Sarah Jones – 2022 Speech on Passport Regulations

The speech made by Sarah Jones, the Labour MP for Croydon Central, in the House of Commons on 26 May 2022.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the Minister for introducing the regulations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) has already pointed out, at this point in time across the country there are thousands of people who believe that the passport system needs to change, but it is fair to say that the tweaks we are debating today would not be top of their list.

The shadow Home Office team has been inundated with examples of Government failure—primarily the failure to predict and adequately prepare for the surge in demand for passport renewal after the covid travel restrictions were lifted. That is despite being warned of the problems as far back as November in this House by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). We have heard of family holidays being cancelled because passports did not arrive on time, a seriously sick child unable to take a long-awaited trip of a lifetime, of work missed, honeymoons threatened, and the huge costs incurred from cancellations, rebooking, and paying for the fast-track service and multiple applications.

The worst is not over. Leaked Passport Office documents reported by The Times at the weekend revealed that the 500,000 application backlog is growing. How will the existing regulations be made fit for purpose when the existing system is said by staff not to be fit for purpose?

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con)

I agree that we are all hearing from constituents who are waiting for passports. People who did not renew their passports during covid now suddenly want to use them. Does the hon. Lady agree with me that, despite the current huge demand for passports, for security reasons all relevant checks must be made on everyone applying for a UK passport, and those should never, ever be passed by because of the huge demand that the services face at the moment?

Sarah Jones

The hon. Gentleman is right. All MPs have had cases of people desperately trying to get their passports on time, and of course he is right that security is important. We must make sure we do these things correctly. Our argument is that we should have seen the problem coming and done a lot more about it.

The article in The Times reported that the existing pressures are only going to get “heavier” and that people are being given “poor, misleading advice” by the advice line provider. Yet despite these well-documented problems, the Minister in the other place, Baroness Williams, told my colleague, Lord Coaker, that the Department

“did prepare extensively for elevated demand with no restrictions upon international travel, and those preparations have ensured that passport applications can be processed in higher numbers than ever before.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 May 2022; Vol. 822, c. GC52.]

That is the argument the Minister made, but it is not good enough. I have to say to him that that will be news to many of those who have been waiting. Given the scale of the problem, we are unconvinced that an SI that will slow down the fast track process by one day is a proportionate response to those realities.

Baroness Williams told the other place that the Department estimates that it will receive a total of 9.5 million applications in 2022. She insisted that the Department was

“on target to deliver those”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 May 2022; Vol. 822, c. GC52.]

So did this Minister. Can he explain to the House how he can be so confident, given the backlog? What urgent work are the Government and the Home Office doing ahead of the summer to prevent millions of families from being put through chaos before their summer holidays?

Despite our sense that this SI tinkers around the edges of what is a much more serious systemic problem, we largely do not object to the measures in it. As I said, the SI will slow down the fast-track process by one day. How many applications are currently missing the seven-day deadline? Slowing down the fast track is an admission of failure. Why do Ministers not believe that the system can get back on track, and meet existing targets, in the long term? We have no concerns about the purely technical changes that set out passport fees more simply and we believe that it is fair to look at keeping the booking fee where a person books a priority appointment but fails to turn up.

The new schedule shows that a higher fee is added for children aged under 16 to use priority services—£73 for the fast track and £102 for the premium service—than for adults, who pay £66.50 for the fast track and £101.50 for the premium service. Why is there that difference between children and adults?

I have a question on the detail. The Minister touched on this, but perhaps he can clarify it. My understanding is that if an appointment is missed—sometimes people make an innocent mistake—this measure provides not only for the booking fee and priority fee to be non-refundable, but for the standard application fee to be kept. Does that mean that if a person misses their appointment, they will not only lose the fees for that appointment but lose the application altogether? Will they then have to find the money for the standard fee to start the whole process again? If the failure is the system’s rather than the applicant’s, what happens to the person’s priority fees if the system fails to deliver their passport within the appropriate deadline? And what about where a person misses an appointment with good reason, which may happen? The Minister talked about a refund on compassionate grounds, such as medical or family emergencies. Can we have more information on that policy? Will it be a discretionary decision that individuals in the Passport Office make, or will there be a complete list of criteria? If so, could we have more detail? There is no information about that in the explanatory memorandum.

Baroness Williams said in the other place that the Department has

“employed 500 staff since last April, and there will be a further 700 this summer.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 May 2022; Vol. 822, c. GC52.]

May I ask when those new staff will be in place? The word “summer” is quite vague, and often the Government count autumn as summer. We hope that that is not the case here; and obviously many families will need passports before the summer holidays begin.

Finally, Baroness Williams insisted that the Department was on course to deliver the 9.5 million passports, but she was unable to say what the current backlog is. Could this Minister fill in that detail for the House now? I look forward to his response.