AN APOLOGY offered yesterday by the head of the passport office for the backlog chaos is not good enough - and we need to bring passport jobs back to Newport, a local MP says.
Newport East MP Jessica Morden spoke after the Home Affairs Select Committee at the House of Commons in which the head of the service, Paul Pugh, told MPs he would like to “apologise dearly” for the backlog of applications and said he “absolutely recognised and sympathised” with those who have suffered.
The Passport Office has been accused of presiding over a shambles, and last week interviews for first-time applicants for passports were suspended in London as staff struggle to deal with the volume of applications.
But Mr Pugh, under intense scrutiny from members of the committee, did not readily accept that around 480,000 of uncompleted passport applications was a backlog, but were counted as “work in progress”.
Ms Morden and fellow city MP Paul Flynn, who sits on the committee, were at the forefront of a campaign backed by the Argus against the cuts to Newport's passport office in 2011 which slashed half the jobs and reduced the service available.
Then, passport bosses were warned by politicians and the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union that the cuts could affect the service.
Ms Morden told the Argus yesterday: “It’s a belated half apology. The debate is another chance to push for them to get some of the jobs we lost in Newport, back in the office.
“We warned them and warned them. Back in 2010, the unions and the staff highlighted there was a history of cutting staff.
“The IPS has a history of cutting staff and not seeing increase in demand. We did have the biggest cut in the passport office at that time. When they are looking long term, they ought to be putting the jobs back with us.”
In October 2010, more than 1,000 people marched against the planned closure of Newport's passport office. And 20,000 Argus readers signed a petition at the time, calling for home secretary Theresa May to stop the proposed closure of the office.
Although it was saved thanks to the campaign, around 150 jobs were lost as it moved to a smaller office in Lower Dock Street in April of last year.
Newport West MP Paul Flynn, who sat on the committee, questioned Mr Pugh for not deploying more workers to Wales and suggested his resignation might bring “satisfaction” to angry customers.
In the House of Commons last week, Mr Flynn, the MP for Newport West, questioned Mrs May and Leader of the House of Commons Andrew Lansley about the potential for bringing jobs back to Newport.
He asked: "When the Government get around the restoring the Passport Office from its present emaciated and failing state to the efficient service it had been for the previous century, may we have a debate on the need to ensure that those areas that suffered the savage cuts two years ago, such as Newport, have the first call on new jobs?"
Mr Lansley replied: "The Hon Gentleman had a chance to ask the Home Secretary a question about that earlier. I fear that his characterisation of the Passport Office is not helpful, not least for his constituents and others. As he will have heard from the Home Secretary, the Passport Office is continuing to provide substantially the service intended. Where problems have occurred, new staff are being deployed, both in call centres and in case handling, and the Home Secretary has just announced other measures that will enable constituents to get the service they are looking for."
Today, Ms Morden and Mr Flynn will be debating the issue further in the House of Commons.
Mr Pugh, who admitted he considered resigning from his position as chief executive of the Passport Office, said: “The forecasting model we’ve used, which has been reliable for years, has not at all accurately reflected the pattern of demand for this year. There has been a significant shift in the seasonality of customers’ behaviour.”
He added an independent review of the forecasting model would now take place, but warned any potential industrial action by staff would be “extremely damaging to our customers and our public”.
Mike Jones, head of the PCS, told the committee that shortage of staff was the reason for the recent “crisis”, and would not rule out going on strike unless the Passport Office would enter negotiations with its workers.