It’s one of the nightmare scenarios – you’re holiday’s booked but your passport needs renewing. It’s getting closer and closer to the date when you fly. Will it arrive back in time or should you make a last minute ditch attempt to retrieve it in person from the passport office?
This scenario became reality for many people this summer. Just in time for the school holidays to start and the mass exodus of people from the UK to Spain, something went wrong and the passports weren’t coming through.
Pictures were leaked to the Guardian showing the backlog of tens of thousands of passport applications stored in a conference room. Each one of those passports had someone eagerly waiting for it. Perhaps also disconcerting was the attempt at denial from the office itself.
Up to 500,000 applications were delayed and those particularly badly hit were British citizens living abroad. Seventeen out of 20 overseas applications were delayed since the beginning of April and only 11% were processed within the 15 working days target.
In order to help clear the backlog, a relaxation of security checks was even suggested. In the end £3.2 million was spent on staff overtime. The UK passport office claimed that it had faced an unprecedented level of demand and preferred to cover up the extent of the problem.
One of the issues seemed to be the decision to remove the responsibility for processing passports away from local offices abroad and back to the UK. Prior to this decision, people living in Spain could send off their application to the British Embassy in Madrid.
This was changed last year and the work was moved to centres in Liverpool, Durham and Belfast. The decision was made to save money and was considered to be a safer option as blank passports would no longer need to be sent abroad. It was acknowledged then that the move could possibly lead to a slower process. But no one then guessed just how slow it might be.
HM Passport Office became the single UK passport issuer and in April 2014, some of the reduced cost of processing the passports in the UK was at last passed down to those paying for the service in the first place. As people became increasingly frustrated waiting for their passports to appear, reductions in cost were perhaps the least of their worries.
But what exactly had gone wrong in the summer? Who was to blame?
The Home Affairs Select Committee
The Home Affairs Select Committee was given the job of looking into the fiasco in more depth.
They concluded that one of the main contributors to the problem was the movement of overseas passport processing to the UK. Although the move had been discussed for a long time, the actual timing of the transition was not ideal. The move was completed in April 2014 just at a time when applications for passports were about to reach their peak. The transfer was described as being ‘poorly handled’ and the decision a mistake.
The committee recommended that due to the ‘complete management failure’ there should be compensation for those who suffered delays and there should be a further reduction in the price charged for a passport.
Currently the passport service makes a profit, some of which found its way into the pockets of staff in the form of £674,000 of bonuses. However, the select committee described the processing of passports as a basic human right and as such the service should just break even.
The position now
A number of recommendations were made by the select committee. For example, they suggested that reminders should be sent out to passport holders before their passport is due to expire. Where the date of expiry is likely to occur at a peak time, a discount might be offered for an earlier application.
After the ‘summer of chaos’ the difficulties with the processing of passports had not gone unnoticed in Parliament. Once back in September it was announced by Theresa May that her Majesty’s Passport Office was to be disbanded and the Home Office to take over.
What exactly will happen to passport applications from Spain is unclear. What is perhaps safe to recommend, is if you are planning to go abroad this summer, send your passport off now to avoid delay!
Select committee report on applications from overseas: Her Majesty's Passport Office: delays in processing applications