Letter to the Home Secretary about HM Passport Office

The Rt Hon Priti Patel

Secretary of State for the Home Department

19 July 2022

Dear Priti, 

I am writing to express my significant concern about the continued chaos within HM Passport Office (HMPO), and to seek clarity about what steps you and your Government colleagues will take to address the matter. 

Like most MPs, I am receiving a staggering number of enquiries from desperate constituents who have been waiting more than 10 weeks for their passports to be processed. In many cases people are contacting me because they simply cannot get through to the passport office on the phone themselves, or get basic questions answered about their applications when they do.

My constituency staff are spending many hours each day supporting me with passport related casework, including hanging on the phone trying to get updates from the Home Office’s MP ‘hotline’ (my caseworker spent 1 hour 35 minutes before their call was answered today). I am conscious that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are huge numbers of people up and down the country caught up in what should have been a preventable mess.

One consequence is that many families are missing their first holiday abroad after the pandemic. Much more than that, many are missing important life events, losing work, and in the case of one of my constituents, having their place representing Great Britain on a national sports team put in jeopardy because their passport renewal application has not been processed. These delays are quite simply impacting the welfare of my constituents, who are left being unable to grieve, celebrate or enjoy time with loved ones, and who are losing work and career opportunities which impact on their future.

The Prime Minister casually saying on the 25thof May that “To the best of my knowledge, everybody is getting their passport within four to six weeks suggests a wilful ignorance, from the top down, to accept that there is a significant problem that needs resolving. I trust that you realise the Prime Minister does not have a grip on the reality facing my constituents and will take steps to act with the urgency needed to get the passport office to a point where it can perform its most basic role in a timely way – which is to issue passports to citizens of the United Kingdom on behalf of the Crown.

I would like to draw your attention to the following specific points which I believe need immediate attention: 

Staffing numbers 

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) note that they were told HMPO planned to recruit up to 1,700newstaff, with around 450 to be in place by the end of 2021. However, they understand that the actual number in post by that point was closer to 300, and that these are agency staff rather than HMPO employees. Please would you confirm if this is correct.

Overreliance on agency staff to plug gaps in HMPO has several impacts, not least when it comes to staff training, with agency staff less well equipped to undertake the processing of more complex cases.

In Kevin Foster MP’s letter to MPs on the 11thMay, he said that staff numbers had increased by 500 since April last year, and that plans are in place to increase staff numbers by a further 700. Please would you provide an update on the number of staff recruited to date since April 2021, and also provide a breakdown to confirm the percentage of agency staff recruited during this period.

I would also be grateful for more information about the plans to recruit 700 staff, and confirmation of progress to date. And please would you set out the principal differences in contract terms between agency staff and permanent employees.

Failure to fully transfer from the Application Management System (AMS) to the Digital Application Processing (DAP) system 

HMPO staff have raised concerns about the outdated AMS system: it is being clunky and adding to processing difficulties and delays. Whilst the DAP system has been partially rolled out, the incomplete nature of this project means that staff are often working between two systems. I gather that more complex cases are being referred back to AMS –which, from the accounts I’ve heard, is a graveyard for passport applications, with a large percentage of cases caught up in a backlog and considerable delays even looking at them.

The DAP system has the benefit that HMPO staff can access it whilst working from home, something I have been told is not possible with AMS and which is important given Covid rates are rising again. These systems need to be fully aligned as quickly as possible to eradicate the technical issues that are happening during processing. HMPO staff are being held back by outdated systems, which lack the increased flexibility that is required in modern workplaces that have learned from the pandemic.

Please would you confirm when the full transition to DAP will be completed, and what scope there is to speed this up given the current HMPO pressures. I would also like an explanation for why AMS is still being used at all. My understanding is that it is a legacy system and there is a cost to HMPO to keep this system running. Please would you confirm if this is the case, and the cost to HMPO of keeping AMS operational?

Threats of privatisation 

Given reports that the Prime Minister said he would “privatise the arse” off HMPO, I am concerned that this agenda is exacerbating the problems we are seeing, rather than resolving them. The Government should focus its attention on the fundamental issue of understaffing by addressing pay and condition concerns, rather than relying on the stop gap option of agency cover. This merely papers over deep-rooted problems which have deepened over the last decade and which outsourcing of some HMPO contracts to date – eg Sopra Steria, Teleperformance, and TNT- has failed to resolve.

The ‘Dear Colleague’ letter sent by Kevin Foster in May acknowledged that the Passport Adviceline operated by Teleperformance had ‘unacceptable’ waiting times. At that time I understand that Teleperformance told the Government that they proposed to increase their workforce by 400 over 3 weeks through the use of sub-contractors. Please would you confirm how many employees Teleperformance have taken on since that time, and confirm which sub-contractors they are using.

Furthermore, please would you clarify what training has been provided to sub-contractors to enable them to handle enquiries, and whether they can access details on both the DAP and AMS system. I have had several constituents commenting about the difficulty getting basic questions answered when they do get through on the Adviceline, and I am concerned that heavy reliance on agency staff, coupled with a web of sub-contractors being taken on at short notice, may be adversely impacting on the quality and accuracy of advice being given. 

There are many committed and hard-working members of staff at HMPO yet they are being let down by the poor systems currently in place, creeping privatisation, and the effects of pay and conditions on staffing levels and recruitment.

It is the Home Secretary’s responsibility to take action without delay to address these serious issues and ensure a functioning passport office which is able to meet service demand. The current situation cannot be allowed to continue.

I look forward to your full reply to all the points and questions set out above.

Yours sincerely,

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