Home secretary says Passport Office to be made directly accountable to ministers with chief executive effectively sacked
The Passport Office, the agency blamed for the chaos this summer when the backlog of applications exceeded half a million, is to be made directly accountable to ministers.
Theresa May, the home secretary, announced the move on Friday following two reviews, as well as demands made by the influential home affairs select committee, to strip the Passport Office of its agency status.
The decision means that HM Passport Office (HMPO) will cease to be an executive agency from 1 October. Paul Pugh, the current chief executive, has effectively been sacked, remaining in the role until a successor – in the form of a director general – is appointed.
The Home Office last year cut several passport offices within foreign embassies at an annual saving of £20m and moved the work to centres in Liverpool, Durham and Belfast. The decision was also intended to boost security, as it was considered too risky to send blank passport books abroad.
But there followed a series of problems within the offices which the government and the agency attempted to deny. Thousands of people applying for passports began experiencing delays as they tried to book summer holidays.
The problems came to a head on 11 June when pictures were leaked to the Guardian showing a backlog of tens of thousands of applications that had been stacked in a conference room.
It also emerged, in documents leaked to this paper, that the agency had asked staff to relax security checks on passport applications to speed up the process – a revelation that prompted the direct intervention of May.
Keith Vaz, the chair of the home affairs select committee (HASC), which cross-examined Pugh in June when the chief executive was still denying there was a backlog, welcomed the decision.
“Delighted that the home secretary has accepted the HASC recommendation and abolished the agency status of the Passport Office,” he wrote on Twitter.
At its peak in late June, there were 537,663 outstanding applications. May introduced a number of emergency measures to tackle the backlog, which is now around 80,000.
She said: “As the events of the summer showed, it is essential that HMPO is run as efficiently as possible and is as accountable as possible.”
The timing of May’s announcement – on the day parliament has been recalled to debate air strikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq – has led to allegations that she was attempting to “bury bad news”.
Pugh sent a message to staff on Friday morning saying he “took responsibility” for this year’s problems within the Passport Office and confirmed that he would not be seeking the role of director general.
“This year has been hugely challenging for us, and as CEO, I take responsibility for what happened. Having met my commitment to lead the organisation through its toughest period, I have decided to step aside,” he said.
The PCS union, which represents HMPO staff, said on Twitter: “Cynical and shameless move by @ukhomeoffice to announce the Passport Office move minutes before parliamentary debate on Iraq.”
A spokesman for the PCS said ministers must address shortfalls in staffing, deliver equal pay with other Home Office staff and ensure further work would not be privatised or outsourced. He urged ministers not to try to deal with backlogs by redeploying staff from other areas and offices, risking causing crises elsewhere a few months later.
The PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, said: “Despite the cynical timing of the announcement, clearly designed to bury an awkward issue, we welcome this if it will mean we get the staff we need to provide a quality service under public control.
“Instead of the short-term measures we’ve seen, we want to sit down and negotiate a long-term solution to staffing to ensure the crisis we saw this summer is not repeated in future.”
Last week the report by MPs on the select committee recommended that the Passport Office should lose its agency status.
It was a mistake to close overseas passport application centres and replace them with a centralised UK service in Britain, the report said.
The decision, sanctioned by ministers, had played a critical role in the delays, and the reorganisation had been “poorly handled”, it said.
The Home Office is yet to explain whether the reorganisation will address this problem.
The MPs’ report also said they were concerned that a number of travellers had ended up out of pocket because of the delays and called for compensation.
Many applicants had been forced to pay extra fees to speed up the passport process while others had to pay charges to alter flight bookings, or even miss their holidays altogether.
Pugh was given a torrid cross-examination by the committee in June. He told MPs he considered resigning over the delays fiasco but decided instead to see the agency through “tough times”. Pugh, who earns £104,000 a year, at first denied there was a backlog but apologised to customers whose applications had been delayed.