During the pandemic period, over 5 million people delayed applying for a British passport. This has led to unprecedented passport demand. To meet this, we have increased output to unprecedented levels. Since April 2021, HMPO has introduced a range of contingency measures, including technical improvements and a bolstering of its resources. This has helped to deliver record output, with over 1 million applications processed last month alone.
My experience cannot be unique; I think it is echoed by other Members in the House. This Easter, families and children in my constituency lost holidays due to the Passport Office failing to meet its service standard times. In telephone communications with the Passport Office, my staff and I have been misadvised and hung up on, and have received a series of broken promises. MPs once had valuable and effective links with passport offices to resolve complaints. Notwithstanding the contribution of the Home Office Parliamentary Private Secretaries—I thank them for their interventions—why can I not deal with my excellent local Durham passport office to resolve complaints, instead of waiting for hours, and failing to make progress, on so-called bespoke MP hotlines?
I would just point out that between January and March, over 90% of cases were completed within six weeks, but we advise people to allow up to 10 weeks for their application. Again, we are getting through this, but I recognise the point that the hon. Member makes about MPs’ contacts. That is certainly a point we will pick up; we need to make improvements there.
The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) is certainly not alone: all our constituents are having to cancel holidays, miss funerals and rearrange visits, with even the new 10-week target routinely being missed. What will be done to avoid that predictable mess getting worse? Can we be assured that the 10-week target will not be lengthened further as we approach the summer?
I go back to the fact that we dealt with 1 million passport applications last month alone. To put that in context, we usually deal with 7 million in a whole year. Where there are compelling and compassionate circumstances, such as a funeral, applications can be expedited. For some time we have advised people to allow up to 10 weeks for an application to be processed. Last year we sent 4.7 million texts reminding people whose passports had expired to renew them. We have no intention of further extending the standard. We are processing most passports well within that time, but this is a virtually unprecedented surge in demand, and if people are planning to travel this summer, we advise them to get their application in as soon as possible.
“Unprecedented” might be true, but the surge should absolutely have been foreseeable. I hear what the Minister says; my constituents tell me that in their experience, the process has been either very good or an absolute shambles. I agree with what the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) said: there needs to be a better interface between Members of Parliament and the Passport Office. Constituents going abroad for a family funeral, for a holiday or for business reasons are not getting through to the office, and are lied to by officials when they do. Something needs to be done to arrest that, and quickly.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Early in January, we were processing about 60,000 passports a week, and by mid-March we had nearly trebled or even quadrupled the output of the service. I agree that we must review the performance of the hotline for MPs, particularly for instances where there are compelling or compassionate reasons for expediting an application.