The speech made by Jessica Morden, the Labour MP for Newport East, in the House of Commons on 14 June 2022.
I begin by paying tribute to all the staff at the passport office in Newport, which is located in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). Many of my constituents work there, and I want to thank them for all their ongoing hard work in difficult circumstances—which, I would add, are no fault of their own. They are an extremely dedicated team, and I thank them for that dedication.
We will never forget in Newport how the Conservative coalition Government tried in 2010 to close our Newport passport office. They were forced to change their mind by a very strong local campaign by the PCS Union, working with the South Wales Argus and the MP—the late, great Paul Flynn. The consequences of that would have been disastrous, and the current state of affairs shows just how important it is that we maintain and expand the workforce there and in other centres across the UK. The staff at the Passport Office are not to blame for the current problems we are seeing, but this Government are, and they are letting them down too.
Like other hon. Members, I have been inundated with correspondence and with cases from constituents who are nervous and distressed while waiting to hear back on the status of their passport applications. In many cases, the 10-week application turnaround target for dealing with applications has been totally missed, and some constituents, particularly those who applied before April, were never informed about the 10-week target anyway.
The growing backlog has also led to errors. One constituent had their personal documents sent to someone in Northern Ireland with the same name, and were very fortunate that that person reached out to them online. Their supporting documentation was sent back to the Passport Office, but has still not been returned to my constituent several weeks later. Another constituent has been bounced between appointments in Newport, Glasgow and London. It is a shambles, and a costly one. He tells me that he is now over £350 out of pocket on travel and passport fees.
Other constituents feel the same: those who have spent five hours on the phone chasing up the status of their application; those who have been promised call backs that never happen; those who have taken time off work to try to resolve the logjam they find themselves in through no fault of their own; and those having to wait until as late as 48 hours before they travel to find out if their passport will arrive, and trying to console their children about whether their holiday is still happening.
Constituents are desperate. There are plenty more examples I could give, and that others will give throughout the debate. At its root, the problem seems to be a lack of staffing resources, the loss of experienced staff to help upskill newcomers, systems struggling to process applications in the face of demand and a breakdown in communication between the in-house and outsourced elements of the Passport Office. Indeed, as has been referenced throughout this debate, the Home Office pays millions for failed outsourced contracts across the Passport Office, including courier services that lose hundreds of passports every year.
The mess was as preventable as it was predictable, and the buck stops with the Home Office, which was warned about increased demand for passports months ago, yet buried its head in the sand and allowed this huge backlog to grow. It is telling in this debate today that the Minister has repeatedly refused to answer the question of how big the backlog is. The PCS is quite right in highlighting the Home Secretary’s failure to plan, recruit and resource operations sufficiently to meet the upsurge in demand.
What makes it worse is that the MP hotlines at UK Visas and Immigration cannot answer passport queries. Despite details being taken and passed on to the Passport Office for a response, to date my office has struggled to obtain any replies through this correspondence chain, and has done so only via the drop-in service in Portcullis House. While I appreciate the excellent work that the staff are doing there—and they are—it is clearly not a sustainable system. I am fortunate in that I have a member of staff in Westminster and my constituency is less than three hours away on the train, but for other MPs further away, accessing this hub every week is difficult, and it is not a sustainable outcome for us. It is a logistical nightmare. Why can we not have a dedicated MP hotline for the Passport Office? We used to have one that worked very well, but the Government took it away from us.
Passport Office workers and the many thousands of people across the country waiting for news of their passport have been let down by an incompetent Home Secretary. She and the Prime Minister seem intent on cutting and outsourcing staff, and the Prime Minister has even talked up privatisation. Does the performance of TNT, Sopra Steria and Teleperformance suggest this is a good idea or a good use of taxpayers’ money? We think not. The Government seem more concerned with that than fixing problems in the here and now. As PCS has highlighted, a further loss of jobs at the Passport Office will only compound the present crisis. So, as many others have said, please get a grip.