Holly Lynch – 2022 Speech on the HM Passport Office Backlog

The speech made by Holly Lynch, the Labour MP for Halifax, in the House of Commons on 14 June 2022.

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.

Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)

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?

Holly Lynch

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.”

Another said:

“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.