priority.
My Lords, the Minister has admitted that the real problem last year, in his words, was that there were a million more applications than normal. It was nothing to do with agency status. Has he thought through the law of unintended consequences? One of the reasons why the asylum figures and deportation of foreign prisoners were so difficult is that, after a long series of judicial appeals, someone could go to their MP. When the MP applied to the Home Office Minister, the case had to be opened again. Does the Minister think that bringing this back into the Home Office and thus permitting that has had anything to do with the escalation of the asylum and immigration problem?
That is a possibility. I defer to the noble Lord’s deep expertise in this area. The problem that happened with the numbers was an issue of forecasting and therefore ensuring that we had the right number of staff. We are now confident that we have the right number of staff to deal with that. Where issues are raised with a Member of Parliament then they should also apply to the ombudsman, which can deal with these matters if it thinks there has been maladministration.