French call firm blamed for Passport Office chaos handed extra millions

·4 min read
A backlog of around half-a-million passport applications is being processed - Hollie Adams for The Telegraph
A backlog of around half-a-million passport applications is being processed - Hollie Adams for The Telegraph

A French call centre blamed for chaos at the Passport Office has been handed millions of pounds extra by taxpayers, The Telegraph can reveal.

Teleperformance has been paid more than £9 million for manning the phones between January and April – around double the yearly contract value and what it was paid in previous years. That came as the company was fined hundreds of thousands of pounds for poor service.

On Friday, MPs told The Telegraph that the call centre was “of no use to man or beast” and called on the Home Office to justify the increased spending and “waste of taxpayers’ money”.

If spending continues at current levels, the five-year contract could more than double its £22 million value despite the chaos at the department that has seen some summer holidays ruined.

A backlog of around half-a-million passport applications is being processed, and there has been a deluge of complaints about bad customer service and long waits and a lack of information.

Paris-based Teleperformance runs a number of government call centres, including the Homes for Ukraine helpline, which has also been criticised over delays.

Carolyn Harris, who sits on the Home Affairs select committee, said her inbox was filled with complaints from constituents waiting more than 10 weeks for passports.

She said some cases were “heart-breaking”, including people waiting to see family members or compete in international sporting events. Her staff are spending hours on hold to Teleperformance and, when calls are answered, they give the same information available online.

Questioned about the service during a select committee hearing last month Thomas Greig, director of passports, citizenship and civil registration at the Passport Office, admitted that the “main call floor staff do not have access to all our systems” and only have “some very basic information about where cases are in the queue”.

Ms Harris said: “The Passport Office are paying for nothing – they are paying for a service which is of no use to man or beast. Anyone who rings that service to get current information is wasting their money.”

When the contract to run the Passport Office call centre began on Nov 1, 2019, it was valued at £22.8 million and to run until October 2024. But by the time the latest payment was made in April, spending had already reached £19,610,661, Home Office invoices show.

The analysis by Tussell, a database of UK Government tenders and contracts, shows the Passport Office paid £4.8 million to Teleperformance in 2020 and £4.6 million last year. Teleperformance has received £9,322,399 so far this year, with further payments expected.

The Passport Office on Friday night blamed the increased costs on the “unprecedented demand” in the wake of the Covid pandemic and said it expected the payments to fall.

‘More of the same is not good enough’

Ms Harris, Labour MP for Swansea East, said the office should have anticipated and prepared for a post-Covid rise in demand, adding: “To say that they were caught with their trousers down doesn’t even cover it. This is poor preparation, poor planning and a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.

“Somebody needs to explain why the spending has gone up. As someone who has used it daily, I cannot tell you of a single case where it has been able to help us – it has been soul-destroying. It cannot be allowed to continue operating in the way that it is.”

Mr Grieg also told MPs Teleperformance was fined an amount in the “high hundreds of thousands” earlier this year after performance dipped “to a really low level”.

In order to reduce waits, the French company hired an extra 800 staff earlier this year, but Ms Harris said: “What is the point of more people who don’t have access to the information? More of the same is not good enough.”

She called for the contract to go back out for tender and for the Home Office to take the service in house if the call centre could not be given access to the necessary information.

A Passport Office spokesman said: “The contract began before the unforeseen impacts of the pandemic on passport application. Costs for contact centre services increased as part of the efforts to prepare for the unprecedented demand for passports this year. These costs will reduce as demand falls.”

Teleperformance did not respond to a request for comment.