UNDER-FIRE Home Secretary Theresa May has apologised for delays in processing passport applications and insisted the Government is doing all it can to clear the huge backlog.
Speaking during a Labour-led debate in the House of Commons, which saw her accused of incompetence, Mrs May said Her Majesty’s Passport Office (HMPO) was dealing with its highest demand in 12 years.
She said the surge in demand usually experienced during the summer months “started much earlier in the year”, and “as a result, a number of people are waiting too long for their passport applications to be processed”.
Mrs May said: “I would like to say to anybody who is unable to travel because of a delay in processing their passport application that I am sorry and the Government is sorry for the inconvenience they have suffered and we are doing all we can to put things right.
“Despite the unprecedented level of demand, the overwhelming majority of people making straightforward applications are still receiving their passports within three weeks as usual. Over the first five months of this year, HMPO has processed more than 97 per cent of straightforward passport renewals and child applications within the three-week target turnaround time.”
The Home Secretary spoke in an opposition day debate called by Labour, which saw MPs jumping from their seats to raise the plight of their constituents.
A Labour motion which called on the Government to expand its emergency measures by offering compensation to applicants who had paid for urgent upgrades, was defeated 282 to 235.
Immediately before her speech, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper urged Mrs May to begin it with an apology. She said: “We still don’t know when things will be back to normal, families still don’t know how long they can expect to wait and we still don’t know whether the Home Office has a grip.
“Would it be too much to ask for a little bit of humility from the Home Secretary when she stands up, given the holidays she has put at risk? Yesterday the passport office chief executive gave an apology, last week the Prime Minister gave an apology.
“So can we have an apology from the Home Secretary as the minister in charge of it all? Why doesn’t she begin her speech with that apology to those families?”
Mrs May faced accusations that she had blamed passport delays on everything from the weather to Education Secretary Michael Gove and his “hissy fits”.
Ms Cooper compared the Government’s approach to Monty Python as she attempted to find out when the backlog would be cleared and if measures announced to clear it were working.
Ms Cooper also told Mrs May the helpline system was “doing people’s heads in” and questioned why it had 650 extra staff, claiming they just took messages that no one called back to address.
Labour’s Leeds East MP George Mudie called on the Government to review individual cases.
He said: “They knew for five months they were running into trouble. Did they alert anyone to the fact they were running into trouble, the answer is no. The answer is they did not change the website and so people put in and were putting themselves in danger and their holidays in danger because the Government didn’t come clean.”