Opinion

Don't delay the passport to prosperity

We need government intervention to fix things – but privatising the Passport Office is not going to help, writes Big Issue editor Paul McNamee.

Passports

Illustration: The Big Issue

Going anywhere nice this year? Planning some time in the sun? Remember how you promised yourself a brilliant break after all the misery and containment of lockdown? It was going to be about seizing the moment, grabbing life, recalibrating what was important. Out, out, out into the great blue yonder. 

It’s getting tricky, though. The fears around the cost of living are circling and griping. What is cheaper –
heating a home or jumping on a flight to the Algarve and contributing to global warming? 

Even if a holiday has been booked, the passport delay is making things tense for many families. HM
Passport Office is warning of delays of 10 weeks to issue new documents. A double whammy of many people applying for what was put off during lockdown and new, tighter time period regulations post-Brexit have contributed. The passport authorities say last month they processed one million applications. Last year it was seven million in total.

Boris Johnson’s response is a threat, reportedly, to “privatise the arse” out the passport service. In tandem, some talk show hosts are getting very red faced, insisting that the delay is because layabout passport workers won’t get back to the office. The message is simple – it’s their fault. 

Hold your horses, say the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the union representing the passport workers, this is a recruitment issue. They estimate 1,700 new full-time, fully trained staff are needed, but to date only 300 positions have been filled. As an aside on the working from home issue, in January the passport office celebrated a civil service award for use of AI. Their gong was for best use of data and technology. It meant, they said, 4.5 million people got passports because of better technology, whether office or home-based for workers. While it doesn’t help with delays, it does make a mockery of the office/home issue being to blame.

It’s an old play for some governments to insist publicly owned bodies can’t do the job of private companies. It usually follows a period of underinvestment (perhaps in recruitment) that allows the government to insist the public body isn’t fit for purpose. 

But then what? When Johnson threatens to “privatise the arse” out of the passport office, does he mean selling it off and passing into private hands, hands that could be owned by a foreign state? Given the volume of sensitive information held by a public department such as the passport office, that seems rather risky. 

Maybe he means outsourcing. If so, as he’s in charge of the country, he should make the difference clear. Though “outsourcing the arse” out of it lacks the soundbite quality. It has more of a David Cameron/middle management feel.

The issue with outsourcing, when private companies compete to show they can do essential public business for the least money, is that it’s prone to failure. And when it fails, the government have to drop in and bail things out. Which ultimately costs all of us all twice – once to fix the mess, and then again to keep running what had gone elsewhere.

In The Big Issue before there has been a call for major government intervention to help avert the cost of living crisis. Money now to save lives later. Trying to avert the crisis by searching for no-cost measures – like MOTs every two years – is ridiculous. As is the threat to privatise the passport office. 

Invest now and get money into the hands that need it, hands that are reaching out to foodbanks and loan sharks and any other means they can reach. It’s a false economy to cut now. We don’t need another age of austerity. We need bold spending and bold vision.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead more of his columns here.

@PauldMcNamee

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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