Her Majesty's Passport Office: delays in processing applications - Home Affairs Committee Contents

5  Applications from overseas

70. Research published by the Home Office in November 2012[72] stated that, although there were difficulties in producing accurate estimates, there were around 4.5 to 5.5 million British citizens or UK-born people living abroad. The World Bank estimated there were 4.7 million UK emigrants (around 7.5 per cent of the UK population) living abroad. They report the largest stocks of UK-born, based abroad, to be living in Australia, the USA, Canada, Spain, Ireland, New Zealand, France and Germany, as shown in Table 5:Table 5: Top ten countries for stocks of UK-born citizens resident abroad
Country of residence Residence stocks of UK-born citizens
Canada 675,000
Spain 411,000
New Zealand268,000
Germany 155,000

Source: Extracted from Emigration from the UK, Second Edition, Research Report 68, November 2012, Home Office

The decision to move the processing of overseas applications to the UK

71. The idea to transfer the responsibility for processing overseas applications for passports to the UK for approximately 5 million UK citizens was first proposed in a report by the National Audit Office in November 2005. The report suggested that most other comparable countries had already repatriated their passport service to their home countries, in part to improve security, but also recognising that this is a more cost effective service for applicants. It clearly acknowledged that these repatriated services were often slower than the local services they replaced.[73] The Committee of Public Accounts supported this proposal in April 2006:

    Issuing passports at over 100 Posts is inefficient and exposes the Department to increasing risks from fraudulent applications. The Department should analyse the costs and benefits of repatriating large elements of passport work to take advantage of the economies of scale and quality assurance arrangements of the United Kingdom Passport Service. Consolidating its passport issuing service in fewer locations would also aid the Department in reducing inconsistencies in security checking, and in dealing with the technical complexities in moving to biometric passports.[74]

72. On 28 April 2009, the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the integration of UK and overseas passport issuing operations. At the time, it was expected that full integration would be achieved by 2014-15.[75] On 1 April 2011, IPS officially took responsibility from the FCO for UK passports issued overseas.[76] The Home Office's 2013-14 Annual Report and Accounts highlighted that the process of repatriation had concluded:

    In partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, HM Passport Office completed the transfer of responsibility for passport applications from British nationals overseas and now serves an additional 390,000 customers annually, as the single UK passport issuer. Following the reduction in fee for domestic UK applications in 2012, HM Passport Office announced a fee reduction for its overseas customers, which took effect on 7 April 2014. The reduction, as a result of the efficiency savings made by bringing the processing and issuing of overseas passports back to the UK, is a further step in providing the fee payer better value for money.[77]

The impact on HMPO

73. Given the similarities between the increase in demand and the number of expected overseas applications coming into the system—both figures are in the region of 350,000—we pressed Paul Pugh as to whether the current delays had been caused by the decision to transfer overseas applications back to the UK. He said:

    It important to understand the kind of history of the overseas work. I think the figures that you are referring to are a bit like comparing apples and pears. We knew when we were preparing to take over the overseas work that we would need additional capacity to deal with that work. That was planned for, that was built into the organisation and indeed we recruited a substantial number of staff and trained them specifically in expertise of overseas work to make sure that that could be dealt with.

He explained the difference between domestic work, which is high volume but broadly very consistent, and overseas work, which is low volume and highly variable, depending upon which country people were applying from. Additionally, he explained that in the transition HMPO found that improvements in the information for customers were required to make sure the right information was received the first time. To enable this, staff had to develop their familiarity so that HMPO could "get to a steady state on the overseas work". He added that the way that an overseas case is processed will differ very significantly depending on the country, depending on the level of risk and depending on the complexity of the application, but he expected over the next few months for the Agency to get to a position where it would be able to see the great majority of straightforward properly completed overseas applications being turned around in no more than four to six weeks.[78]

Interaction with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

74. On 5 June, the same day that passport delays were first raised in the House of Commons, a written ministerial statement was made by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Entitled "Support for British Nationals Overseas" it described the achievements of the 2013-16 FCO Consular Strategy. It states "One year on, the FCO has already delivered significant improvements to the services received by our consular customers across the world", and cites positively that "In March 2014, we completed the full transfer of all responsibility for passport applications, decisions and the issuing of documents to Her Majesty's Passport Office (HMPO), who now offer [an] online passport application service to 4 million British nationals overseas, and have reduced the cost of replacing or renewing passports for British nationals overseas by 35% (from April 2014)".[79]

75. The Foreign Affairs Committee have been undertaking an inquiry into FCO Consular Services, where the decision to transfer responsibility for overseas passports has also been challenged. That Committee asked former British Ambassadors whether it was a good decision to repatriate responsibility for passports to the UK and the Home Office. Sir Michael Arthur KCMG, said, "It was unpopular in Germany. A lot of Germans felt that the distance made it more difficult to get a passport. … It is a service that is provided postally. Logically, it is not hugely different to do it in the UK than overseas, but it is not popular".[80]

76. The initial decision for overseas applications was taken by Ministers in 2009 and confirmed by the current Government in 2011. This was part of the regrettable line of removing overseas posts. The Committee have consistently been against the reduction in overseas resources. Whatever the reason for transferring responsibilities for processing overseas passport applications from the FCO to HMPO, it is clear that this is a mistake. Regardless of whether the overseas production of UK passports was more expensive than in comparable countries, or could have been produced more efficiently in the UK, UK citizens should be able to achieve a standard level of service. HMPO's own statistics show that in the current financial year to date, only 13% of applications from overseas have been dealt with within the three-week target. Successive Ministers over the last 29 years from all administrations have been too focused on their departmental budgets, rather than the fact that providing a passport is a service, the cost of which is paid for by UK citizens.

77. The management of the transfer has been poorly handled. HMPO say that further work is required for them to get to a steady state in overseas work, whilst the FCO say that on transition risk had been managed. This contradiction highlights that the appropriate questions about business resilience were not being asked. Furthermore, the transition was completed in April 2014, which meant that this year HMPO was approaching its annual peak in demand with full responsibility for overseas applications for the first time. We believe it would have been far better to manage the transition so that responsibility was passed over when there was low demand, and then as demand increased this could be managed more effectively. In the meantime the Home Office have created emergency travel documents which British citizens should be able to pay for in the overseas posts until the crisis has passed as these will be quicker and more secure.

72   Emigration from the UK, Second Edition, Research Report 68, November 2012, Home Office, p18 Back

73   Consular Services to British Nationals, Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, HC 594, Session 2005-2006, 24 November 2005, para 2.19 Back

74   Consular Services to British Nationals, Public Accounts Committee, HC 813, Session 2005-06, p5 Back

75   Identity and Passport Service Annual Report and Accounts 2008-09, HC 629, p51 Back

76   Identity and Passport Service Annual Report and Accounts 2010-11, HC 1077, p6 Back

77   Home Office Annual Report and Accounts 2013-2014, HC 21, p16 Back

78   Q 128-129 Back

79   HC Deb, 5 June 2014, col 14WS Back

80   Foreign Affairs Committee oral evidence, FCO Consular Services, 25 February 2014, Q 121 Back

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Prepared 16 September 2014