HM Passport Office Backlog

Published date : 14 June, 2022
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.

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