HM Passport Office has imposed a six-figure fine on the technical support firm that provides the agency with customer service telephone, email and online support.
HMPO director Thomas Greig told parliament’s Home Affairs Committee the fine levied on French-headquartered outfit Teleperformance was due to the company’s performance “dipping to a really low level” earlier this year amid a row over passport processing delays.
Ministers were warned about the company’s poor performance in responding to calls and emails more than a year ago, according to the Observer.
Greig, who is director of passports, citizenships and civil registration at HMPO, said he could not specify exactly how much the supplier had been forced to pay but admitted it was “in the high hundreds of thousands”.
Passport applications rocketed after Covid rules were relaxed, leaving the Passport Office and Teleperformance struggling to cope and leading to a backlog of more than 500,000 cases at the end of June.
Home Office minister Kevin Foster described the quality of Teleperformance’s service as “unacceptable” in April, after MPs received complaints from the public about being unable to get through to the line or being provided with inaccurate information.
Asked by the Home Affairs Committee last week why the supplier’s service has been so poor, Greig said the performance on the phone line fluctuates depending on demand but had recently improved after Teleperformance brought in 800 new staff.
“We’ve had serious and honest conversations with Teleperformance. It did dip to a really low level,” he said.
“Further improvements are needed in this service. They need to get better at answering the phone and we also need to make sure that the advice when they answer the phone is better and that what happens to people when they pass through the process is better. I’m not in denial at the issues,” he added.
Greig also admitted that most Teleperformance staff do not have access to the Passport Office systems that allow them to give advice beyond an update on the progress of an application – which is already offered by an automated service on the line – or pre-application advice.
Committee member Carolyn Harris responded: “So, they’re pointless.”
Weeks earlier, the Labour MP had taken Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft to task over the hotline’s performance, saying a member of her staff had spent three and a half hours on the phone – at a cost of nearly £40 – only to have to call back the next day.
Rycroft urged the MP to “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” – noting that the hotline is the only part of the passport function that has been privatised. Greig said Teleperformance’s service is still useful for people who just want pre-application advice or an update but added that HMPO wants all Teleperformance call handlers to have access to all the systems needed to give advice on cases in future.
As part of a five-year contract worth more than £20m, Teleperformance delivers a range of customer support services on behalf of HMPO, including a telephone helpline, webchat services, and handling of email queries. Although it cannot process applications themselves, its role includes taking payments and arranging interviews for those unable to book them online, as well “dealing with questions, requests for application packs, [and] customer feedback forms”, according to online guidance published by the Passport Office.
Teleperformance has around a year and a half left on its contract, Greig said. Asked whether the contractor had provided good value for money, the HMPO director said he did not know the market rate but “there has been an improvement and we would certainly hope to see that improvement continue”.
At the meeting, committee chair Diana Johnson hit out at the supplier for failing to send anyone to the session.
“We are incredibly disappointed that we do not have a representative of Teleperformance,” she said. “We think this is completely out of order that they have not found time to come and be scrutinised at this committee.”