Urgent Question on Passports
Theresa May (Home Secretary): Her Majesty’s Passport Office is receiving 350,000 more applications for passport applications and renewals than is normal at this time of year. This is the highest demand for 12 years. Since January, HMPO has been putting in place extra resources to try to make sure that people receive their new passports in good time, but as the House will know there are still delays in the system. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, the number of straightforward passport applicants who are being dealt with outside the normal three-week waiting time is about 30,000.
Her Majesty’s Passport Office has 250 additional staff who have been transferred from back-office roles to front-line operations, and 650 additional staff to work on its customer helpline. HMPO is operating seven days a week and couriers are delivering passports within 24 hours of them being produced. From next week, HMPO is opening new office space in Liverpool to help the new staff to work on processing passport applications.
Despite those additional resources, it is clear that HMPO is still not able to process every application it receives within the normal three-week waiting time for straightforward cases. At the moment, the overwhelming majority of cases are dealt with within that time limit, but that is, of course, no consolation to applicants who are suffering delays and are worried about whether they will be able to go on their summer holidays. I understand their anxiety and the Government will do everything they can—while maintaining the security of the passport—to make sure people get their passports in time.
There is no big-bang single solution so we will take a series of measures to address the pinch points and resourcing problems that HMPO faces. First, on resources, I have agreed with the Foreign Secretary that people applying to renew passports overseas for travel to the UK will be given a 12-month extension to their existing passport. Since we are talking about extending existing passports—documents in which we can have a high degree of confidence—this relieves HMPO of having to deal with some of the most complex cases without compromising security.
Similarly, we will put in place a process so that people who are applying for passports overseas on behalf of their children can be issued with emergency travel documents for travel to the UK. Parents will still have to provide comprehensive proof that they are the parents before we will issue these documents, because we are not prepared to compromise on child protection, but again this should relieve an administrative burden on HMPO.
These changes will allow us to free up a significant number of trained HMPO officials to concentrate on other applications. In addition, HMPO will increase the number of examiners and call handlers by a further 200 staff. Secondly, HMPO is addressing a series of process points to make sure that its systems are operating efficiently.
Thirdly, where people have an urgent need to travel, HMPO has agreed to upgrade them: that is, their application will be considered in full; it will be expedited in terms of its processing, printing and delivery; and HMPO has agreed to upgrade those people free of charge. All these measures are designed to address the problem that is immediately at hand. In the medium to long term, the answer is not just to throw more staff at the problem but to ensure that HMPO is running as efficiently as possible and is as accountable as possible. I have therefore asked the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill, to conduct two reviews.
As I said, in the medium to long term the answer is not just to throw more staff at the problem but to ensure that HMPO is running as efficiently as possible and is as accountable as possible. I have therefore asked the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill, to conduct two reviews: first, to ensure that HMPO works as efficiently as possible, with better processes, better customer service and better outcomes; and, secondly, to consider whether HMPO’s agency status should be removed, so that it can be brought into the Home Office, reporting directly to Ministers, in line with other parts of the immigration system since the abolition of the UK Border Agency.
Yvette Cooper (Shadow Home Secretary): This has been a sorry shambles from a sorry Department and a Home Secretary who cannot even bring herself to say that word. Government incompetence means that people are at risk of missing their holidays, their honeymoons and their business trips. Every MP has been inundated with these cases and it seems that she has not even known what was going on.
There has been a huge turnaround in the things the Home Secretary has to say from two days ago, when we asked her the same questions. On Tuesday, she told us that the Passport Office was meeting all its targets; on Wednesday, she told us that maybe it needed more staff; and today she says that maybe it needs some changes in policy too. On Tuesday, she told us there was no backlog; on Wednesday, the Prime Minister said there was. On Tuesday, she said, “it is not true” that staff numbers have been cut; on Wednesday, her own figures showed that they have been cut by 600; and now she is having to put them back.
On Tuesday, the Home Secretary told us the only problem was rising summer demand, but now we find out that she took over passports for foreign residents from the Foreign Office in April, even though diplomats warned that it was not working. On Tuesday, the Minister for Security and Immigration said that security was not being compromised, and now we find out that on Monday security checks on addresses and counter-signatories were dropped; and Ministers claim that they did not have a clue what was going on. Well, that much is certainly true.
Can the Home Secretary tell us now how bad the situation is, not only for the straightforward cases but for all the other cases, and what does she mean by “straightforward” cases anyway? How long will it take to get the system back to normal? When all her changes are in place, what can families across Britain expect? When did she first know there was a problem? MPs have been warning about this issue for ages. Why did she not know that those security checks were being dropped? Surely she has spent the past week asking for details about everything that has been going on. Or perhaps she has not, because the truth is that she did not know what was going on. She has come to this late. She has not had her eye on the ball. She has been distracted by other things.
It is really unfair on people who have saved up everything for their holiday, only to see it wrecked by the Home Secretary’s incompetence. Will she now apologise to those facing ruined holidays, business trips or trips back to Britain? Will she get a grip on her Department and sort it out?
Theresa May (Home Secretary): The Shadow Home Secretary has raised a number of issues. The Passport Office started to receive increased numbers of applications not just in recent weeks, but from the beginning of the year, so it took action to increase the number of staff available to deal with them. From January to May, over 97% of applicants in straightforward cases received their passport within three weeks, and over 99% received them within four weeks, but of course that means there were applicants who did not receive their passport within the normal expected time. That is why the Passport Office has been increasing the number of staff throughout this period and will continue to do so, as I have indicated.
[Interruption.] The problem comes when the right information is not there or the correct forms have not been sent in. The Shadow Home Secretary asked about the difference between straightforward and more complex cases. A case is straightforward when all the information is there and the application form has been properly filled in, signed and so forth. In those cases it is possible to deal with a straightforward renewal very quickly. A case ceases to be straightforward if it is necessary for the Passport Office to go back to the individual to request other documents, which of course delays the process. We are looking at part of the system to ensure that that is being done as efficiently as possible.
The Shadow Home Secretary asked about taking over the process of passport applications from British nationals overseas. Before March this year that was done by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at processing centres worldwide. The change was made to provide better value for the fee-payer and greater consistency in how overseas passport applications are assessed, and to use our expertise to better detect and prevent fraud. The checks needed for applications from overseas can take longer than those for applications in the UK. Security is our priority and we will not issue a passport until the necessary checks have been completed. However, as I said in my statement, for those applying for a renewal from overseas, where we can have confidence in the documents that they have already had and the process they have been through, we will be offering an extension of 12 months.
[Interruption.] Opposition Members talk about 2010, so I will make one simple point: when we took office there were staff in HM Passport Office who had been brought in to deal with the new identity card. This Government scrapped the identity card. Over the past two years the number of staff in the Passport Office has increased from 3,104 to 3,445. That is the answer. People might say that this is about reduced staff numbers, but actually staff numbers have been going up over the past two years.
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmhansrd/cm140612/debtext/140612-0001.htm#14061241000002Finally, the Shadow Home Secretary raised the issue of staff numbers, as did other Members earlier this week. Here are the figures: in March 2012 the Passport Office had 3,104 members of staff—