Passport boss apologises for delays
The head of the Passport Office has apologised to applicants who have suffered delays after coming under considerable pressure from MPs over a backlog crisis at the agency.
Paul Pugh, chief executive of HM Passport Office and Registrar General for England and Wales, said he was sorry for every case when "service standards" had not been met - but only after a grilling from chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee Keith Vaz.
Mr Pugh also confirmed figures provided earlier to the Committee by Mike Jones, Home Office group secretary at the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), that as of yesterday around 480,000 passport applications were logged as work in progress at the agency.
Mr Jones earlier revealed that this figure has surged from around 290,000 work-in-progress applications in March this year.
The Passport Office has been accused of putting holiday-makers summer plans in jeopardy after it emerged interviews for first-time applicants were suspended in London as staff struggled to deal with the backlog.
Addressing Mr Pugh, Mr Vaz asked said: "W ould you like to take this opportunity to apologise to all those who have been waiting? I have a sheaf of letters from members of the public, from members of parliament, who are very, very angry.
"You don't seem to recognise the fact that people are very upset and angry. Would you like to apologise?"
Mr Pugh replied: "I absolutely recognise the anger and distress that some people have suffered and I would like to put on record that yes, in every case where we haven't met our service standards, where we haven't been able to meet the customer's needs, yes, certainly, we are sorry for that."
Mr Vaz asked: "We can take that as an apology?"
And Mr Pugh replied: "It is an apology."
Mr Vaz revealed he had sent a text message to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, over the weekend in a bid to resolve a personal passport crisis faced by one of his constituents in Leicester.
The chair explained that the woman, who was set to travel yesterday, had travelled to Durham from Leicester to discover her passport was not ready.
After failing to get in touch with Mr Pugh at the Passport Office, Mr Vaz contacted the Home Secretary and ultimately the constituent was able to travel.
Mr Pugh revealed he had considered resigning but decided against such a move as it was his responsibility to lead the Passport Office through "tough times".
Earlier, Mr Jones warned the Committee the Passport Office had "lost control" of the backlog, which he put down to the loss of 550 jobs cut from the department since the Government came into power in 2010.
"Staff have been working excessive overtime to try and deal with that," Mr Jones said. "Our members have been working really hard to manage a ship that has been sinking for years."
A report shows the office estimated a year ago that applications would surge by as much as 350,000 this summer because of overseas embassies shutting their passport desks and transferring operations to Britain.
But Mr Pugh admitted this forecast was incorrect and was likely to be closer to 400,000.
After weeks of mounting public anger, Home Secretary Theresa May announced a raft of measures aimed at clearing the backlog.
Fast-track processing fees for passport applicants who need to travel abroad urgently have been dropped, and people renewing their UK passports from overseas are being given a 12-month extension to their existing passport.
Those applying for passports overseas on behalf of their children will be given emergency travel documents.
A spokesman for Her Majesty's Passport Office (HMPO) said: " There are currently approximately 480,000 active applications being processed.
"It is not unusual during peak periods for HMPO to operate with high numbers of applications in the system at any one time, with this year seeing the highest levels for 12 years.
"We are working to ensure that the vast majority of people continue to receive their passports within our service standards.
"We have also introduced a range of measures to help those who need to travel urgently, including free upgrades."