HC Deb 15 June 1999 vol 333 cc93-6W
Mr. Kidney

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many times this year the Liverpool office of the UK Passport Agency has turned away applicants who attended in person without serving them; and how many such applicants it turned away without serving on Friday 7 May. [86352]

Mr. Mike O'Brien

Passport applicants who have attended personally have not been turned away if this would have resulted in their missing their travel date.

The Passport Agency has not kept a detailed record of the number of passport applicants attending in person at the Liverpool passport office who have been turned away. This has only happened very exceptionally where the number of applicants inside the Liverpool office have been the maximum permitted in the office. In these circumstances, the position has been explained to applicants who have been asked to call back at a later date.

The Passport Agency has no specific information available for 7 May and it is not aware of any particular problems arising from customers being turned away from the Liverpool office on that date. However, if my hon. Friend has concern about a particular case I should be grateful if he would let David Gatenby, Chief Executive of the Passport Agency know, and he will be pleased to investigate the matter and report urgently to me.

Mr. Kidney

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if the passport service provided by the Passport Agency's high street partners takes priority over the Agency's standard service. [86334]

Mr. Mike O'Brien

The Passport Agency gives priority to passport applications by the applicant's declared date of travel. This applies to all applications, whether they are received via the Agency's partners or directly in the mail, or made in person. As partnership applications have been pre-checked for accuracy and completedness, and the fee has been collected, these applications can normally be processed more speedily than direct postal applications.

Mr. Kidney

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what assessment he has made of the effect of the passport service provided by the Passport Agency's high street partners on the Agency's standard service. [86335]

Mr. Mike O'Brien

The service provided by the Passport Agency's high street partners since 1996 has helped the Agency to deal effectively and efficiently with high levels of demand by reducing processing times for passport applications. Partnership applications are pre-checked for accuracy and completeness, which enables them to be processed more speedily. This has had a beneficial impact on the service provided by the Passport Agency to all its customers.

Mr. Chope

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what additional resources were given to the Passport Agency following introduction of the requirement that every child travelling overseas should have an individual passport. [87106]

Mr. Mike O'Brien

As part of its business planning, the Agency took account of this change in forecasting demand for passports in 1998–99, and 1999–2000, and planning the resources and budget needed to deal effectively with this forecast demand.

The Agency is on a net financing regime and is required fully to recover its costs from passport fees.

Mr. Chope

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if the Passport Agency has relaxed its procedures for checking passport applications; and if he will make a statement. [87107]

Mr. Mike O'Brien

There is no relaxation of security, but to facilitate the more efficient processing of new passport applications the Passport Agency has issued guidance to its examiners to ensure they do not unnecessarily delay issuing passports by exercising discretion to approve applications where the examiner has no significant doubt about the identity of the applicant. The guidance has been agreed with the Agency trade unions as not compromising effective checks.

The Agency is often criticised for taking too narrow a view of whether a counter-signatory "is a person of similar standing" to a professionally qualified person. Passport examiners have been encouraged to give a reasonable interpretation to this requirement. In the context of the whole application and supporting documentary evidence, sensible use of discretion can ensure both quicker and proper processing of applications.

In order to clear quickly straightforward renewal applications made in person, certain existing passports are being extended for two years provided certain criteria are fulfilled. Passports valid or expired within the last five years are being exceptionally extended provided the holder's identity can be confirmed, for example, by comparing the photograph with the photograph in the old passport, or with the person who is applying in person, and provided certain other checks are satisfactorily completed.

These extended passports are properly issued passports valid for travel. Immigration authorities abroad have been made aware of this position.

Neither of the measures imply any relaxation in the Agency's security. No security checks have been suspended.

Mr. Chope

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many passport applications are currently outstanding; what is the average time taken between receipt of the application and the issue of the passport; and what were the estimated figures for June 1996, June 1997 and June 1998. [87112]

Mr. Mike O'Brien

The Passport Agency currently has 487,658 passport applications outstanding, which represents, at current output levels, about one month's work.

The current average turnround time across the Agency's six passport offices is 34 working days. The average turnround time in June 1996, June 1997 and June 1998 was 8 working days, 9.5 working days and 16 working days respectively.

Teething problems with the introduction of new computerised passport-issuing arrangements into the Liverpool and Newport Passport Offices, and high seasonal demand for passports, have caused current delays.

Mr. Flynn

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is his estimate of the time that will be taken between application to the Passport Agency and issue of a passport for(a) new passports and (b) renewal of a passport (i) one month hence and (ii) six months hence. [86980]

Mr. Mike O'Brien

It is difficult to provide an estimate of the position in one month's time as the Passport Agency is prioritising applications to meet applicants declared travel dates. With high seasonal demand for passports, this means there are delays in processing non-urgent applications. Much depends on intake, the Agency's output, and the impact of the measures the Agency is taking to reduce current delays.

The Agency is meeting travel dates in 99.99 per cent. of cases and will continue to do so throughout the summer. The Agency's aim is to reduce turnaround times to 10 days by September.

Mr. Laurence Robertson

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what recent discussions he has had with the Newport Passport Office regarding(a) the telephone service and (b) the general service provided to the public; and if he will make a statement. [86944]

Mr. Mike O'Brien

I am aware from the weekly reports that I have been receiving from the Passport Agency's Chief Executive on the Agency's current operational difficulties of the teething problems that the Newport Passport Office have encountered in piloting new computerised passport issuing arrangements. Productivity has been below expectations and arrears of work have developed. In addition, along with the Agency's other five offices, Newport has been dealing with high seasonal demand for passports.

The Passport Agency is taking a number of measures to improve the position at Newport. Applications are being prioritised by customers declared travel dates, and Newport is meeting those dates for 99.99 per cent. of passports issued. Additional staff are being deployed, examination processes are being streamlined, and Newport is working extended hours.

Current delays will reduce as a result of the action being taken and the seasonal nature of the Agency's work. The aim is to reduce turnround times to 10 days by September.

Because of its arrears of work, the Newport Office has been swamped with telephone and written inquiries. Despite its best endeavours, and with its focus on the customers declared travel dates, the Newport Office has not in many cases been able to provide a satisfactory response. The Passport Agency very much regrets the present situation and is taking action to improve matters. It is looking urgently at alternative telephone answering arrangements.

I have written to all hon. Members with a more detailed explanation of the Agency's current operational position, and its plans to reduce current delays.

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