Summer is upon us and while people’s thoughts might tentatively be turning to the prospect of holidays somewhere perhaps warmer than home, a timely debate took place last week in the House of Commons on the problems with the Home Office’s mismanagement of the passport service.
I led in the debate for my group, after having received an increasing number of approaches from concerned constituents facing inordinate delays with passport applications and renewals. Some, who had applied with plenty of time to spare, now find their travel date looming and no passport in sight.
In the debate, members highlighted the plight of those currently languishing in this backlog. I’m sorry to report that in his response, not only did the Minister responsible offer no apology or regrets whatsoever - railing instead at opposition MPs who had had the temerity to question his effectiveness in dealing with the problems - he was unable even to tell MPs how big the backlog actually is at present.
Regardless as to the size of the backlog or how hard staff are working to clear it, the Home Office’s 10-week target is routinely being missed, with MPs hearing of delays of up to five months or even more for applications to be processed. To put this in perspective, this is up from an average of three weeks average processing time for applications prior to the pandemic. Meanwhile, travellers are being forced to cancel travel bookings, often losing money in the process.
While the volume of applications is perhaps unprecedented, I don’t believe Ministers can claim that it was in any way unexpected as people seek to travel once again.
The Home Office has access to passport data, including the number of passports set to expire, all the way through the pandemic. Officials and Ministers were therefore fully aware of the spike in applications that was likely to come as soon as restrictions on travel were lifted.
As ever, it is the human stories that really illustrate the situation best. A case from my own office is of a family looking to return to Scotland from the USA. Their inability to get passports for their children is not only risking their ability to travel but preventing them from enrolling their children in school.
Then there is a wider problem that affects the UK Government’s attitude to public services and that is with the fragmentation of the service. The Prime Minister said 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 part-privatisations that have already taken place.
The Government has serious questions to answer about their choice of private providers. Their 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.
Individuals, families and businesses have been left in limbo, with long-arranged plans suspended, upended or overturned. I can only imagine the noise there would be from certain quarters at present if this were a problem of the Scottish Government’s making. Instead of brittle defensiveness, the UK Government ministers responsible need urgently to get a grip if we are to avoid a summer of cancellations and misery.