HL Deb 10 June 1999 vol 601 cc1547-50

3.27 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the current delays in responding to applications by British citizens for passports are likely to continue or to be repeated during this summer.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the processing of passport applications is currently taking longer than normal, but the Passport Agency is prioritising applications to meet applicants' declared travel dates. The agency is meeting travel dates in 99.99 per cent. of cases and will continue to do so throughout the summer.

The agency is recruiting more than 300 extra staff to help reduce the arrears. Its work is seasonal; intake falls from July onwards. This and the action the agency is taking to reduce current delays will bring turnround times back to 10 days by September.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. With long delays reported at passport offices outside London—for example, at Liverpool 10 weeks for postal applications and at Glasgow five-and-a-half weeks—is the noble Lord aware of the widespread anxiety of people who have arranged holidays abroad this summer? What he has just said in some ways improves the situation. Do the causes of the delays include the breakdown of a new computer system and the time spent on a new procedure for children under 16?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I certainly sympathise with those who have booked holidays and are troubled as to whether they will have their passports in time. I am grateful for the noble Lord's support. I repeat that the agency meets travel dates in 99.99 per cent of cases. To put it into a wider context, of the 4.8 million passports serviced last year, in 95 cases travel dates were not met. This year the figure is about 60. The advice that I give is to apply in plenty of time before the holiday, if at all possible; to make sure that the form is correctly filled in and that all the documentation is in order; not to attend a passport office in person; and, in the context of your Lordships' House, not to ring me up and see what I can do about it.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of a case in the north-east last week where a group of disabled children was at risk of being prevented from going to Disneyland because of passport delays and that, following representations, the head of the Passport Agency made a personal intervention, making two telephone calls on a Sunday to one of the organisers which resulted in the children going on their holiday? Will my noble friend join me in congratulating the head of the Passport Agency on that particular occasion and agree that that represents the acceptable face of bureaucracy?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, by and large the Passport Agency does extremely well. It is very heartening to see that what is apparently an inflexible bureaucracy can respond flexibly and sensitively to the particular instance. There have been computer-related difficulties but, by and large, the story is a good one and it is not always fully reflected in the newspaper headlines.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is the new regulations relating to children under 16 which cause panic in some households—certainly in the McNally household? Can the noble Lord clarify whether all children under 16 need new travel documents or whether, where they are on passports that remain valid, they can still travel on that documentation? Certain newspaper reports indicate that all children under 16 will need travel documents this summer, which I believe causes some of the panic and rush.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, where a child is on a passport that does not need renewal, no new application for a child's passport needs to be made. It is because children on new applications must have separate passports that there has been an increase in the number of applications. I do not think that there is need for panic. There is a need for prudent thought. I believe that most people book their holidays in advance. It is a sensible precaution to check a passport and make application at least four weeks before the date of travel.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, can the Minister explain why the change relating to children has been made? What prior notice was given, and what is now being done to rectify an obviously difficult situation? In a recent case of a different kind that affected my passport, I could not have been more grateful for the conscientious and thorough manner in which an individual acted on a Saturday morning.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his remarks. The reasoning behind the introduction of children's passports was that they provided a certain degree of extra security. If a child is on his or her parents' passport, there is simply a bare description. It has been found that if a child has a separate passport it is an additional security, sometimes in the interests of the child and very often in the interests of checking whether those who come to this country are who they claim to be.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not just that passports take a little longer to process but that this year it is taking six times as long as last year? Concern has also been expressed that these very serious backlogs are being addressed by lowering the security checks being made on passports and the recording of those checks. Is that so?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is not. In response to the noble Lord's question, we are not lifting or diminishing security checks but encouraging a sensible use of discretion—for example, in relation to the concept of a person of similar standing who is required to sign the application and photograph. There have been delays. I repeat that in terms of meeting travel dates the success is very remarkable. Last week we processed 133,000 documents, which is an increase of 20 per cent over last year.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it is not surprising that the Passport Agency meets a very high proportion of travel dates because a great number of people apply for their passports in very good time? However, does that not mask the increase in the time taken to turn round an application for a passport? One cannot get away from that. The situation is much worse this year than it has been in the past. Does the Minister also agree that the reputation of the Passport Agency certainly between 1994 and 1997, when I served at the Home Office, was high, and its record for turning round passport applications was also exceptionally good?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness is right. Most people have the sense when booking their holidays to check their passports. I believe that we are in agreement in that respect. The turnround time now in London is six working days. We should be looking to 10 working days for each of the agency's offices. Difficulties have arisen in part from the increase in application numbers, which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, identified, and in part from the problems of introducing computer systems in two centres. I do not pretend that the picture is entirely satisfactory. I believe that I have made that plain. We hope to reach the 10-day target by September.

Lord Evans of Parkside

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in Liverpool it is the frontline counter staff in particular who face the fury, and often abuse, of people who have to stand in queues for many hours for passports? Will my noble friend make clear to the general public that it is not the frontline staff who are responsible for the enormous delays but someone much higher up the chain? Does he also agree that the frontline staff deserve the utmost credit from the Home Office and all those concerned for the valiant job that they are attempting to do?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am happy to do that. I am in entire agreement with the observations of my noble friend. It is not the fault of the staff when delays occur; it is not the fault of Ministers either—at least not Home Office Ministers. The fact is that some people panic unnecessarily and do not adopt the prudent steps which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, identified. It is no good abusing people who are trying to do their best in difficult circumstances. Sometimes the position has been exacerbated by ill-informed media stories. The situation is not as bad as has been described. I repeat, we hope confidently to achieve a 10-day turnround by September.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, highlighted a particular problem about obtaining passports in case of emergency. What particular arrangements are in hand when passports are required for family visits abroad, perhaps for illness or other reasons, and will the noble Lord publicise such information?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, if one wants to make a family visit abroad, normally it is possible to plan ahead in the way identified. On occasions that is not possible; there may be family emergencies. As has been indicated by a number of questions and observations from noble Lords, I believe that the Passport Agency does its best to meet those urgent cases. But what one does not want is everyone claiming that his or her case is urgent. That simply clogs up the entire system and does a disservice to everyone.

Forward to