Damian Hinds – 2022 Speech on the HM Passport Office Backlog

The speech made by Damian Hinds, the Minister for Security and the Borders, in the House of Commons on 14 June 2022.

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.

Mary Kelly Foy

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?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

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.

Damian Hinds

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.