Passports: Ministers accused of ‘taking their eye off the ball’ as people wait months

Dozens of Home Office staff diverted to man helpline as MPs enquire about jump in passport delays

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 18 July 2022 16:40 BST
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The scenes at HM Passport Office on Monday morning were described as ‘chaotic’
The scenes at HM Passport Office on Monday morning were described as ‘chaotic’ (Chris Barker)

Dozens of Home Office staff have been diverted to man a helpline for MPs as enquiries about constituents’ passport delays soar, it has emerged.

Ministers have been accused of “failing to plan ahead” after the government revealed that 25 members of non-frontline HM Passport Office staff have been trained to work on the Home Office’s MP enquiry line, with an average of 15 staff now on the phones each day.

It comes as hundreds of people queued outside the Passport Office on the hottest day of the year, in a bid to get their passports in time for the school holidays after already having faced hefty delays.

The Passport Office Twitter page is meanwhile being inundated with tweets every few minutes by individuals enquiring about the lengthy delays they are facing and requesting urgent help.

More than 35,000 were left waiting longer than 10 weeks to receive a new passport between January and March of this year, according to Home Office figures released to shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper last month.

The number of full-time Passport Office staff has also dropped by 681 over the past five years, according to the data, falling from 3,913 to 3,232, with many of these civil servants replaced by agency staff.

In response to a written parliamentary question last week, immigration minister Kevin Foster revealed that dozens of Passport Office staff had been diverted to man the Home Office’s helpline for MPs to enquire about constituents’ cases.

“In light of the difficulties caseworkers have had in making contact about constituents’ passport matters, members of HM Passport Office staff are now dedicated to support on the Home Office’s MP enquiry line,” he said.

“Twenty-five members of non-frontline staff have been trained so far, with an average of 15 staff on the phones each day. HM Passport Office staff are also available at Portcullis House from Monday to Friday, to provide in-person surgeries for the most urgent enquiries.”

Ms Cooper accused Conservative ministers of “taking their eye off the ball”, with British families “paying the price” and being “completely let down” as they are forced to cancel holidays or shell out hundreds of pounds for fast-track services – or in some cases have their passports lost.

She added: “Home Office ministers promised more staff to deal with this backlog, but these were just empty words. Anyone trying to get answers on their application will know just how overstretched the system is, and just how poorly ministers have failed to plan ahead.

“Backlog Britain shows how incapable the Conservative government has become of planning or dealing with problems. Britain deserves so much better.”

A Passport Office spokesperson said: “The Home Office has to be adaptable to meet business needs and staff regularly move around different areas of the department. This has no impact on the production of passports.”

Chris Barker, a Twickenham resident in his forties, was one of hundreds of people who queued up outside the Passport Office in Victoria, London, on Monday in a bid to get his eight-year-old daughter’s passport in time for a family holiday to France on Saturday.

Father of two Chris Barker queued for five and a half hours at the Passport Office in London
Father of two Chris Barker queued for five and a half hours at the Passport Office in London (Chris Barker)

The father of two said there were “at least 500” in the queue when he was there. It took him five and a half hours to reach the front, and he and his daughter left without a passport.

“Even once we got to the front, at the desk, there was still another 10 or 15 minutes until someone spoke to you. It seemed pretty understaffed and chaotic,” he told The Independent.

“Understaffing was the main problem. It seemed very antiquated […] The system is broken. If you make cutbacks to the extent that they have done, of course it’s not going to work.”

In another case, Lydia Graham, 28, who applied to renew her British passport in February and is still waiting, described the situation as “an absolute nightmare”.

Lydia Graham said she felt she was ‘being held hostage’ in the UK after waiting on her passport application for six months
Lydia Graham said she felt she was ‘being held hostage’ in the UK after waiting on her passport application for six months (Lydia Graham)

The Southampton resident, who has both a British and Austrian passport, was asked to submit her Austrian papers as well in April, and has not seen either passport in the three months since.

“It’s taken over my life for last few months, every day I think about it. I can’t travel. My freedom has stopped. I feel like I’m being held hostage here,” Ms Graham said.

“Since April I’ve been trying to untangle this, but each time I speak with someone they give me different advice and information. It feels like they’re not willing to listen to me.

“I can’t plan anything, I can’t go on holiday. Being without your passport makes you realise how much you rely on it. I haven’t been able to see older family members in Austria. I feel trapped in the UK.”

A Passport Office spokesperson said: “Between March and May, we processed approximately 3 million applications, with 97 per cent of applications processed within that timeframe in the first half of the year. But we cannot compromise security checks and people should apply with plenty of time prior to travelling.

“For the small percentage of customers whose applications take longer than 10 weeks, there is an expedited service at no additional cost to help ensure that they receive their passport ahead of their travel.”

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