Working from home led to passport office delays that jeopardised the travel plans of at least 360,000 Britons, an investigation by the Government’s spending watchdog has found.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said allowing staff from HM Passport Office (HMPO) to work from home contributed to a delay in completing a new digital system for processing applications, which was due to have been finished by March this year before the crisis blew up.
This meant the system could not handle the sudden post-pandemic surge in applications from millions of holidaymakers and business travellers seeking to renew their passports in the spring and summer.
It forced passport office staff to process applications on paper by hand which was slower and less efficient. This contributed to officials missing the 10-week deadline for returning 360,000 people’s documents, putting their holiday and travel plans at risk.
The report states: “HMPO originally expected to complete its transformation programme by March 2022. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, HMPO expanded the scope of the programme to allow staff to work from home, making it easier to continue processing applications. However, this contributed to a delay in completing the programme. HMPO now expects to complete its transformation in 2024-25.”
‘Red-rated’ by Whitehall chiefs
The disclosure, in a report published on Friday contradicts claims by senior passport office executives over the summer that having staff working from home had no impact on the delivery of its services.
The passport office has now admitted the digital application system may not be fully operational until 2025/26 even though the number of passport applications next year could be even greater than that which caused the chaos this summer.
The NAO also disclosed that the passport’s digital “transformation” programme has been “red-rated” by Whitehall chiefs which means “successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable”.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said the passport office needed to learn lessons to avoid a repeat even though it processed a record number of applications amid unprecedented demand.
“Limitations in its systems, coupled with difficulties in keeping up with higher-than-average numbers of customers contributed to delays for hundreds of thousands of people, creating anxiety for those with travel plans and hampering people’s ability to prove their identity,” he said.
“HM Passport Office must now learn the lessons from this year and prepare for similar levels of demand that are expected in 2023.”
The passport office estimates there are still at least three million applications to be expected from people who did not renew or apply during the pandemic. This will push the number of applications this year to 9.8 million, a third more than normal, and above the 9.5 million this year.
Thomas Greig, director of passports, told MPs in July, he was “very confident, having seen the way that our work has progressed over the last few years and months and having seen our productivity, that working from home has not been an issue in our delivery of service.”
However, the NAO report said the decision to allow staff to work from home when the pandemic began “contributed to a delay in completing the [digital transformation] programme”.
Telephone helpline overwhelmed
The NAO said the passport office was relying on the new digital system to meet the anticipated surge in applications but the delay meant it could not handle the demand.
“Between January and September, limitations in the digital system meant HM Passport Office had to move 134,000 applications to the less efficient, paper-based system,” said the NAO.
Not only was it slower, but it also meant staff did not know how long the transferred applications had been in the system. In some cases, this meant applicants, who had already been waiting four weeks, were put back to the start of the queue.
“This created confusion and frustration for customers who phoned for updates, when they were wrongly informed their applications were still within the 10-week application period,” said the NAO.
The delays were compounded by staff shortages after a recruitment campaign fell short, the failure of attempts to alert the public to allow 10 weeks for applications and its telephone helpline subsequently becoming overwhelmed.
The Home Office said it had worked hard to rectify the problems that caused the delay. “The delay to the transition to the latest passport application system, DAP, is due to essential changes that enabled our staff to work from home while social distancing measures were in force. This was integral to our being able to provide passport services uninterrupted throughout the pandemic,” said a spokesman.