The speech made by Ruth Jones, the Labour MP for Newport West, in the House of Commons on 14 June 2022.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, because Newport West is proudly home to one of the largest passport offices in the United Kingdom, with nearly 300 essential workers staffing the application process, many of whom are my constituents. They perform a vital public service. Many colleagues across the House have rightly pointed out that the backlog has caused immense distress and difficulty for their constituents. That has been described eloquently by many Opposition colleagues. Many of my constituents have also experienced these difficulties. It is worth noting where the root of the problem lies, and it is not with the workers of the Newport passport office, or indeed any of the passport offices up and down the country.
Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
My hon. Friend talks about the staff at Newport passport office. I would like to pay tribute not only to the many constituents who have patiently queued outside the passport office, but to the staff, who have been very kind and co-operative. They deserve recognition for the hard work that they are having to do because of the Government’s failures.
My hon. Friend makes an important point perfectly, and I will of course take that message back to the Newport passport office.
Interestingly, until now, like my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), I have been unable to meet the staff of the Newport passport office, and I am still not sure why management are blocking that meeting.
It was clear from the moment the country began to reopen that passport applications would not only return to pre-pandemic levels but exceed them, as many people understandably had not renewed their passport while international travel was difficult or impossible—it did not take Mystic Meg to see that backlog coming down the tracks. The pandemic presented novel issues, but the problems it revealed were not new. The Government were given ample warning, and opportunities to recruit and train staff and improve systems. However, as during previous periods of application surges, such as 2014, the Government yet again dropped the ball.
Over the past six years, civil service staffing levels in HMPO have been consistently cut, including by over 5% in some years, so the staffing increase trumpeted by the Minister today does not cut it, because we are not yet back to 2016 levels. The Home Office was warned as early as November 2021 about the impact that a likely surge in passport applications would have. PCS—the union for Passport Office workers—stated that the Home Office’s own original estimate for dealing with the backlog was that 1,700 additional staff would be required. Alas, we know that fewer than 1,000 staff have been brought in—with many of them not receiving adequate training to process passports in a timely manner—and at least a quarter of them are agency staff.
My inbox is full of emails from anxious constituents who followed the rules but still do not have their passports. There is a human cost to this for those people who desperately need their passports after two years of enduring immense hardship away from family members and friends abroad, or even just those seeking the brief respite of a long weekend in the sun. People right across the country have been failed yet again by this Government and their inability to plan properly. More than that, in my constituency office we have been dealing with cases where people have been unable to visit dying relatives, and where the backlog has meant people are unable to mourn with family abroad.
One case that came into my constituency office was that of Sandie. Sandie contacted us because her father had passed away overseas. My staff had to go back to the Passport Office twice to ensure that Sandie could get her passport in order to get over to Canada to sort out her father’s funeral arrangements. In Sandie’s own words, she
“cannot imagine the stress that other people who have sick relatives overseas and who’ve been trying to get to see them have been going through”.
Fortunately, we were able to intervene and get the Passport Office to expedite this case and others, as have many other Members across the House, but far too many people have not been so fortunate.
There is another human element to this backlog that we need to remember. The staff in passport offices across the country, including in Newport West, are bearing the brunt of this Government’s incompetence. Hard-working staff who worked through the pandemic, many of them now on insecure, poorly paid contracts, face abuse in the media as a result of this Government’s shirking their responsibilities and laying the blame at the door of the staff. Reports now state that as a result of dilapidated IT systems, rock-bottom wages and a lack of proper support from the Government, morale among the workforce is at an all-time low. We are told that in the Newport passport office there is a particularly high rate of staff attrition as a result of conditions that the Government have impressed on it.
I completely agree with the motion before the House today. I call on the Minister to apologise for his handling of the passport crisis and to work with all those in relevant areas and Departments to get things back on track, so that constituents in Newport West and across the UK can resume their travel plans and get on with their lives.