Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, these regulations set the fees payable for products and services offered by Her Majesty’s Passport Office, as well as providing for fee waivers in a number of circumstances.
The regulations we are discussing today replace the 2018 regulations. They make minor changes that simplify and make the regulations more transparent, and specify that priority service fees include a booking fee that will not be refunded in certain circumstances. I want to make clear at the outset that no fee levels are being changed and the cost of applying for a passport is not increasing through these regulations.
For customers requiring their passport sooner than can be provided under the standard service, HMPO offers optional priority services that are available for an additional fee. These are the fast-track service and the premium service. Between 6 February 2022 and 8 May 2022, there have been on average 9,000 fast-track applications submitted in person and 4,000 digital premium appointments booked online per week. However, since April 2021, around 5% of customers have not attended their priority service appointment.
When a customer does not attend their appointment and fails to notify HMPO, that appointment slot cannot be used. This has a knock-on effect for others seeking to use the priority services. It is for this reason that the priority service fees will include a booking fee, which will not be refunded where a customer cancels their appointment with less than 48 hours’ notice. The fee will be £30 and 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 stated just now, this will not result in an increase to the total fee; it forms part of the existing priority service fee and will not lead to customers being charged more for their appointment. We think that this will incentivise customers to ensure that HMPO is notified when they are not able to attend an appointment and helps to provide a service that is cost-efficient for the taxpayer.
We are also making minor drafting changes to the descriptions of our priority services. These changes will not have an impact on the services provided to customers nor the cost. Any future change to a priority service provision will require an equality impact assessment to be completed.
We have made a number of amendments to the regulations to make them simpler, more concise and transparent for customers. They now clearly set out 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 HMPO. The schedule of fees has been reduced in length and we have made the cost of priority services clearer by setting the fee separately. Previously, the fee set in the regulations included the cost of administering a passport and the priority service. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank and congratulate my noble friend on bringing these regulations forward. I have just one or two points of clarification. The government website states that
“There is no backlog in passport processing as a result of the coronavirus … pandemic. However, we are now seeing unprecedented demand as more than 5 million people delayed applying for passports”.
First, presumably the Home Office would have been aware that, as there were no flights, people were not travelling and a lot of cruises had also been paused, travel would resume at some time and there would be the fluctuation we are seeing. At the end of 2021-22, say, what measures did the Home Office put in place to speed things along?
I have been corresponding on my second point through Written Questions to my noble friend. I will take this moment to explain the problem. My husband and I took our first trip abroad since coronavirus at the end of March to the beginning of April. My husband has one of the new passports—I think this is called the Brexit dividend—which is blue-faced as opposed to beetroot-faced and, sadly, is not made in this country. On our return, he was delayed by half an hour because the e-gate would not accept his passport. A host of others were in the same category, in addition to those who cannot go through if their young children do not have their own passport. The border guard informed my husband that they are aware of the problem; the passport page is simply too glossy and is not being read by the e-gates. I compared it to my passport and I could see why; the former passports have stuff over the photo that prevent it from being glossy.
There are two ways around this: ask whoever is making the passport to put something on it to make it the same as the old passports; or introduce, presumably at some considerable cost, a new machine to read these passports at existing e-gates. If, when our current passports expire, we all have to replace them with the new ones, that would be a good investment, because the existing gates do not work with the new passports. I understand the chip is working perfectly well—that is not the issue. The issue is simply that the photo page is too glossy. It is driving passengers and border guards to distraction, because it is causing queues. This was a quiet day and there was a 30-minute delay.
Is my noble friend is aware of this problem? I do not believe she is, but border guards and passengers are. Could we find a compromise to make sure this is speeded up? With those two points, I support the regulations before us.
My Lords, I echo some of those points. I used the blue passport through an e-gate in Brussels, and it was fine. It depends on the type of technology and the gates they are using at individual places. This is just to clarify that point.
My second point is also for clarification. We were told that a lot of the backlog was due to people who could have applied online but did not—they applied physically and there was an overload—but I am not sure about that and would like some clarification. There clearly has to be a presence. While a certain amount of work can be done online, such as processing, security is a huge element of sending out a passport to somebody, whether a new applicant or somebody who has changed their name, as they will need hard-copy documents. Is my noble friend satisfied that there are enough people working in the Passport Office, not from home, who are present to facilitate all this?
The backlog is now becoming quite appalling. People are missing business trips, losing money on holidays and various other things. Often, that will not be covered by insurance whereas Covid may have been. Something may have been put in the insurance for that, but you will not get travel insurance to cover your passport not being returned to you, particularly when you have put it in for replacement in advance.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations, and I note that the fee amounts are the same as those prescribed by the 2018 regulations. Overall, we welcome these regulations. I start by declaring an interest in so far as my husband lives in Norway, which involves me in frequent foreign travel to the extent that I will—if I can get an appointment—have to use the Passport Office premium service when my passport comes up for renewal next year.
Secondly, in case anyone uses the Official Report as a reliable source of information, in answers on an Urgent Question from the other place on 12 May, a number of noble Lords, including the Minister, stated that EU/Schengen area countries required there to be six months unexpired on a UK passport for entry. This is not the case. There must be three months left on a UK passport from the anticipated date of exit from the EU/Schengen area, in addition to the UK passport being no more than 10 years old. I am very grateful to the BBC’s “Morning Live” for confirming this. I looked online as well, and the passport must be valid for three months from when you intend to leave the EU/Schengen area, rather than three months from when you enter. So, you should be questioned at the border about how long you are going to stay, and they will then check that you still have three months left from when you intend to leave.
If the noble Lord will permit, is he also aware that in any Schengen area country, for example in Denmark, if a British passport is not stamped at the point of entry, you are deemed potentially to have overstayed your welcome and gone above the 90 days that were permitted, purely by the fact that you have not had your passport stamped? This is clearly stated on the Foreign Office website—I commend the Government for that—but I think that many British people are potentially falling foul of this.
I have the converse problem, in that I am running out of pages in my passport, because every time I go to Oslo, I get a stamp when I arrive and a stamp when I leave, even though, because I have applied for a residence permit—which I have yet to receive—I am not bound by the 90 days. However, we digress slightly.
Can the Minister explain what the cost of the Passport Office is overall compared with the amount of money that it generates? How much profit does the Passport Office generate, and how does the last financial year compare with previous years?
Following up on the questions raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lady Foster of Oxton, again in answers on an Urgent Question from the other place, the Minister was asked whether the 1,200 extra staff at the Passport Office employed to deal with the unprecedented surge in demand for passports following the end of Covid restrictions on travel were agency or permanent staff. Does the Minister have an answer to that question now? Conversely, how many permanent staff were furloughed in 2020 and 2021, when there were 3 million and 2 million fewer applications respectively than predicted?
We need to know whether the Passport Office is providing value for money for both applicants and the taxpayer. What staff cost savings were made in 2020 and 2021 when demand was low? How flexible is the Passport Office workforce in the face of fluctuating demand? Presumably, demand is higher in spring and summer and lower in autumn and winter. Are additional temporary staff employed at peak times or are permanent staff sitting around for six months of the year not doing very much?
How much more than the cost of producing a passport are applicants charged? If applicants pay for a premium service that the Passport Office cannot deliver within the advertised timeframe, is the premium fee refunded?
I very much welcome the introduction of a booking fee for a priority service that is not refundable if the scheduled appointment is not cancelled by the applicant 48 hours or more in advance. Slots are limited—or, at the moment, non-existent—and applicants need to be incentivised to keep their appointments. However, I question whether the whole fee should be forfeited if a prospective passport holder fails to attend an appointment for their application to be administered under the priority services without giving prior notice. I understand that the Passport Office could have made a considerable profit were the applicant to have attended the appointment but surely the cost of producing the passport should be refunded to the applicant—that is, the profit element should be retained but the cost element that is no longer incurred by the Passport Office should not. In other words, if the person does not turn up, they will not be issued with a passport, therefore the cost of producing that passport is not incurred by the Passport Office. The additional fee for a premium service should therefore be forfeited but surely the cost of producing the passport should be returned to the applicant. Can the Minister say what the fixed and marginal costs are in the case of a missed appointment for a priority service?
We acknowledge the various fee waiver and fee reduction aspects of these regulations for specified groups, as well as the discretion to retain deposits and fees dependent on individual circumstances, but, as with all Home Office services in relation to the UK border, the question remains as to why the Home Office uniquely must be self-funding. With so many more people who require a passport other than our Armed Forces, diplomats and government Ministers having to travel abroad, whether on business or to support vulnerable relatives, for example, why is almost everyone charged a much higher price for a passport than it costs to produce it? I look forward to the Minister’s response, either now or subsequently in writing.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the regulations. We look forward to her response to the various questions and comments.
I very much agree with the remarks from the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh and Lady Foster, and, frankly, all the remarks that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, made. Before I start my remarks in support of them, the regulations raise a number of questions and comments for us all, not least that we are debating passport fees as set out in the schedule while, as we have heard, people are waiting months for their applications to be handled. They are often unable to access help and many are missing holidays, weddings and job opportunities because the passport system simply is not working, as the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, pointed out. Slowing down the fast track, as these regulations do, is almost an admission of failure. Why do Ministers not believe that the system can get back on track and meet existing targets in the longer term?
We have no concerns over the purely technical changes that set out passport fees more simply. We agree that, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, pointed out, it is fair to look at keeping the booking fee where a person books a priority appointment but fails to turn up. However, we have a few questions to raise on this and other aspects of the regulations. Can the Minister update us on the current backlog? The latest reported figure was half a million but the Home Office has not provided updated figures when asked.
Over the weekend, the Times reported that staff have warned that the systems they are being asked to use are not fit for purpose. How will the existing regulations be made fit for purpose when the existing system is said by staff not to be fit for purpose? The article 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. As I said, this SI will slow down the fast-track process by one day. Is that a proportionate response to all the problems being faced?
What urgent work are the Government and the Home Office doing ahead of the summer to prevent further millions of families being put through chaos before their summer holidays? Staff are reporting problems with the processing system and the digital rollout. How are those concerns being responded to? Case studies show that people are phoning repeatedly for days without answer or being put on hold for hours only to be disconnected. What urgent action is being taken to address that?
Questions have already been asked about staffing levels. We are told that the Government intend to hire another 700 members of staff. When do we expect those staff to be in place, and how does this square with the Government’s intention to reduce the number of staff serving in the Civil Service? What support is being offered to the hard-working staff dealing with these various problems?
On slowing down the fast track from seven days to eight days, how many applications are currently missing the seven-day deadline? Why is the aim not to improve the situation so as to allow the existing seven-day timeline to be achieved, rather than extending the timeframe? When do Ministers expect that the existing backlog of applications will be cleared?
As I said, we have no concerns over the technical changes made to the schedule of fees. However, on reading them, I do have one detailed question. 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 correspondingly pay £66.50 for the fast track and £101.50 for the premium service. Why is there a difference between children and adults?
We are in agreement that it is fair not to refund a booking fee or the priority fees paid where a person books a priority appointment and then fails to turn up without good reason. This wastes time in the system—even when it has not been allowed to reach breaking point—and is disrespectful to staff and other users. It is fairly standard practice for an organisation not to refund a booking fee where an appointment is not used.
However, I have a question on the detail. My understanding is that, if you miss an appointment—sometimes people make an innocent mistake—the regulations provide, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, not only for the booking fee and priority fee to be non-refundable but for the standard application fee also to be kept. Does this mean that if a person misses their appointment they will lose not only the fees for that appointment but their application altogether? Will they have to find the money for the standard fee to start the whole process again?
As I am sure the Minister will understand, that raises a number of important questions during a cost of living crisis—particularly when, for many people, it is the system that is in chaos and failing them. I am interested to know what happens when the failure is the system’s fault rather than the applicant’s. What happens to a person’s priority fees if the system fails to deliver their passport within the appropriate deadline?
The Explanatory Memorandum states that, where a person misses an appointment with good reason:
“The fee will be refunded if the customer meets the compassionate ground policy.”
As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, people read these exchanges so this is important. Can we have more information on that policy? It is not mentioned in the regulations themselves and there is no information about it in the Explanatory Memorandum we have been given. What will count as compassionate grounds and who decides that?
There are a number of important questions about these regulations, which, as I said, we generally support. There is also the more general problem of the passport system, which the Government need to sort out urgently. With that, I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. There were quite a few questions, so I may not be able to cover absolutely every single detail, but I will start with the points made by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. She and my noble friend Lady Foster spoke about people delaying—for obvious reasons due to Covid—their applications throughout 2020 and 2021. We 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. In preparation for the demand for international travel returning, we have been advising customers since April 2021 to allow up to 10 weeks when applying for their passport, and this remains the case.
The noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Paddick, asked about our anticipated forecast. It is 9.5 million applications in 2022, and we are on target to deliver those. We have employed 500 staff since last April, and there will be a further 700 this summer. They will be a mixture of agency and permanent staff, because we clearly do not need 1,200 permanent staff for ever to deal with quite a short-term issue. Moreover, 90% of passports in the 10-week timeframe are being processed within six weeks.
Turning to the blue passports, I also have a blue passport and I have not had a problem with it. I have not heard of the glossy-photo issue, but I will certainly take that away and inquire about it. It is possible, as my noble friend Lady Foster said, that the technology might have been faulty, but I shall not make any inference of what the issue was.
I was asked how many passports have been issued so far this calendar year. The answer is 3.3 million, and I understand that in March and April alone 2 million were processed, which is quite a number. I will need to write on the fixed and marginal costs regarding missed priority appointments, but clearly there is a cost for someone making an appointment and not turning up. On the question of staffing, no staff were furloughed during Covid; staff were redeployed to other priority government work in the Home Office—for example, dealing with the EU settlement scheme and asylum—and to DWP, working on universal credit.
Sopra Steria has doubled its workforce in supporting HMPO since the start of 2022, alongside opening up a number of new processing centres. Its efforts have enabled the registration of applications and supporting documents on our system and the return of supporting documents to keep pace with this unprecedented demand. We raised concerns with the provider of the passport advice line, Teleperformance, about its delivery and, in response, it is urgently working to add additional staff, with 500 due to be added by mid-June.
On the argument about three months versus six months, it varies, apparently. Not to recuse myself from the information that I gave on the Floor of the House—and I will look into it more thoroughly—I actually thought a letter might be on its way to the noble Lord by now. Apparently, it is six months for Turkey and three months for Spain, but I will give the noble Lord a proper answer on that, because I, too, looked at the GOV.UK website, but I was not entirely sure whether I was right, or the noble Lord was, at the end of it.
I am not going to disagree with the noble Lord. I would just like to give him a comprehensive picture, including on whether it is different if you are going into or coming out of the EU.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, often goes on about the costs versus the profit that the Home Office makes. We do not make a profit. The cost of the passport goes towards our border system; it is not to make a profit. As I said, I will get back to him on costs. I can confirm that if you have paid a premium, you get your money back if your passport does not arrive in time. I will have to get back to him on children, because I do not know the answer. On what is not refunded on missing an appointment, it is not the costs of the application but the booking fee, which is £30—as I understand it from the officials behind me.
My understanding is that if you cancel within 48 hours, you give up the booking fee. If you do not cancel and do not turn up, you forfeit the whole amount: the standard application fee and the premium. In that case, the Passport Office will not be involved in the cost of producing a passport; should that not be refunded?
I did not think that was the case, but I am not going to contradict the noble Lord; I will check. I thought it was just the booking fee that you did not get back; I will double check.
I think I have answered all the questions. I have just one last point on what we did back last year. We started notifying customers by text—I think I said that on the Floor of the House a couple of weeks ago—that their passport was approaching its expiry date. We have sent some 5 million text messages to customers who hold or are about to hold an expired passport.
I have one further question as a result of what the Minister just said. I renewed my passport early because I had to change details in it, so my passport is valid for 13 years, but it is valid for only 10 years for entry to the European Union—you cannot have a passport valid for more than 10 years. Is the Passport Office sending text messages when a passport is approaching 10 years from date of issue or when it is due to expire?
That is a very good question. I would have thought it would be at the 10-year point, but the noble Lord is absolutely right. If there are 13 years on the passport, would it send it after 13 years, and therefore your passport will be three years out of date? I will find out.
I was waiting for the Minister to inform the Committee of the current figure for the backlog. She gave us the application numbers. The application number now is 3.2 million or something, but that is a different way of answering the question. Can she update us on the current backlog figure? We had half a million, but can she update it?
Our applications forecast is 9.5 million; I said that the current number was 3.2 million. On the current status, we anticipate that we will be on target to deliver those 9.5 million. I do not know the number of people awaiting passports at this point, but I will find out.
Committee adjourned at 5.29 pm.