Stephen Kinnock – 2022 Speech on the HM Passport Office Backlog

The statement made by Stephen Kinnock, the Labour MP for Aberavon, in the House of Commons, on 14 June 2022.

I beg to move,

That this House censures the Minister for Safe and Legal Migration, the hon. Member for Torbay, for his handling of the crisis at Her Majesty’s Passport Office; and directs him to come to the House, no later than 20 June 2022, to apologise for the tens of thousands of people who have waited more than six weeks for their passport.

I will start from the outset by saying what this debate is not about. It is not about the hard-working staff who have been so badly let down by the management and the Government. There are countless examples of the fact that the infrastructure that holds our country together is creaking—indeed, in some cases, at breaking point. There can be no doubt that the frankly shambolic state of the Passport Office is an example of the systemic failure that has been designed and delivered by successive Conservative Governments since 2010, because by the time covid hit us in early 2020, a decade of underinvestment had left us with our defences down, lacking resilience and ill prepared for an external shock such as a global pandemic. NHS waiting lists were already at record highs and there were already more than 100,000 staff vacancies. A steady stream of Conservative Chancellors had failed to grow the British economy in line with western competitors, thus depriving the Exchequer of an eyewatering £12 billion of potential income that could have helped us through the pandemic—or indeed £30 billion if the growth trajectory that was established by the last Labour Government had continued.

Manufacturing had been at best ignored and at worst actively undermined by successive Conservative Governments, with 230,000 job losses in manufacturing since 2015 alone, thus leaving our country staggeringly overdependent on China for everything from personal protective equipment to lateral flow tests, and culminating in the disgraceful spectacle of the Government wasting £8.7 billion of taxpayers’ money on PPE that did not even meet the required safety standards. A toxic Tory decade of incompetence and indifference left us in early 2020 with a high-tax, high-inflation, low-wage and low-resilience economy, so that when the pandemic struck, we were left stranded in the storm without so much as an umbrella for protection.

But the catalogue of failure that left us in the lurch when covid struck has been matched only by the litany of errors that characterised the Government’s chaotic approach to planning for the end of lockdown restrictions.

Dame Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op)

Speaking as the last passport Minister for the Labour party, we saw the problem coming when the banking crisis hit, with a dip in passport applications, and had a plan for what would happen. This Government seem to have no plan and understanding that after two years of no travel there would be an increase in passport applications. Does my hon. Friend not think that the Government were asleep on the job?

Stephen Kinnock

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A Government who fail to plan are a Government who plan to fail, and that is what we have seen throughout this process. We have seen nothing but a Government who are asleep at the wheel, and the British people are paying the price. The catalogue of failure that left us in the lurch is exactly as she says.

Of course, this failure to plan applies to the Passport Office, as set out in the motion before us, but it also applies across Government. The Government are presiding over a country that is mired in bureaucracy, red tape and waiting lists, crippling our economy, costing the taxpayer billions of pounds in emergency spending, and preventing the British people from simply getting on with their lives.

Paul Holmes (Eastleigh) (Con)

At the risk of making the shadow Minister come back to the actual topic of the debate, which is passports, his motion outlines that the Minister should apologise to anyone who has waited more than six weeks for their passport. Is he aware that for at least a year the official Government policy, and HMPO’s policy, has been a 10-week wait, so would it not have been better for him to check the website instead of coming here and being opportunistic?

Stephen Kinnock

On the causes of this, it is absolutely vital to recognise that the lack of investment in our public services is what has fundamentally left us exposed, and these are the problems we are facing today. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific point, the fact of the matter is that there should be an apology to people whose holidays have been wrecked and who have not been able to get to job appointments, funerals and weddings within the timeframe that we are discussing today.

Crime was already at record highs going into the pandemic, but now the court backlog is so long that in 95% of cases victims of violent crime will be waiting more than a year for their day in court—a direct result of Conservative Ministers cutting one pound in every four from the justice budget. Those who need an operation on the NHS can enjoy the luxury of 6 million people on NHS waiting lists, or, if they are in too much pain, they can take their sleeping bag down to their local A&E department for a 12 or 13-hour stay. If you want to go on holiday, you had better hope that you have ridden your luck in the game of pre-flight bingo we are all now forced to play as we cross our fingers and turn up at an airport—that is, of course, assuming that you are lucky enough to receive your new passport. Welcome to backlog Britain.

Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will share my dismay at learning that a professional seafarer was forced to miss the crew change on his vessel having waited for 11 weeks to receive a replacement for a damaged passport, specifically because of this Government’s inefficiency. This is a professional seafarer who is a key worker forced to miss his crew change. It is not just a matter of holidays—it is affecting people professionally as well.

Stephen Kinnock

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. There are holidays, weddings and funerals, but there are also direct impacts on people who have needed to go on work assignments abroad. There is the seafarer that she mentioned. There are so many examples of why, when public services are failing, that directly undermines productivity in the private sector. That is why this debate is so important in terms of our economy.

This brings me to a very particular catalogue of failure delivered by the Home Office and a Home Secretary who is completely out of her depth. Under the current Home Secretary, the Home Office is simply not fit for purpose. Crime is up by 18% while prosecutions have collapsed. The six-month asylum waiting lists have hit 73,000 because the number of asylum decisions made under the Home Secretary has halved, costing the taxpayer £4 million a day in emergency hotels alone. The Passport Office delays are causing sleepless nights for thousands of families nationwide.

So today Labour Members will be voting to demand an apology from the Minister to the British people for the abject failure of the Passport Office to meet the standards that it has promised and that the taxpaying British public expect and deserve. The Government had two years to prepare for a spike in passport applications once travel restrictions were lifted. Ministers were warned repeatedly about the possible backlog but they failed to plan and so inevitably failed to deliver. Indeed, the Government’s own data shows that the number of full-time HMPO staff has dropped by 681 over the past five years. After a really tough couple of years, British families deserved a well-earned break, but thousands have missed out.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. This is an important issue. We want to get these passports sorted. However, this backlog has been unprecedented. I did not look at my kids’ passports until very late in the day, after the covid restrictions were lifted, only to find that they were out of date by a number of months. But I was able to get them expedited—not any more so than anybody else—and we got them done. The system actually worked. I hope the hon. Gentleman would agree that one way we can advance the system today is to make sure that civil servants return to working in the Home Office, not from home, because the security checks that need to take place need to be done in that secure environment, not from home, where they cannot be done so efficiently.

Stephen Kinnock

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on getting those passports. I have to say that he was one of the lucky ones. The reality is that it was absolutely clear that at some point the travel restrictions would be lifted and there would be a surge in passport applications, and there was plenty of time for Ministers to meet Passport Office officials and make a plan for when that happened. That is basic common sense, basic logic and basic planning. It is the opposite of the incompetence and indifference that we have seen from this Conservative Government.

Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree that much of the system is broken, because people are phoning up for appointments that they cannot get, and travelling to Belfast from London, or from Yorkshire to London, to get their passport? Information issues, as well as not getting passports in time, are leaving people high and dry. The Home Office is a Department that should be in special measures.

Stephen Kinnock

I thank my hon. Friend. What an utterly absurd position to be in that somebody who lives and works in London has to go to Belfast to get their passport processed. What kind of crazy, upside-down world are we living in when that is happening?

It is not just about holidays, as I was saying. People have missed vital work interviews and assignments abroad, weddings and funerals. They have not been with crucial identification needed for renting accommodation and the like. I have been inundated with emails from Opposition Members about these very situations faced by their constituents—usually hard-working families who have had their dreams shattered or their nerves shredded. This morning, my Aberavon office is dealing with seven new cases that came through last night alone. I will talk through just a few examples of these nationwide cases so that the Minister can get a clearer picture.

Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD)

The point that the hon. Member is making is the most significant one we should make here today. Yes, the Home Office has shown itself to be unfit for purpose at the moment, but these delays in passports and visas—we are also seeing it with driving licences—are having an enormous impact on the lives of ordinary people up and down this country. Every constituency is inundated with people whose lives have been turned upside down by Home Office incompetence. Does he agree that it is past time it did something about it?

Stephen Kinnock

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The cost of this issue is not just in broken-hearted families who were not able to go on long-planned holidays, or to go to weddings and funerals; there is a direct cost to the British economy and to productivity, and the huge cost of people having to pay through the nose for fast-track applications. The cost, when it is finally calculated, will be eyewatering.

To give a few examples of the nationwide cases, one family in County Durham had to cancel a dream holiday of a lifetime just before Easter, at a cost of £6,000, because they had been waiting 10 weeks for their six-year-old’s passport to come through. The guidance at the time of application was that it would take a maximum of three weeks.

Two parents from north Wales had been living and working overseas in France for two years and were due to return home once the father’s visa had expired, with their rent agreement ending this month. They applied for a passport for their new-born baby in mid-February but, four months on, they have still not received that passport, meaning that they have been forced to pay for a hotel at huge personal cost because they are unable to travel back to the UK.

Another set of parents in the west midlands were desperate to get their two-year-old boy, who was having medical difficulties, away on holiday. Despite applying for a passport on 2 January, poor communication from the Passport Office meant they were still waiting several months later.

In my constituency of Aberavon, one individual applied for her first adult passport on 26 February, yet had to cancel her plans to attend a wedding on 4 June. Another of my constituents applied for a passport on 23 March, yet is still waiting 12 weeks on and does not know whether they will be able to travel on 21 June. What does the Minister have to say to those families? Will he apologise to them from the Dispatch Box today?

These failures date back further than the past few months and are about not just resources, but levels of Home Office competence. One man living in east London applied for his first adult passport in September 2021. He was told to send his old passport back. Then, after 12 weeks, he was told that the application had been cancelled. The Passport Office maintained that his old passport had never been received. The man was then advised to make another application free of charge. That application was rejected. Then, after several weeks of telephone and email exchanges, he finally received confirmation that the old passport had been received with his original application and that his original application should never have been cancelled. He was advised to make a third application, which he has done. You could not make it up.

Beth Winter (Cynon Valley) (Lab)

Like Members from all parts of the House, my office has been inundated with queries from constituents distraught at the fact that they either cannot go on holiday or could lose the cost of holiday travel. The situation is chaotic, unacceptable and must be resolved immediately. Does my hon. Friend agree that this could be resolved by the Government if they improved staff retention by meeting the Public and Commercial Services Union’s pay demands, worked with the PCS to end insecure agency staff and outsourcing, and completed the roll-out of the digital application programme as soon as possible?

Stephen Kinnock

Is it not extraordinary that the Government’s response to the crisis we are seeing is to cut the civil service by 90,000 jobs? In what world is that going to work, when we clearly need more resources, and people focused on customer-facing services? We need to build morale, not destroy it, and we need to show people that they should have good jobs on which they can raise a family. Instead, it is about cutting, undermining and passive-aggressive notes from the Secretary of State for Brexit Opportunities, I think he is called, put on the desks of his civil servants. It really is a disgrace.

Some applicants are having to travel the length and breadth of Britain to get an appointment. One man, as has been mentioned, had to travel all the way from London to Belfast to get his passport sorted. Others are having to pay extortionate costs for fast-track passport services or face losing hundreds of pounds. The number of monthly fast-track applications has more than doubled since December 2021. In April 2022, 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, amounting to up to £34 million.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of fast-track applications. My constituency office, like his and no doubt like those of every other Member, is inundated with application cases, but even the fast-track applications are only just coming in under the wire, causing lots of anxiety and lots of work for my staff. What does he therefore have to say about the ability of the private contractors operating passport services? The Home Office has known for some time that this privatised system is deeply inadequate in how it operates passport services.

Stephen Kinnock

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is referring to the two main companies, I think, which are TNT and Teleperformance. In both cases, the level of performance is abject. The question is: to what extent are they being held to account by the Government to ensure that they are delivering? I believe that TNT is on the record saying that its performance is meeting the service level requirements. I would like to see what those service level requirements are, because frankly it is an abject performance.

James Wild (North West Norfolk) (Con)

Like the hon. Member, I have had examples of constituents who have had cases and been delayed, and I am grateful for the support that the Minister has given me to help to get those cases resolved so that people have been able to go to weddings and other life-changing events. I thank the great teams working in Portcullis House to unblock these things. I encourage all Members to take that help up. Does the hon. Member recognise that, by the end of this month, more passports will have been issued this year than in the whole of last year?

Stephen Kinnock

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is nice to know that his friend the Minister is helping him out, but the reality is that our inboxes are groaning with issues, failure and the chaos and shambles we are seeing. Because of failure to plan from the outset, we have a bottleneck and a crisis. We hope eventually that the system will catch up, but the pain, heartbreak, missed appointments and missed weddings and funerals have already happened, and the British public cannot get them back. Those moments have passed and that is why this is too little, too late.

Thousands of people have had to wait more than 10 weeks for a passport, making a mockery of the Prime Minister’s initial claim on 25 May that almost everybody was getting their passport within four to six weeks. I am sure he will come back and correct the record, although I am not holding my breath on that. Ten weeks is of course the new target introduced by the Home Office when it failed to meet the standard, long-established Government target of just three weeks. More than 30,000 people are waiting more than six weeks and they deserve an apology from the Minister.

The performance of the Home Office simply is not good enough. Ministers are not doing their jobs and the system is simply not working. The Home Office is currently paying millions of pounds to failing outsourced contracts across the Passport Office, including a courier service that is so incompetent that it loses hundreds of passports every year. The Home Office awarded TNT, the US-owned company that is part of FedEx, a £77 million three-year contract to deliver official travel documents in 2019. It has since been criticised for missed deliveries, poor communication and long delays. Meanwhile, Teleperformance—an ironic name, we have to say—the French private company providing private call centre services, has been criticised by the Immigration Minister himself for providing a service that is, in his words, “unacceptable”.

It is therefore utterly staggering that the Prime Minister’s answer to the problems facing the Passport Office is, in his words, to “privatise the arse” off the Passport Office. Why? If the blame lies with the contractors, rather than the performance of the Ministers dealing with those contracts, how can more privatisation possibly be the answer—unless he feels that the performance of his own Ministers is so poor that he no longer trusts them? We would not disagree with that assessment, because we firmly believe that the buck stops with Ministers and that the Home Secretary and her Ministers need to step up their leadership and recognise that they got the planning for the end of restrictions badly wrong.

There is plenty of evidence that the Home Secretary failed to plan. In April 2021, the vaccination programme was being rolled out and restrictions were lifting, but Passport Office numbers decreased by 5%. This year’s increases are too little, too late; they should have been in the pipeline since last year, as experts were warning of delays throughout the pandemic. Interestingly, Ministers refused to directly answer my recent written question about how many calls the Home Office had had with Teleperformance contractors and TNT to plan ahead in the run-up to lockdown restrictions being lifted. Perhaps the Minister can provide a fuller account of those discussions today, if any took place.

The 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 know, only around 500 have been recruited, many of whom are agency staff without the full training. Agency staff inevitably cost the taxpayer more money, which is a clear case of how the failure to plan is putting yet more strain on the public finances.

It is not just staffing levels that have caused the problem. It was staggering to learn recently that the new digital application processing system for passports was supposed to be fully implemented three years ago, but staff are still using the older, clunkier application management system. The Home Office will reportedly be paying penalties for failing to implement the new system, but it is unclear what those penalties will amount to. The new DAP system would increase the speed of passport processing, so this is a major error that is again costing British holidaymakers and other travellers dear. To make other things worse, at this time of backlog Britain, the Prime Minister’s second not-so-bright idea is to cut 91,000 civil servants, whom we desperately need to put everything they have into reducing delays and cutting waiting lists.

I have some specific questions for the Minister. What specific steps is the Home Secretary taking to improve the performance of the Passport Office, Teleperformance and TNT? By what date does the Minister expect all passports to be delivered within the 10-week window? How many of the staff brought into the Passport Office are agency staff? What training has been given to agency staff brought in to deal with the surge? Is that training fit for purpose?

Why is the Passport Office still using the legacy AMS? When was AMS originally planned to have been replaced by DAP? Are there any penalty costs for still using the legacy AMS? If so, what are those penalty costs and who will they be paid to? What is the timeline and final implementation date for DAP to be fully functional, and what is the end date for AMS? How many staff are currently engaged in working on the development programme of DAP? How many people were engaged in working on the development programme of DAP on 31 March 2020, 31 March 2021 and 31 March 2022? Why have there been delays in fully deploying DAP and is there a plan to recruit further people to develop and facilitate that? I ask again: how many meetings did the Minister have with the contractors throughout 2021 in preparation for international travel reopening, and what was discussed at those meetings?

The Home Office is simply not fit for purpose under this Home Secretary. The Department has already been placed in special measures twice, with the Ministry of Defence taking over Border Force operations in the channel and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities managing the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Unless the Home Secretary ups her game, the Passport Office may be taken off her hands as well. More immediately, we need the Minister to apologise to all those people who did what was asked of them throughout the pandemic, worked hard and earned their trips abroad, only to have their hopes dashed and their nerves shredded.

From NHS waiting lists to our courts, from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to passports, from chaos at our airports and lorry queues at Dover to our broken asylum system, everywhere we look, our country is bogged down in delays and chaos. The year is 2022 and this is backlog Britain. Let us hope that the Minister will do the decent thing today and apologise, and then let us hope that the Government will at least start trying to get their act together, because the British people deserve better than this.