Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft has hit back at calls to privatise HM Passport Office, saying its outsourced MP hotline should service as a warning to anyone questioning whether it should remain under a public body.
Rycroft took the opportunity to reject claims that the Passport Office would be better run by a private business during a Home Affairs Committee grilling last week. The prime minister is said to be among those keen to see passport processing outsourced, having reportedly threatened to “privatise the a*** off” the directorate if it fails to get on top of delays.
Labour MP Carolyn Harris took the perm sec to task over a case her office had taken on for a constituent, saying a member of her staff had spent several hours on the phone after being told the application would be expedited.
She said one three-and-a-half hour phone call had cost the office £38.40 – and did not resolve the issue.
“The following day we started the process again, only to be told that the constituent’s application had been declined because there was insufficient paperwork. Within half an hour, that constituent got a telephone call asking them to go and pick up their passport from the nearest Passport Office,” she said.
“If that is the service MPs are getting, how on earth can you justify the level of service that the general public are having from the Passport Office?”
After apologising to Harris’s constituent and members of staff, Rycroft urged the MP: “Please use that example the next time anyone suggests to you that the way to reduce the size of the civil service is to privatise it, because the only bit of the passport function that has been privatised is that.
“It is a company that runs the hotline. That is the one bit of the passport function that is run by the private sector.”
Teleperformance Limited runs the MPs’ hotline, as well as a customer-facing advice line for the Passport Office and an out-of-hours line for some Ministry of Justice services, under a five-year contract worth £22.8m awarded in 2019.
Rycroft said the Home Office has been “working assiduously in response to that sort of feedback to ensure that they – I was going to say “get their act together” – get back within the service levels that they have signed up to”.
“There has been some progress on that score,” he said.
Home Office minister Tom Pursglove said in May that the contact centre was partly to blame for well-publicised delays in passport processing.
Answering a written parliamentary question on passport delays, he said the hotline was “not currently meeting the needs of passport customers” and that HMPO had “engaged with Teleperformance at its most senior levels to emphasise the need to significantly improve performance as soon as possible”.
The company has taken steps to improve its operations and was “urgently bolstering staff numbers in response to the recent surge in customer contact, with 500 additional staff due to be added by mid-June”, he said.
Rycroft said passport delays are down to "pent-up demand" after people put off applying for passport renewals during the pandemic.
In April, the perm sec intervened in a row over hybrid working, following criticism of HMPO director general Abi Tierney for working from home. In a highly unusual public statement, he said the DG's work location had “zero bearing” on the agency’s productivity and said staff across the directorate were "working flat out" to meet demand.
‘Nowhere’ in the department will it be easy to cut jobs
MPs also quizzed Rycroft on the impact planned civil service job cuts are likely to have on the Home Office. Departments have been given until the end of the month to prepare submissions modelling cuts of between 20% and 40% to their headcount, which ministers will use to determine how a cross-government reduction of 91,000 jobs should fall.
Ministers have said the civil service must return to pre-2016 staffing levels, reversing what they have called a “temporary” increase as officials dealt with the extra workload associated with Brexit and the Covid pandemic.
But Rycroft stressed that any Brexit-related operational changes at the Home Office – which has gained nearly 10,000 full-time equivalent staff in the six years since March 2016 – are not temporary.
“On the Home Office aspects of Brexit, of course Brexit was not an event, it was a change of the UK and the responsibilities of our border,” he explained. “The increase that the Home Office staff, particularly in Border Force, have seen as a result of the UK’s exit from the EU needs to be permanent, or at least the functions they are doing need to carry on being done."
“Of course, we can innovate about how we do them,” he added.
Rycroft said it is “too early to definitively answer” questions about how a reduction in the Home Office’s 39,200-strong headcount will affect the department, as plans have yet to be finalised.
“There is no part of the Home Office full of people twiddling their thumbs where we could very easily see the organisation reduced,” he said, noting that the same will be true of other parts of the civil service.
“We will iron out inefficiency, duplication or shadow functions where we can, but we will also need to invest in technology, including in automation. I am very fearful of toxic positivity, but we have a pretty good track record in parts of the Home Office, including the Passport Office, on automation, which we can spread into other parts of the department in the coming years,” he said.
But he warned: “I should warn that it is pretty hard to get an instant reduction in headcount as a result of investment in technology.”
And he said the department would need to prioritise – “giving ministers options on what to stop doing – and I think what I have described is pretty much what every permanent secretary will be going through as a contribution to this exercise”.
Pressed on how cuts could worsen existing delays in different areas of the Home Office, Rycroft said MP were right to say “there are risks attached to that”.
“We will be honest, as you would expect, in our private advice to ministers about where those risks lie. I am pretty sure that they will not want to take any risk in the safety and security of this country and the citizens in it, so I am absolutely sure that we will retain the very strict border controls and other measures that we have in order to keep the homeland secure,” he said.
“I also am pretty sure that they will want to prioritise service delivery, delivering the services that you were talking about, whether that is passports or visa and asylum decisions and so on. That reduces the amount of space in the rest of the department where further cuts to headcount could happen.”
He noted that the “most visible parts of the Home Office” – passports, asylum, visas – are “very busy”, as is Border Force as travel returns to pre-Covid levels.
“There is nowhere that will be very easy to reduce [staff].”