Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, I calculate, expiring passports outstripped renewals by 12,000 per day. It was clear from the early in the Covid crisis that a knock-on “passport crisis” would loom once travel restrictions were lifted – unless careful plans were laid so that HM Passport Office could cope.
That’s exactly what we did, claims the government. It predicts 36 per cent more applications in 2022 than in the average year.
“Since April 2021, 500 new staff have joined and a further 700 will join by the summer.,” the Home Office promised. But tens of thousands of travelers will testify that their holiday dreams and urgent family trips have been caught up in the vortex of despair that HM Passport Office has become for many.
I know it’s in the tens of thousands because on Thursday, the junior Home Office minister Tom Pursglove revealed that one in 70 of passport applications has been in the system for longer than the 10-week target for processing. That represents 14,000 of the one million applications every month.
At the time of the revelation, Mr Pursglove was in the uncomfortable position of facing a Heathrow-length queue of passport problems from MPs on the floor of the House of Commons.
“I want to put on record my thanks to my caseworker team,” said the Redcar representative Jacob Young. “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.”
With friends like fellow Conservative Mr Young, the Home Office minister hardly needed enemies such as Nick Smith, the Labor MP, whose Urgent Question triggered the debate.
Mr Smith related how one constituent told him: “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 said: “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.”
Plenty of problems, but what about solutions? Well, we did learn a few things from the Commons debate on passport chaos.
- Anyone who has a pressing need for a new passport should enlist the help of their MP’s constituency office (though poor old Niall Hargreaves in Redcar may not thank me for adding to his hours on the phone). Members of Parliament have access to a Home Office hotline to accelerate constituents’ concerns – and they now have a walk-up advice desk in Portcullis House, where many of them have their offices, where Passport Office staff will tackle individual cases.
- Crucially, for anyone who has extremely urgent reasons for needing to travel, “steps can be taken to expedite applications where appropriate”. If you are in this difficult position, call the Passport Adviceline first on 0300 222 0000 – but if this does not produce rapid results, call your MP’s office.
- Anyone in the unenviable position of being among the one in 70 whose applications have taken longer than 10 weeks can immediately upgrade, free of charge, to a premium service. “I would certainly encourage people to avail themselves of that service if that is the situation they find themselves in,” said the minister.
Oddly, MPs didn’t raise three key issues:
- Processing targets
- The almost complete non-availability of priority services.
- Needless passport applications
In the online age, 10 weeks is long for a straightforward renewal, where the applicant has already done all the heavy lifting online. Australia says it can be done in six weeks, Canada’s timeframe is “20 business days” and in New Zealand the figure is “up to 10 working days”.
Each of these nations, like the UK, is encountering some problems. And each has a premium service for urgent applications. The trouble is: Britain’s is broken. “Sorry, there are no available appointments,” is the refrain offered to those who try to apply. The “silver bullet” solution, to all intents and purposes, is unavailable.
One reason for the surge in applications is that many people have applied for renewals when they did not need to, because the UK government or travel firms have provided them with the wrong information. Some of those prospective travelers are in the unenviable position of trying to retrieve their perfectly valid passports.
I have asked MPs to investigate this calamitous aspect of the disarray. But like those renewing passports, I may be waiting some time.