Staff at HM Passport Office in Durham have made allegations of bullying on the part of senior managers that has contributed to a “toxic culture” as the organisation works to clear a surge of applications.
City of Durham MP Mary Kelly Foy said officials had contacted her with concerns about problems at the centre and warned that in-house problems were compounded by verbal abuse from members of the public anxious to get passports.
Her comments came during an opposition day debate in parliament this week on problems at HMPO, which says it has seen “unprecedented” demand for new travel documents after the coronavirus pandemic caused around five million people to put off getting new passports.
Foy told MPs she had been keen to find out about conditions in the passport office's Durham offices for herself, but was denied the opportunity to visit by senior officials, prompting her to seek insight from staff on social media.
“Their response made stark reading,” she said. “There appear to be widespread mismanagement and structural issues slowing the attempts to clear the backlog, including delays in the full rollout of the digital application programme system; incorrect advice being given by the helpline, which has been outsourced to Teleperformance; inefficiencies and errors from private contractors such as Sopra Steria; and the double handling of applications.”
Foy said an influx of agency workers had required training, meaning permanent staff had been “pulled from their roles” to provide instruction to new temporary colleages.
“Staff morale is understandably at an all-time low,” she said. “Covid outbreaks have led to staff shortages, yet staff are under pressure to return to office working, including through alleged bullying tactics from senior officials and poor communication from management.”
Foy said staff had told her they were “too afraid” to speak out about working conditions inside HMPO for fear of facing disciplinary action, and that the situation was compounded by verbal abuse from the public.
“Passport offices across the country need to be turned back into positive working environments where staff feel appreciated and can excel in their role,” she said.
Foy added that recruiting more permanent staff, reducing the use of agency staff, and boosting pay for officials should be part of the solution.
Aberavon MP Stephen Kinnock said it was “extraordinary” that during a crisis in the passport office, the government’s response was to cut the civil service by more than 90,000 jobs.
“We clearly need more resources, we need people-focused customer-facing services, and we need to build morale, not destroy it,” he said.
A Home Office spokesperson said HMPO staff across the country were processing approximately 250,000 passport applications a week and completing the vast majority well within the 10-week guidance.
“Our staff in Durham are rightly focused on working tirelessly to resolve applications as quickly as possible, this is our utmost priority,” they said.
“Any staff member who has concerns about their workload or work conditions is encouraged to raise this with their manager as soon as possible.”
The Home Office said HMPO had increased staff numbers by 650 since April 2021 and was currently in the process of recruiting a further 550 officials.