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Commons Chamber

Volume 712: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2022

House of Commons

Wednesday 27 April 2022

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Shared Prosperity Fund

1. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the shared prosperity fund on Northern Ireland. (906577)

May I first wish the hon. Lady a very happy birthday? Do not worry—I can assure the House that I will not be singing.

The shared prosperity fund is a central pillar of the Government’s ambitious levelling-up agenda and will deliver for communities across Northern Ireland. The fund will inject around £127 million into Northern Ireland over the next three years to support communities, boost local business, and invest in people and skills. We will be working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and other key stakeholders to develop a plan that reflects the needs of Northern Ireland’s economy and society.

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words.

According to the latest Asda Cebr income tracker, Northern Ireland has seen the largest relative fall in discretionary income, amounting to a huge drop of 13.3%. Living standards in Northern Ireland are under the most pressure in the UK, thanks to the Tory cost of living crisis, made in Downing Street. Does the Secretary of State agree that short-changing Northern Ireland with the shared prosperity fund, as in Wales, will only make things worse?

Actually, we are boosting our investment in Northern Ireland. If the hon. Lady looks back over the past couple of years, to the previous spending review and the current one, she will see that we have just put in the largest block grant budget for Northern Ireland since devolution began in 1998, and that is aside from the extra investment we are making through the community renewal fund and the new deal, with £400 million for a range of infrastructure projects. We are making the biggest investment in Northern Ireland in decades, and I am proud of that. But she is right that we need to see productivity and employment continue to grow in Northern Ireland, as they have over the past few months, so that we have a prosperous Northern Ireland that can build on the benefits of the Good Friday agreement.

The Northern Ireland Finance Minister has said that the shared prosperity money for Northern Ireland is £90 million short of what was provided by the EU. The Conservative manifesto promised that the shared prosperity fund would “at a minimum match” the size of the EU structural funding it replaced. When can we expect the shortfall to be made up?

It is worth the hon. Gentleman’s while having a clear look at all the figures going into Northern Ireland, because he is not making a like-for-like comparison. At the spending review we announced that the funding for the UK SPF will ramp up over the years, so that we get to a point where it will at least match the receipts of the EU structural funds. The EU regional development fund and the European social fund, on average, reaching about £1.5 billion a year—

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard later, because I answered that question about 30 seconds ago.

But is the Secretary of State aware that in the first round of levelling-up funding, Wales applied for and received almost 50% more than was first allocated, and for Scotland the figure was 10%, yet Northern Ireland got 3% less? Will he assure us today that the same will not happen with the shared prosperity fund, and that levelling up for Northern Ireland means more than just being hit by the same tax rises that are being inflicted on the rest of the UK by this Tory Government?

Again, the hon. Gentleman needs to look at the figures in the round and realise that, as I have said, we have been making the biggest investment in Northern Ireland in decades—indeed, he may want to apologise for the previous Labour Government’s lack of funding for Northern Ireland. We now have the biggest sum of funding since devolution began in 1998. I saw for myself just this week the benefits that the levelling-up programme and the community renewal funding are making to community projects and businesses in Northern Ireland. That builds on the £2 billion from New Decade, New Approach and the £400 million new deal money, which will boost Northern Ireland. We will continue to do that to see Northern Ireland prosper in future.

The Secretary of State will know that there is £300 million in a bank account in Stormont that cannot be spent because the Democratic Unionist party walked out of the Executive. He will also know that there are families in Northern Ireland who cannot heat their homes or feed their children. If the Executive cannot meet after the election, will he commit to working with me to get that money into people’s pockets as soon as possible?

I agree in part with the hon. Gentleman —it does not happen all that often at the Dispatch Box—because I want to see that money being spent for the benefit of people in Northern Ireland, but I disagree with his analysis of why it is not being spent. That is money from last year’s budget, and for a couple of years running now the current Department of Finance in Northern Ireland has consistently underspent. The Executive needs to find ways of ensuring that the money is properly spent.

I have to say that the hon. Gentleman has also identified a real issue with the Northern Ireland protocol, because the UK has put substantial extra money into the pockets of people across the UK through VAT and fuel duty cuts, but we cannot do some of that directly in Northern Ireland because of the protocol. We have therefore made that money available to the Executive and I want to see it get to the people of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Protocol

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol. (906578)

13. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol on businesses in Northern Ireland.

I meet Cabinet colleagues regularly to discuss Northern Ireland matters, including the Northern Ireland protocol. The protocol does not command the confidence of a significant part of Northern Ireland’s population. This is about making sure that we get the balance right, and deliver on the balance in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. That agreement must have primacy, which we have been clear about on many occasions in this House. This is more than an issue of trade; it is about peace and stability, identity and the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. (906590)

On trade, I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the latest round of UK-US trade talks yesterday, and the progress on the US policy, and joint policy, of worker-centred trade deals. When we were in Washington last month, it was made absolutely clear to us in Congress that this would be derailed by what many there would see as the undermining of peace on the island of Ireland. They included in that not only the Good Friday agreement, but the Northern Ireland protocol. Is the right hon. Gentleman really going to put at risk a trade deal with the world’s biggest economy?

Obviously, the focus of the UK Government’s work is to get trade deals that work for the United Kingdom as a whole United Kingdom. Northern Ireland wants to and should be able to benefit from those trade deals. We have also got to make sure—this should always be our prime focus—in a shared way with our friends in the US, who have a strong interest in the Good Friday agreement, and strong involvement in it and support for it, the primacy and delivery of the Good Friday agreement. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Good Friday agreement has three strands, and east-west is one of them.

The cost of shipping from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is up 27%. Nine out of 10 traders in Northern Ireland are reported to face difficulties with six out of 10 forced to re-route goods because of the protocol. The European Union’s interpretation of the protocol is damaging business now, it is undermining the Good Friday agreement now and it is threatening Northern Ireland’s rightful full place as part of our United Kingdom now, so does my right hon. Friend agree that the time to fix it is right now?

My hon. Friend makes a very important and accurate point. The protocol and its implementation are having a profound impact, and change is needed urgently to resolve the issues that affect businesses, consumers and communities. I remind the House that this is the consistent position of the UK Government going back to March 2019, when the now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster outlined the importance of the Good Friday agreement. The Attorney General himself outlined that the Good Friday agreement will always have primacy for the UK Government. It is right that we deliver on that, and we will do.

After five months since the Government renewed negotiations with the European Union on the protocol, we have no visible progress, have we? Instead, we have a series of op-eds aimlessly threatening article 16. Now, bizarrely, the Prime Minister confirms on a visit to India that he is ready to tear apart his own deal, while expecting the Indian Government to trust him with a new one. Will the Government get a grip on treating negotiations with the respect they deserve, and use something called statecraft, and diligence, to find a settlement with the European Union?

I have got used to listening to those on the Opposition Front Bench defending the European Union against the people of the UK on a regular basis, but that was quite something. The reality is that the EU’s protocol implementation —and we are not seeing in the negotiations the flexibility from the EU that we need to see to find a resolution—is detrimentally affecting the people of Northern Ireland. I would respectfully say to the hon. Lady that she should think about standing up for the people of Northern Ireland and the people of the UK. That is what we will do to defend and protect the Good Friday agreement and resolve these issues.

In those discussions with Cabinet colleagues, will my right hon. Friend commit to pointing out that there would be a terrible hypocrisy if, having pointed out to Russia and her allies the importance of abiding by an international rules-based system, we were then to countenance breaking our internationally agreed obligations?

Our position has been consistent, whether set out by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union or the Attorney General in March 2019. The Secretary of State pointed out that if

“the objectives of the protocol were no longer being proportionately served by its provisions because, for example, it was no longer protecting the 1998 agreement in all its dimensions”—[Official Report, 12 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 289]

the UK could seek agreement to end the provisions, which would be, for obvious reasons, no longer necessary to achieve the protocol’s objectives. The objectives of the protocol are very clear and they respect the Good Friday agreement. At the moment, that is under massive threat in all three strands, and we need to make sure we are protecting the peace and prosperity that we have seen in Northern Ireland thanks to the Good Friday agreement.

Another week, another rattle of the sabre by threatening to deploy article 16. I wonder who the Secretary of State imagines is impressed by such behaviour, apart from a number of hardliners in a Conservative and Unionist party that seems increasingly incapable of conserving or unifying anything, least of all itself.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman might want to have a closer look at what is happening in Northern Ireland, in the sense that there is a view across all parties that we need to resolve the issues in the protocol. Some parties have stronger views than others about what those issues are. Nobody in the Unionist community supports the protocol any more, so it does not have consent across the communities. We no longer have a First or Deputy First Minister, and we no longer have a North South Ministerial Council. That is the Good Friday agreement under threat. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman stands for, but I stand for defending the Good Friday agreement and defending the United Kingdom, its people and its residents. We will do that.

In trying to find an alternative to the Northern Ireland protocol that has cross-community support, what note has the Secretary of State taken of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report of March 2019? The report made it very clear that there are acceptable technological, technical and procedural ways of dealing with the border that do not involve onerous checks of the sort that we see now.

My right hon. Friend correctly points out that there are now technical solutions. We have tried to talk to the EU about them, and we want the EU to show flexibility and recognise that there are solutions that can work today to deliver what is required in a way that works in Northern Ireland and protects the single market. We understand and respect the EU’s desire to protect their single market. For us, it is about the Good Friday agreement and the people of Northern Ireland.

If we are going to use the situation in Ukraine as an example, does the Secretary of State agree that the last piece of advice we would ever give to a sovereign nation such as Ukraine is to cede control of part of its territory to a foreign entity? And yet those who advocate the protocol advocate precisely that—that a large degree of the laws and regulations in Northern Ireland should be imposed by the European Union, and that I and my colleagues should have no say whatsoever in how they are drawn up. The Secretary of State and the Government last year published a Command Paper, indicating steps that they would take to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market. When will the Government take those steps?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, not least because in the vision outlined in its opening pages, the protocol makes it clear that we will not disrupt the everyday lives of people and their communities, and that we will respect the internal market of the United Kingdom and all aspects of the Good Friday agreement. Those are the effective vision statements that we are determined to deliver on. As I said, we will keep everything on the table. We want to get a resolution, by agreement with the EU, that respects all aspects of the Good Friday agreement. If we cannot do that, we will need to take action to ensure we deliver on the peace and prosperity of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

The Government are a co-guarantor of the Belfast agreement. The Secretary of State will know that since the introduction of the protocol, the North South Ministerial Council is no longer functioning, and we do not have a fully functioning Northern Ireland Executive. The Assembly is limited in what it can do, and the east-west relationship is at its weakest point since probably 1998. The Government therefore need to send out a clear message to Washington and others that the protocol is incompatible with the aim of maintaining Northern Ireland’s political stability and political institutions, because it changes Northern Ireland’s constitutional status without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, and that is not acceptable.

I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. We find ourselves in a ridiculous situation where the EU’s position on implementing the protocol means that the very document that was designed to help to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is the thing that is putting it most at risk. We recognise that, and we are very clear that that needs to be resolved.

As I say, we take nothing off the table. We want to get an agreement with the EU, and we want them to recognise the challenges that this is creating for businesses and communities in Northern Ireland. We are clear that we need to, and we will, resolve this issue. If we cannot do so by agreement, we will have to do what is right for the people of the United Kingdom and, obviously, the people of Northern Ireland.

Levelling Up White Paper

3. What assessment he has made of the impact of the “Levelling Up the United Kingdom” White Paper on communities in Northern Ireland. (906579)

The “Levelling Up” White Paper sets out clearly and compellingly the Government’s mission to spread prosperity and opportunity to every part of our United Kingdom. Alongside the £617 million in city and growth deal funding, the levelling up, community renewal and community ownership funds have invested £62 million to date in the people and places most in need in Northern Ireland as a demonstration of our commitment to the people of Northern Ireland.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing 11 successful levelling up fund applications? Does he agree that the levelling-up agenda, together with the levelling-up fund, the shared prosperity fund and some of the other funds that he mentioned, is an excellent example of how the might of the UK economy can be shared throughout every nation of the UK?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. The levelling-up fund and our commitment to Northern Ireland are unshakeable. The levelling-up fund is yet another demonstration of why Northern Ireland’s place is integrally as part of the United Kingdom. I am looking forward this afternoon to joining the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), at the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs to hear him explain the vision for the next phase of levelling up in Northern Ireland.

Women's Services

4. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of resources for women’s services in Northern Ireland. (906580)

10. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of resources for women’s services in Northern Ireland. (906587)

Women in Northern Ireland cannot currently access the same basic healthcare support that is available in the rest of the UK. This is unacceptable. I have committed to return to Parliament directly following the Assembly elections in May and, if necessary, we will make regulations to ensure that services are commissioned.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s confirmation that he will act on abortion services in Northern Ireland after the elections in May, but does he understand that it is hard for women to take his word at face value after so many missed deadlines on this important issue, which will have had real health impacts? Will he please put on record that he intends to lay the regulations that he has prepared before Parliament within a month of the Queen’s Speech?

I recognise the hon. Lady’s support for this policy and for women in Northern Ireland. The Department of Health in Northern Ireland must make the services available to women and girls. If it does not, as I have said, I made a commitment to the House on 24 March via a written ministerial statement that I will make regulations to resolve this unacceptable situation that must be fixed for the people and the ladies of Northern Ireland.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s assurances that he will act if necessary after the Queen’s Speech and the elections in Northern Ireland. Does he have a date in mind when women in Northern Ireland will be able to access this essential reproductive healthcare service? When will they actually be able to get the service that this House voted for over two years ago?

I am sure that the right hon. Lady recognises that this has primarily been an issue for the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver on. I have been clear: they have not done that, that is not good enough and we need to resolve that issue. We are already recruiting the team from my Department to put the commissioning in place. I will return to the House soon after the May elections if that has not been progressed by the Department of Health to lay the regulations to ensure that these services are provided.

Northern Ireland Legacy Matters

5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on his legislative proposals on Northern Ireland legacy matters. [R] (906582)

The Government’s core and shared objectives in addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past are to implement an effective investigation and information recovery process that will provide answers for families, deliver on our commitments to those who served in Northern Ireland and help society move forward.

Consensus is historically difficult to achieve in Northern Ireland but when it comes to dealing with the past I am sure that we can all agree that the current process is failing those who have suffered, so we need a new way of delivering justice, and soon. Does the Secretary of State agree that his Bill or any proposals he brings forward must not in any way weaken or undermine our commitment to international law?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I appreciate his support on a point that I have made consistently: the current system is failing everybody. That is why we need to bring forward proposals that work for the people of Northern Ireland, for the victims as well as those who served so admirably in Northern Ireland to protect life and country. I can assure him that we are absolutely determined that this will be article 2-compliant. It has to be for it to be effective for everybody.

The sacrifice made by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, GC, is one that I and many across Northern Ireland will never forget. Over 300 officers were killed and 9,000 injured at the hands, mainly, of the IRA. A recent report by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland laden with innuendo has caused great hurt among former RUC officers and families who lost loved ones. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the service and sacrifice of the RUC, the Ulster Defence Regiment and all those who donned a uniform are not besmirched under the auspices of addressing the legacy of the past?

Yes, absolutely. The hon. Lady makes a very important point. There are so many people—hundreds of thousands—across the RUC and the armed forces who put their own lives at risk to protect others, and there is a huge difference between those who went out every day to protect life and those who went out determined to destroy lives. There can never be a moral equivalence; we would never accept one. She is absolutely right.

Platinum Jubilee

The Northern Ireland Office is working collaboratively with partners on a range of proposals to celebrate Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee. I am pleased to tell the House that next week we will unveil a jubilee hamper, bringing together the very best of Northern Ireland’s food and drink produce, which we will be presenting to Windsor Castle, Clarence House and Kensington Palace. We want the jubilee in Northern Ireland to bring communities together and celebrate the amazing personal achievement of Her Majesty the Queen.

My right hon. Friend has touched on the deep respect and admiration that everyone across the United Kingdom has for Her Majesty the Queen—something that we see in Northern Ireland and that I see in Wales, particularly in my constituency of Clwyd South. Does he agree that that is amply demonstrated not only by the plans that he will outline but by the many street parties and local events being planned by communities large and small across the UK?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this will be an event and a weekend that brings all citizens of our United Kingdom together in celebration as we collectively salute the service of Her Majesty the Queen.

We should never forget, of course, that Her Majesty the Queen was among thousands who lost close family members during the troubles and that, by her actions, she has supported the efforts towards peace and reconciliation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee is a fantastic opportunity for communities across Northern Ireland to come together not only to mark this important milestone but to recognise how much progress has been made towards peace and prosperity during her reign?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In Northern Ireland we are determined that the celebration of this historic event will bring communities together. I have acknowledged previously in this House the words of the leader of Sinn Féin, who extended her congratulations to Her Majesty, saying that

“70 years is quite some achievement.”

This jubilee can be celebrated across communities and in every part of our United Kingdom, and we are determined that it will be.

The Minister will recall that at Northern Ireland questions six weeks ago, he said that

“we will be marking this jubilee with full throttle, joy and celebration,”

and that he and the Secretary of State would be

“coming forward with some very innovative ideas”.—[Official Report, 9 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 311.]

So far we have a hamper and the potential for an annual garden party. I do not want our celebrations to be lacklustre; I want the NIO to bring a level of sparkle and joy to the platinum jubilee celebrations. Is there more to the plans the Minister will unveil next week?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I, and the whole of the Northern Ireland Office, will be sparkling throughout the jubilee celebrations. We will be unveiling very shortly another very exciting proposal—a competition in Northern Ireland’s schools for something to be presented to Her Majesty on behalf of the young people of Northern Ireland. I assure the hon. Gentleman that he will not be disappointed, and I say that knowing that that is a very high bar to cross with the Democratic Unionist party.

Nationality and Borders Bill: Implementation

7. What recent discussions he has had with the (a) Northern Ireland Executive and (b) Irish Government on plans for implementing the provisions of the Nationality and Borders Bill. (906584)

The Government continue our close co-operation with both the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive on immigration matters, including on the Nationality and Borders Bill. We will continue to work, as we always do, to ensure that we are protecting the Good Friday agreement and the common travel area.

The Nationality and Borders Bill will grant UK Ministers draconian powers to strip UK citizens of their citizenship so long as they can claim citizenship in another country. As most Northern Irish people can claim Irish citizenship, Northern Ireland’s people are threatened in a way no other people in the UK are; they could be stripped of their citizenship without warning or notice. How can the Secretary of State justify that?

I thought the hon. Lady was going to outline all the excellent work that the SNP will do in Scotland to start finally taking part in the asylum scheme. At the moment, only one council in Scotland is doing that. Regarding the Nationality and Borders Bill, we will continue to deliver on the Good Friday agreement and respect all its parts, including people’s right to be Northern Irish, Irish, or Northern Irish and British—something we have always done and will continue to do.

That is the end of Northern Ireland questions. Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

As this will be the final PMQs of this Session, I wanted to remind the House of what we have achieved. More than 20 Acts of Parliament have been passed, including our National Insurance Contributions Act 2022, which will increase the thresholds from July and be worth an average of £330 a year—the largest single personal tax cut for a decade—and our Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 to respond to Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine. We hope by the end of the Session to have passed our Nationality and Borders Bill, to take control of our immigration system; our Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, to make our streets safer; and our Health and Care Bill, to reduce bureaucracy and help to cut the covid backlogs. Only today, new figures show that already, since 2019, we have recruited over 13,500 additional police—well ahead of our 12,000 target. Those police are already on our streets, making our communities safer. We are focusing on delivering the people’s priorities, and there is plenty more to come in the Queen’s Speech on 10 May.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

As a proud maritime nation, the United Kingdom has long relied on its coastal communities to help to deliver national prosperity, but today too many of them face shared challenges and disproportionately high levels of deprivation. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that to ensure that beautiful constituencies such as mine—Hastings and Rye—can properly unleash their full potential, a specific and targeted Government strategy focusing on coastal communities is needed; and will he meet me to discuss this?

Yes indeed, and if my hon. Friend looks at the levelling-up White Paper she will find that it is clearly directed at enhancing and improving the lives of people in our coastal communities, tilting resource and attention to those fantastic communities. I will make sure that she gets a meeting with the relevant Minister as soon as possible.

I know the Prime Minister has whipped his Back Benchers to scream and shout, and that is fine, but I hope he has also sent a clear message that there is no place for sexism and misogyny or for looking down on people because of where they come from, in his party, in this House, or in modern Britain.

Next year, the UK is set for the slowest growth and the highest inflation in the G7. Why is the Prime Minister failing to manage the economy?

First, in response to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said about sexism and misogyny, let me say that I exchanged messages with the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) over the weekend, and I will repeat what I said to her. There can be absolutely no place for such behaviour or such expression in this House, and we should treat each other with the respect that each other deserves.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point about the economy, yes of course it is true that there is a crisis of inflation around the world, but this Government are tackling it in all the ways you would expect, Mr Speaker. We are helping people with the cost of their energy—putting in far more than Labour would—and we have a British energy security strategy to undo the mistakes made by previous Labour Governments. Above all, we made sure that we had the fastest growth in the G7 last year, which would not have been possible if we had listened to him—frankly, had we listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, we would not have come out of lockdown in July last year. Never forget that no Labour Government have left office with unemployment lower than when they came in.

The Prime Minister sounds like the Comical Ali of the cost of living crisis. He pretends the economy is booming and where there are problems they are global, but in the real world our growth is set to be slower than every G20 country except one—Russia—and our inflation is going to be double that in the rest of the G7. Does he think that denying the facts staring him in the face makes things better or worse for working people?

The facts are, as the International Monetary Fund has said, that the UK came out of covid faster than anybody else. That is why we had the fastest growth in the G7 last year. That would not have happened if we had listened to Captain Hindsight. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman studies its forecasts, he will see that we will return to being the fastest by 2024 and the fastest in 2025. That is what the IMF forecast says—read it. He asks about working people. This is the Government, this is the party that supports working people, unlike Labour, with the biggest increase—[Interruption.] Yes, I will tell them what is going up: the living wage is going up by record amounts, employment is going up by record amounts. Five hundred thousand more people—[Interruption.] They do not want to hear it. Let me give them the figures: 500,000 more people in paid employment now than there were before the pandemic began and youth unemployment at or near record lows. Under Labour, just to remind everybody, youth unemployment rose by 45%.

These must be the Oxford Union debating skills we have been hearing so much about: failing to answer the question, rambling incoherently, throwing in garbled metaphors. Powerful stuff, Prime Minister. Here is the problem: it is not just his words that are complacent; it is his actions as well. The cost of living crisis was blindingly obvious months ago, but he said that worries about inflation were unfounded and he backed a tax-hiking Budget. Does he think that his choice to be the only leader in the G7 to raise taxes during a cost of living crisis has made things better or worse for working people?

As I have just explained to the House, and will repeat once more, this Government and our Chancellor cut taxes on working people. The national insurance contribution went down by an average of £330. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is talking about the health and care levy—maybe that is what he is droning on about—that is what is enabling us to pay for 50,000 more nurses and to pay for clearing the covid backlog. How tragic, how pitiful that the party of Bevan should now be opposed to that investment in the NHS.

The Prime Minister is an ostrich, perfectly happy keeping his head in the sand. Working people are worried about paying their bills. They are spending less and cutting back. That is bad for business and bad for growth. Working people are looking for help, but this week millions will look at their payslip and see a tax rise with his fingerprints all over it. Does he think that his 15th tax rise has made things better or worse for working people?

What we are doing for working people is not only lifting the living wage by a record amount and helping people on universal credit with a £1,000 tax cut, but cutting national insurance contributions and lifting the threshold so that, on average, people pay £330 less. What we are also doing is taking our country and our economy forward, investing in our NHS, which is a priority for the people of this country—unlike for the Labour party—and ensuring that we have record creation of jobs. That is what matters: high-wage, high-skill jobs. Half a million more—[Interruption.] Labour Members do not care about jobs; we do. We believe in high-wage, high-skill jobs and that is the answer for the economy.

It is as if the Prime Minister is only just waking up to the cost of living crisis. And his big idea: fewer MOTs—it actually makes the cones hotline sound visionary and inspirational.

North sea oil producers are making so much unexpected profit that they call themselves a “cash machine”. That cash could be used to keep energy bills down. Instead, the Prime Minister chooses to protect their profits, let household bills rocket and slap taxes on working people who are earning a living. Does he think that that choice has made things better or worse for working people?

What we are doing is making things better for working people than his plans would by a mile. We are putting in more to support people with their energy costs than he would with his new tax on business. We are putting in £9.1 billion, with an immediate £150 cut in people’s council tax. Labour’s thing raises only £6.6 billion, and it clobbers the very businesses that we need to invest in energy to bring the prices down for people across this country. Clean, green energy—the wind farms, the hydrogen that this country needs. What this Government are also doing is reversing the tragic, historic mistake of the Labour party in refusing to invest in nuclear. We are going to have a nuclear reactor every year, not a nuclear reactor every decade, which is what we got under Labour.

So the Conservatives are the party of excess oil and gas profits and we are the party of working people. This Tory Government have had their head in the sand throughout the cost of living crisis. First, they let prices get out of control and then they denied it was happening. They failed to do anything about it and then they made it worse with higher taxes. Because of the Prime Minister’s choices, we are set to have the slowest growth and the highest inflation in the G7.

A vote for Labour next week is a vote for a very different set of choices. We would ask oil and gas companies to pay their fair share and reduce energy costs. We would not hammer working people with the worst possible tax at the worst possible time. We would insulate homes to get bills down. And we would close the tax avoidance schemes that have helped the Prime Minister’s Chancellor—where is he?—to reduce his family’s tax bill while putting everyone else’s up. That is a proper plan for the economy, so why does the Prime Minister not get on with it and finally make choices that make things better, not worse, for working people?

I have listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman over many weeks and many years, and this guy is doomed to be a permanent spectator. We have a plan to fix the NHS and fix social care; the Opposition have no plan. We have a plan to fix our borders with our deal with Rwanda; they have no plan. We have a plan to take our economy forward; they have no plan.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the elections in a few days’ time. Let me remind him that everywhere we look at a Labour administration, it is a bankrupt shambles. Labour-run Hammersmith Council spent £27,000 on EU flags three years after the referendum. Labour-run Nottingham Council—bankrupt because of its investment in some communist energy plan, of the kind that he now favours; he should apologise for it. Labour-run Croydon—bankrupt because of its dodgy property deals. And never forget Labour-run Britain in 2010—bankrupt because of what the Labour Government did, and they said that they had “no money” left.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman looks at council tax—he boasts that he lives in Islington or Camden, or somewhere like that—he should contrast neighbouring Westminster, which has the lowest council tax in the country and better services, too. That is the difference between Labour and Conservative across the country. Vote Conservative on 5 May.

2. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the huge step forward this week in the regeneration of Heanor town centre in my constituency with the successful purchase of the run-down old grammar school building, using the Government’s towns fund money? Does he agree that that is exactly the sort of local delivery that people should be voting on in next week’s local election? (906666)

My hon. Friend is entirely right: those are the issues on which people will be voting. As I said, they will be voting for better value, better services and lower council tax, and I hope they will be voting Conservative.

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition about the absolutely disgusting misogyny and sexism witnessed by the deputy leader of the Labour party? What has happened over the past few days should shame us all.

This morning, the Trussell Trust confirmed that 830,000 children across the UK are being left to depend on emergency food parcels. Instead of convening a Tory talking shop at Cabinet, the Prime Minister should be acting to help those children and help families through the cost of living emergency. If he is genuinely looking for ideas to tackle this Tory-made crisis, he would be wiser to look beyond his Cabinet colleagues, who, of course, know that he will not be there for very much longer.

As a parting gift, here is an idea for the Prime Minister. The Scottish Government have introduced, and now doubled, the game-changing Scottish child payment of at least £1,040 a year, helping those families who are being hit the hardest. Is the Prime Minister prepared to match that payment across the UK to help families through this emergency?

Of course it is important to do everything we can to help families in a tough time. That is why we have massively increased the funds available to local councils to support families facing particular hardship. The holiday activities fund, now running at £200 million, is there as well. We will do everything we can to support families throughout this period when we are dealing with the aftershocks of the covid pandemic. If I may say so—the right hon. Gentleman may not appreciate my pointing it out, but it is true—I think that this is another example of the vital strength of our economic union, and of the importance of support from the UK Treasury, which is what he gets.

My goodness! We have children facing poverty, and the Scottish Government are responding with the child payment—by the way, it will increase again later this year—but we get nothing but empty words from the Prime Minister. We heard plenty of desperate pre-election waffle, but I will take it as a no: there is no support for hard-pressed families. It is clearer by the day that the Prime Minister’s supposed plan to fight the Tory-made cost of living crisis is not only non-fiscal, but non-existent.

I will try again. Here are three other ideas for the Prime Minister that would help families with their soaring costs right now: scrapping his national insurance tax hike, reversing the Tory cuts to universal credit and matching Scotland’s 6% benefits rise instead of imposing a real-terms cut. Those are three things that would make a difference to millions of people. Has the Prime Minister come to terms with the reality that if he fails to act now, the voters will send him and his sleaze-ridden party a message by voting SNP next Thursday?

We are helping families up and down the country with the universal credit taper. The right hon. Gentleman asks about universal credit; we are tapering it so that working people get another £1,000 in their pocket. We are helping families in the way that I have described, and I remind the House that under this Government there are now far fewer children in workless households than there were before this Government came in. That is because we believe in championing work, championing employment and helping people into high-wage, high-skill jobs. That is what counts—and as for our respective political longevities, I would not like to bet on him outlasting me.

3. Last April, the West Berkshire child and adolescent mental health services received an additional £120 million to tackle waiting times for autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnoses. Twelve months on, it has outlined a general ambition to reduce delays but has set no targets or timescales for improvement, and some parents are still waiting two years for their children to be seen. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when a significant amount of public money is invested, people have a right to know how and when services will be improved, and will he support my campaign for a 12-month maximum wait for any family in West Berkshire seeking a diagnosis of this kind? (906667)

My hon. Friend is running a great campaign, and she is absolutely right: the Government are indeed providing funds to improve autism and learning disability services, but it is also important for people to receive the diagnoses and assessments that they need within 12 weeks, and the measures in our Health and Care Bill will improve local accountability for those services.

The Road Haulage Association has confirmed that the cost of moving goods from this part of the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland has risen by 27% in the first year of the operation of the protocol. The Irish sea border is harming our economy and undermining political stability in Northern Ireland. Next week, the people of Northern Ireland will go to the polls to elect an Assembly. What hope can the Prime Minister give them that the protocol will be removed and Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market will be restored?

I think the whole House will want to support the balance and symmetry of the Good Friday agreement. That is what really matters, and it is a great legacy for all of us. It is vital for the protocol—or the arrangements that we have in Northern Ireland—to command the support of all sides, and that is what this Government will undertake to ensure.

6. I am grateful to the Prime Minister for the additional funds and support that Mansfield has received in recent years for education and skills, for tackling crime, and for our town centre, which will be bidding for the levelling-up fund this spring, but Mansfield residents now want to see the tangible outcomes of those capital funds for the town centre. Will my right hon. Friend look seriously at how we might help to accelerate the often lengthy process of moving from successful funding announcement to spades in the ground, so that our residents can benefit from those investments? (906670)

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Mansfield and, indeed, the wider area. I am delighted that Mansfield was awarded £12 million as part of the towns fund. I cannot endorse any specific project, but the next round is coming up shortly and will be announced in the autumn.

4. Fifty-six Members of this House are under investigation for sexual misconduct, and that includes three members of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet. He has just rightly said that there can be no place for sexism and misogyny in the House. Can he now confirm that he considers sexual harassment—unlike, apparently, bullying and lying—to be grounds for dismissal under the ministerial code? (906668)

Of course sexual harassment is intolerable, and it is quite right that Members should now have a procedure whereby they can bring it to the attention of the House authorities. I think that that is a good thing, and of course sexual harassment is grounds for dismissal.

7. Financial scams have increased dramatically in recent years and are now the most common form of crime, harming millions of families every year. Most of them are made possible by online platforms such as Facebook and Google, which make vast profits from advertising fraudsters. Does my right hon. Friend agree that companies that profit from promoting fraud should help to pay the costs of fraud, and online platforms should compensate the victims whom they have helped to create, and will he work with me to achieve that end? (906671)

I have known my hon. Friend for many years, and this is typical of his creativity. We will be looking at exactly how we could make that kind of measure work. I think it is important for us to proceed with care and get it right, and I will ensure that my hon. Friend has a meeting with the relevant Minister in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as soon as possible.

5. Hundreds and thousands of people are still shielding. They are living in fear of covid, as they know that the vaccine has not mounted an antibody response for them and they remain at increased risk of serious illness or death. There is hope, though. Evusheld gives immunocompromised people 83% protection for six months. Sadly, the Government have not ordered any of it, despite the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency giving its approval on 17 March. I appreciate that the Prime Minister might not have all the details to hand, so will he meet me to talk about this life-saving and life-changing drug? (906669)

I thank the hon. Lady very much; she is absolutely right to speak up for those who are shielding and who are anxious. We are doing everything we can to protect and reassure them. On Evusheld, we are evaluating it at the moment, but I will ensure that she has a meeting as soon as possible with the Department of Health.

8.   My Conservative council in Kensington and Chelsea charges £500 less council tax than neighbouring Labour Camden, and it has four times as many bin collections. You have not misheard: £500 less; four times as many. Does my right hon. Friend agree that everyone who wants low council tax and good services needs to vote Conservative? (906673)

Do I agree with my hon. Friend? There is not a syllable with which any sensible person in this country could possibly dissent.

9. Last week, a headline in The Daily Telegraphnot normally a paper that I read—stated: “Northern Ireland could be forced to follow EU rules on Covid tests”. The Chancellor has told the House that Northern Ireland could not benefit from moves to scrap VAT on energy efficiency measures because of the protocol, and now the protocol’s restrictions threaten a shortage of covid tests in Northern Ireland. The financial costs of the protocol can be measured, but the true cost, in relation to VAT, medicines, covid tests and damaged relationships, is much, much greater. When are the Government and my Prime Minister going to restore our place in the United Kingdom? (906674)

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much. There is clearly an economic cost to the protocol. That is also now turning into a political problem, and an imbalance in sentiment about it. We need to rectify that balance for the sake of the Good Friday agreement, on which this country depends.

12. By 2025, Liberal Democrat Eastleigh Borough Council will have a debt of £650 million, which is £6,300 for every resident in Eastleigh. Does the Prime Minister think it acceptable for this council to become a speculative property developer, and what advice would he give to my constituents next week if they want to put a stop to this casino council and its profligate ways? (906677)

My hon. Friend is completely right about Eastleigh Borough Council and the debts it has run up. I cannot even see the leader of the Liberal Democrats in his place here. He is not even delivering value for money for his own constituents.

10. The cost of household food bills is set to rise by £271 this year as prices soar. The supermarkets are lowering their prices to help customers who are struggling to buy food. The Resolution Foundation has reported that 1.3 million low-income Britons will be pushed into absolute poverty by the cost of living crisis, but this Government are doing nothing to protect people who are struggling. If the supermarkets are stepping in to protect people’s pockets, what will the Prime Minister do? (906675)

What we have done in just the last few months is put in £22 million to help people with the cost of living. I want to pay tribute to those businesses that are now trying to protect consumers from the impact of the global inflation crisis. The fact is that many, many businesses now have the cash reserves not to take prices, as they put it, but to shield consumers from the impact, and I hope that they do so.

13. I was recently contacted by my counterpart, the Chair of the Ukrainian Treasury Committee, with some ideas on how we can further tighten the screw on the Russian economy, particularly through the international tax regime. I was, of course, able to affirm the full support for the Ukrainian people right across this House. The gentleman concerned also knows the work that my right hon. Friend has done to promote sanctions internationally, but will the Prime Minister meet me to consider these new proposals to make sure that no stone is left unturned in facing up to Putin’s vile regime? (906678)

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he and his Select Committee have been doing in this area to tighten the screw on Putin’s regime. UK companies have already shown that they think very carefully about investments and doing business with Putin’s Russia. As my right hon. Friend knows, we banned all new outward investment in Russia, but I am very happy to have a meeting as soon as possible to make sure these further ideas are transmitted to the Government.

11. Last night we learned that the Home Secretary put the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) on an expert panel offering advice on sexual exploitation. At the time, he was under police investigation following allegations that he had assaulted a minor, of which he has since been found guilty. He sat on the panel long after the Conservative party received a complaint from his victim. Is the Prime Minister not ashamed that his party did not take the victim seriously and put someone who abused a minor in such an important position? Does he wish to take this opportunity to apologise to them? (906676)

I believe the Home Office has already made a statement about it. If there is any further comment to make, it will make a statement.

14. Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council has secured millions of pounds of Government investment for our high street, but we have a problem with persistent antisocial behaviour on the high street. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister therefore welcome the recent appointment of a new chief constable for Staffordshire and a new borough commander for Newcastle, and the fact that Newcastle will get its own dedicated response unit? Will he also set out what further measures the Government are taking to combat crime and antisocial behaviour? (906679)

My hon. Friend is an avid champion for his constituents. He might have missed what I said earlier, but there are now 13,576 more police on the streets of this country as a result of the actions taken by this Government. There are also tougher sentences, which were opposed by the party opposite. We are cracking down on drugs gangs, whereas the Labour party is soft on drugs. I think the Leader of the Opposition said he would decriminalise drugs and that he did not want people found with class A drugs to face prison sentences—I think I heard him say that.

Of course, we are also cracking down on cross-channel gangs that risk the lives of migrants in the English channel. We are cracking down on them and, as far as I know, the Labour party would scrap the economic and migration partnership with Rwanda. We have a plan; they do not.

Some 4.5 million people pay for their gas and electricity through a prepayment meter. They are already paying more for their energy than direct debit customers, and the number of people who are disconnecting themselves because they have run out of money for the meter is increasing. What is the Prime Minister going to do to ensure that all our constituents have a right to light and warmth?

We are working with Ofgem and all the companies to ensure that we protect people at this difficult time. We are also making sure that we support people, and not just through the cold weather payment and the winter fuel payment. By giving £0.5 billion more to councils, we are making sure that we look after the types of people to whom the right hon. Gentleman refers, who are finding it particularly tough. We will do everything we can to shield the people of this country as we get through the aftershocks of covid and deal with a global inflation problem.

Within the past hour or so, it has been reported that some 287 Members of this House have been sanctioned by the Russian state. I am sure nobody here is rushing to change their summer holiday plans, but perhaps the Prime Minister will assure us that he will continue his excellent relationship with President Zelensky and continue to provide the Ukrainian people and military with the support they need.

It is no disrespect to those who have not been sanctioned when I say that all those 287 should regard it as a badge of honour. What we will do is keep up our robust and principled support for the Ukrainian people and for their right to protect their lives and families, and to defend themselves. That is what this country is doing and it has the overwhelming support of the whole House.

Today, a court has found that the Government acted unlawfully when their policies led to the discharge of untested patients from hospitals to care homes at the start of the pandemic. The court also found no evidence that the former Health Secretary addressed the issue of the risk to care home residents of such transmission, despite the Government insisting at the time that a “protective ring” had been thrown around care homes.

The Government have once again been found to have broken the law. Will the Prime Minister apologise to the families of the thousands and thousands of people who died in care homes in the first half of 2020? Will he also apologise to care workers for the shameful comment that he made in July 2020, when he said that

“too many care homes didn’t…follow…procedures in the way that they could have”?

Of course, I want to renew my apologies and sympathies to all those who lost loved ones during the pandemic—people who lost loved ones in care homes. I want to remind the House of what an incredibly difficult time that was and how difficult that decision was. We did not know very much about the disease. The point I was trying to make, to which the hon. Lady refers, is that the thing we did not know in particular was that covid could be transmitted asymptomatically in the way that it was. I wish we had known more about that at the time. As for the ruling she mentions, we will study it and of course respond further in due course.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt), the Interfax news agency announced less than an hour ago, in Moscow, that the foreign ministry of the Russian Government will now sanction 287 Members and former Members of the House of Commons—from both sides of this House. I am proud to say that both you and I are on that list. Are you able to give any advice to right hon. and hon. Members of the House of Commons regarding this?

Normally I would not, but I think this is an important matter, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me know at the start of questions that he wanted to catch my eye. Although the issue he has raised is not strictly a point of order, I am of course alarmed to hear what he has reported to the Chamber. Rather than give a knee-jerk reaction now, I am sure that the Government will rapidly be assessing the implications of this move. I am therefore asking them to keep me and the House authorities briefed on this very important issue, and I shall make sure that Members are kept informed as appropriate.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am distressed that I am not on the list—I am also slightly surprised. I can assume only that the Russian Federation accepts that everything I have said about President Putin over the past few years is true: he is a barbarous villain and we must make sure that he fails.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister and the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) incorrectly claimed that council tax is lower in Conservative councils; according to the Government’s own live figures, the average council tax bill for a Conservative council is £1,642 while the average for a Labour council is £1,313. So, Conservative council tax bills—this is a fact—are £329 higher than Labour council tax bills. May I seek your advice, Mr Speaker, on how to ensure those facts are put on record?

We are not going to continue a debate from an earlier question, and the hon. Gentleman has answered his own question, but I do hope he let the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) know he was going to mention her in the Chamber; if not, I am sure he will drop her a line.

HM Passport Office Backlogs

Prior to the pandemic, HM Passport Office routinely processed approximately 7 million passports each year. Over the last two years the necessary restrictions on international travel meant only 4 million people applied for a British passport in 2020 and 5 million in 2021. This left about 5 million unrenewed passports.

In 2022 many of the customers who delayed their application are returning. We expect this year to deal with 9.5 million British passport applications and have been planning for this. Throughout the pandemic, HM Passport Office prepared to serve an unprecedented number of customers. Alongside technical solutions, staffing numbers have been increased by 500 since last April and we are in the process of recruiting a further 700. These preparations ensured passport applications could be processed in record numbers, last month seeing the highest total for any month on record, with HM Passport Office completing the processing of over 1 million applications, 13% higher than the previous record output.

Inevitably, however, faced with this level of demand applications will take longer. Consequently, in April 2021 guidance was changed to clearly advise customers to allow up to 10 weeks to get their passport, in recognition that a surge would arrive as international travel returned. The vast majority of applications continue to be processed within 10 weeks; in fact, over 90% of applications were issued within 6 weeks between January and March 2022, despite the much-increased demand. HM Passport Office also provides an expedited service where an application from the UK has been with it for longer than 10 weeks; 42 applications have been expedited under these criteria since 31 March.

With greater volumes of applications which are in the system for longer, levels of customer contact have inevitably risen. We recognise that difficulties in contacting HM Passport Office will cause concern for those wanting assurances about their applications. In response, the provider of the passport advice line, Teleperformance, has been urgently tasked to add additional staff as its current performance is unacceptable.

To finish, the team at HMPO are dealing with record numbers of applications and delivering a record level of output to match this. Their hard work will enable millions of British citizens to enjoy a holiday abroad this summer, and I thank them for that.

From listening to the Minister we would think that actually everything is all right, but my constituents fear their honeymoon may now be wrecked because their passports have not arrived even though they applied in plenty of time, and we have had cases of people cancelling jobs, parents trying to get a holiday for a sick child waiting since January, and huge and long delays by the Passport Office and the contractor, TNT. The message today on the one-week fast-track service is “System busy, please try again later”, and the online premium service has no appointments anywhere in the country. So people cannot get urgent travel such as to go to funerals or to urgent events.

The Minister has said more passports are being processed, which is clearly welcome, but it is not enough. The increase in demand this year was totally predictable. In 2020 and 2021, the Home Office was asked what it was doing to plan, but people are already losing holidays, trips to see loved ones and thousands of pounds that they have spent in good faith because of the lack of planning at the Passport Office and at the Home Office, which is in danger of becoming a “Stay-at-Home Office” instead for people this summer. So what grip does the Minister have on this? Is it going to get better or worse over the next two months? How many passports have already been delayed by longer than the 10-week wait, and how many does the Minister think will be delayed by more than 10 weeks over the next month or two?

On staffing, what is the percentage increase compared with before the pandemic? Is it true that the Minister tried to recruit 1,700 staff and got only 500? When will the fast-track services be reopened? What is his advice to a family who are planning to go on holiday in 10 weeks’ time, in July? Do they have any chance of getting their passport, or should they be trying to cancel right now? The problem is that there is a pattern here: delays in the Passport Office, in Ukraine visas, and in basic asylum cases. The Prime Minister said that the answer may be to privatise the Passport Office, but why do Home Office Ministers not just get a grip instead?

It is quite interesting to hear all the claims of how predictable all this was. I am struggling to remember the number of times anyone on the shadow Front Bench predicted any of this over the last year or two. I welcome their recently found interest in the Passport Office.

To give some numbers, as of 1 April, there are over 4,000 staff in passport-production roles and, as I say, we are in the process of recruiting another 700. I would also make the point again that 90% of applications were completed within six weeks, and the service standard is 10 weeks. My advice to anyone who is looking to go on holiday this summer is exactly what I said the other day: get an application in now.

We are making a range of efforts. Staff are working weekends; overtime is being incentivised. We are certainly confident that we will not need to change the 10-week target, but as I have said, this is a record level of demand and a record output, far in excess of what we have seen before. We will expedite the applications of those who have compelling and compassionate reasons to travel, such as funerals or family ill health.

We know there are challenges. The teams are working hard to deal with them. [Interruption.] I hear comments about staying at home, but I have not heard a great deal of support from the Labour party for the work of the Minister for Government Efficiency in getting people back into the office, but I am sure that he will welcome the comments we have just heard.

As we see on so many occasions, we are hearing lots of complaints from the Opposition but we are not hearing any solutions or plans. Having just heard from Captain Hindsight, it is no surprise that we are now hearing from Lieutenant Rearview.

My constituent, Mr Neil Jones, made an application for a passport at the end of February for his holiday, for which he is due to depart at the end of May. He sent his passport by ordinary pre-paid post—not by recorded delivery, unfortunately—and he was told by the Passport Office that it had never arrived. He then made a further application with a lost passport form, which has not been dealt with. He finds it almost impossible to speak to any representatives of the Passport Office, and he is under considerable stress as a consequence.

My hon. Friend says that the Passport Office is doing its best and that he recognises the difficulties, but I heard this morning that the Prime Minister has threatened the Passport Office with privatisation. May I suggest to my hon. Friend that he should not shy away from that? If the work can be done more efficiently by the private sector, for goodness’ sake, enlist the private sector.

Just to be clear, a range of private contractors are already involved in the passport process. The bit that is not undertaken by a private contractor is the decision itself. The customer advice line is run by Teleperformance, a private company. As I have already described, its performance is unacceptable and we are engaged with it.

There is already quite extensive use of the private sector in the process. To be fair, Thales and others have stepped up in the record output that we now require, which is far beyond what would have been expected in a month two or three years ago. The private sector is already being used in the vast majority of the processes in the Passport Office.

Like many other Members, I have constituents and family members who have lost a lot of money and had to cancel plans because of the passport delays. I share the concerns for those people, but I want to talk about the workers who, yet again, are about to be blamed.

It is a thankless task to work for a Government agency at the best of times but—worse—they are now being blamed for the Government’s failings. Could it be that they are under-resourced, understaffed and suffering from stress from the pressure to do more faster? In Glasgow, many passport staff were forced into further stress when they were redeployed to process universal credit claims with just five days’ training when it would normally be six weeks’ training. Could that be part of the reason for the backlog? It is certainly another source of stress for them.

Those same workers face the public’s understandable anger, but it is being directed at the wrong place. The Government are throwing them to the wolves: Ministers are leaving notes on desks suggesting workers should work a little harder—and that from a Minister who is known to lie down on the Benches in this place when he is supposed to be at work—and, although I do not have the exact quote, the Prime Minister said something like, “If they don’t sort out this backlog, I will privatise the Boris out of them.” How did that go with rail, energy and water? Is that the plan? Was it the plan all along? Is that why the Government did not foresee this? The Opposition cannot be expected to foresee these things—[Interruption.] I hear coughing; I had better ask my last question. Is there any chance that we can simply respect workers by increasing capacity, decreasing threats against them and sorting out this sorry mess for everybody?

I start on a point of consensus by thanking the many staff who are working hard and saw a record output last month. It was 13% higher than the previous record, so we are talking about it beating that record not by one but by some distance. As I said, there are 500 extra staff and we are in the process of recruiting more; between January and March, 90% of applications were dealt with within six weeks; and support is there.

The redeployment that the hon. Lady mentioned took place at a time when passport demand was significantly down. It made sense to redeploy people away from a role where there was not the demand and on to things such as universal credit and the EU settlement scheme. To be clear, those staff have now fully returned to passport production, and on 1 April more than 4,000 staff were working on it. Yes, there are issues, particularly in relation to the unacceptable performance of the advice line, which is run by a private contractor, as I have already touched on.

We continue to put in place a range of measures. If people are to travel somewhere, we advise them to get their applications in now. We saw a strong level of applications yesterday. We continue to do the work we need to do and to expedite those cases in which people have compelling and compassionate reasons for travelling.

Like Members throughout the House, I have a number of constituents who have been waiting for passports for a considerable time, who have had to pay even more for premium services to guarantee their trip, or who are frightened that they are going to miss holidays. I welcome the work that the Minister is doing to speed up the process, and particularly some of the things he said in his statement about people who have been waiting for more than 10 weeks and those who have a particularly urgent need to travel being able to expedite their cases, but will he tell the House how people in such circumstances can access the expedited service?

That will be partly through contact with the Passport Office, which is why we are moving to deal with the unacceptable issues in relation to the advice line. Some people come through their Members of Parliament—people get in touch about compelling and compassionate reasons for travel for a range of reasons. I reassure people that, as I touched on, 90% of applications were done in six weeks. The vast majority of people still get their passport done well within the 10-week timeline, but there is provision to expedite applications.

As I say, the numbers of people whose applications reach 10 weeks and so need expedition have been fairly low so far. Colleagues will understand that most of the cases that go beyond 10 weeks are ones in which, for example, there is suspicion that a document that has been submitted is not genuine, or particular evidence has not been included, but that would be true at any other time of the year.

I keep going back to the fact that record output is now being achieved. Our strong message to people, if they are planning to travel, is to get their application in now.

We know that the Home Office is under enormous pressure given the Ukraine visas, the Afghanistan scheme and the asylum claims backlog. It was pleasing to hear the Minister say that plans were put in place well in advance because everyone expected a surge in passport applications once people were able to travel. I have heard what the Minister has had to say. On reflection, why does he think he has been brought to the House today to answer an urgent question? MPs’ inboxes are full of casework in respect of passport delays. What has gone wrong with the plans that the Minister put in place to deal with the surge?

As we have touched on, we are seeing an unprecedented level of demand: we would normally process 7 million applications in an entire year and did 1 million last month alone. That is a record number. In January, we were seeing around 60,000 a week; by the middle of March we were dealing with more than 200,000 a week—that is output, not just applications. The service has rapidly expanded to meet the demand that has returned.

To be clear, we changed the service standard last year because we expected a surge and there would inevitably be a limit on how many passports could physically be produced in a week. That is why we advised people of the 10-week standard. As I said, though, in recent months 90% of people have still been getting their passport within six weeks and we retain the ability to expedite if people have particularly compelling reasons for travel.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response to the sharp increase in passport applications, but when he reviews passport application processes, will he make walk-in centres more widely available? Will he also properly resource the MP hotline so that we can intervene in individual cases if we feel it is necessary?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. We have increased the capacity of the counter service, which is similarly seeing much-increased demand. We certainly accept the point that there need to be significant improvements in the performance of the advice line and the MPs’ line, and we are already engaging with Home Office teams about how we can get more resources in so that people can have their queries answered, particularly when Members of Parliament raise issues on behalf of those with compelling and compassionate reasons for travel and therefore need their application to be expedited.

I have a passport office in my constituency; may I say gently to the Minister that his rather transactional and at times nonchalant approach will not go down well with constituents throughout the country? I have had queries from all over the country because of this situation, and delays have been reported for months on end. Will the Minister confirm whether the backlog is reducing or increasing and how significant that might be? Will he consider compensating those who may have lost holidays outside the times allowed, or the people who have even lost jobs as a result of the problems at the Passport Office?

I am disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments and the tone of them. We have not been nonchalant. Although others have not shown too much interest until now, the teams—including those in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—have been working hard. In some cases, they have been working extra hours over weekends—for which I pay tribute to them—to produce a record output that is far above any other Passport Office output on record.

What the hon. Gentleman says sounds rather odd when we are recruiting extra staff and making sure that cases can still be expedited if there are urgent demands. We were clear last year that we put the service standard at 10 weeks to make sure people knew that they may need to allow extra time. Last year, we sent 4.7 million texts to those who had not renewed their passport to try to encourage more people to get their passport applications in. Far from our being nonchalant or uninterested, a lot of work has been done. It is a shame that the passport teams working hard in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are perhaps not getting some of the credit they deserve.

I appreciate that the surge is such because people have not been able to go away, which was not unanticipated, but I have not heard of too many problems with the online system. People can do online applications and they have been fairly quick.

I have a number of cases, one of which is from just this morning. I will not mention their name in case they get a miracle and are able to go on holiday to Mykonos on Saturday 7 May—I would not want to advertise that they might be away. They have new twins so have to use the paper-based system. Has the Minister been to the passport office at Peterborough or anywhere else to see the volume of physical mail that is sitting at these offices? Is it that working from home has really not helped the system over this recent period?

Clearly, there were times over the past couple of years when people were working from home. I have to say that for things such as document scanning, the teams are in the office. A small cohort are employed to work fully digitally, but I have to say that they work on digital applications—for obvious reasons—that can be fully worked on at home. The digital system has provided a great help in dealing with the level of demand, given that it simplifies the process all the way through, including for the applicant. I accept that there are cases in which the digital system cannot be used for particular reasons.

On where we are with the process, things are getting through but, as I say, we advised people to allow 10 weeks, partly because we wanted to be up front with people about potential challenges, but also to ensure that we could get through applications and people did not miss the holidays they had booked. As I say, again, if there are compelling or compassionate reasons, we will look to expedite.

Last week my constituents Paul and Jacqueline Weir received the distressing news that their Finnish daughter-in-law had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in their son Daryl’s arms. She was only 34. Daryl and their young son are understandably distraught, and Paul and Jacqueline are desperate to go over to support the family. They applied for an urgent passport renewal and were told that proof of death is required, but those documents may not be available for weeks as the death was unexplained. Can the Minister’s team intervene to ensure that they can go as soon as possible?

I am very sorry to hear of the death in that family. Absolutely, given the circumstances of travel, I am happy to liaise with the hon. Member and see if we can get the application expedited.

There is undoubtedly a sense of frustration at the length of time it is taking to process passport applications, but we must not forget that those working in the passport offices, in Peterborough and elsewhere, are working extremely hard. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to thank everyone in the Peterborough passport office for all their hard work and reassure them that their efforts are appreciated?

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. The efforts of the team at the Peterborough passport office are certainly much appreciated. As I have touched on several times, we saw record output last month, with over 1 million passports dealt with in just one month, whereas normally we deal with 7 million across a whole year. Many in those teams are working over the weekends to get through the applications. I am very happy to pass on my hon. Friend’s thanks, and I am sure that the staff in the Peterborough passport office very much appreciate his support.

The Minister asked for solutions, so I will give him one. One reason for the surge in applications is that UK airlines have been misapplying the new post-Brexit passport validity rules, and requiring people to have six months’ validity on their passports when they need only three. Today easyJet has finally put that right and will no longer require six months. Will the Minister get together with the Transport Secretary and tell the other airlines to start implementing the new rules properly?

I will happily relay that to the Department for Transport, because obviously we are keen that airlines should apply the rules correctly. Those are not our rules on entry; they are for entering the European Union. I do not expect that would massively mitigate the number of applications we are receiving, given that during the pandemic 5 million passports were not renewed, and we expect a lot of people will now want to renew, looking ahead to summer holiday travel, but I certainly welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s point.

In the year before covid, the aviation industry contributed £22 billion to the UK economy and £3.6 billion to the Exchequer through air passenger duty, and it is expected to be at 70% demand this summer, so we cannot put this at risk, for the sake of our economy. May I press the Minister on what extra resources will be allocated? I also re-emphasise the point about the MPs hotline. Our staff are working for hours each day on Ukrainian refugee cases, and now this is being added to their workload. My caseworker, having been on the phone for hours, then finds she has been cut off. That will not work for us while we deliver on our other responsibilities to our constituents, so can we please get the focus that he talks about?

As I have already said, the performance of the advice line is unacceptable and needs to change. I know that the relevant director general at the Home Office is meeting with the chief executive of the company tomorrow. It is not just about the MPs hotline; it is also about sorting out the public advice line. We certainly recognise that it needs to be sorted out, so that people can get answers about their applications, alongside the work to ensure that we are driving up output, which ultimately is the solution to these issues.

I am really concerned that the Minister does not understand the scale of the issue. Many of my constituents have been saving for their holidays for years but now risk losing them altogether due to unacceptable delays of well beyond 10 weeks. They are stuck in limbo, unable to get any updates on what is happening with their applications. I am told that constituents’ emails have gone unanswered, that the phone lines cut out and that the online tracking system does not always work. As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) mentioned, our caseworkers are working relentlessly to try to get updates, but with little success, with lines being cut off, often after queueing for hours to get answers. The Minister really needs to get a grip on this issue, fix the delays and, most importantly, ensure that the people who are waiting are given regular updates on their cases so that they know what is going on.

The Government fully recognise the scale of the issue. As I said, there are 5 million unrenewed passports and we expect 2.5 million of them to be renewed, and that is on top of the normal 7 million-strong demand each year. Last month we processed over 1 million applications, which is 30% higher than the previous record, and 90% of those between January and March were done within six weeks. We certainly recognise the scale of this and have put in extra resources. The message we want to get out to the public is that if they are planning to travel this summer, they should make their application now, and we will get through it in the time we have said, which is 10 weeks.

I want to put on the record my thanks to staff in our passport offices up and down the country, who are facing enormous pressures—I wonder whether the Minister has met the trade unions to discuss the issue. I have a constituent who made his application in February but was told this month that his documentation has been lost. He wants to visit his sick mother in Canada but has received no information and is deeply concerned about the delay. The Minister says that cases can be expedited, which is what my staff are trying to do. What can we expect and what is the timeline for resolving this?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about passport office staff. As he knows, a large number of Home Office staff are based in Liverpool—we have fantastic staff in those decision-making hubs—so it is good of him to recognise their contribution. I understand that there is regular engagement with staff trade unions. Just to be clear, the weekend working is based on incentivised overtime, not on people being compelled to work. If the hon. Gentleman gives me the details of the individual case he raised, I will happily follow it up.

The Minister said in his opening remarks that over 90% of applications were meeting the timescales, but the particular problems, based on my own casework, seem to be with first-time applications and children. As we have seen with the Homes for Ukraine scheme, we are leaving families hanging while they wait for a child’s application to be processed. What assessment has he made of how the Passport Office is linking applications together, because too many families are losing out while waiting for one application to be processed?

Passport applications would not usually be linked together as such. It is not like applying for a travel visa, for example, when a family will travel together. This document confirms that someone is a citizen and lasts for 10 years. As I have said, the service standard of 10 weeks applies to paper-based applications and to the digital service, although adult renewals via the digital service will inevitably be quicker, and we would not delay issuing a passport if it was going through the paper process. Certainly, 90% between January and March were issued within six weeks, so not the 10-week standard, and over 1 million were issued last month. For a first passport it may take slightly longer—that is more likely to be a paper-based application—but the 10-week standard still applies.

In response to the Post Office fiasco, the Prime Minister said yesterday during an interview on TalkTV’s “The News Desk” that he does not care whether an institution such as the Post Office is public or private but it must deliver value and good service. That is why the likes of me have been speaking about the dangers of the privatisation of our NHS and the Tories’ ideological fascination with selling off everything in sight. Whenever there is a problem, why is it always someone else’s job on the line, rather than the Prime Minister’s and those of his Ministers?

People have dying loved ones who cannot be visited; long-awaited family holidays are being postponed or cancelled, and extra costs are being paid to get passports expedited despite the unprecedented cost of living crisis that households are facing. The Minister has acknowledged that there is a problem, so will he take this opportunity to apologise to my constituents for their distress as they wait due to this Government’s failure to properly plan and prepare for this eventuality?

As I said, where people have a compassionate and compelling reason to travel, such as having been advised that a loved one is entering their final days, then that will be expedited via HMPO. Again, if Members have examples, I am very happy to assist with that.

In terms of overall position, we advertised the 10-week service standard last year. We sent out 4.7 million texts to people who had not renewed their passports to point out that there might be a surge if they wished to travel in the following year. As I say, we are still managing to deal with most passport applications relatively quickly, with over 90% issued with six weeks. We planned, prepared for and delivered a record output last month. No other month has seen over 1 million passports issued.

There has been a spike in demand for passports, but that should have been anticipated since we know that 5 million people put off renewing their passport during lockdown. Clearly, more resources are needed, more staffing is needed, and, yes, the MP hotline needs to have better services. Dozens and dozens of my constituents have contacted me in utter despair after enduring very long delays, with some having to cancel travel plans and others left in limbo. The Minister’s response that it is being dealt with sounds hollow to those affected by these delays. What more will he do, now, to help my constituents and all those affected by these delays?

As I said, we have an additional 500 staff and we are in the process of recruiting another 700. We let people know that the service standard was being pushed out to 10 weeks last April, so we did not hide from the fact that there would be a surge. We are planning to issue an additional 2.5 million passports this year compared with what we normally do as business as usual. A large amount of work has been done and more is being done. Between January and March, we still saw 90% of applications being determined within six weeks.

I thank the staff at the Durham passport office and all the other passport offices for the excellent work they do. I mean no criticism of them; my criticism is of process, of senior managers, and, I am afraid, of the Minister. It is a bit rich the Minister asking those on the Opposition Benches for solutions. I wonder why we are paying him if he cannot come up with them himself. Further to my question at Home Office questions on Monday this week, can he confirm that he has made a decision, and is going to write to me, about the issue of the MP hotline? Again, can we have a direct line to a decision maker in a passport office who has access to all the relevant information and who can actually make decisions, rather than MPs and their staff having to sit for hours waiting on phone lines only to be passed from person to person, speaking to people who are unable to make decisions, answer questions or authorise the printing of passports?

While I do not agree with all the hon. Gentleman’s comments, he makes a fair point about the MP hotline, which certainly does need to be better. I am not going to hide from the fact that the performance of the phone lines has been unacceptable, and we need to improve and change that. I thank him for his recognition of the work that the team at the Durham passport office are doing, which has helped to contribute to the record output we saw last month.

The failings of private contractors suggest that privatisation is not a solution to passport office backlogs, so will the Minister do two things? First, can he confirm that private contractors have penalty clauses in their contracts, and if so, have they been actioned? Secondly, will he update the advice on the Government website, which says that someone will normally get their passport within five weeks? Not one Member of the House can confidently tell their constituents that, so will he update the Government website to reflect today’s reality?

I have already spoken about the involvement of private companies, the exception being the decision that is made, for pretty obvious reasons, by directly employed Home Office staff. In terms of the performance of contractors, there are clauses in particular contracts—certainly, as I say, those for Teleperformance. We do not believe that its performance at the moment is at all acceptable, and that has been made very clear.

We are looking at the information that we give, because there is a balance between telling people the time it roughly takes—for example, saying that 90% of applications were dealt with within six weeks between January and March—and being clear that the standard time to allow is 10 weeks. If there is a particular point on the website that does not make that clear, I will be happy to review it.

I echo the comments made around the Chamber about the work being done in the passport offices. It is really unfair to hear the criticism coming from the Prime Minister, who seems to be speaking at odds to what the Minister is saying. I, like many others, have had a great number of cases of people in my constituency who are struggling to get passports. A particular example is that of young parents with a two-year-old who has an autoimmune condition. They are desperate to get away following his treatment. Will the Minister grant me some time to discuss this, because their holiday is on 10 May and they really need to get away for the good of their child?

I pay tribute to Joseph and Christine from the Belfast passport office, who we have great contact with. All Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland have built up a rapport with those two excellent team leaders who are assisting, knowing how difficult it has been over the past three or four weeks. The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) raised the issue of six months being required by easyJet and other carriers. The Minister will be aware that access to the Schengen area requires a passport that has two aspects: first, three months’ validity; and secondly, being less than 10 years old. But, as he will know, people in the UK may have passports that are 10 years and nine months or 10 years and six months old. They are valid and have three months remaining but they are not less than 10 years old. The gov.uk website has indicated that engagement is going on between the Foreign Office and the European Commission, and has been for the past four or five months, yet we still do not have a resolution. People in this country with a valid passport are now putting more pressure on the passport system because they are unnecessarily applying for new passports. I hope the Minister can engage with this with the Foreign Office and find a resolution so that people with valid passports can travel.

The hon. Gentleman speaks powerfully and well on this point. I am happy to engage with our colleagues in Government. As long as the passport is valid, it can be used to come back into the UK. This is not a matter of our own rules; as he says, it is about the Schengen rules. However, I am happy to engage with my FCDO colleagues.

My constituent Bernadette submitted her application for a passport on 24 January. She chased it up multiple times and spoke to more than 10 different agents who tended to give different information. Some could not find her application; some said that it was closed. She was eventually transferred to the complaints department, who, after leaving her on hold for two hours, told her that her application had indeed been closed and to try again. She reapplied months ago and has heard nothing since. My office has engaged with this. We wrote to the Home Office on 6 April, some 21 days ago, and still have not even had an acknowledgement. What might the Minister say to Bernadette, and to Hannah, Shereen, Lee, Lisa, Stuart and Elizabeth, all of whom have engaged with us and recounted the various issues that they have had with the passport office in recent months?

It does sound as though something has gone rather wrong there, given that, as I said, back in mid-January the demand was not as high as it became in mid-March. We saw a very strong surge at the end of February and into March, and the output surged as well. As I said, 90% of applications submitted in that time were dealt with in six weeks. Clearly something has gone wrong and I am happy to look at the circumstances after the UQ.

I, too, thank the passport office staff. I am sure the Minister will be all too aware that the passport processing crisis is not new. One of my constituents has been waiting months for a new passport. They have called the passport office over 80 times since early March but have not received a useful response. With a holiday booked in May, they risk losing thousands and thousands of pounds if they are unable to travel. Can the Minister explain to my constituent why the communication has been so poor and when they should expect to hear back? My constituents need clarity and a resolution of the delays as soon as possible.

Again, I am happy to pick up separately the particular case. As I have touched on, the 10-week standard is there, and we have not had to expedite many cases beyond 10 weeks. I would not want to speculate on whether there are issues with the application, but I am certainly happy to look into the specific case and get an answer.

There are dozens of cases I could raise with the Minister this afternoon, but I will raise the case of Helen, about which my office has been on hold for just over two hours. She spent £7,000 on a holiday and is due to fly out on Sunday. She applied for her passport in January. My staff may get cut off again on the MPs’ hotline, so is there anything that the Minister can do to make sure that my constituent Helen will go on holiday? If she does not, what can she do for compensation, because that was a very expensive holiday?

I am certainly happy to pick up the point. Certainly if it has been going on since January, I suspect we are now beyond the 10 weeks, and something should be done. Obviously I do not want to get into speculation about issues with the application—that would not be appropriate on the Floor of the House—but if the hon. Member supplies me with the details, I will be happy to look into the case.

Over the past year, I and my team have been supporting Mr and Mrs Puri from Whitton in my constituency. Mrs Puri’s brother and sister-in-law in India both died of covid, leaving behind very young children without parents. Mrs Puri has been in India, separated from her children here, for a year trying to adopt her niece and nephew and bring them over. Thankfully, a little over two months ago they were granted British citizenship. She applied for passports for those children immediately. Despite my interventions, they are still waiting for their passports. Will the Minister please urgently look at this tragic and exceptional case and meet me, so that the whole Puri family can be reunited after a year and those young Indian children can start their new life here in the UK?

Obviously we are sorry to hear of the circumstances. There are issues sometimes with issuing passports overseas, particularly where, for example, there have been local restrictions, but given the circumstances, I would be very happy to pick up the case and see what we can do, or if we can arrange some sort of documentation to allow them to travel pending the passports.

We are hearing so many moving cases where there have been deep failures within the Home Office that are not being addressed and need to be addressed. I have no doubt that Passport Office staff are working incredibly hard, but they can only work effectively if they have the resources to do so. I find it astonishing that the Government are unable to manage a Government agency. I have a constituent who is a dual national and who has applied for her passport to be renewed, which took several months. That has been resolved, but she was told that she would receive her passport within two weeks, and it has been more than four weeks. She cannot get through to the Passport Office by any means, and my staff were cut off from the MPs’ hotline after 45 minutes, but they are persistent. Will the Minister agree to look at that case as well?

I am very happy to. As I have touched on, we accept that the performance of the telephone lines is not acceptable, and we are making moves to change that, but I am happy to pick up that particular case.

Like all Members who have spoken, I have had several constituents experience delays. One pinch point seems to be the private contractor responsible for delivering passports. Even once a passport has been processed, they seem to go on little holidays of their own all around the UK until they eventually arrive—or not—on the constituent’s doorstep. Can the Minister speak to that private contractor and perhaps look at options for people to collect their passports from a depot, rather than having to stay in all day in the hope that the passport might arrive?

There has been some significant engagement on performance and improvement with FedEx, the parent company of TNT, which does most of our delivery. Given the surge in demand, we have brought online DHL, which we use for our international deliveries, to increase the delivery capacity. Supporting documents are now also being returned via Royal Mail, because with the surge in demand, we have also had to surge our ability to deliver. Certainly there are issues there, although from our big bulk production sites it would actually take more time to fish passports out of a large pile than it would to allow them to be delivered to people directly, and there are obviously some security issues with ensuring that we give a passport to the person entitled to it.

My constituent made a passport application for himself and his daughter in June 2021. He provided his original marriage deed and his daughter’s birth certificate. These are Syrian documents, and because of the situation in Syria they are irreplaceable. These documents have gone missing and despite formal complaints, representations from his own lawyer, a phone call from my office and an email from my office, we are yet to receive a reply on what has happened. Will the Minister urgently look into this case?

Very happy to. It sounds rather different from the issues of surge and the other areas we are talking about, if it has been going on since June 2021, but I am very happy to pick up the particular details of this case.

The staff working at the Passport Office in my constituency of Newport West have been working incredibly hard under difficult circumstances, but they require additional staff to deal with the record demand to which the Minister has already alluded. The staff union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, has claimed that the Passport Office planned to recruit 1,700 new staff members to help deal with this increased demand, but only 300 have actually been brought in so far. Can the Minister confirm those reports?

I can confirm that we have increased staff numbers by 500 since April 2021, and we are in the process of recruiting another 700. As of 1 April, there were more than 4,000 staff in passport production roles. We are also offering incentivised overtime as well, for those who are prepared to work at weekends. We are increasing the resources and the staffing, and again I pay tribute to the staff working at the Newport passport office, who are doing a tremendous job under a lot of pressure.

I have a Passport Office in my constituency, and while I am sure they are all working hard, I am distressed to hear from my constituents about how they believe they have been let down and lied to by staff who they have been dealing with. Can I ask the Minister a very specific question? My constituent Sean was the victim of an unprovoked assault with a knife last year, and he has just discovered that his passport has a puncture hole and blood stains on it. Can the Minister give some advice on whether Sean needs to apply for a new passport before his holiday in a fortnight’s time, or will the one that he has suffice?

It might be worth discussing the specifics afterwards, depending on how badly damaged the passport is, but I suspect we need to look at dealing with that compassionately, as it is compelling, particularly where he wants to go on holiday with a passport that will immediately remind him of what happened. If we get the details afterwards, I know the team would be happy to help, particularly assuming that it is a straightforward adult renewal, which it sounds like it would be.

Did the Minister receive my letter this week that was signed by almost 100 parliamentarians on this very issue? I wrote to him because of the troubles we were having in my office, all of which have been more than adequately described by many people here today. Is he going to do anything to help people who have lost their holidays and not had all their money reimbursed? They put everything in with plenty of time. They have spent hours on the phone, as have my staff. In one example, a whole family going to Euro Disney did not get to go because the five-year-old’s passport did not arrive, all the other family members having got theirs. This cannot go on. He has made some effort to say what he will be doing, but does he really think that is enough?

Well, what we are going to do is on top of what we have already done in increasing staffing numbers and increasing production to record levels of more than a million in one month. We were also very clear to the public last year about the 10-week allowance for doing it and the ability to get applications expedited if they have been outstanding for more than 10 weeks. I would not want to speculate about individual applications —sometimes things will go beyond 10 weeks for particular reasons relating to the application—but we have done a lot already. We have got to a record level of output, and there is more on the way, with more staff being recruited. Separately, we are looking to sort out the staffing issues in relation to the advice line.

Last night, in response to a written question I submitted on average processing time for passport applications, I was told that the Department did not have the information available, which, given what we have heard today, does not fill me with confidence that the Department has a grip on what is necessary to deal with these issues.

Turning to constituency problems, which many hon. Members have already raised, I obviously also have many constituents who have had serious delays with the Passport Office. There are two families who applied in early February who have still not had their passports. They are due to go away in the next few days. They cannot speak to anyone on the telephone and neither can my constituency staff. They applied in time and have played by the rules. If I send the Minister the information, will he personally intervene to ensure that they get those passports in time?

To the latter part, yes. I am happy to have the details. As I have said, in terms of processing times, between January and March, more than 90% of cases were completed within six weeks. Although we advise people to allow 10 weeks, the vast majority of people are getting their passports much more quickly.

I appreciate what the Minister says about understanding the problems, but I feel that saying to people, “Get your applications in on time,” does not really cover it. One of our main problems is that when our staff call, they are asked whether it is passports, Ukraine or other. Most of the cases that need to be expedited come under “other”, but when they go on to that line, the people there say, “Email us.” We are already doing that and emails are lying there unanswered for two months. At the moment, in every area, the Home Office seems to be high on rhetoric and low on delivery. Can the Minister take back to the Secretary of the State that this is simply not working anymore and that drastic action is needed to knock the system into shape?

Advising people to apply strikes me as good advice if people are planning a holiday. I am pleased to note that since that advice was given we have seen more applications coming in this week. In terms of being low on delivery, we delivered more than 1 million passport decisions last month—a record number. There is a significant amount of work being done by dedicated teams. We are bringing in more staff to be able to do more. We have even expanded our delivery network to cope with the output that we now have, as touched on in an answer to a previous question. We recognise those pressures and those issues, but that is why we have advised for some time to allow 10 weeks. If people are looking to go on holiday this summer, our advice is firmly, “Get your application in now.”

Delays with processing passports are causing huge delays to my constituents and those across the country, as we have heard. The lack of planning by the Government, not to mention not providing enough staff to manage what everyone could see would be a huge demand, smacks of incompetence. We have an MPs hotline that cannot provide information to help constituents and that is currently not fit for purpose. In addition, I have constituents who paid a fast-track fee only for my staff to be told—after waiting for three hours yesterday—that paying the fee does not guarantee fast track. The Government have caused this mess and the undue pressure on staff in the passport offices, so when will they get a grip and sort the problem out?

Again, let us go back to what we have already said: 4.7 million texts were sent out last year; 1 million passports were issued last month—a record amount; more staff are being recruited; and existing staff, if they wish, are being given the opportunity to work incentivised overtime. There has been a large amount of planning and work done to meet the challenge, but inevitably, with 2.5 million extra passport applications due this year, on top of the 7 million that we expect to receive from those whose passports fall due this year, there were going to be pressures in the system. That is why we were up front in April last year in changing the service standard and doing some campaign work to remind people of that. We are now doing everything we can, including bringing in extra staff, to ensure that we can meet the surge of demand that is there. As I said, between January and March, 90% of people got their passport within six weeks.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. He has certainly been across his brief, so I thank him very much for that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) said, I pay tribute to staff in the Belfast office for all their hard work, particularly Christine and Joseph, who are exceptional when they are contacted. Honeymoons, family reunions and holidays postponed because of covid are all being affected. I am dealing with passport applications from January. A particular problem appears to be children, as was eloquently outlined earlier. Will the Minister outline when more fast-track appointments will become available? There are currently none available across the United Kingdom.

I thank the hon. Member for her kind comments about the staff in the Belfast passport office, following on from the similar comments of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). I know that they will be very much appreciated by the staff concerned. We release additional fast-track appointments every day. With the level of demand that we are seeing, they are taken up relatively quickly whereas normally there might be availability over a number of days. We have looked to expand the number of counter appointments, but she will appreciate that there is a limit to how many we can realistically offer each day. In some cases, some of the slots to do that sort of expedition would instead be used to deal with compelling and compassionate applications where someone urgently needs a passport to travel for some of the reasons that I have touched on.

I raise the case of my constituent Elliot Joshua Rees of Pontyates near Llanelli, who made his initial application on 8 February, more than 10 weeks ago. The application seemingly hit a series of barriers resulting from his parents’ marriage certificate, which is Austrian, despite the family providing a certified translation. The family are due to go on holiday in the next few weeks. Will the Minister please look at that specific case?

Certainly, if the application is over 10 weeks and the family are due to travel, I know that the Passport Office will be happy to expedite that and resolve it. It sounds like there has been a specific issue with it. I am happy if the hon. Gentleman wants to raise that with me directly.

There is no doubt that staff across the UK have been working hard, but a constituent submitted an application more than 10 weeks before travel. Her Majesty’s Passport Office made a series of mistakes and seriously mishandled it; it even lost my constituent’s documents. When my office tried to help, it told my staff on one occasion that the application had not been made until a week after our first contact with it about the application. I also wrote to its director general, who never responded. What is the Home Office doing to implement meaningful routes of escalation and to address where there have been failings in specific cases?

I am sorry to hear of the hon. Lady’s experience. As already touched on a number of times in this UQ, I accept that the current performance of the advice lines for members of the public and Members of Parliament is not what it should be. That does need to change. On the specific case, I am happy for her to raise the details with me after the session.

I thank the Minister for his industrious efforts to try to solve the problem; it is clear that he is trying to do that. I echo the comments about the staff in the Belfast office, who are assiduous in their response on behalf of our constituents. This morning, three more constituent families—on top of the dozens of others—have contacted my office to say that they cannot get their passports, which are in date but with six months’ life left on them. It is about solutions, so what discussions have there been with Brussels to secure a mutually beneficial extension to enable my constituents to have their holidays and them to get British moneys into the local tourist economy?

Certainly, colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office regularly engage with our European friends about the rules and about entry, particularly into the Schengen area where the common rules apply based on the European Union’s rules. Obviously, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we have a more flexible approach the other way around in terms of our visitor rules and entry to the UK. We regularly remind our colleagues that it would be nice if they replicated that and looked at the benefits that our more generous visitor routes bring to the UK, particularly Northern Ireland’s tourist economy.

We always save the best until last in UQs with the hon. Gentleman. I thank him for his kind remarks about the staff at the Belfast passport office, who I know will very much appreciate them.