HM Passport Office’s director of passports, citizenship and civil registration has rejected suggestions there is a toxic working culture at the organisation.
MP sounded the alarm last month over a "toxic" working culture at the Passport Office, with whistleblowers accusing senior managers of bullying and claim “widespread mismanagement” is slowing attempts to clear backlogs.
Thomas Greig told the Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday:“There is definitely lots more that we need to do about management culture. But I don't accept that there is a toxic working culture as a generality.”
He said staff are currently taking very significant overtime and are “under a great deal of pressure” and are being offered welfare support. But he said the main thing that will make staff at HMPO feel better is resolving the backlog of applications.
Greig also rejected the suggestion that delays in processing passport applications had been caused decisions made by HMPO management.
“I would say that that's not the case. I would say it's a confluence of factors, but yes, we are responsible and accountable,” he said.
The Passport Office has been heavily criticised over the length of time it is taking to process passports, with prime minister Boris Johnson reportedly threatening to “privatise the a*** off” the service if it does not cut waiting times down.
Greig repeated the assertion made by other senior officials that delays are mostly due to the unprecedented surge in applications after five million people delayed applying for a passport while Covid-related travel restrictions were in effect.
He admitted to the committee on Wednesday that there were more than 550,000 passport applications still waiting to be resolved at the end of June.
This has now gone down to just above 400,000 and is falling by 60,000 every week, with around 200,000 and 250,000 applications being handled per week, Greig.
But 10% of applications are still taking more than ten weeks to process, the Passport Office director added.
Asked when HMPO will be able to offer the usual three-week turnaround again, Greig said he could not guarantee this would happen by the end of the year "because I don't know how the markets are going behave over the next year”. However, he said he expects by the end of the summer feel "more much more normal”.
The Passport Office has already processed almost five million passports this year, more than last year’s total. It has predicted this will reach 9.5 million by the end of the year, but Greig said this figure could change as demand has started going down.
Greig, who joined HMPO in January, said the agency had been planning for a spike in applications since last summer.
Asked by committee chair Diana Johnson why the Passport Office had “failed so miserably”, Greig said: “We have achieved record output and we have achieved more than we ever have."
He said the Passport Office is focusing on trying to resolve the applications “that have taken longer than we would have liked”.
“We're very sorry for people that have gone into that more difficult situation. We're putting lots of measures in place to make sure that we can resolve their applications as soon as we can,” he added.
He said some applications take longer because of things like a person turning 16 during the period they apply, or documents that can’t easily be viewed on the system.
HMPO has brought in 1,200 additional staff to deal with the issues, with a further 200 being recruited at the moment. Most are temporary staff, “because we know that it is a temporary spike", Greig said.
But he said he does not think the issues in recent months have been “predominantly” the number of staff the agency has had.
Greig also rejected suggestions that officials working from home had caused the issues. He said a very small proportion of staff are now working remotely as the more complicated cases need people to be in the office.
“We are only allowing people to work from home where they can be as productive as they would be in the office. Sixth months ago there may have been more people working from home, because the proportion of people working on our digital system was higher.
“Because at the moment our focus is on the more complex case types that run out our paper-based system, which is based in the office, we are maximising our numbers of staff in the office at the moment.”
Greig said productivity on the digital system does not differ if people are in the office or at home but he admitted the Passport Office had not collected to data to back this up.
Earlier this year, Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft intervened in the work-from-home row to say senior officials' work location has “zero bearing” on the agency’s productivity.
Asked if more could have been done to avoid the backlog, such as encouraging people to apply earlier, Greig said the Passport Office had sent text reminders to five million people last year but admitted: “There’s lots of lessons that we could learn from the last six months and I think that we probably could have encouraged people earlier on to make those applications.”