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HM Passport Office: Backlogs

Volume 822: debated on Thursday 12 May 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question asked earlier today in the other place:

“Due to Covid-19, over 5 million people delayed their passport applications in 2020 and 2021”—

I do know how to clear a Chamber. The Answer continues:

“With demand for international travel having returned, Her Majesty’s Passport Office is currently receiving a higher number of passport applications than ever before. Some 9.5 million applications are expected in 2022, compared with approximately 7 million in a normal year.

Since April 2021, 500 new staff have joined and a further 700 will join by the summer. As a result, the vast majority of passport applications are being processed within the 10-week timeframe and over 90% within six weeks. Less than 1.4% of the passports printed last week for UK applications had been in the system for longer than 10 weeks.

With a record number of applications in the system, customer inquiries have increased accordingly. However, the passport advice line, which is run by Teleperformance, is not currently meeting the needs of passport customers. Clearly, this is not acceptable. The Home Office has clear standards for the level of service that suppliers are expected to provide.

Her Majesty’s Passport Office has engaged with Teleperformance at its most senior levels to emphasise the need to significantly improve performance as soon as possible. Alongside steps to bring the operation of the passport advice line, email and call-back functions within the required standard, Teleperformance is urgently bolstering staff numbers in response to the recent surge in customer contact, with 500 additional staff due to be added by mid-June.

We recognise that colleagues will wish to raise cases and queries on behalf of their constituents. HM Passport Office staff have therefore been deployed to answer passport-related inquiries to the Home Office’s dedicated MPs hotline and, for the most urgent cases, they will also be available to conduct in-person passport surgeries at Portcullis House.

While we acknowledge that there have been issues with customer contact that must and will be resolved, I take the opportunity to recognise the work of HM Passport Office staff who continue to ensure that the vast majority of passport applications are processed in under 10 weeks. Their efforts, alongside the extensive work that went into preparing for record demand, have ensured that passport applications continue to be processed in higher numbers than ever before.

Across March and April 2022, HM Passport Office completed the processing of nearly 2 million applications. As this output demonstrates, HMPO staff are firmly focused on maintaining a high level of service and are fully committed to ensuring that people receive their passports in good time for their summer holidays.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Question in the other place. I start with an anecdote: last Monday, a friend of mine showed me a picture of an 11 year-old Ukrainian boy in Wandsworth in his brand-new school uniform. He started at Southfields Academy, in Wandsworth, on Monday; I understand that so far it is going very well. He was standing there, proud as punch, in his new school uniform. My friend said that Wandsworth Borough Council has been very helpful in setting up all the various measures they had to put in place to host this family. I will not try to claim that as a Labour success, given that it happened only on Monday.

I thank the hard-working staff at the Home Office for trying to deal with this backlog. We believe that this is a problem of leadership and planning, not of the staff themselves. We also believe that the surge in applications for passports was wholly predictable. Too often, we have to come to this House to ask about delays—on passports, on Ukraine visas and on asylum claims, including those of Afghan interpreters, for example. The costs to the people involved in this application process are difficult to describe because of the extremity of the situation in which they find themselves. Does the Minister believe that the management and leadership process in the Home Office is fit to deal with the current shortcomings and future requirements that will be made of it?

First, I join the noble Lord in being happy about his story of the Ukrainian schoolboy standing proudly in his school uniform on Monday. I praise the noble Lord for not trying to claim it as a Labour victory; whenever these things happen, we are all happy that they turned out well.

It might be helpful to outline the context in which we find ourselves. As I said, HMPO processes 7 million passport applications in a normal year. Due to Covid, only 4 million applied in 2020 and 5 million in 2021. That means that more than 5 million people delayed applying for a British passport throughout 2020 and 2021. Therefore, the unprecedented figure of 9.5 million applications is forecast for 2022.

As I said, some of the problems with phone lines are completely unacceptable, but I think HMPO staff have performed to their best. In this context, 90% of applications being issued within six weeks, between January and March this year, is an excellent figure. In fact, over 98% were processed within a 10-week timeframe, but I am not going to stand and deny that there have been snags in the system. As I outlined, we are working very hard to resolve them.

My Lords, the Minister is aware that, far from enjoying exactly the same benefits as members of the EU, our citizens must now have three months’ validity on their passports. The Government should have been more concerned with the process of issuing passports than with what colour they are. Have there been any discussions between the Government and EU countries about relaxing the three-month rule while the UK sorts out this dreadful crisis?

I can take that point back. I may be completely wrong here but I thought the EU insisted on six months. I am glad someone is nodding, so I am not going mad: the EU insists on six months. There might be a pragmatic solution. We are probably undergoing a hump in the process and things will smooth out, particularly by engaging more staff.

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned that the performance of the contractor answering the telephone lines was unacceptable. Does the contract with Teleperformance have any penalties, so that there is a financial consequence to the company if standards are not maintained?

As always, my noble friend asks a very good question. I do not know the answer to it. I know that we have been engaging with the contractor and outlining that what is happening at the moment is utterly unacceptable, and I know that steps are being taken to rectify that.

My Lords, I hope that commercial confidentiality will not be cited as a reason for not replying to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Young. Following my noble friend’s question, have the Government had any discussions with the travel industry to ensure that passengers who are unaware of either these problems or the need to have a period remaining on their passport are alerted to the issue?

In relation to this issue, I know that HMPO has sent nearly 5 million text messages to UK customers who hold an expired or soon-to-expire passport to advise them to allow up to 10 weeks when next applying—so communications are going out from our side. I do not know about other countries.

My Lords, how many additional civil servants have been taken on to deal with the backlog? Is Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who criticised the Passport Office so bitterly, now satisfied with the work of this organisation?

HMPO’s staffing numbers have increased by 500 since last April, and it is in the process of recruiting a further 700 people. In total, as of 1 April this year, there were more than 4,000 staff in passport production roles.

First, I am reassured. The reason I knew it was six months—I will point out another wrinkle in this—is that I was going abroad in March, so I anticipated this issue and sent my application off early. It was very efficient and I got my passport back really quite quickly. The only problem was that the courier kept trying to deliver it to the wrong address because of the postcode—but do not worry about that. There was no way of putting in an extra message for the delivery driver saying, “Please go to the gate at something or other”—because I live in the countryside. Anyway, leaving that aside, the process was very efficient.

But there is another wrinkle. Normally, when you renew early in the UK—I realise that this particularly concerns us Scots, who worry about money—that extra period is put on to your passport. The expiry date is taken from when the current passport expires. The EU counts it from when it arrives—that is, the renewal date—so be careful, because you lose that bit that you used to get credited with on your passport under the old British system. Personally, I think that it is unfair. I am delighted that the passport can just put it on, but you do need to warn travellers that they might need to add a bit more on.

The thing I really want to ask, though, is this: what plans are there to deal with the extra 1,200 staff who have been specially recruited to deal with the problem? That is quite a swelling of the Civil Service at a time when I thought we were trying to economise and cut back. Are these people full-time staff that the Civil Service will have to retain for ever and somehow find other employment for—or what plans have we for downsizing again when the crisis is over?

Again, the noble Lord makes a good point. I will inquire as to whether we have recruited permanent staff or agency staff. If they are permanent full-time staff, they can of course be flexible to meet the needs of other parts of the Civil Service.

My Lords, at the end of 2020, when the Passport Office realised that it was 2 million short of its normal applications, why did it not encourage people to apply early, anticipating the problems that we now see?

I do not know the answer to the question of why we did not encourage that. Obviously, we project numbers each year, but those numbers clearly did not transpire last year and we are now facing 9.5 million applications this year.