Thursday 12th May 2022

(1 week, 6 days ago)

Commons Chamber
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00:00
Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on backlogs at Her Majesty’s Passport Office.

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Tom Pursglove)
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Due to covid-19, more than 5 million people delayed their passport applications in 2020 and 2021. With demand for international travel having returned, Her Majesty’s Passport Office is currently receiving a higher number of passport applications than ever before; 9.5 million applications are expected in 2022 compared with approximately 7 million in a normal year.

Since April 2021, 500 new staff have joined and a further 700 will join by the summer. As a result, the vast majority of passport applications are being processed within the 10-week timeframe and more than 90% within six weeks. Less than 1.4% of the passports printed last week for UK applications had been in the system for longer than 10 weeks.

With a record number of applications in the system, customer inquiries have increased accordingly. However, the passport advice line, which is run by Teleperformance, is not currently meeting the needs of passport customers. Clearly, that is not acceptable. The Home Office has clear standards for the level of service that suppliers are expected to provide.

Her Majesty’s Passport Office has engaged with Teleperformance at its most senior levels to emphasise the need to significantly improve performance as soon as possible. Alongside steps to bring the operation of the passport advice line, email and call-back functions within the required standard, Teleperformance is urgently bolstering staff numbers in response to the recent surge in customer contact, with 500 additional staff due to be added by mid-June.

We recognise that hon. Members will wish to raise cases and queries on behalf of their constituents, as is, of course, right and proper. Her Majesty’s Passport Office staff have therefore been deployed to answer passport-related inquiries to the Home Office’s dedicated MPs hotline and, for the most urgent cases, they will also be available to conduct in-person passport surgeries in Portcullis House.

Although we acknowledge that there have been issues with customer contact that must and will be resolved, I take the opportunity to recognise the work of Her Majesty’s Passport Office staff who continue to ensure that the vast majority of passport applications are processed in under 10 weeks. Their efforts, alongside the extensive work that went into preparing for record demand, have ensured that passport applications continue to be processed in higher numbers than ever before.

Across March and April 2022, Her Majesty’s Passport Office completed the processing of nearly 2 million applications. As that output demonstrates, HMPO staff are firmly focused on maintaining a high level of service and are fully committed to ensuring that people receive their passports in good time for their summer holidays.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith
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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

I thank the staff working on the passport backlog, but many people across our country will not be satisfied with the Minister’s response today. A constituent told me yesterday:

“It’s terrible. We’re due to fly out on Sunday but are still unable to get our youngest son’s passport. Every time I phone I get passed to a different department, then hold, then the phone line goes dead.”

Another told me:

“I’ve called 40 times in the past week, they cut me off every time. I don’t know what to do and am breaking down at this point.”

The facts are that there are long queues outside passport offices; that hours and hours are being spent on phone lines; and that families are afraid of holidays getting cancelled. This situation was avoidable. It was obvious that, when restrictions ended, people would need passports to get away.

The Prime Minister blames a mañana culture at the Passport Office. We need a strategy that improves performance and helps families now, not those flippant comments. During a cost of living crisis, telling people to spend an extra £100 per person to fast-track their application rubs salt into their wounds.

Yesterday, the Home Secretary told us of record passport delivery, which is good, but we need the facts today. How big is the actual backlog? By when will the Passport Office’s too-long 10-week timeframe be down to the normal three weeks?

Deliveries are also delayed and other companies are having to help TNT. Its £77 million contract cannot be value for money, so will the Government be renewing that contract in July?

After years of covid, families finally want to get away this spring and summer. Instead, they face losing thousands of pounds if they cannot keep their holiday after the grief of chasing their passport. The Government need to do much, much better than this.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting in for this urgent question today and for the way that he approached his contribution.

I again thank HMPO staff for the tireless work that they are doing to issue passports as quickly as possible for people who have made those applications; in saying that, I am sure the whole House joins me. I can also confirm for the House’s benefit that the service I referred to in Portcullis House is now live and available for colleagues to access to get help with these matters. Of course, it is also worth pointing out that the Minister for safe and legal migration—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster)—issued a “Dear colleague” letter yesterday that provided further detail on this issue.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned specifics in relation to contracts. Of course, what I must not do is get into contract-related deliberations on the Floor of the House today, but it is of course right to say that, where performance issues arise, candid conversations are had about performance and what interventions are required to improve performance, where necessary. I again reiterate for the House’s benefit that the key reality is that, between March and April 2022, Her Majesty’s Passport Office completed the processing of nearly 2 million applications. The vast majority of passport applications continue to be processed well within 10 weeks, with over 90% of applications issued within six weeks between January and March 2022. Less than 1.4% of the passports printed last week for UK applications had been in the system for longer than 10 weeks. Those are the facts. He asked for the facts. Those facts have been provided.

There is of course an expedited service available for individuals where passports have been in the system for more than 10 weeks, and I would certainly encourage people to avail themselves of that service if that is the situation they find themselves in. Of course, if there are Members of this House who have specific cases they wish to share with Ministers, we will happily take those away and look at them if colleagues make contact.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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Can my hon. Friend tell us how many people employed in the Passport Office are still working from home, if indeed anybody is still working from home? It seems extraordinary that they may be. Can he also expand on the issue of the 10-week limit? If there is a 10-week guarantee, why should people in respect of whom that guarantee is not delivered have to pay a premium? Is not the consequence of all this that people are now panicking and applying for their new passports three or four months ahead, thereby adding to the burden on the Passport Office? Can he assure the House that the 10 weeks is a guarantee, and that anybody who does not get their passport within 10 weeks will get compensation for any consequences arising therefrom?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. What I can say for the House’s benefit is that, on homeworking, it is fair to say that, as in society as a whole, business as a whole and Government, we are seeing staff returning to the office to work. Of course, people’s working arrangements are in accordance with the approach taken within the Government to these matters. There is the expedited process after 10 weeks for individuals who require it, where passport applications have not been processed within that timeframe. As I have said, 98.6% of passports are renewed within the 10-week timeframe. If he has specifics that he would particularly like to raise with Ministers so that we can take those away and look into them, we will very happily do so.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)
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The chaos at the Passport Office reflects the wider failures of a Home Office that is simply not fit for purpose under this Home Secretary. The Government have had two years to prepare for a spike in passport applications after the pandemic. They were warned repeatedly about the possible backlog, but they have clearly not acted quickly enough to solve the problem. Can the Minister please explain why that is the case? Can he also tell us how many agency staff are now working to clear this backlog?

The Government have already changed the three-week target to a 10-week target. At the last urgent question on the subject, the Minister insisted that the 10-week target did not need to be adjusted. Given we now know that it is being repeatedly missed, is that still the case or has he changed his position? Can he confirm what the current average period from passport application to receipt of passport actually is?

Some of the cases colleagues are hearing about from their constituents are truly awful. In one case, a couple were trying to get back into the country with their new-born baby after the husband’s two-year work contract in France came to an end, but, having waited two months for a passport, they faced the daunting prospect of having to leave France without a passport for their baby.

The Minister will be aware of the problems MPs and their staff have had accessing any guidance from the Home Office helpline. Is that being addressed? The Prime Minister has threatened to privatise the Passport Office as a solution to this mess, but is it not the case that the privatised TNT courier service is already a major part of the problem, beset with long delays? Surely what we need is genuine leadership and strategy from the Home Secretary. The Home Office contract with TNT is due to end in July. Given its complete failures in delivering passports on time, can the Minister confirm whether the Home Office plans to renew TNT’s contract? Finally, given the thousands of pounds lost when holidays are cancelled, does the Minister accept that the Passport Office’s backlog chaos is making the cost of living crisis worse?

A Government who fail to plan are a Government who plan to fail, and the British people are paying the price for this latest in a growing list of Home Office failures.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am grateful to the shadow Minister for his contribution. I should make it clear that the 10-week timeframe is not guaranteed, but the expedited process is in place for individuals when it goes beyond 10 weeks. That is available and if colleagues raise specific cases with us directly I will happily ensure they are looked at.

On staffing, passport offices are of course based in seven locations across the UK, with 90% of staff based outside London. Her Majesty’s Passport Office staffing numbers have been increased by over 500 since last April and it is recruiting a further 700. As of 1 April, there were over 4,000 staff in passport production roles.

On the point about contracts, for the reasons I have set out, it would not be appropriate for me to get into the specifics of those contracts and their renewal, but I reiterate that it is right that we have candid conversations about performance against contracts. That does happen and it is happening in relation to these matters.

On the issue of Teleperformance, the provider of the passport advice line, we expect over 500 full-time equivalents to be added by mid-June compared with the position in mid-April. There has been a recent and temporary issue with the passport advice line which means some customers may be informed that they have dialled an incorrect number. Teleperformance is working to resolve that problem as soon as possible with the carrier. The line opened at its usual time of 8 this morning. Customers who have a problem with the usual number can call an alternative number, and there is further information on gov.uk and the HMPO’s Twitter account.

Mark Fletcher Portrait Mark Fletcher (Bolsover) (Con)
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I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for raising this urgent question. We have seen a number of cases where we are trying to get information and I have to be honest with the Minister: the phone lines we have at the moment as Members of Parliament are not fit for purpose. The advice hotline he has referred to is a general Home Office hotline; it does not always have information, and yesterday a member of my staff was on the phone for two hours and then got cut off. I need to be able to provide information to my constituents, who are getting incredibly stressed, so can we have a dedicated hotline on passport matters? I am very grateful for both the “Dear colleague” letter and the hub in Portcullis House, but can the Minister confirm that staff in the hub will have access so they can provide live updates from the system, rather than just general updates on the process?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am able to say yes to my hon. Friend in response to his question. I would certainly encourage him to take his cases to the Portcullis House hub to progress them accordingly and to receive the updates he seeks. I am grateful to him for raising that suggestion.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Scottish National party spokesman, Stuart C. McDonald.

Stuart C McDonald Portrait Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
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I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for raising this question, because this mess is causing untold misery for people and families across the UK. It is not, as Members have said, about hard-working staff; it is about leadership and planning. On that note, I am worried that the Home Secretary just does not get the scale of the problem. Yesterday, like the Minister, she invited colleagues to send details of their cases directly. My inbox is bursting at the seams and is about to explode with the cases. If all 650 of us were to send our cases to the Home Secretary, she would never be able to look at her inbox again. Does the Home Secretary understand the scale of the problem? Does that complacency explain why it took the Home Office until April to flag up this issue to the public and warn them of the change in target times?

I welcome the new facility at PCH. However, on the phone lines, what are folk being charged for phoning? For example, I know that colleagues have noticed that their constituency office phone bills are going through the roof because staff are having to spend hours on phone lines. I hope that is not the case for members of the public. I seek reassurance on that.

We have been reassured that the Home Office expected this year to deal with 9.5 million British passport applications and had been planning for that, but something has gone wrong. Was it the estimate? Apparently not, given what the Minister said, so what went wrong with the preparation? It is all well and good to be told that the Passport Office is processing higher or record numbers, but that is not the test—the test is whether there are sufficient numbers and that is clearly not happening. When will the Passport Office have enough staff to process sufficient applications?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I thought Ian Blackford had returned. [Laughter.] Come on, Minister.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am always grateful for the constructive way in which the hon. Gentleman approaches these matters. Calls are charged at the local rate. I set out for the House the steps being taken to boost capacity in Her Majesty’s Passport Office but also in relation to the contractors that we work with to deliver these services. It is also the case that, after 10 weeks of proof of travel, within two weeks, the upgrade is free, should that be required. Again, I go back to the fact that 98.6% of passports are renewed within the 10-week timeframe and more than 90% are processed in just six weeks. However, it is right, in terms of the remainder, that we make the interventions we are making to improve matters. We want to see the best service possible delivered and that is precisely what those interventions seek to do.

Andrew Jones Portrait Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con)
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It is clear that all of us are being contacted by distressed constituents seeking their passports. It can be highly stressful for them to be chasing documents as they approach departure day—and business travel can be at even shorter notice than a planned holiday. I am encouraged to hear that significant recruitment is taking place at the Passport Office and that 1 million passport applications were completed in March alone—that is a good number—but will the Minister look at the progress being made with that recruitment? We clearly have a capacity issue, which we need to get through, and that will only be got through when we have boosted the capacity of those doing the applications.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Of course, I and ministerial colleagues recognise the distress caused when individuals cannot receive their passports in the timeframe that they seek. That is why we are taking steps to improve matters. On recruitment, I hear his point about trying to expedite this as much as possible. It is fair to say that we want to see progress made on that as quickly as possible, and I will certainly ensure that Home Office colleagues are sighted on his views. My hon. Friend the Minister for safe and legal migration has that at the forefront of his mind. We want to see that recruitment happen as quickly as possible.

Chris Elmore Portrait Chris Elmore (Ogmore) (Lab)
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I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question and to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing it. I have already raised separately with the Minister that I have constituents who applied for a name change on a child’s passport on 9 February. My office has chased it twice and we are nearly into week 15 of waiting for a response from the Passport Office. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) about the MP hotline. This week, staff in my office have been cut off from the general hotline three times. I therefore welcome the PCH office. What reassurance can the Minister give us that the hotline will work properly and that calls will be answered? Many Members’ caseworkers are based in our constituencies, so the phone lines need to work. I plead with him to take up the particular issue of the child name change so that my constituents can travel in June on their long-deserved and very expensive holiday.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. If he shares the details with me, I will happily take that case away and look at it as a matter of priority. On the hotline-related issue for Members of Parliament, I hope I can provide some reassurance in saying that, in the light of the increased number of passport-related queries to the MP hotline, it has been arranged for non-operational HM Passport Office staff to supplement the work of MP account managers and help to provide MPs with a faster service. Of course, that is in addition to the service available in Portcullis House, which I would encourage colleagues to use if they require it.

Jacob Young Portrait Jacob Young (Redcar) (Con)
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A few colleagues have already mentioned our caseworkers in our constituencies. I want to put on record my thanks to my caseworker team, especially Niall Hargreaves who spent nine hours on the phone to the Passport Office last week and did not manage to get through all day. I am grateful to the Minister for acknowledging the unacceptable situation facing the Passport Office at the moment and for the 700 new recruits. Can he provide any clarity on when we expect the new recruits to start having an effect on the backlog?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I join my hon. Friend in saying thank you to parliamentary staff who work for Members across the House. I, for one, know that my parliamentary staff work incredibly hard to support my Corby and Northamptonshire constituents. I know the same applies for colleagues, regardless of party, and the effort that is made to support us in our work. I can certainly appreciate the frustration they have felt when not being able to make contact or when calls have been disconnected. He is right to raise the increase in staffing. As I said, we expect 500 full-time equivalents added to Teleperformance resourcing by mid-June. The Passport Office is increasing staffing by 700 by the summer and, of course, there have already been 500 additional staff since last April. This is a priority. We are going to get on and deliver, because it is clearly necessary for the swift and expeditious delivery of people’s passports.

Marsha De Cordova Portrait Marsha De Cordova (Battersea) (Lab)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on applying for it.

Dozens of my constituents are now facing huge delays in getting their passports. In one particular case, my constituent applied for his passport to be renewed back in February. He sent his old passport by special delivery. Following many chases for updates, he was told that they had lost his passport, and that he should report it as being lost and pay an additional fee to have his new application expedited, which he did. By Friday last week, they still had not done anything and told him that he needs to say it has now been lost yet again. He is travelling in July. He needs to apply for visas. He has already spent thousands of pounds on his holiday. Will the Minister agree to look at my constituent’s case and see if we can get a resolution as soon as possible? I should also add that we all knew there would be a surge in demand after the pandemic and I really want to know why on earth the Government were not prepared for that.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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We do, of course, encourage people, as standard, to apply in good time for passports to be processed and to be available. The point I again make is that after 10 weeks of proof of travel, within two weeks the upgrade is free, but if the hon. Lady could provide me with the details of the specific case in question I will happily make sure it is looked at as quickly as possible for her.

Barry Gardiner Portrait Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab)
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I would like to stress to the Minister that this is not just an issue of people wanting to go on holiday. In my constituency—as you know, Mr Speaker, being so diverse as it is—people have families all across the world whom they have not seen since the pandemic. I have one elderly couple who applied before the new year, back in December. They applied, in fact, before Christmas. They were told that their passport was ready on 24 January, but that they had to send the old passport back in order to get it. By the end of March they still had not had it, by which time they had missed a niece’s wedding and, sadly, a sister’s funeral. It was only after multiple interventions that we eventually got the passport sorted at the end of last month. That is unacceptable—absolutely unacceptable.

The Minister said that 500 new staff were in place and 700 were coming, but what we really want to know is when will the Department be able to return to the three-week standard time that we all expected previously? That is the key issue and that is what our constituents need to know. He said 10 weeks from the end of June. We are way beyond the summer holidays by then. The backlog will have accumulated and those people will have lost the opportunity to go abroad. The key thing is when do we get back to that three-week period?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who, as ever, puts his case forcefully but entirely respectfully. When there are compassionate or compelling circumstances, steps can be taken to expedite applications where appropriate. Some of the sorts of circumstances that he mentioned would potentially be eligible in that scenario. I cannot, of course, provide an explanation on the Floor of the House for his particular case, but I will take his wider point away. On the three-week target, I will ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who is responsible for passports, to write to the hon. Gentleman to set out the position and let him know his thoughts on that point.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
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This issue is undoubtedly causing huge anxiety. I have a case of a new mother who, when her daughter was born, wanted to register her for a passport immediately, because she wants the support of her family, who live in Egypt. She has been up all day and night trying to get a fast-track application. She could not find one, so she put in a regular application. She then did find a fast-track application and now she has been told, having secured the fast-track application for Saturday, that if she shows up, she may not get the passport because the regular application cannot be withdrawn. We have tried everything for her. First, if she does show up, will she be able to get the passport on the fast track, and can I show the Minister the case just to make sure? Secondly, will he assure people that a common-sense approach will be taken in cases such as these and others, so that if someone finds a workaround solution, it will actually work?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I would always want to see common sense shown in these matters. The hon. Lady suggests that it would be worthwhile to share the specifics of the case with me. I would certainly appreciate the opportunity to take this away and look at what we can do to assist and provide any appropriate guidance and advice.

Ian Mearns Portrait Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab)
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You might remember, Mr Speaker, that I raised the issue of delays with passports at business questions back in April. The Leader of the House expressed some surprise that I was getting upset about it back then, but I can honestly say to the Minister that the position since then has become much, much worse. He cannot really say that we did not know this was coming, because we were telling Ministers about it some weeks ago.

We have dealt with many dozens of cases from my office, but we still have about 14 cases that have not yet been expedited. The Passport Office advised that applications that are older than 10 weeks—of which we have several—and where travel is due to take place in the next two weeks can be expedited. In order to exercise that, applicants are advised to contact the passport advice line. However, as many Members have said this morning, constituents are doing that but they cannot get through, and when they do, they wait an inordinate amount of time and are then being cut off. It is just not good enough. British citizens cannot actually get their passport—even though it might be printed in Poland these days—to travel abroad.

Many constituents are reporting that they cannot get through and, at the time of the application, constituents were advised on the not appropriately updated website that the turnaround time would be five weeks—so the website was wrong at the time that people were applying. The Minister has to get a grip on this. When will the—

Ian Mearns Portrait Ian Mearns
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Sorry, Mr Speaker.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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These should be questions, not speeches—but I think the Minister has got the impression and the hon. Member has got the message across.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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There was quite a lot there, Mr Speaker, and I think that if I were to answer all of that, I would be at real risk of incurring your wrath. Two million passports were issued in March and April alone. The hon. Gentleman is a canny parliamentarian who took the opportunity to raise this issue in business questions. He will have noted from my earlier responses the steps that we have been taking in that period to address this issue. We will see that work through. This is all about bolstering capacity and resource, but if he would like us to look at specific cases, I am very happy for him to share them with us so we can perhaps understand where he thinks the issues are.

Margaret Ferrier Portrait Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind)
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I put on record my thanks to the Glasgow passport office, which has been most helpful to my caseworkers.

I have a constituent who has applied for a child’s passport. The child is a dual national; as part of the application for a British passport, my constituent provided the child’s Australian passport, which is in date. They travel next week, and my team have been urgently supporting them in trying to get, at a minimum, the Australian passport returned urgently. We were assured that that would happen, but the constituent was advised last night that it was not possible. My constituent has also faced some really poor treatment from call handlers on the advice line and is very stressed and upset by it. Please will the Minister intervene in this case and help me to get my constituent their passport?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I certainly want the hon. Lady to share her constituent’s experience with me and with Ministers in the Department, particularly the concerns that she raises about how the calls have been handled. If she shares those details with me, we will look at them in the usual way, but I am keen to understand the specifics.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister for his replies to questions this morning. May I put on record, in Hansard, my thanks to his ministerial staff and particularly to the Belfast passport office, for everything that they do?

May I put forward a constructive suggestion that may be helpful for our region and for others? Will the Minister outline whether he has considered allowing renewals to be fast-tracked in regional areas, such as by allowing the Belfast office to handle Northern Ireland renewals and especially children’s first passports? Is there a way to further fast-track applications locally or regionally?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I join the hon. Gentleman in thanking the staff of the Belfast office for all their work. I also thank the Glasgow office, which the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned, and HM Passport Office staff around the country.

I will take away the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion for how we might process future applications and share it with the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay. As with all suggestions from the hon. Gentleman, I am sure that he will want to consider it closely.