I beg to move,
That this House censures the Minister for Safe and Legal Migration, the hon. Member for Torbay, for his handling of the crisis at Her Majesty’s Passport Office; and directs him to come to the House, no later than 20 June 2022, to apologise for the tens of thousands of people who have waited more than six weeks for their passport.
I will start from the outset by saying what this debate is not about. It is not about the hard-working staff who have been so badly let down by the management and the Government. There are countless examples of the fact that the infrastructure that holds our country together is creaking—indeed, in some cases, at breaking point. There can be no doubt that the frankly shambolic state of the Passport Office is an example of the systemic failure that has been designed and delivered by successive Conservative Governments since 2010, because by the time covid hit us in early 2020, a decade of underinvestment had left us with our defences down, lacking resilience and ill prepared for an external shock such as a global pandemic. NHS waiting lists were already at record highs and there were already more than 100,000 staff vacancies. A steady stream of Conservative Chancellors had failed to grow the British economy in line with western competitors, thus depriving the Exchequer of an eyewatering £12 billion of potential income that could have helped us through the pandemic—or indeed £30 billion if the growth trajectory that was established by the last Labour Government had continued.
Manufacturing had been at best ignored and at worst actively undermined by successive Conservative Governments, with 230,000 job losses in manufacturing since 2015 alone, thus leaving our country staggeringly overdependent on China for everything from personal protective equipment to lateral flow tests, and culminating in the disgraceful spectacle of the Government wasting £8.7 billion of taxpayers’ money on PPE that did not even meet the required safety standards. A toxic Tory decade of incompetence and indifference left us in early 2020 with a high-tax, high-inflation, low-wage and low-resilience economy, so that when the pandemic struck, we were left stranded in the storm without so much as an umbrella for protection.
But the catalogue of failure that left us in the lurch when covid struck has been matched only by the litany of errors that characterised the Government’s chaotic approach to planning for the end of lockdown restrictions.
Speaking as the last passport Minister for the Labour party, we saw the problem coming when the banking crisis hit, with a dip in passport applications, and had a plan for what would happen. This Government seem to have no plan and understanding that after two years of no travel there would be an increase in passport applications. Does my hon. Friend not think that the Government were asleep on the job?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A Government who fail to plan are a Government who plan to fail, and that is what we have seen throughout this process. We have seen nothing but a Government who are asleep at the wheel, and the British people are paying the price. The catalogue of failure that left us in the lurch is exactly as she says.
Of course, this failure to plan applies to the Passport Office, as set out in the motion before us, but it also applies across Government. The Government are presiding over a country that is mired in bureaucracy, red tape and waiting lists, crippling our economy, costing the taxpayer billions of pounds in emergency spending, and preventing the British people from simply getting on with their lives.
At the risk of making the shadow Minister come back to the actual topic of the debate, which is passports, his motion outlines that the Minister should apologise to anyone who has waited more than six weeks for their passport. Is he aware that for at least a year the official Government policy, and HMPO’s policy, has been a 10-week wait, so would it not have been better for him to check the website instead of coming here and being opportunistic?
On the causes of this, it is absolutely vital to recognise that the lack of investment in our public services is what has fundamentally left us exposed, and these are the problems we are facing today. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific point, the fact of the matter is that there should be an apology to people whose holidays have been wrecked and who have not been able to get to job appointments, funerals and weddings within the timeframe that we are discussing today.
Crime was already at record highs going into the pandemic, but now the court backlog is so long that in 95% of cases victims of violent crime will be waiting more than a year for their day in court—a direct result of Conservative Ministers cutting one pound in every four from the justice budget. Those who need an operation on the NHS can enjoy the luxury of 6 million people on NHS waiting lists, or, if they are in too much pain, they can take their sleeping bag down to their local A&E department for a 12 or 13-hour stay. If you want to go on holiday, you had better hope that you have ridden your luck in the game of pre-flight bingo we are all now forced to play as we cross our fingers and turn up at an airport—that is, of course, assuming that you are lucky enough to receive your new passport. Welcome to backlog Britain.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will share my dismay at learning that a professional seafarer was forced to miss the crew change on his vessel having waited for 11 weeks to receive a replacement for a damaged passport, specifically because of this Government’s inefficiency. This is a professional seafarer who is a key worker forced to miss his crew change. It is not just a matter of holidays—it is affecting people professionally as well.
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. There are holidays, weddings and funerals, but there are also direct impacts on people who have needed to go on work assignments abroad. There is the seafarer that she mentioned. There are so many examples of why, when public services are failing, that directly undermines productivity in the private sector. That is why this debate is so important in terms of our economy.
This brings me to a very particular catalogue of failure delivered by the Home Office and a Home Secretary who is completely out of her depth. Under the current Home Secretary, the Home Office is simply not fit for purpose. Crime is up by 18% while prosecutions have collapsed. The six-month asylum waiting lists have hit 73,000 because the number of asylum decisions made under the Home Secretary has halved, costing the taxpayer £4 million a day in emergency hotels alone. The Passport Office delays are causing sleepless nights for thousands of families nationwide.
So today Labour Members will be voting to demand an apology from the Minister to the British people for the abject failure of the Passport Office to meet the standards that it has promised and that the taxpaying British public expect and deserve. The Government had two years to prepare for a spike in passport applications once travel restrictions were lifted. Ministers were warned repeatedly about the possible backlog but they failed to plan and so inevitably failed to deliver. Indeed, the Government’s own data shows that the number of full-time HMPO staff has dropped by 681 over the past five years. After a really tough couple of years, British families deserved a well-earned break, but thousands have missed out.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. This is an important issue. We want to get these passports sorted. However, this backlog has been unprecedented. I did not look at my kids’ passports until very late in the day, after the covid restrictions were lifted, only to find that they were out of date by a number of months. But I was able to get them expedited—not any more so than anybody else—and we got them done. The system actually worked. I hope the hon. Gentleman would agree that one way we can advance the system today is to make sure that civil servants return to working in the Home Office, not from home, because the security checks that need to take place need to be done in that secure environment, not from home, where they cannot be done so efficiently.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on getting those passports. I have to say that he was one of the lucky ones. The reality is that it was absolutely clear that at some point the travel restrictions would be lifted and there would be a surge in passport applications, and there was plenty of time for Ministers to meet Passport Office officials and make a plan for when that happened. That is basic common sense, basic logic and basic planning. It is the opposite of the incompetence and indifference that we have seen from this Conservative Government.
Does my hon. Friend agree that much of the system is broken, because people are phoning up for appointments that they cannot get, and travelling to Belfast from London, or from Yorkshire to London, to get their passport? Information issues, as well as not getting passports in time, are leaving people high and dry. The Home Office is a Department that should be in special measures.
I thank my hon. Friend. What an utterly absurd position to be in that somebody who lives and works in London has to go to Belfast to get their passport processed. What kind of crazy, upside-down world are we living in when that is happening?
It is not just about holidays, as I was saying. People have missed vital work interviews and assignments abroad, weddings and funerals. They have not been with crucial identification needed for renting accommodation and the like. I have been inundated with emails from Opposition Members about these very situations faced by their constituents—usually hard-working families who have had their dreams shattered or their nerves shredded. This morning, my Aberavon office is dealing with seven new cases that came through last night alone. I will talk through just a few examples of these nationwide cases so that the Minister can get a clearer picture.
The point that the hon. Member is making is the most significant one we should make here today. Yes, the Home Office has shown itself to be unfit for purpose at the moment, but these delays in passports and visas—we are also seeing it with driving licences—are having an enormous impact on the lives of ordinary people up and down this country. Every constituency is inundated with people whose lives have been turned upside down by Home Office incompetence. Does he agree that it is past time it did something about it?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The cost of this issue is not just in broken-hearted families who were not able to go on long-planned holidays, or to go to weddings and funerals; there is a direct cost to the British economy and to productivity, and the huge cost of people having to pay through the nose for fast-track applications. The cost, when it is finally calculated, will be eyewatering.
To give a few examples of the nationwide cases, one family in County Durham had to cancel a dream holiday of a lifetime just before Easter, at a cost of £6,000, because they had been waiting 10 weeks for their six-year-old’s passport to come through. The guidance at the time of application was that it would take a maximum of three weeks.
Two parents from north Wales had been living and working overseas in France for two years and were due to return home once the father’s visa had expired, with their rent agreement ending this month. They applied for a passport for their new-born baby in mid-February but, four months on, they have still not received that passport, meaning that they have been forced to pay for a hotel at huge personal cost because they are unable to travel back to the UK.
Another set of parents in the west midlands were desperate to get their two-year-old boy, who was having medical difficulties, away on holiday. Despite applying for a passport on 2 January, poor communication from the Passport Office meant they were still waiting several months later.
In my constituency of Aberavon, one individual applied for her first adult passport on 26 February, yet had to cancel her plans to attend a wedding on 4 June. Another of my constituents applied for a passport on 23 March, yet is still waiting 12 weeks on and does not know whether they will be able to travel on 21 June. What does the Minister have to say to those families? Will he apologise to them from the Dispatch Box today?
These failures date back further than the past few months and are about not just resources, but levels of Home Office competence. One man living in east London applied for his first adult passport in September 2021. He was told to send his old passport back. Then, after 12 weeks, he was told that the application had been cancelled. The Passport Office maintained that his old passport had never been received. The man was then advised to make another application free of charge. That application was rejected. Then, after several weeks of telephone and email exchanges, he finally received confirmation that the old passport had been received with his original application and that his original application should never have been cancelled. He was advised to make a third application, which he has done. You could not make it up.
Like Members from all parts of the House, my office has been inundated with queries from constituents distraught at the fact that they either cannot go on holiday or could lose the cost of holiday travel. The situation is chaotic, unacceptable and must be resolved immediately. Does my hon. Friend agree that this could be resolved by the Government if they improved staff retention by meeting the Public and Commercial Services Union’s pay demands, worked with the PCS to end insecure agency staff and outsourcing, and completed the roll-out of the digital application programme as soon as possible?
Is it not extraordinary that the Government’s response to the crisis we are seeing is to cut the civil service by 90,000 jobs? In what world is that going to work, when we clearly need more resources, and people focused on customer-facing services? We need to build morale, not destroy it, and we need to show people that they should have good jobs on which they can raise a family. Instead, it is about cutting, undermining and passive-aggressive notes from the Secretary of State for Brexit Opportunities, I think he is called, put on the desks of his civil servants. It really is a disgrace.
Some applicants are having to travel the length and breadth of Britain to get an appointment. One man, as has been mentioned, had to travel all the way from London to Belfast to get his passport sorted. Others are having to pay extortionate costs for fast-track passport services or face losing hundreds of pounds. The number of monthly fast-track applications has more than doubled since December 2021. In April 2022, British families spent at least £5.4 million on fast-track services. The Passport Office’s own forecasts show that it expects to receive more than 240,000 fast-track applications between May and October this year, amounting to up to £34 million.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of fast-track applications. My constituency office, like his and no doubt like those of every other Member, is inundated with application cases, but even the fast-track applications are only just coming in under the wire, causing lots of anxiety and lots of work for my staff. What does he therefore have to say about the ability of the private contractors operating passport services? The Home Office has known for some time that this privatised system is deeply inadequate in how it operates passport services.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is referring to the two main companies, I think, which are TNT and Teleperformance. In both cases, the level of performance is abject. The question is: to what extent are they being held to account by the Government to ensure that they are delivering? I believe that TNT is on the record saying that its performance is meeting the service level requirements. I would like to see what those service level requirements are, because frankly it is an abject performance.
Like the hon. Member, I have had examples of constituents who have had cases and been delayed, and I am grateful for the support that the Minister has given me to help to get those cases resolved so that people have been able to go to weddings and other life-changing events. I thank the great teams working in Portcullis House to unblock these things. I encourage all Members to take that help up. Does the hon. Member recognise that, by the end of this month, more passports will have been issued this year than in the whole of last year?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is nice to know that his friend the Minister is helping him out, but the reality is that our inboxes are groaning with issues, failure and the chaos and shambles we are seeing. Because of failure to plan from the outset, we have a bottleneck and a crisis. We hope eventually that the system will catch up, but the pain, heartbreak, missed appointments and missed weddings and funerals have already happened, and the British public cannot get them back. Those moments have passed and that is why this is too little, too late.
Thousands of people have had to wait more than 10 weeks for a passport, making a mockery of the Prime Minister’s initial claim on 25 May that almost everybody was getting their passport within four to six weeks. I am sure he will come back and correct the record, although I am not holding my breath on that. Ten weeks is of course the new target introduced by the Home Office when it failed to meet the standard, long-established Government target of just three weeks. More than 30,000 people are waiting more than six weeks and they deserve an apology from the Minister.
The performance of the Home Office simply is not good enough. Ministers are not doing their jobs and the system is simply not working. The Home Office is currently paying millions of pounds to failing outsourced contracts across the Passport Office, including a courier service that is so incompetent that it loses hundreds of passports every year. The Home Office awarded TNT, the US-owned company that is part of FedEx, a £77 million three-year contract to deliver official travel documents in 2019. It has since been criticised for missed deliveries, poor communication and long delays. Meanwhile, Teleperformance—an ironic name, we have to say—the French private company providing private call centre services, has been criticised by the Immigration Minister himself for providing a service that is, in his words, “unacceptable”.
It is therefore utterly staggering that the Prime Minister’s answer to the problems facing the Passport Office is, in his words, to “privatise the arse” off the Passport Office. Why? If the blame lies with the contractors, rather than the performance of the Ministers dealing with those contracts, how can more privatisation possibly be the answer—unless he feels that the performance of his own Ministers is so poor that he no longer trusts them? We would not disagree with that assessment, because we firmly believe that the buck stops with Ministers and that the Home Secretary and her Ministers need to step up their leadership and recognise that they got the planning for the end of restrictions badly wrong.
There is plenty of evidence that the Home Secretary failed to plan. In April 2021, the vaccination programme was being rolled out and restrictions were lifting, but Passport Office numbers decreased by 5%. This year’s increases are too little, too late; they should have been in the pipeline since last year, as experts were warning of delays throughout the pandemic. Interestingly, Ministers refused to directly answer my recent written question about how many calls the Home Office had had with Teleperformance contractors and TNT to plan ahead in the run-up to lockdown restrictions being lifted. Perhaps the Minister can provide a fuller account of those discussions today, if any took place.
The PCS says that the Home Office originally estimated that 1,700 new staff members would be needed to deal with the backlog but, as far as we know, only around 500 have been recruited, many of whom are agency staff without the full training. Agency staff inevitably cost the taxpayer more money, which is a clear case of how the failure to plan is putting yet more strain on the public finances.
It is not just staffing levels that have caused the problem. It was staggering to learn recently that the new digital application processing system for passports was supposed to be fully implemented three years ago, but staff are still using the older, clunkier application management system. The Home Office will reportedly be paying penalties for failing to implement the new system, but it is unclear what those penalties will amount to. The new DAP system would increase the speed of passport processing, so this is a major error that is again costing British holidaymakers and other travellers dear. To make other things worse, at this time of backlog Britain, the Prime Minister’s second not-so-bright idea is to cut 91,000 civil servants, whom we desperately need to put everything they have into reducing delays and cutting waiting lists.
I have some specific questions for the Minister. What specific steps is the Home Secretary taking to improve the performance of the Passport Office, Teleperformance and TNT? By what date does the Minister expect all passports to be delivered within the 10-week window? How many of the staff brought into the Passport Office are agency staff? What training has been given to agency staff brought in to deal with the surge? Is that training fit for purpose?
Why is the Passport Office still using the legacy AMS? When was AMS originally planned to have been replaced by DAP? Are there any penalty costs for still using the legacy AMS? If so, what are those penalty costs and who will they be paid to? What is the timeline and final implementation date for DAP to be fully functional, and what is the end date for AMS? How many staff are currently engaged in working on the development programme of DAP? How many people were engaged in working on the development programme of DAP on 31 March 2020, 31 March 2021 and 31 March 2022? Why have there been delays in fully deploying DAP and is there a plan to recruit further people to develop and facilitate that? I ask again: how many meetings did the Minister have with the contractors throughout 2021 in preparation for international travel reopening, and what was discussed at those meetings?
The Home Office is simply not fit for purpose under this Home Secretary. The Department has already been placed in special measures twice, with the Ministry of Defence taking over Border Force operations in the channel and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities managing the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Unless the Home Secretary ups her game, the Passport Office may be taken off her hands as well. More immediately, we need the Minister to apologise to all those people who did what was asked of them throughout the pandemic, worked hard and earned their trips abroad, only to have their hopes dashed and their nerves shredded.
From NHS waiting lists to our courts, from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to passports, from chaos at our airports and lorry queues at Dover to our broken asylum system, everywhere we look, our country is bogged down in delays and chaos. The year is 2022 and this is backlog Britain. Let us hope that the Minister will do the decent thing today and apologise, and then let us hope that the Government will at least start trying to get their act together, because the British people deserve better than this.
It is an absolute pleasure to respond to what we just heard. From the motion and the opening speech, it is obvious that this debate is focused on not the practical or even items particularly relevant to my brief, but the party political—there were no ideas, no plans and no alternative offered.
Let us start with some facts. Prior to the pandemic, Her Majesty’s Passport Office routinely processed approximately 7 million passports each year. Due to covid-19 and the necessary restrictions on international travel, only 4 million people applied for a British passport in 2020 and 5 million in 2021. As highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild), that means that we will soon have dealt with more passports in the first half of this year than in the entirety of last year.
This year, many customers who delayed their applications are returning. It is therefore expected that 9.5 million British passport applications will be made this year, which will require a record output. That is a major surge in demand that we are planning for and have dealt with. Extensive preparation, including a regular ministerial board, started long before the Labour Front-Bench team started to show an interest a few weeks ago. Although we have heard attacks today, I thank those from HMPO who have worked hard to prepare for the surge and to deliver record output levels.
In general, the hard-working staff at passport offices, including Glasgow, who have been really good at helping my team to resolve some of the passport issues, and on the MP hotline, are dealing as well as they can with what are difficult circumstances. We all know that happy and healthy staff lead to better outcomes, so can the Minister confirm that staff are being provided with the necessary stress management tools and care for their wellbeing?
I thank the hon. Member for her comments and join her in paying tribute to the staff at the Glasgow passport office, who are working hard to deal with applications, including more complex applications—not every applicant is immediately entitled to a British passport. Ensuring that support is there for staff is one of the things that we discuss with senior managers.
Some staff have worked through weekends as well. We obviously do not enforce weekend working, but there have been overtime opportunities for some months for staff who wish to take them. Alongside that, we are ensuring that there is support for members of staff, because working seven days a week for months on end is not healthy. I thank the hon. Member for the tone and nature of her intervention.
I, too, put on the record my thanks to the Minister and his staff for their responses, and to the Belfast office. Hon. Members have talked about people going from London to Belfast. There is nothing wrong with going to Belfast; I am pleased that people are going and I hope they go there more often. The staff and the offices have done excellent work and they respond very quickly.
To look forward constructively, will the Minister consider increasing staff numbers, increasing the pay band for those working overtime or giving staff a bonus? Those things could help to alleviate some of the concerns and the waiting lists, although I am ever-mindful that the Belfast office is going above and beyond.
I join the hon. Member in paying tribute to the staff at the Belfast passport office, who are working hard and delivering a strong service. I am pleased to hear about the engagement that he and his colleagues have had, which reflects some of the comments of other Northern Ireland Members about support in a previous exchange on passports. There is incentivised overtime, but obviously there has to be a balance in terms of wider pay policies. As I touched on, we need to ensure that people are working sensible amounts of overtime, because working seven days a week for months on end is not healthy or appropriate.
We are certainly looking at the future and what the capacity is in particular locations. We looked to see how we could maximise that, particularly as social distancing regulations ended. We dealt with something like 60,000 people at the counters in March and 74,000 last month. Although that is not the majority of our applications, it is certainly a service that we have looked to expand, as I will come on to in a moment.
We continue to work through a large number of applications. As said, we advise customers to allow up to 10 weeks; however, the vast majority are dealt with well before that, with a quarter of a million applications coming out each week.
I was talking about the actions we have already taken, such as adding over 650 staff since April 2021—not the figure the shadow Minister gave—with a further 550 to arrive into the summer. These actions have been successful: they have increased capacity and output is higher than ever before. Across March, April and May, Her Majesty’s Passport Office completed the processing of approximately 3 million applications. In addition to extra staff we have also brought in additional delivery capabilities, such as working with Royal Mail on the return of documents.
With this level of demand, applications will inevitably take longer—an experience not unique to the UK, despite the picture painted by the Opposition. In April 2021—
Not at the moment.
In April 2021, guidance was therefore changed to clearly advise customers to allow up to 10 weeks to get their passport, despite the comment made during the shadow Minister’s speech. This change to processing times has been communicated widely and over 5 million text messages were sent to UK customers who had an expired or soon-to-expire passport informing them of the need to allow up to 10 weeks to renew their passport. The vast majority of passport applications are being processed within the 10-week published processing time.
In a moment.
Across March, April and May 98.5% of the applications processed were completed within the 10-week standard and, even against the backdrop of such large demand, most applications are processed much more quickly than 10 weeks, with over 91% of applications completed within six weeks.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He mentioned the 10-week period during which most passport applications are dealt with. A constituent of mine applied for a straightforward passport renewal 13 weeks ago; she has to know today whether to cancel her holiday or try to wing it and possibly lose £3,500. My team of caseworkers have been to the hub in Portcullis House a number of times but were told this morning that there is no guarantee she will get an answer today. What does the Minister think I should tell her?
If the application has been outstanding for over 10 weeks and travel has been booked, we can expedite the process, as I will come on to later in my speech. It is not appropriate for me to discuss the details of an individual case on the Floor of the House, but if the details are supplied to me after the debate we will be happy to follow up.
I am grateful to the Minister. I should first declare an interest: I am a US dual national and have to replace my passport soon, and I have been warned to anticipate an 11-week wait for it to be replaced. As this debate demonstrates, we all want the process to be sped up as much as possible. Can the Minister say whether staff working in the office, rather than from home, would help increase the number of passports processed?
I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of Passport Office staff have been back in the office for some time; indeed, as I have touched on, some of them have been in the office for seven days a week working overtime. There is a very small cohort employed specifically to handle digital work that is wholly online and can be dealt with purely online. Mostly that will be what we call simple renewals, where it is not necessary to look at documents—to prove citizenship, for instance. We have done pretty much all we can in getting people back into the office, although we did not exactly get a great deal of support for that approach from the Opposition. I am satisfied that the vast majority are now working in the office; anyone who needs to be in the office to do their work has been in the office now for some time.
The hon. Gentleman has already intervened once so I will continue.
HM Passport Office endeavours to process all applications as quickly as possible. The simplest of applications submitted online can be processed with fewer manual interventions, as I have just said, meaning a passport can be issued much more quickly. To help customers submit a simpler application, HM Passport Office is currently delivering a digital marketing campaign across social media with some basic tips such as applying online if possible and using a photo code from a photo booth or shop, including the photo booth we have here in Parliament.
It is worth noting, however, that the standard service does not have a guaranteed timeframe as a British passport cannot and will not be issued until all checks are satisfactorily completed. If further information is needed or an application is complex, the application will take longer, especially if there is doubt about whether the applicant is a British citizen.
I congratulate the Minister on his diligence in tackling this difficult problem. Will he continue to help the constituents of Telford in the way that he has? Every single one of my constituents has received their passport when I have approached the Minister. Will he continue to offer that level of assistance across the House to all Members who approach him?
That intervention serves as a reminder of the effectiveness delivered by my hon. Friend and the wise choice Telford residents made at recent general elections in electing such a hardworking Member of Parliament to advocate on their issues in this place. I must say that I have not done what my hon. Friend says only for Conservative colleagues; I have also assisted on issues raised by other Members, including one or two who left the Chamber at the start of the debate potentially because of what it was about.
We are keen to get on with delivering services but colleagues will recognise that there is a very great surge of demand. It was interesting to hear the example from the US; there are plenty of other examples of this problem from around the world despite the interesting comments we have heard that have tried to make out that it is somehow unique to Britain. Some Members need to visit a website or two or read an international newspaper; they will then find out that such things do actually happen across the world, not just in the United Kingdom. We will certainly carry on our work, and we are grateful for my hon. Friend’s support.
HM Passport Office provides an expedited service where an application from the UK has been with it for longer than 10 weeks. Where a customer in those circumstances can provide evidence that they are due to travel within the next fortnight, their case will be prioritised. That helps to ensure that the small percentage of people whose application has taken more than 10 weeks will continue to receive their passport ahead of their travel. I must stress that this expedited service comes at no additional cost to our constituents. For those who require their passport sooner than 10 weeks, Her Majesty’s Passport Office offers urgent services, available for a further fee.
I want to put on the record my thanks to the Belfast office, which went over and above what could be expected to handle the deluge of applications. Mention has been made of a mechanism for elected Members to access help on passport applications, but the telecommunications aspect of that is not working very effectively as we are not getting a response. Can the Minister say whether adequate numbers of lines are available, because we are getting engaged tones and being held waiting on the line for hours—not minutes, but hours? Could this issue be addressed through additional staff?
This issue has undoubtedly caused a great deal of distress, with many people having had to wait up to the wire before getting their passport. Like others, I am grateful to the Minister, the hub and the Passport Office for working with my staff to get the best for my constituents. I want to say thank you on behalf of one of my constituents, who applied for his British passport on the day of his citizenship ceremony in May and, with the help of the Passport Office, was able to get his passport and travel abroad on business.
I turn to priority services, for which appointments are released three weeks in advance. Although appointments are released daily, there is currently high demand, so we are exploring and implementing a range of options to help support people who are seeking access to those services. That work led to the recent opening of an eighth public counter offering urgent service appointments, in Birmingham, and a further increase in appointment availability to help support those people who need their passports quickly.
There is, though, one area of the service that we recognise as being not up to standard: the advice line. Teleperformance, which operates the passport advice line, has not achieved the required standard to support customers seeking to make contact about their applications. Officials have worked constructively with Teleperformance towards a rectification plan and, mostly, through the addition of more than 500 staff since mid-April. Its performance has improved significantly, but it remains short of where it needs to be. Officials and I remain focused on ensuring that that is resolved as quickly as possible.
Suppliers have previously been able to resolve issues facing their services through such constructive work. FedEx, the parent company of TNT, resolved the delivery delays experienced at the end of last year and is currently delivering within its contractual service levels. As mentioned, in anticipation of the surge in demand and to provide greater resilience to the delivery network, some domestically delivered passports are arriving via DHL—HM Passport Office’s partner for international deliveries—and supporting documents are being returned via Royal Mail.
First, the constituent made the right choice by contacting his Member of Parliament, who I know will raise his case diligently. We will certainly be interested to hear the example. Our evidence is that the vast majority of passports are delivered successfully and appropriately, but, where something has gone wrong, we are concerned to hear about it. If the hon. Member provides me with the details afterwards, I will be more than happy to follow up.
The failure of the telephone line means that constituents have waited longer than they should have done. There have also been difficulties in receiving prompt updates to inquiries made by right hon. and hon. Members on their behalf. The number of HM Passport Office staff supporting the Home Office’s MP hotline and offering input and surgeries at Portcullis House has steadily increased. That will be monitored to ensure that those services to colleagues continue to improve. I am advised that people are now waiting much less time.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for helping to advise the Chamber, as always. I have heard mutters about my taking interventions from friends, but anyone who has been in the Chamber to hear me and the SNP debating matters in the last few years could hardly accuse us of having a great friendship.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way to me. Much of the discussion so far has been about delays, and most of my cases are about delays. However, I have one constituent whose original passport and application have been lost by the Passport Office, and he stands to lose his holiday. It is now the subject of a police investigation. As my constituent is waiting for the second application to be processed, will the Minister clarify whether the 10-week clock starts again? What recourse is there for my constituent if he loses his holiday because the Passport Office lost his passport and application?
The hon. Member will appreciate that, as I am a Home Office Minister, I should not comment on matters relating to a police investigation from the Dispatch Box. However, if she shares the details with me separately, I will happily look into that. It is rare for there to be a direct police investigation into the circumstances around a passport application, but it is best if I do not speculate from the Dispatch Box.
The routes that colleagues can use to get in contact should not be used to expedite a passport application ahead of a holiday, particularly if the application was submitted only recently, because that is to the detriment of other customers who have been waiting longer and who have no lesser need for these services. Yet, we will always react if we can when there are compelling and compassionate circumstances, as hon. Members have highlighted, or, as several hon. Members will know already from their dealings with me, where there are family funerals or compelling reasons for international travel or where matters could not have been foreseen.
I am also grateful to colleagues who are giving advice to their constituents in these circumstances as well as for planned travel and for reminding constituents that contacting the passport advice line continues to be the best way to discuss options to get a passport soon. However, as we have made clear, the service standard needs to improve. A “Dear Colleague” letter has been circulated to provide help to right hon. and hon. Members in assisting their constituents.
I must pay tribute again to the staff at HM Passport Office who are working tirelessly to process approximately 250,000 passport applications each week. I am grateful for their continued efforts. It is a pity that others wish to rubbish those, despite not having any ideas or proposals of their own—they are doing so merely for their own political end.
I thank the Minister for giving way and echo his comments on the staff who are working hard to turn the backlog around. I have just received an email from my constituent Tracy Shelbourn, who said:
“Sadly, the problem is not with the US embassy but with our UK Passport Office. I simply need my passport returned, which they retained when I applied for a new passport, so that I can travel to the US.”
What more will the Minister do to address the issues and backlogs that still exist?
Well, what I am happy to keep confirming is about the massive output, the hard work of HMPO, and the plans, which, I must say, were put in place long before Labour Members showed any interest in the subject at all—[Interruption.]. They shout, “It was predictable,” but they did not predict it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He has described the current situation. Will he accept that some people, through no fault of their own, have been suffering as a result of the chaos? Will he apologise to those people unreservedly?
Look, no one wants to be in a situation where we have a service level of 10 weeks. We would much rather be back at our traditional service level. However, we have had literally millions of additional applications coming in this year, and I have seen the service and the teams nearly quadrupling output in a couple of months—my hon. Friend and I could probably think of some examples of where we would love to see output quadrupled in a public service—so it is difficult to stand here and say that that is all wrong. We appreciate that there are issues and that work is needed to ensure that people do not go over the 10 weeks—unless there is an issue, such as someone making an application when they are not entitled to a British passport. In some cases, we will need to establish that the person is who they say they are—it is their photo, and they are a British citizen—which will inevitably take longer, but I hope my hon. Friend will accept that a lot of work is being, done and has been done for many months. Yes, in individual cases there will of course be difficult circumstances, but we will attempt to respond where we can.
I feel sorry for those on the Labour Front Bench in some ways. They were told to come up with something on passports. Having said “Yes, captain” to the request, the shadow Home Secretary got her team together to come up with some ideas. First, they tried to think of a better way of delivering the service, but had no alternative to what we have done already. Then they looked to see what ideas they had put forward last year, but realised they had not said a word—the claim that it was predictable rather contrasted with their own lack of prediction. Perhaps they wondered whether they could demand that passport staff be in the office, but then remembered that they already are and what they said when the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) suggested that about other public services. Perhaps they could have demanded that the contractor who prints the passports be nationalised, but realised that that sounded a bit too much like Jeremy. Maybe they could have pointed to output being higher under Labour, but then they realised it was not, due to the record outputs now being achieved. Then, with a deflated sigh, one of them must have said, “How about we just have a pop at the Minister?” which they all agreed was the only thing they could come up with, hence their motion today.
The role of Immigration Minister is never an easy one. It brings challenges. It is certainly a role where you cannot please everyone. But it speaks volumes when Labour Members have so little to offer that they resort to a motion attacking the person not the policy. That is not uncommon. We see it on a raft of issues in my brief, where the Labour party has no policy, only political points. From the immigration health surcharge to our migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda, it has no clear view. On the changes needed to tackle abuse of our immigration system and evil people-smuggling gangs, it offers nothing but criticism. For all the Labour shadows I have had since December 2019, and there have been a few, we have not seen one coherent plan come forward. [Interruption.] There have been four choices to change. In short, they are only left with the personal, in the absence of any policy alternative.
Members might wonder why I look happy in the face of today’s motion. It is because I am reminded of a quote by our greatest post-war Prime Minister:
“I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”
How right she was.
That was quite an interesting listen, I have to say, certainly from the SNP Front Bench. I am struck by the Minister being magnanimous enough to say he feels sorry for those on the Labour Front Bench. Clearly, he feels very sorry for himself with all the criticisms that have come his way, but what I have not heard is a single word of apology or contrition for those who are stuck in the backlog. After that quite extraordinary performance, people are entitled, especially those languishing in that backlog, to feel a growing sense of anger at the incompetence and insouciance of this Government.
To be clear, my censure today is reserved entirely for the ministerial team that has presided over this situation. It is in no way a criticism of staff, who have been doing their utmost in the most difficult of circumstances over the last few years to ensure that processes work as effectively as they can. While the volume of applications is perhaps unprecedented, Ministers cannot, with a shred of credibility, claim that it was in any way unexpected. In fact, at times in recent weeks it has seemed that the Government have been determined not just to restrict the number of people able to come into the country, but to do their level best to prevent people from getting out of the country lawfully, too. Their lack of humility and contrition will rightly enrage those in the backlog. After how many attempts was it—two or three?—the Minister was still unable to say how large that backlog is. He did not even say “pass” or use a lifeline to phone a friend. That is absolutely telling and damning in equal measure.
The 10-week target that the Home Office speaks of is routinely being missed. The Home Office has had access to passport data, including the number of passports set to expire, all the way through the pandemic and was therefore fully aware, or at least ought to have been, of the spike in applications that was likely to come as soon as restrictions on travel were lifted. Ministers did not have to be Mystic Meg looking into a crystal ball to see what was happening. HM Passport Office is currently advising travellers to allow up to 10 weeks for applications to be processed, up from an average of three weeks before the pandemic. We are hearing of delays of up to five months or even more for applications to be processed. With few or no fast-track appointments available anywhere across the UK due to them being fully booked, travellers are being forced to cancel travel bookings, often losing hundreds of pounds of their hard-earned money in the process.
As ever, we can point to the statistics, but it is the human stories that really get to the nub of the issue. I was made aware, in preparing for this debate, of a case where grandparents had bought a holiday for their grandson as a gift for his 18th birthday, not realising he did not have a passport. It is now touch and go whether he will be able to take up that gift. A case from my own office is of a family looking to return to Scotland from the United States of America. Their inability to get passports for their children is not only risking their ability to travel in accordance with their plans, but preventing them from enrolling their children in school. This is not just about holidaymakers and tourism. For many, having that travel document as a simple form of ID is vital for business, family or practical reasons, or simply for accessing crucial public services.
For many, the failure of the system to process applications timeously and to issue passports will mean yet more forced separations from family and loved ones, after two years of the pandemic and the restrictions we have all been living under. People are again being deprived of the opportunity to say that one final goodbye to those they love, and their nearest and dearest. Business deals and contracts will be lost if meetings cannot take place face to face, where they need to be concluded in person. The Government also need to look at the issues around lost or stolen passport cases, which currently seem to sit outside all escalation processes. It seems that HM Passport Office is dealing with the escalation as if the only thing that matters is the travel date. In many cases, people will need passports faster than any travel date, simply to get visas from other jurisdictions in order to travel.
It is not as if the Government were not forewarned. As early as July 2020, as the first lockdown eased, the issue of passport backlogs was raised with HM Passport Office. Back then the official response was that staff were
“working hard to ensure that anyone with pre-planned travel does not miss out if their passport application has been submitted correctly and in good time”.
However, there have been many, many issues that a simple, bland public relations assurance cannot paper over. We heard from the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) about the issues with staffing. The lack of staff is clearly the major factor that has contributed to the backlog. The question then becomes: why did the Government not ensure enough people were employed to process the upsurge, in line with usual service standards?
Back in 2021, the Public and Commercial Services Union was promised that there would be an additional 1,700 staff recruited to deal with the predicted increase in applications, but the Home Office struggled to recruit for the reasons we have heard, in part due to the low wages on offer, and we have seen only about 500 additional recruits since then, most of whom have been agency staff. I believe there are currently over 1,000 full-time equivalent agency staff in HM Passport Office alone, meaning the workforce is between one third and one quarter agency staff. But this is not just about a simple failure to recruit. It is also, due to the conditions, about a failure to retain. Back in April 2016, the number of full-time equivalent paid staff was sitting at just over 3,913. At the time of the pandemic in April 2020, that figure had reduced to 3,585. By March this year, it was down to 3,232. Clearly there is a staffing crisis not just of recruitment, but of retention. It is impossible not to lay the blame with the culture that comes from the top—here.
There are also issues with systems. As we have heard, there have been delays in the full roll-out of the digital application processing system, which the PCS union understood was by now to have taken over from the application management system. The delay is clearly adding to backlogs and complexities, as an understaffed office is having to run two systems. I seek clarity from the Minister. What is the exact timescale for the roll-out of the DAP system? Will he explain why the AMS continues to be used, why there have been delays in fully deploying the DAP system, and why further staff are not being recruited to the project as a matter of urgency to help facilitate deployment and process applications to the expected timescales?
Then, of course, there is a wider problem that affects the Government’s attitude to public services: the fragmentation of the service. The Prime Minister said recently that if things did not improve, he would consider privatising the Passport Office, seemingly oblivious to the fact that many of its performance issues can be attributed directly to the impact of the privatisations and part-privatisations that have already taken place. As one Passport Office worker said:
“It shows an absolute ignorance to the actual problems. When we look at the issues in HM Passport Office at the minute, a lot of it is the privatised areas.”
The Government have serious questions to answer about their choice of private providers, particularly their choice of courier, given customers’ experience of the service when their passports are finally issued. The Government’s own data, which tracks the performance of the most valuable contracts with private companies, shows seven companies not reaching their agreed targets, six rated as inadequate and a further one requiring improvement.
Teleperformance, which has a five-year contract of nearly £23 million with the Government, been accused of giving customers “poor, misleading advice.” Members across the House will be only too aware of the pressures their own constituency staff are now under, as they are put on hold for hours, trying to get through to someone who can assist our constituents. I do not intend to delve into the issues surrounding TNT, other than to say that that situation clearly should not have been allowed to grow and fester as it did.
The PCS union has sought assurances from HMPO management, including a commitment to work with PCS on workforce planning to properly staff HMPO to cope with the applications without the need for regular overtime. The union has also called for a reduction in the use of contingent labour, and has sought assurances that the Government will work to increase remuneration levels across HMPO and increase the pace of negotiations around allowances for members working in customers service areas. It has sought the provision of a clear timeline for the implementation of digital application processing, as well as a commitment that no further HMPO work will be privatised or outsourced, and a guarantee that contracts that are currently outsourced will be considered for urgent insourcing. Those all seem perfectly reasonable asks as we try to get through the morass that has been created.
The union sent a letter to the deputy director of customer service operations on 12 May, outlining those issues for clarification and seeking assurances. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that I am right in saying that a response has yet to be received. That is disappointing.
Brexit and the Prime Minister’s leadership woes have clearly chewed up considerable political energies and bandwidth that could have been deployed better in getting on with the day job of government over the last few years. It is easy to laugh at the Government’s puerile obsession with the symbolism of being able to issue blue Brexit passports. Quite frankly, I would not care if my passport was bright yellow with pink polka-dots if it arrived on time to allow me to get on with what I was doing.
The Home Office clearly does not have its troubles to seek. There has been a continued and conspicuous failure of political leadership over many years, with a steady procession of Home Secretaries who seem to be more interested in throwing red meat to the Back Benchers and playing to the culture wars gallery than trying to get to grips with the day-to-day issues that should concern them. We have seen it in the tragedy of Windrush, the botched handling of the Afghan and Ukrainian refugee crises, the plans to intercept boats in the channel on jet skis, the callousness of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the looming omnishambles of the Rwanda deportations. We have consistently been shown that despite the Home Secretary’s bellicose, tough rhetoric from the Dispatch Box, the record is simply one of incompetence and failure—quite frankly, enough is enough.
Too many individuals, families and businesses have been left in limbo by this fiasco; too many have had their plans suspended, upended or overturned; too many have been left unable to demonstrate to authorities who they are for the lack of identification documents, whether they want to travel to access public services or simply to access employment to provide for themselves and their loved ones. The Government need urgently to get a grip.
I rise to oppose the motion and speak in defence of the excellent Minister, with whom I have had the privilege of working over the last 18 months. I wish him well and congratulate him on all that he has been doing to ensure that Her Majesty’s Passport Office continues as efficiently as possible to clear the backlog. I thank staff, his private office and all HMPO staff for their work to keep Members informed and to work for Members by ensuring that our constituents get their passports replaced as quickly as possible.
It is disappointing that yet again the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), has decided to stand at the Dispatch Box and castigate and criticise, but offered no alternative solution outlining what a Labour Government would do. He did it throughout my time as Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Home Office: he did it about immigration; he did it about policing; and he has done it about passports. All we hear is constant criticism with no plan as to what is best for the country. During the time in which I was privileged to have that job, I would sit behind the Minister and the Home Secretary, and one of the most frustrating things was having to be quiet and listen without being able to come back at the shadow Minister. I am glad that I can do so today—and may I just also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), for Bosworth (Dr Evans) and for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on being appointed PPSs at the Home Office?
I perfectly accept that there has been a backlog, but the Minister and the Government have made a consistent effort to sort it. I saw that during my time at the Department and we can see it in the facts. Although the Labour party refuses to acknowledge it, we have just come out of an unprecedented pandemic, during which travel was banned. At that time, there were 5 million applications a year on average. The number of applications this year is at 9.5 million. It is absurd for the hon. Member for Aberavon to say that this Government have not been doing anything—[Interruption.] He can chunter from a sedentary position, but his speech did not deal in facts, so I will be pleased to outline some in my speech.
In April 2021, the Passport Office advised that people should allow 10 weeks for their passports to arrive. The hon. Member for Aberavon kept going on about “six weeks”. I suggest to him, as I did in my intervention, that he simply checks the HMPO website; for the last year and a bit the consistent guidance of the Government has been 10 weeks, but his motion refers to “six weeks”. Already—at the beginning of the debate—the motion is not worth the paper it is written on, because it is factually wrong and flawed.
What the shadow Minister did not outline in his attack on the Minister is that already—and still—90% of passports are completed in six weeks and 98.5% are completed within 10 weeks. He also knows, as I know as a constituency MP, that if there are special reasons why a passport needs to be expedited, that can happen; it has happened in my case, and it happened to many colleagues in the House who emailed me while I was PPS and we got their cases sorted. He is simply not giving credit where credit is due.
Plenty of Labour MPs have made criticisms this afternoon, saying that they have lots of cases that have not been completed within the guidelines. The shadow Minister outlined his view that we are in backlog Britain and that the Home Office is the most bureaucratic Department. That is a very good soundbite, but it is not accurate. Opposition Members should be looking into backlog Labour. [Interruption.] Would the shadow Minister like to listen? He made an accusation about backlog Britain. I say “backlog Labour”.
We have heard from Opposition Members about passports not being completed on time, and the shadow Minister has outlined how many Opposition Members have contacted him about how long they have been waiting, but I can tell the House that when I was PPS at the Department I did not get a single email from him. I have looked through my records, and he did not email me once; he has not spoken to the Minister either. Opposition Members should all be angry at the shadow Minister for being the backlog and the bureaucratic bottleneck in the Department. He has not once spoken to the Minister to get his constituents sorted out, and he never emailed me.
We will take no lectures from Opposition Members. The Minister is one of the most decent Ministers in the Government and will talk to any hon. Member on either side of the House, so I will give Opposition Members some advice: perhaps they should email the Minister and leave the shadow Minister out of it, because clearly he cannot deliver either for his constituents or for theirs.
The motion requests a censure of the Minister’s handling of the passport backlog, but we should look at the facts and give him credit for his work. The action has been clear, although we did not hear about it from the shadow Minister. Passport Office staffing has increased: there are 500 more members of staff since April of last year, and another 700 are being hired, as the Minister outlined. We now have over 4,000 staff working in Her Majesty’s Passport Office to clear the backlog; I would call that action. More delivery companies are now working on behalf of the Home Office to deliver passports where possible; I would call that action. Telephone lines now have 500 more staff; I would call that action. [Interruption.] I hear “Give him a job!” from a sedentary position. I had one, but I gave it up, so I do not need another. I am here working on behalf of my constituents. I do not need a job to speak the facts. In what we have heard from the Opposition, there has been a consistent absence of facts, so I am very happy to correct the record today.
There have never been so many channels open to Members of Parliament to address the backlog. We have the Portcullis hub, which is for Ukrainian issues as well as passport issues. We have the telephone lines, which have had added investment. We have the Minister and three excellent PPSs—they have a very tough act to follow, but I think they are excellent. The Home Office has consistently had the most open channels for sorting out the issues.
The provision that the hon. Gentleman has just listed is testament to the Government’s failure to sort out the issue. As I am sure every Member in this Chamber does, I have constituents who have missed out on holidays, weddings overseas and so forth because of the Government’s failure to run a decent Passport Office. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government’s obsession with the small state and their threat of 91,000 job losses in the civil service do not really inspire confidence that they are capable of running public services?
I say politely to the hon. Lady that, whatever her briefing document tells her to say about the Government being obsessed with reducing the state, what the Minister and I have just outlined is that instead of reducing the size of the state, we have put unprecedented staffing into Her Majesty’s Passport Office. Her argument does not stack up.
I am curious about the hon. Member’s response. The Government have announced that they intend to cut 91,000 civil service posts and have made the explicit comment that they intend to cut the size of the state. That is this Government’s agenda. I do not quite understand why the hon. Member is unaware of that fact.
I am perfectly aware of the facts. Nowhere does it say that we want to reduce the civil service payroll in Her Majesty’s Passport Office. All the hon. Lady has to look at is the fact that we have put more staff into that office, with more staff on the telephone lines and more staff in HMPO at the level of processing passports. The hon. Lady’s argument and her accusation towards me and the Government are not substantiated and have no basis in fact whatever.
A record number of passports have been allocated and processed under this Government in the past year. I have just spoken about the actions that we have taken; now let us see the results. In March 2022, 1 million passports were issued, which is 13% more than in any month last year. Usually, 7 million passports are issued in a whole year. We are on track to more than match that figure: more passports have already been processed this year than in the whole of last year. That is because of the action that the Minister and this Government have taken.
Rather than censuring the Minister, the Opposition need to understand the context and the reason for the backlog: the covid-19 pandemic. They somehow live in a utopian world. Instead of acknowledging that all parts of local and national Government and business struggled in the pandemic, they say that it should not have had an effect. They offer no alternative either.
Yet again, the shadow Minister has carped instead of taking a constructive view of how we can help the backlog to clear even faster. He spoke for more than 15 minutes, but not once did he come up with a solution or an alternative from the Labour party. If he really believes that he can show the people of this country he has a better solution that could help us to clear the backlog, he should stand at the Dispatch Box and say so. Once again, he has not done so.
In all his contributions, the Minister has not once admitted what the backlog is. Maybe the hon. Gentleman can get an answer from his own Minister: does he know what the backlog of outstanding cases is and how much it will take to reduce them?
I am absolutely confident that as we speak, with all the action that the Minister has taken, the backlog is rapidly reducing. Because I am now a Back Bencher, I do not have access to all the information, but I am very clear that the backlog is coming down because of the action that the Minister has outlined in this Chamber over the past year and a half, the unprecedented investment that he has put into staffing, and the speed at which he and, more importantly, the staff are sorting out the issues.
Because of the covid pandemic, there was a problem—we all accept that—but the Labour party should acknowledge that the Government are fixing it. We have heard about the tangible action that the Government have taken, but we have heard no suggestions from the Opposition. What the public see is a Government who have taken strong action with extra staffing, more money and passports being completed in 98.5% of cases, while Labour MPs would rather moan than take tangible action to sort out the problem. We are the Government taking action; they are the Opposition carping from the sidelines yet again.
In the city of Durham, Her Majesty’s Passport Office sits on the banks of the Wear. Its glass frame houses civil servants doing their jobs under immense pressure as a result of this Government’s failure to prepare for the increase in passport applications post covid. I would like to tell you what it looks like inside, Madam Deputy Speaker, but HMPO has refused to allow me to visit to speak to workers in my constituency about their working conditions and the backlogs.
I will not stand by while a workforce in my constituency become increasingly demoralised by media and politicians pointing their fingers unfairly at the workers, so I put a call out on my social media channels, inviting Passport Office workers to email me concerns to raise anonymously. Their response made stark reading. There appear to be widespread mismanagement and structural issues slowing the attempts to clear the backlog, including delays in the full roll-out of the digital application programme system; incorrect advice being given by the helpline, which has been outsourced to Teleperformance; inefficiencies and errors from private contractors such as Sopra Steria; and the double handling of applications.
There has also been an influx of agency staff, resulting in the current staff being pulled from their roles to train these temporary workers. Staff morale is understandably at an all-time low. Covid outbreaks have led to staff shortages, yet staff are under pressure to return to office working, including through alleged bullying tactics from senior officials and poor communication from management. Disturbingly, staff have told me that they are too afraid to speak out about their working conditions for fear of disciplinary action. Staff are subject to verbal abuse from the public, and have shockingly witnessed an attempt to self-harm by an applicant desperate to receive their passport. Tragically, one member of staff’s mental wellbeing was impacted so severely that they told me they had contemplated suicide. After reading those emails, I am starting to think I know why HMPO did not want me to visit. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) asked for facts. These are the hard, cold facts from brave whistleblowers inside HMPO.
The simple fact is that this Government have turned our country into backlog Britain, with waiting lists increasing, holidays disrupted and public anger growing. I fear that if the Government keep opening help desks in Portcullis House to deal with the backlog, they will soon have Home Office staff working from behind the Dispatch Box. Sadly, there does not appear to be any urgency from the Government to fix these problems. Despite PCS being promised that 1,700 new staff would be recruited to deal with the predicted increase in passport applications, only around 600 have been recruited so far, most of whom are agency staff.
The Government need to get a grip and come up with proper solutions. Passport offices across the country need to be turned back into positive working environments where staff feel appreciated and can excel in their role. There needs to be a reduction in the use of agency staff and a commitment to work with PCS on workforce planning to properly staff HMPO to cope with the applications without the need for regular overtime. The Government must also work to improve remuneration levels across HMPO and provide a clear timeline for the full implementation of the digital application programme system.
I am confident that once the toxic working cultures that have emerged are resolved, pressures will ease and we will once again have a service to be proud of. Until then, backlogs will continue to define this Government’s time in office. They sleepwalk from crisis to crisis and ordinary people are left to pick up the pieces. My constituents who work for the Passport Office deserve better, and so does everyone in Durham who anxiously awaits their passport. It is time this Government put an end to backlog Britain and treated staff with the respect they deserve.
The Government are letting down thousands of families across our country. The Passport Office is in chaos because record applications are not being processed in good time. The Home Office was warned about this last year but has failed to take sufficient action. Indeed, its own key indicators last autumn showed that a storm was brewing. I have been frustrated by Ministers ducking and diving and not admitting the scale of the problem. I have submitted a dozen parliamentary written questions about this, but I have had poor responses on the size of the backlog, on the metrics that are being used and on when the service will return to normal. The only figure available was a leak to the press suggesting a 500,000 backlog.
This problem is causing havoc to people’s plans. My office is hearing from worried constituents every day. One case is a seven-year-old constituent who has a family holiday to Australia next week. Their application was submitted on 16 March. It took six weeks for the Passport Office to request information, which was sent back straight away, and tomorrow marks 13 weeks since they first applied. The family needs the passport in order to apply for a visa, so these delays are risking their family holiday.
This is being made worse by the clunky system that the Passport Office is still using. An upgrade was planned three years ago, but it still has not happened. A new digital system would reduce processing time and cost less, so this needs to be done urgently. In the Minister’s closing remarks, can he please tell us when this will happen? Yes, more staff have been hired and more applications are being processed, but still the applications pour in and the delays continue. Families are having to resort to fast-track applications just to get their passports back in time, but at double the cost.
We must have a realistic action plan to get the service back to normal by the middle of July, ahead of the summer holidays. I think the Passport Office needs to tag-team with the National Audit Office to better understand the problem. It must improve its process management and we must have much, much better reporting to Parliament. We are all afraid that the problem will get even worse as the summer holidays approach. Ministers must grip this now, before family holiday plans are turned to sand.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
“I have now applied twice to renew his passport at £55 on both occasions plus new photos and am really at a loss. I have spoken to close to 30 different people at the Passport agency over the past six months, all of whom share my frustration and then do absolutely nothing about it.”
Those are the words of my constituent, Tom, who is trying to renew the passport of his six-year-old son, Frederick. Tom originally applied for the passport in October last year, sending in the forms and the old passport, before the application lapsed due to an administrative error on his part. Tom then attempted to apply again on 17 January but was told he needed to send the old passport in again, despite its being in the possession of the renewals team. Tom does not have the old passport. Despite explaining the situation more than15 times over the phone, by email and in letters, Tom’s application was cancelled for a second time. Nearly six months later, guess what, Tom still does not have a passport for his son Frederick. My office has received conflicting advice from the Home Office about the status of this passport, and we have struggled to receive updates in a timely manner, regularly chasing the Home Office.
This is just one of a dozen cases brought to my attention by my Vauxhall constituents over the past few months regarding the unacceptable delays from the Passport Office. These delays mean that people are missing much-needed holidays after the covid pandemic. They mean that people are unable to see family members they have not seen for two and a half years. They mean that people are unable to attend life-changing events such as weddings or saying goodbye to their loved ones. These delays are unacceptable.
Tom’s story, and the many other stories that we will hear this afternoon from right across this House, show clearly that the Home Office is in disarray. Things cannot and must not carry on like this. Sadly, this highlights yet another example of failure on this Home Secretary’s watch, and it is leaving households right across the country suffering. People in Vauxhall and across the country deserve better, and the Minister must act urgently to sort out the delays and deliver a passport system that is fit for purpose. I highlighted to him in an intervention an email I had received while we were sitting in the Chamber, and I hope that he will help me to look into that if I email it to him later. When he responds to the debate, he needs to outline what tangible action he will be taking to address these delays before we see a massive increase in this backlog come the summer.
It is an honour and a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), who spoke very powerfully.
Like other hon. and right hon. Members in the Chamber this afternoon, I have been dealing with this surge in missing passports. Constituents are generally only contacting me—I am speaking facts here—after waiting 10 or 12 weeks, or more. That is double what the Prime Minister referred to at that very Dispatch Box at the end of May when he said “four to six weeks”. The fact is that that is just not the case.
This week, I put one of many written questions on waiting times to Ministers, and yesterday I received only a holding response to one of my questions about the number of people waiting, in reference to what the Prime Minister said, six weeks or more. This was the second question answered, after my first one tabled last month, which asked how many people have been waiting longer than four, six, eight or 10 weeks. I have simply not been given a straight answer, and I fail to understand why the data requested was not provided at this time. What have Ministers got to hide? Where is the transparency? As hon. Members across the House have said, particularly Labour Members, what is the backlog? Give us an answer! It is very important to our constituents.
My office has been inundated with calls and emails since well before March. I have a young constituent who has missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to represent his team abroad. Many have missed very important reunions after the covid pandemic, which indeed the Minister mentioned. Given that very covid pandemic—let us have some common sense here—we would have thought that resources would have been put in place to plan for what was coming down the line. These are basics—basics! Some constituents have travelled halfway across the country to pick up passports the day before flights. Indeed, the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), mentioned people travelling to Belfast from London. That is crazy—crazy!
Another contractor, contracted by the Passport Office obviously, is TNT. There have been many cases of it losing passports, and I ask the Minister: will this incompetency be rewarded with TNT losing that contract? To me, that would be a solution and common sense. The Home Office was warned about the surge in passport applications that would be seen after many people cancelled holidays, including my own family. Forward planning was needed, yet here we have Captain Chaos at the helm of this Government—the dead political man walking, who does not even have the backing of 148 of his own Members.
On the more serious and urgent cases that hon. Members have referred to, there are no means for MPs genuinely to escalate those. We are simply provided with an update and told that the case cannot be expedited any further. I have not had responses for the many cases I emailed about weeks and weeks ago, as again has been mentioned by Labour Members. Over the weekend, I received an email from one constituent who had tried to contact the Passport Office on 12 occasions through webchats, online forms, attempts to book appointments and phone calls. None of those methods resulted in updates or an escalation of their case, despite what has been said by some Conservative Members—and obviously at the moment the Minister is not listening to me or others at all.
The additional recruitment of staff—they are undoubtedly working their socks off—is still resulting in calls not being answered and certainly in our advocacy not being responded to. We are not making this up. This is not whingeing from the Opposition Benches; this is reality. This was all predictable, as has been stated. In fact, the PCS has pointed out—the hard-working staff on the frontline—that the Government have only recruited about 60% of the staff needed, and many are agency staff who do not have sufficient training.
I look forward to the Minister informing me and, very importantly, other Members across the House how the Government are finally going to get a grip of this situation—this crisis—and deal with backlog Britain.
I begin by paying tribute to all the staff at the passport office in Newport, which is located in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). Many of my constituents work there, and I want to thank them for all their ongoing hard work in difficult circumstances—which, I would add, are no fault of their own. They are an extremely dedicated team, and I thank them for that dedication.
We will never forget in Newport how the Conservative coalition Government tried in 2010 to close our Newport passport office. They were forced to change their mind by a very strong local campaign by the PCS Union, working with the South Wales Argus and the MP—the late, great Paul Flynn. The consequences of that would have been disastrous, and the current state of affairs shows just how important it is that we maintain and expand the workforce there and in other centres across the UK. The staff at the Passport Office are not to blame for the current problems we are seeing, but this Government are, and they are letting them down too.
Like other hon. Members, I have been inundated with correspondence and with cases from constituents who are nervous and distressed while waiting to hear back on the status of their passport applications. In many cases, the 10-week application turnaround target for dealing with applications has been totally missed, and some constituents, particularly those who applied before April, were never informed about the 10-week target anyway.
The growing backlog has also led to errors. One constituent had their personal documents sent to someone in Northern Ireland with the same name, and were very fortunate that that person reached out to them online. Their supporting documentation was sent back to the Passport Office, but has still not been returned to my constituent several weeks later. Another constituent has been bounced between appointments in Newport, Glasgow and London. It is a shambles, and a costly one. He tells me that he is now over £350 out of pocket on travel and passport fees.
Other constituents feel the same: those who have spent five hours on the phone chasing up the status of their application; those who have been promised call backs that never happen; those who have taken time off work to try to resolve the logjam they find themselves in through no fault of their own; and those having to wait until as late as 48 hours before they travel to find out if their passport will arrive, and trying to console their children about whether their holiday is still happening.
Constituents are desperate. There are plenty more examples I could give, and that others will give throughout the debate. At its root, the problem seems to be a lack of staffing resources, the loss of experienced staff to help upskill newcomers, systems struggling to process applications in the face of demand and a breakdown in communication between the in-house and outsourced elements of the Passport Office. Indeed, as has been referenced throughout this debate, the Home Office pays millions for failed outsourced contracts across the Passport Office, including courier services that lose hundreds of passports every year.
The mess was as preventable as it was predictable, and the buck stops with the Home Office, which was warned about increased demand for passports months ago, yet buried its head in the sand and allowed this huge backlog to grow. It is telling in this debate today that the Minister has repeatedly refused to answer the question of how big the backlog is. The PCS is quite right in highlighting the Home Secretary’s failure to plan, recruit and resource operations sufficiently to meet the upsurge in demand.
What makes it worse is that the MP hotlines at UK Visas and Immigration cannot answer passport queries. Despite details being taken and passed on to the Passport Office for a response, to date my office has struggled to obtain any replies through this correspondence chain, and has done so only via the drop-in service in Portcullis House. While I appreciate the excellent work that the staff are doing there—and they are—it is clearly not a sustainable system. I am fortunate in that I have a member of staff in Westminster and my constituency is less than three hours away on the train, but for other MPs further away, accessing this hub every week is difficult, and it is not a sustainable outcome for us. It is a logistical nightmare. Why can we not have a dedicated MP hotline for the Passport Office? We used to have one that worked very well, but the Government took it away from us.
Passport Office workers and the many thousands of people across the country waiting for news of their passport have been let down by an incompetent Home Secretary. She and the Prime Minister seem intent on cutting and outsourcing staff, and the Prime Minister has even talked up privatisation. Does the performance of TNT, Sopra Steria and Teleperformance suggest this is a good idea or a good use of taxpayers’ money? We think not. The Government seem more concerned with that than fixing problems in the here and now. As PCS has highlighted, a further loss of jobs at the Passport Office will only compound the present crisis. So, as many others have said, please get a grip.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing such an important debate and making such an excellent contribution. I join him and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), who sees this from a constituency angle, in paying tribute to the hard-working staff at our passport offices. None of the contributions from Opposition Members is designed in any way to attack the work of hard-working staff. This is about the direction of political leadership.
Like many Opposition Members, I am inundated with cases of constituents who have waited weeks and months for their passport and now face missing holidays, funerals and weddings as a result of the Government’s failings. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have been lost because of the Government’s mistakes, and the human cost cannot be quantified in numbers.
As has rightly been said time and again, and like many of the crises on this Government’s watch, the passport crisis was entirely foreseeable. I have heard Conservative Members make the case today that somehow, because of the covid pandemic, the crisis was not foreseeable. Anyone could have predicted that, following two years of lockdown in which foreign holidays were ill-advised if not banned outright, there would be a surge in passport applications. It was inevitable and clear for everyone to see, except for Ministers huddled around the Cabinet table who failed to prepare, to anticipate rising demand or to ensure sufficient staffing levels.
Once more, it is not this Government but ordinary people up and down the country who are going to suffer. The Government have not learned lessons and have not realised that moving nearly all their staff from one crisis to the next—the Afghan refugee crisis, the Ukrainian refugee crisis and, now, the Passport Office crisis—is simply not sustainable.
The Government are now pressing ahead with more staff cuts that will see 20% to 40% of Home Office staff cut by 2025. Those are not my figures—my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon quoted them earlier, and Conservative Members disputed them—they are from the Government’s own documents. The Minister says the Government do not intend to make those cuts in the Passport Office. Where is the guarantee? Frankly, this Government say one thing one day and change their mind a week later. How can we trust a word that is spoken here unless it is written on paper? At the moment, all that document says is that there will be cuts of between 20% and 40% in the Home Office.
Given what has happened in the Home Office over the last year alone, making cuts is absolutely mind-boggling. It seems that, after every crisis, Home Office Ministers suffer sudden collective amnesia: they are unable to remember what went wrong and incapable of putting it right as a result.
This point has perhaps not been made as much here today, but we must not kid ourselves that this is the only crisis the Home Office has overseen, because backlogs, delays and excuses are nothing new in the Home Office. We all know this as constituency MPs. This debate weaves together many of the backlogs right across the Home Office. As I said, the performance of political leadership lacks compassion, humanity and decency.
When I look at my constituency casework with regards to the Home Office, people are waiting not weeks or months, but years for a decision on their case as Home Office officials drag their feet, leaving my constituents in a state of uncertainty and near permanent limbo. How any Home Office Minister or official can justify or allow this near torturous experience is simply beyond me, yet it still continues.
I could outline case after case but, time not permitting, I will highlight just two or three. A constituent of mine has been waiting more than a decade for a decision. For the last year, he and I have been making requests so he can see his elderly mother, who is in the last stages of her life, yet he is unable to do so. I have a case where the father is here with his disabled children and the mother has been separated from the children while she waits for her passport. The father has been left alone here looking after their disabled children. I have had cases where there have been refusals because of a 1p discrepancy between the wage slip and the actual salary paid. Again, the reality is that that points towards a lack of compassion, decency and humanity from the Home Office.
Then there are the extortionate fees that people are made to pay. At a time when working families are struggling to put bread and butter on their table during a cost of living crisis that is a direct result of this Government’s incompetence, ideological austerity cuts over the last decade and mishandling, the Government want to charge working families tens of thousands of pounds for a simple application. That is the reality of where we are.
It could not be clearer that, under this Tory Government, the Home Office is lurching from crisis to crisis and leaving nothing but carnage for ordinary people in its wake. This is a Home Office that cannot get through a week without another scandal, another failing and another human rights disaster. Frankly, this Home Office is simply not fit for purpose.
The Prime Minister said last week that passports would be delivered within six weeks. When the Home Secretary heard Opposition Members say it is taking longer, she regularly mouthed, “Not true.” Today the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who is not in his place, could not or would not tell us the size of the backlog. If they cannot quantify the extent of the problem, they cannot be equipped to deal with it.
I will highlight a few examples from my constituency, although I could highlight dozens. I have families who are at risk of losing thousands of pounds due to cancelled holidays, and I have families who cannot visit loved ones or attend family reunions. Many of these events were planned months in advance, and a growing number of my constituents, despite what the Minister said, are having to wait much longer than 10 weeks. The Home Office has been chronically underperforming for years. Its private contractors are not fit to deliver for the British people, and this Government are incapable of planning ahead and making decisions quickly.
As Members have made very clear, the Home Office was warned about this, so why has the UK Passport Office reportedly failed to get the promised 1,700 new recruits to deal with the surge in applications? It has delivered just over a third of those jobs. It is consistently over-promising and under-delivering. The Prime Minister promised to privatise the Passport Office. Well, we see the crisis we are in. Teleperformance, which manages the hotline, has been described as having “unacceptable” performance by the Minister. But what is he doing about it? He is doing nothing. TNT, the private courier service, reportedly loses hundreds of passports every year, even in 2020, when the number of applications dropped. Why have this Government waited for things to come to crisis point? How have they let things get so bad? This is yet another failure. It has been crisis after crisis and our constituents are paying the price for it. One family in my constituency had to pay more than £1,000 to change the date of their holiday, after having to wait three times, on three separate occasions, to confirm their daughter’s identity. How ridiculous is that? Other families are looking at similar costs and many are riddled with anxiety, having to wait until the last possible minute to know whether they will be able to travel.
A family in my constituency cancelled a holiday to Florida because of covid and then rebooked for next week. They applied for their passports in March. The passports of the parents and two of the children have come back, but young Alfie’s passport is yet to appear. They have made a number of calls to the hotline, which I am sure Members know staff spend hours a day on. The family have been told to contact the office again 48 hours before departure. How ridiculous is that? We have been chasing for seven weeks and it is ridiculous that we cannot get an answer on why that child’s passport has not been produced.
There is a growing number of bizarre instances where constituents are having to wait unreasonable amounts of time to receive passports. Documents have been submitted. Supporting documents are not being returned. Families have been asked time and again for evidence, but the evidence has actually been received. One constituent abroad is unable to extend his stay because he does not have an extended passport. So he cannot leave because his passport is now out of date and he cannot get a new passport. It is a ridiculous situation.
The Minister said that, if MPs had cases they wanted him to look at, he would do so, but I can tell him that he will be tied up for months. It is ridiculous that people have to go through a Minister to get an answer to a problem. This is not a time for excuses. The Secretary of State needs to give our constituents answers—answers on why contractors are failing and why the systems put in place are not working. Interestingly, there are only three Conservative Members here. I suspect most Conservative Members are encountering similar problems but are too embarrassed to admit that the Government are failing. They are failing families and other people and it is an absolute disgrace.
We did get a letter from the Minister this morning, which was interesting because of the different scenarios. He is telling people to contact the hotline. The Government are not listening; the hotline is not working. People spend hours and are promised a call-back, but it does not happen. Another Member, who is no longer in his place, was talking about 10 weeks, but the bottom of the letter says, “The 10-week advice has now been withdrawn.” What are people expected to do? The shadow Minister spoke about productivity. Businesses that supply holidays are relying on this being a smooth process, as are families who want to travel. My biggest concern is the constant denial from those on the Government Benches that there is even a problem, or they do not accept the extent of the problem.
I am convinced that every Member has received letters, emails and telephone calls from their constituents reaching out to them about these delays and their frustrations with the Passport Office. We are hearing constantly about situations people are experiencing and our constituents’ frustrations. We were expecting a spike in passport applications post-covid. We knew that was going to come, as did the Government. Obviously, they had not fully prepared for it and the proof is in the pudding. They need to review that, but I suggest they do not do so now, because we need their focus on the Passport Office and getting this right for our constituents.
The Government are catching up, but they are doing so far too slowly. As we know, the Home Office is in crisis; the wildfire has gone out of control, and the Government really need to get a grip on this and gain control. Like many Members from across this Chamber, I do not hold the civil servants accountable for this in any way, shape or form; this is clearly about the Government, and they need to get ahead of the game. They need to work to ensure that these backlogs are brought under control.
As we heard from the Minister, we have no idea how many passport applications are being delayed and how vast the backlog is. We can only assume that it is vast and terrifying. I do not say that to alarm people in our country—our constituents. I do so to say to the Government, “You really need to address this, to make sure that this backlog is reduced.” We are hearing things about how it will be addressed, but we need to get a sense from the Government that they understand, that they apologise for the backlog and that they are seeking to reassure people that it will be addressed and that they will get on top of it.
People need to see their family members. The pandemic has lasted an extremely long time—more than two years—and people need to see their grandparents and parents, and visit their sons, daughters and friends. People need to travel for work and they need to go on holiday. There are so many reasons why people, including families, need their passports.
Many constituents have contacted me about this and I am going to share some of the examples of the situations they have been experiencing. One constituent has said that they have phoned several times and not been able to get an answer. They are frustrated by that and so have turned to my office, to me, to address this for them. My staff have told me that they have been on the line for 45 minutes trying to get through to the Home Office. They have even been on the phone for more than two hours and still not got through. The Government need to think, “Is this the best use of people’s time?” Is it the best use of our staff’s time if they are on hold, waiting to get through? Is it the best use of time, economically? Time is being wasted.
Constituents have told me that they have waited for an hour and a half and then someone has hung up on them. They have been distressed by this situation and have felt grossly let down. Last Friday, the Home Office phones were even down for a period, which is also unacceptable. Just yesterday, a constituent told me that they arrived at the Passport Office at 6 am, queued until 3 pm and when they were eventually seen by someone, they were told that their application was in Newcastle and that they needed to go there to advance it. That is simply outrageous. It is simply wrong. That is one of so many examples where our residents are feeling and being let down.
The Home Office has a pattern of failure, with inadequate systems for Afghan refugees, the inability to run the Windrush compensation scheme properly, and the shameful Rwanda offshoring policy, as well as the Department’s staffing shortages. The Government need a new, coherent strategy to reform the running of the Home Office, because our constituents are losing out and this is unacceptable.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) said in his opening speech, “A Government fail when they fail to plan”. This Government’s plans are failing.
I will start with the quote from our hon. Friend the shadow Minister that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) closed with:
“A Government who fail to plan are a Government who plan to fail”.
The response of Ministers on the Treasury Bench was to laugh. Government Members might find it funny, but Opposition Members do not because of the hundreds or thousands of constituents who come through our doors week after week. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), opening for the Government, said that the motion was tabled to have a pop at him. If we wanted to have a pop at someone, he would not be No. 1 on our list. The reason we tabled the motion is the suffering of the hundreds and thousands of our constituents who cannot get a passport.
As we have heard, the current situation in the Passport Office is causing serious problems for millions of people who are seeking to apply for or renew their passport. I have been inundated with complaints from my constituents in Hall Green, many of whom are not only experiencing delays, but being left in the dark about the status of their application. The delays are only the tip of the iceberg, though; constituents have come to me with a variety of worrying complaints about the Passport Office. I have constituents whose application has been withdrawn because the Passport Office says the documentation was not received on time, when in fact it was the Passport Office itself that misplaced the documentation. That has resulted in my constituents having to restart their application and pay the fees yet again. Even worse, applications have been withdrawn due to the time limit even when the Passport Office signed for the delivery of documents but failed to log them on to the system correctly. Documentation is simply being lost in the system, or in some cases even assigned to the wrong applicant.
When constituents rightly seek to lodge complaints about this malpractice, they are met with atrocious customer service. The complaints department is failing to log individual complaints on the system, with the result that people must constantly reiterate their case to the Passport Office; and when complaints are received, there is little or no follow-up on the part of the Passport Office.
My team of caseworkers spend hours of their time dealing with the Passport Office backlog—chasing applications and complaints on behalf of constituents whose travel plans now lie in tatters, due solely to the malpractice of this Government. I have listened to people in tears who can no longer travel to see loved ones who are sick, or to attend funerals of those they have lost. After years of travel restrictions rightly imposed due to the pandemic, we are now experiencing restrictions due purely to the delays at the Passport Office—because of the incompetence of this Tory Government. After 12 years in government, they cannot say they could not see this coming.
Given the severity of the problems, it is evident that more staff are needed—even more than have already been recruited. It would be useful to know whether the Passport Office has succeeded in recruiting the extra staff pledged in April this year. But the problem goes deeper than staffing issues and demand. It seems that, much like the Government as a whole, the entire Passport Office is in a state of chaos and dysfunction, due in no small part to the rudderless and confused leadership of the Home Secretary. While millions of people wait eagerly for their passports to be renewed, she is spending her energy devising ever more absurd and inhumane methods of making the UK an unwelcoming place for those fleeing persecution around the world. If the Home Secretary spent less time trying to deport people to Rwanda and more time managing her office, we might see progress—but for the sake of my health, I will not hold my breath. It is time that the Home Secretary and this Government get a grip.
The problems with the Passport Office are but one example of the boundless issues to be found across the Home Office’s remit. We see delays in visa applications, delays in the Homes for Ukraine scheme and delays for asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their case, with many waiting for more than a decade. To put it bluntly, the Home Office under its current leadership is not fit for purpose, and people will remember this when the general election rolls around.
Under this Government—12 years of Tory Government —passport waiting times are up; NHS waiting times, up; ambulance waiting times, up; GP waiting times, up; police response times, up; immigration biometrics waiting times, up; dentist waiting times, up; driving licence waiting times, up; cost of living, up. After 12 years of this Government, welcome to backlog Britain.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
This passport chaos is, to borrow the phrase used recently by one Minister, “absolutely godawful”. The scale of the delay really is quite worrying. Ministers may not know the extent of the problem, or perhaps they just want to keep it to themselves rather than admit to the scale of the crisis. I have a lot of sympathy for Passport Office staff, many of whom are based at Milton Street in my constituency. I know they are doing the best they can in the circumstances; it is Ministers and lack of investment in the service that are letting them down.
Nothing the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), said gives any comfort to the people who are queuing in a panic outside the Passport Office in my constituency, or waiting by their letterbox day after day for passports that have yet to arrive. One constituent, Scott, experienced significant delays: he made his application on 25 January and his passport was finally delivered on 9 April—to the wrong address. He has yet to receive a response to his complaint about this. It is a serious data breach if passports are indeed being delivered to the wrong person, as other Members have highlighted.
These delays and lack of response are not uncommon. Even I, as a constituency MP, am still waiting for responses to cases that I or my office raised in April, so I do not have an awful lot of confidence in the system. As I mentioned in an intervention, my constituent, Henry, has some issues with TNT, which failed to deliver his passport on three occasions; it got sent back to Peterborough. As of Sunday, he was still waiting for his passport. It is hugely frustrating to know that he could have had his passport had TNT not messed up the delivery.
My constituent Jennifer contacted me on 28 May and said:
“I am writing to you as I have a real dilemma trying to get my daughter her first adult passport. I have been trying for days to get a fast-track appointment, but no chance. I have literally sat for days refreshing the website on the off chance that I will get an appointment, even setting my alarm for midnight to try—no chance. I have a flight to Poland on 4 July. My daughter is going to see her dad whom she has not seen in three years. This is devastating for her.”
I contacted Jennifer today and she emailed me to say that the passport application has been approved, but that there is still no sign of the actual passport. She says that she has called several times. She has been put on hold, been passed about and been cut off. It is an absolute shambles. I have yet to have a response to the complaints that my office has put in on this case and on many others. Those complaints are still coming in.
I spoke to taxi driver Martin on Monday morning on my way to the Chamber. He will lose thousands of pounds if the passport for his child does not arrive within the next week or so. I urge the Minister to consider the fact that Scottish schools break up for the summer holidays next week, so there is a real and pressing case to prioritise passport applications for people in Scotland and in other parts of the UK who may go off on holiday a little earlier. Many of those families have already rebooked because of covid. They have had lots of delays, and any further delay could mean families losing thousands and thousands of pounds.
My constituent, Lisa, has documented in great detail the lack of response that she has had from the Home Office and the stress that it has caused. Her son’s first passport arrived on 10 June, but she had applied for passports for her whole family on 1 March. The other members of the family got their passports, but there was nothing for her son. The family could hardly go on holiday, leaving one member of the family behind. That is just not practical—I am sure that Ministers would not want them to so in any event.
It is incredibly distressing for families to go through this stress, not knowing whether a passport will arrive, not knowing whether they should cancel their holiday on the off chance that it does not arrive or whether they should wait in the hope that it arrives just in time. There is really no reassurance for the waiting families.
My constituent Wafa was in touch with me. A glitch in the system at the Home Office meant that their application was not processed. My constituent, despite many attempts to get in touch to resolve this issue, has only just got an appointment with the Home Office to get their passport application under way. There is no recognition from the Passport Office that this delay was its fault. It was the fault not of my constituent but of a glitch in the system that my constituent attempted on many occasions to resolve. They do not yet know whether they will get their passport in time to travel. That is just not fair.
All of this backlog is not exclusive to the Passport Office part of the Home Office. I see significant delays in other areas of the Home Office, week in, week out. I have the case of a husband who is not able to be here for the birth of his first child, because his paperwork has been delayed by the Home Office. It is a relatively simple visa case, but my constituent may not be able to be present for the birth of their first child. If the Home Office does not get its finger out, the mother will give birth on her own without the support of her husband.
There is a lot of talk from the Government about the cost of the immigration system and the cost of keeping people in inexpensive hotels and temporary accommodation. That is entirely due to the Home Office’s own incompetence and delays. The costs are significant and people are left waiting indefinitely with only an impersonal standard response from Ministers, if, indeed, they get a response at all.
What is the response to all of this? It is a yet more expensive plan—a white elephant—of sending people to Rwanda through state-sponsored deportations and state-sponsored trafficking.
This is nothing that my constituents in Scotland have voted for. When we have a passport system of our own—I hope that that day will come very soon—we will look at Westminster and say, “Good grief, we cannot do any worse than this mob.”
Passport delays are causing immense stress to my constituents. This problem was predictable, but the Government completely failed to plan properly for the surge in applications when borders reopened. The Prime Minister will not admit that there is a problem and cannot even say how long it is taking for passports to be processed. It seems to be an unlucky dip of four, six or 10 weeks, but far too many of my constituents are waiting even longer than that.
A mother wrote to me a month ago to ask for my help on her son’s passport after receiving no response from the Passport Office. After weeks of chasing the new passport, she was advised that HMPO had lost her documents and that they would need to apply and pay for a lost passport and start the process again. After more weeks of waiting, my constituent chased the Passport Office again only to discover that it had entered the wrong details on the system. My constituent was exasperated when the call handler thought it was funny—the date of birth that they had entered would have made my constituent 600 years old. The HMPO advised that it would fast-track the application, but that did not happen.
My team had to travel to Parliament to raise a number of cases with action teams in Portcullis House, but the flaw in that system—other than the inconvenience and expense of my caseworkers having to travel to Parliament to escalate cases—is that the MP engagement team do not appear to have a full overview of all actions that have been taken on a case, including any notes added by the Portcullis House team. That means that caseworkers are unable to follow up on any action that the Portcullis House team has committed to without travelling to London again. I hope the Minister will look at fixing that. Despite the best efforts of my team, my constituent had to cancel the flights that she had booked to pick up a family member’s ashes and was absolutely devastated to miss the memorial service. She finally received her son’s passport on 7 June—nearly 13 weeks after the application. My constituents should not have to deal with the stress and incompetence of a service for which they pay the Government a lot of money.
Missing significant family occasions during the pandemic was tragic but understandable. It really is disgraceful that it is still happening because of a failed passport system. The Government are desperate to point the finger at civil servants. The Passport Office has not covered itself in glory, but there is much more going on here. The Government want us to believe that a hitherto hard-working group of individuals have suddenly and for no apparent reason decided to stop doing their jobs properly. Nothing seems to be working under this Government, whether it is getting a GP appointment, a visa, access to courts, a dental appointment, or a driving licence. Nothing is working properly. If the public are sick of the appalling delays and errors with HMPO, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is now just waiting for the Prime Minister to cut its staff by a reported 90,000.
The common denominator in all these failings is this Government’s mismanagement, underachievement and incompetence. I have no confidence that any of this will be sorted out before the summer holiday rush starts. This is where the impact of this Government’s policies will be revealed for all to see, as there will be chaotic delays, queues and frustrations at passport control and customs. The Government should sort it out now.
I rise to support today’s motion on the Order Paper. As we have heard, the delays at the Passport Office have caused huge anxiety and stress for many of my constituents and many others around the country. There is no doubt that the Home Office under this Government is, or at least it should be, in special measures. The shambolic way in which the Government have handled the situation is symbolic of their messy approach and sums up what my hon. Friend the shadow Minister rightly calls “backlog Britain”.
It is appalling that at a time when the cost of living crisis is hitting the country hard, Home Office incompetence is forcing British families to pay for fast-track passport services or face losing hundreds of pounds due to cancelled holidays. The Home Office was warned that a surge in passport applications was likely as early as November last year, but it completely failed to do the forward planning needed to prevent the chaos that we have seen over the past few months. Now the Home Office is paying millions of pounds for failing outsourced contracts across the Passport Office, including a courier service that loses hundreds of passports every year. The Government also estimated that 1,700 staff would be needed, but is it not the case that only 1,000 new recruits have been confirmed?
The Home Office’s incompetence is preventing families from going on long-awaited holidays and hard-earned breaks, preventing loved ones from being reunited, and preventing people from attending weddings and funerals. British families deserve so much better.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Over the past six weeks 26 families have contacted my office, in various states of stress and utter frustration with the Home Office. One family have been waiting 14 weeks for a passport for a family member to visit a terminally ill relative. To me, that sums up the problem. As my hon. Friend is explaining so perfectly, it is the result of a lack of planning and strategy at the Home Office. They really need to apply themselves.
I completely agree, and I will shortly illustrate my hon. Friend’s point with cases from my own constituency.
As we know, the target for passport processing has been increased to 10 weeks, up from three weeks pre-pandemic. However, even this increased target has repeatedly been missed. In the first three months of this year alone, over 35,000 people had to wait longer than 10 weeks for their passport to be issued, despite the Prime Minister’s claim that everybody is getting their passport within six weeks.
The number of monthly fast-track applications has more than doubled since December 2021. In April 2022, British families spent at least £5.4 million on fast-track services. The Passport Office’s own forecasts show that it expects to receive over 240,000 fast-track applications between May and October this year, amounting to up to £34 million. Is this a cash cow for the Home Office?
My constituency team are currently dealing with around 70 cases, and the chaos is causing them undue anxiety. Many applications are outstanding for more than the 10-week period. My constituents are unable to speak to a decision maker, and when they contact the helpline the information is often wrong or out of date. There is a general lack of communication regarding applications, and often the online tracker is not updated. Hard copies of documents routinely go missing from passport offices and constituents are asked to send documents to various passport centres. Applications have been cancelled, supposedly for lack of documents, despite evidence that documents have been lost at passport offices.
There are reports that applicants are being asked to pay for an upgrade, despite now being eligible for one after their application has been logged for six weeks. MP account managers are unable to make decisions on cases; they can only view information on a screen. Requests for call-backs from decision makers are hardly ever followed up. Constituents have been told to collect their passport at offices many hundreds of miles away from south Wales—I know of similar situations elsewhere across the country. Passports could be printed at any passport office, regardless of where the application was initially dealt with, so that needs to be followed up by Ministers.
All of this is having an impact on constituents and creating huge anxiety and stress. I will give a few local examples. A family were forced to cancel their holiday to Disneyland Paris, losing several hundred pounds and devastating their seven-year-old daughter. It is not just holidays that are affected, important as they are for wellbeing after the difficult past two years. Another constituent is travelling for work at the end of the month but also requires a passport as proof of identity. They do not hold any other photo ID and need the document in order to pay a tax bill to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Every day’s delay adds interest to their bill.
Another constituent wanted to update her passport after marriage. She posted her old passport and marriage certificate to the Passport Office. The passport was scanned but the certificate was lost. She has proof of postage and receipt of delivery. The Passport Office has now cancelled her application but wants to charge her a further £75 application fee.
As part of one constituent’s first passport application, a copy of her mother’s birth certificate was requested. This was posted but not matched to her application in time, so the application was cancelled. My constituent has been told to make a new application, with another fee. We have written to UKVI to complain and ask for the original application to be reinstated.
I know that these examples are repeated across the country, which is why the Government must accept full responsibility for this shambles and commit to come to the House as soon as possible to provide answers on what exactly they are going to do to end the misery that many of my constituents, and thousands more across the country, are experiencing. If they cannot sort it out, they should get out of the way and let a Labour Government work to sort out not just this mess, but the many others that they have created.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, because Newport West is proudly home to one of the largest passport offices in the United Kingdom, with nearly 300 essential workers staffing the application process, many of whom are my constituents. They perform a vital public service. Many colleagues across the House have rightly pointed out that the backlog has caused immense distress and difficulty for their constituents. That has been described eloquently by many Opposition colleagues. Many of my constituents have also experienced these difficulties. It is worth noting where the root of the problem lies, and it is not with the workers of the Newport passport office, or indeed any of the passport offices up and down the country.
My hon. Friend talks about the staff at Newport passport office. I would like to pay tribute not only to the many constituents who have patiently queued outside the passport office, but to the staff, who have been very kind and co-operative. They deserve recognition for the hard work that they are having to do because of the Government’s failures.
My hon. Friend makes an important point perfectly, and I will of course take that message back to the Newport passport office.
Interestingly, until now, like my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), I have been unable to meet the staff of the Newport passport office, and I am still not sure why management are blocking that meeting.
It was clear from the moment the country began to reopen that passport applications would not only return to pre-pandemic levels but exceed them, as many people understandably had not renewed their passport while international travel was difficult or impossible—it did not take Mystic Meg to see that backlog coming down the tracks. The pandemic presented novel issues, but the problems it revealed were not new. The Government were given ample warning, and opportunities to recruit and train staff and improve systems. However, as during previous periods of application surges, such as 2014, the Government yet again dropped the ball.
Over the past six years, civil service staffing levels in HMPO have been consistently cut, including by over 5% in some years, so the staffing increase trumpeted by the Minister today does not cut it, because we are not yet back to 2016 levels. The Home Office was warned as early as November 2021 about the impact that a likely surge in passport applications would have. PCS—the union for Passport Office workers—stated that the Home Office’s own original estimate for dealing with the backlog was that 1,700 additional staff would be required. Alas, we know that fewer than 1,000 staff have been brought in—with many of them not receiving adequate training to process passports in a timely manner—and at least a quarter of them are agency staff.
My inbox is full of emails from anxious constituents who followed the rules but still do not have their passports. There is a human cost to this for those people who desperately need their passports after two years of enduring immense hardship away from family members and friends abroad, or even just those seeking the brief respite of a long weekend in the sun. People right across the country have been failed yet again by this Government and their inability to plan properly. More than that, in my constituency office we have been dealing with cases where people have been unable to visit dying relatives, and where the backlog has meant people are unable to mourn with family abroad.
One case that came into my constituency office was that of Sandie. Sandie contacted us because her father had passed away overseas. My staff had to go back to the Passport Office twice to ensure that Sandie could get her passport in order to get over to Canada to sort out her father’s funeral arrangements. In Sandie’s own words, she
“cannot imagine the stress that other people who have sick relatives overseas and who’ve been trying to get to see them have been going through”.
Fortunately, we were able to intervene and get the Passport Office to expedite this case and others, as have many other Members across the House, but far too many people have not been so fortunate.
There is another human element to this backlog that we need to remember. The staff in passport offices across the country, including in Newport West, are bearing the brunt of this Government’s incompetence. Hard-working staff who worked through the pandemic, many of them now on insecure, poorly paid contracts, face abuse in the media as a result of this Government’s shirking their responsibilities and laying the blame at the door of the staff. Reports now state that as a result of dilapidated IT systems, rock-bottom wages and a lack of proper support from the Government, morale among the workforce is at an all-time low. We are told that in the Newport passport office there is a particularly high rate of staff attrition as a result of conditions that the Government have impressed on it.
I completely agree with the motion before the House today. I call on the Minister to apologise for his handling of the passport crisis and to work with all those in relevant areas and Departments to get things back on track, so that constituents in Newport West and across the UK can resume their travel plans and get on with their lives.
Like every other MP who has spoken in the debate and, I suspect, every other MP across the Benches, I have an inbox and postbag full of Passport Office delays. We opened 30 cases last month, as the target for passport processing has slid to 10 weeks.
To share some further examples from my Halifax constituency, we have been working with a family who made an application on 17 March for the renewal of a child’s passport for a holiday on 30 May. We chased multiple times and escalated the case as the holiday got closer. The passport was finally processed and arrived the day before their holiday. However, the Passport Office made a spelling mistake in the child’s name, despite its having been spelled correctly by his parents on all the forms. It took that family more than 10 weeks to get the passport, and when it arrived it was wrong. They had no choice but to cancel their family holiday.
Another family applied for the passports of both their son and daughter to be renewed at the same time, with exactly the same information provided for both, other than their names, dates of birth and genders. Remarkably, the son’s application was processed immediately and arrived two weeks later. The daughter’s, however, is still ongoing, with the Passport Office continuing to raise new issues with it. First it queried the mother’s parental responsibility; then it said the referee who had countersigned the passport was not eligible to do so. Those may well be legitimate queries, but the information being questioned was exactly the same information provided for her brother’s passport, which was processed in two weeks. We are in a position where the process cannot be right, which prompts the question: why the inconsistency? Where is the oversight?
A third family applied for their daughter’s passport six weeks before she turned 16. They sought advice, given that if someone is within three weeks of turning 16 they are advised to apply for an adult passport. However, the Passport Office advised them to still apply for a child’s passport. Unsurprisingly, they have now been told she needs to apply for an adult passport and the family need to start the application process again, with their family holiday now imminent and hanging in the balance.
We have heard too many such cases in the Chamber today. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) spoke of exhausted staff of Her Majesty’s Passport Office having to witness threats of self-harm from a member of the public who was desperate for a passport. I thank her for her dedication and for being such a powerful advocate for those staff today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) told heartbreaking stories of lost holidays that his constituents had shared with him. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) told the story of her constituent Tom, who has endured various problems, setbacks and issues in applying for a passport for his six-year-old son. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) highlighted the challenges in just getting access to the data that we would all so like to see, including the answer to the big question—the size of the backlog.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), who is a brilliant champion of her constituents, spoke of the local campaign she was involved with to retain her local passport office, working alongside the PCS union. She also spoke powerfully, as others have done, of the impact on children in particular of not knowing whether their family holidays will go ahead as planned, or will ultimately have to be cancelled at very short notice.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), who spoke of this not being the only crisis in the Home Office. I am afraid the crisis in political leadership and its lack of compassion is making for an agonising time for anyone who needs Home Office services. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) spoke of a family who had to pay £1,000 to change the date of their holiday.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) reminded us that there are so many different reasons why people need to travel, and told some particularly heartbreaking stories. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) spoke of his constituents who had been unable to attend the funerals of loved ones—an utterly heartbreaking position to be in.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) again spoke of people’s missing family funerals and significant family events, not for public health reasons, but for admin reasons, which has had a devastating impact on his constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) spoke of the Prime Minister’s claim that everybody is getting their passports within six weeks—an utter nonsense, when we have all shared constituency stories from our caseloads. Last but by no means least, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) spoke about the predictability of the surge in demand and asked why we were not prepared for it.
My hon. Friend is telling the stories of so many of our hon. Friends. I could not be here earlier in the debate, but I want to share a story from my constituency. Many of my constituents are frequent business travellers or academics. They cannot release their passport for 10 weeks. Many of them have been trying to get a one-week appointment online so that they can go in person and sort it out, but those appointments are not available online; nobody can get them, even though they cost double what a normal passport does. Is that not also a massive issue for frequent travellers?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, speaking to the variety of reasons why people have to unlock this backlog, whether for work or personal reasons. There are economic reasons why we must get productivity up and have people able to travel again, alongside the family connections that we need to see re-established and people’s ability to undertake holidays once again.
As the Minister for migration is back in his place, I must say that I am grateful for the occasions when I have been able to reach out to him and he has intervened on cases where I have made an appeal directly to him. However, I am privileged in that I have his mobile number; what we are trying to get to is a position where—[Interruption.] For purely professional reasons, for anyone who made an odd noise there. We are trying to get to a process whereby a constituent out there would not need to have access to the Minister’s mobile number in order to have their case resolved by this Home Office.
At a time when the cost of living crisis is hitting the country hard and after two years of family holidays having to be postponed and rearranged, Home Office incompetence is landing British families with yet more unnecessary costs as they pick up the tab for the failures and pay for fast-track passport services, or face losing hundreds of pounds in cancelled holidays. The number of monthly fast-track applications has more than doubled since December 2021, as other colleagues have said. In April this year alone, British families spent at least £5.4 million on fast-track services.
The Passport Office’s own forecasts show that it expects to receive more than 240,000 fast-track applications between May and October this year, at a cost of an incredible £34 million. The cost of passport failure is being passed on to families stuck between a rock and a hard place, at the worst possible time. Even the fast-track service, as we have just heard, is not always a guarantee, with the website often saying that there is no availability of appointments due to high demand. My constituents report that they are calling day after day with no success. One constituent emailed:
“Another stressful day has passed of getting no answers from the passport office. It’s nothing but incorrect information and false hope. I’ve arranged 3 call backs, one of them being from the upgrade team and not one of them have got back to me. I’m due to travel next Friday, and I have no hope whatsoever.”
The trade union PCS says that the Home Office originally estimated that 1,700 new staff members would be needed to deal with the backlog, but as far as we are aware—and we have had confirmation of this—only about 500 have actually been recruited. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed the timeline for when those additional staff members will be joining their colleagues on the frontline.
In April, the Prime Minister reportedly said that he wanted to privatise the Passport Office, using more unparliamentary language than I have at the Dispatch Box. However, the Minister has confirmed to the House that most of the services within the process have already been privatised, with in-house staff dealing only with decisions on applications themselves. I suspect that it will come as a surprise to precisely no one to hear that the Prime Minister is not across the detail on this, but what does he think is left to privatise, and how exactly, based on the performance of the existing contractors, does he think it will improve the service? Looking at the three private service providers involved in passports, freedom of information requests published by the Mirror last month revealed that TNT, as the courier service for the Passport Office, has lost hundreds of passports and documents in the past two years despite applications being lower due to the pandemic, with 519 lost items in 2020 and a staggering 1,196 in the first seven months of 2021. This £77 million three-year contract was awarded in July 2019 and is due to be reconsidered this summer, so how do the Government propose to transform the courier service?
Sopra Steria, which provides frontline and support services including scanning, uploading and storage of documents, has its own backlogs, with PCS estimating that by April 500,000 applications completed by customers were awaiting opening and scanning on to Sopra Steria’s system. As we have heard, the performance of Teleperformance, which operates the helpline, has already been deemed unacceptable by Ministers. So how exactly does the Prime Minister think that to simply repeat the words “privatise it” is fixing a broken system that is already largely privatised?
Another constituent who got in touch shared their utter frustration:
“We got married on the 7th May after postponing 3 times. I applied for an urgent upgrade a week ago as I travel a week today and I’ve still not had a phone call back to make the payment and begin fast track. I have less than a week to get my passport to go on my honeymoon. I applied with plenty of time and also applied for the urgent upgrade.”
“This issue has caused me and my family a great deal of distress, expense and now we are potentially looking at having to cancel our holiday, losing a significant amount of money.”
This Government are presiding over backlog Britain. If it is not passports, it is drivers’ licences, NHS waiting times, court dates, charging decisions, asylum decisions, housing waiting lists and Ukraine visas—and the list goes on. People cannot be expected to find the additional cash needed to bypass Home Office failure. They deserve better. This Government must apologise and find a way of delivering better.
I need to emphasise once again how important it is for colleagues to come back for the wind-ups in order to be able to hear the responses from both the shadow Minister and the Minister to what they have said in their speeches.
While 98.5% of UK passport applications are being processed within 10 weeks, it is clear that some of our constituents have not received the level of service that they rightly expect. I assure colleagues that the efforts to improve delivery of passport services continue. The further 550 staff still to be added going into the summer will further increase the capacity for processing applications and build on the record numbers being processed now. HM Passport Office’s current projection suggests that by the end of this month more applications will have been processed in 2022 than throughout the whole of the previous year.
I am grateful to colleagues across the House for their contributions to this debate. We heard from the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), my hon. Friend—and almost neighbour—the Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes), and the hon. Members for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), for Blackburn (Kate Hollern), for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), and for Newport West (Ruth Jones). Many of them, including the hon. Member for Newport West, rightly paid tribute to staff working in HMPO offices. I echo what they said to hard-working staff working in difficult circumstances.
Many colleagues across the House rightly asked what we have done and what we are doing on resourcing to make sure that the operation is commensurate with the task at hand. I can tell them that 650 additional staff have been added since April 2021 and 550 more are being recruited. The hon. Member for City of Durham helpfully outlined the use of agency staff and overtime in order to increase the capacity. I think at one point she was suggesting that we should not be deploying extra agency staff and overtime, which would of course make matters worse. The telephone operator, Teleperformance, has also added hundreds of staff, and other suppliers have increased their capacity, too. We have opened an eighth service counter and run extensive proactive communications, including issuing 5 million reminder texts to people with passports expired or soon to expire.
A couple of colleagues asked whether staff working from home is causing delays, and it is not. Whether staff work from home or from the office does not impact on the capacity within the digital system, which is accessible from home. The hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) asked from the shadow Front Bench specifically about courier services. I can confirm that through constructive work with FedEx, which is the parent company of TNT, delivery delays have been resolved and TNT is currently delivering within the contractual service levels.
In anticipation of the surge in demand and to provide greater resilience to the delivery network, a percentage of domestically delivered passports are now also arriving via HMPO’s partner for international deliveries, which she will know is DHL, with supporting documents being returned by Royal Mail. More than one Opposition MP asked about the TNT contract. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on such commercial matters from the Dispatch Box, but I will say that the relationship between the Passport Office and FedEx is constructive and the current performance is as required.
The hon. Member for Halifax also asked about Sopra Steria and the back-office processing. I confirm that it has doubled its workforce supporting Her Majesty’s Passport Office since the start of 2022, alongside opening up a number of new processing centres. Its efforts have enabled the registration of applications and supporting documents on our system and the return of supporting documents to keep pace with the unprecedented demand.
The question of privatisation or otherwise has been raised multiple times in the debate. Again, to be clear, elements of the process, such as the printing and the delivery of the passports, are already contracted to private suppliers. We are committed, naturally, to ensuring that public services are run as efficiently and effectively as possible, and that gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to our hard-working staff.
We are living through the aftermath of a pandemic that has been at once an unprecedented medical and healthcare shock, an unprecedented peacetime economic shock and an unprecedented travel and movement of people shock. It is one with multiple uncertainties, adverse turns and false dawns. It has disrupted supply chains, interrupted business continuity and thwarted projections at every turn throughout this country and throughout the world. It has specifically thrown the travel trade off course and everyone’s planning of its usual pattern far off course.
In 2020, there were roughly 4 million passport applications in this country. In 2021, it was about 5 million. This year—2022—we project it will be 9.5 million. In the face of this enormous change, everyone’s focus has been on trying to make sure that Britain—our constituents—can get back travelling, whether that is taking their hard-earned holidays or doing that business travel, which underpins our national prosperity, or those visits to be with loved ones, both in the happiest of times and in the saddest of times, when their personal in-person support is so important.
Amid the overwhelming volumes, it is true that sometimes things have not been fast enough and call waiting times have been too long, and I am sorry for that, but it is not for want of will, effort or commitment. I pay tribute to the dedicated staff of Her Majesty’s Passport Office working under this pressure.
I also want to say a word about the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). I must say that I am rather disappointed by the wording of the motion. What is happening with passport applications is an entirely legitimate, worthwhile and relevant subject for debate, but it is quite wrong to channel that into a personal criticism of him. He is an extremely engaged and active Minister working with officials to deal with these unprecedented issues. I have heard many accounts, and we have heard more today, of his personal work to help to expedite some of the most difficult cases by doing casework out of hours and at weekends for hon. Members on both sides of the House.
My constituent went to Durham passport office to collect his passport only to be told that there was an issue with the photo that had previously been approved. He has just been to deliver new photos, but staff told him that they have no record of his interview, despite the Home Office telling me two hours ago that it was on the system. He flies to America on Monday. What do I tell him?
Order. This is the Minister’s winding-up speech; it is not the place for a new speech. I let the hon. Lady finish because—[Interruption.] Do not argue with me. I let her finish because she was speaking on behalf of a constituent, and it matters, but that is not how we conduct debate.
I think the hon. Lady will appreciate that it is impossible—literally impossible—for me to comment on the details of that case and the particular issue with the photograph and so on from the Dispatch Box of the House of Commons, but if she speaks to our colleagues in the hub in Portcullis House, or with me or the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay after the debate, we will be sure to pick it up.
The difficulties that we have heard about today absolutely must be taken with great seriousness, and that is happening. I assure hon. Members that we will continue to look at ways to further improve performance. I also remind them that 98.5% of UK applications across March, April and May were processed within the published processing time. Indeed, the overwhelming majority were processed more quickly than that, with more than 91% of those completed in May having been processed within six weeks.
I certainly do not seek to minimise the frustrations that have been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House during the debate, but I assure the House that everybody at Her Majesty’s Passport Office is completely focused on meeting the needs of customers ahead of their long-awaited and hard-earned summer holidays.