The £160,000-a-year boss of the under-fire Passport Office was today facing questions over why she lives more than 100 miles away from its London headquarters, as customer services teams continue to work from home.
Abi Tierney, 48, who was appointed as director-general in early 2020 when the pandemic began, lives with her two young sons in a Leicestershire village. She is battling to control the passport renewal chaos which has seen 700,000 outstanding applications still to clear amid fears over a summer of cancelled holidays for Britons.
Home Office sources said Dr Tierney, who is responsible for leading 3,500 Passport Office staff, spends most of her time working at its centres around Britain – including in London, where the headquarters is located in Victoria.
However the Daily Telegraph claimed today that a resident of the Leicestershire village where Dr Tierney lives said she appeared to be based there, 107 miles from London. Conservative former minister David Jones told MailOnline today that the claim ‘underlines the importance of civil servants getting back to the office environment’, adding: ‘It beggars belief that any senior official would be staying at home when her office is so clearly in crisis.’
Also commenting on claims that Dr Tierney had been working from home, Tory MP Henry Smith said that, unless she had a ‘legitimate medical reason’, it was ‘unacceptable – when the vast majority of people are back at their desks – for her to retain Covid-era working practices’. He said there had been ‘notable deterioration in services’ among government agencies, such as the Passport Office, as officials were slow to return to their offices.
He told MailOnline that Dr Tierney should ‘absolutely’ be setting a better example to her staff, adding: ‘We expect people in leadership positions to demonstrate leadership. I’m concerned this doesn’t appear to be the case here.’
Britons trying to get their passport renewed are furious at being left on hold for hours before being told by customer services staff working from home that they cannot access files to provide an update on applications.
Among them is Mohammad Reza, a dual British-Iranian national, who told the newspaper while queuing at the Passport Office for his son’s documents: ‘I got through to the customer service after four hours on hold.
‘One of them told me they all work from home. That’s the reason why customer services have no access to the files. That’s the reason why they can’t give proper updates. It’s shocking. Why are they still at home?’
It comes after Boris Johnson delivered an ultimatum to stay-at-home officials as he threatened to ‘privatise the a***’ off the Passport Office and DVLA amid huge backlogs. The Prime Minister said families deserve better than the ‘post-Covid mañana culture’ that has seen thousands of civil servants refusing to return to the office.
Also in recent days, Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg warned civil servants who refuse to return to Whitehall risk losing their plum London jobs. The Conservative MP has been leaving notes on the desks of absent civil servants which read ‘sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon’.
Mr Johnson will summon Dr Tierney for urgent talks at Downing Street next week as the Passport Office struggles to cope with high demand after five million people did not renew their travel documents during the pandemic. Downing Street chief of staff Steve Barclay is expected to meet with Passport Office officials later this week.
Dr Tierney lives in a village just over 100 miles away from the London office, which takes about two-and-a-half hours to drive. Direct non-stop trains from Leicester railway station take about one hour to London St Pancras.
The Passport Office is set to deal with 9.5 million applications this year – up from four million applications in 2020 and five million in 2021 when Covid-19 restrictions were in place. Holidaymakers in Britain are now being advised to leave at least ten weeks to get a new passport, but MPs have said this target is being regularly breached.
The Home Office has defended Dr Tierney and told MailOnline that it has Passport Offices ‘in a range of locations across the UK, with 90 per cent of our staff based outside London’, adding: ‘It is therefore ludicrous to suggest that any senior leader not living there would impact on their ability to do their job to the highest standards.’
And Home Office Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft said claims that she is under pressure to return to HQ full-time ‘totally ignores reality’. He praised her for being ‘a hugely talented leader’, adding: ‘With sites spread across the UK, Abi works day-in, day-out with teams around the country delivering vital services for the British public.’
Abi Tierney, 48, was appointed to her role as chief of the Passport Office in early 2020 when the pandemic began
People queue outside the customer entrance of the Passport Office headquarters in London’s Victoria yesterday
Unofficial waiting times for adult passport renewals in the past two years, shown in a graph from passportwaitingtime.co.uk
The Telegraph – which first reported the claims in today’s newspaper – also revealed that 300,000 applications are being held up by delays in uploading documents, while a further 400,000 are currently being processed.
On Monday, the Commons heard about one woman who had waited more than five months to receive her daughter’s new passport, with services branded ‘either really very good or an absolute shambles’.
And the newspaper claimed that Dr Tierney claimed nearly £4,000 in expenses for 20 trips to London over a 16-month period between March 2020 and July 2021.
But Mr Rycroft told MailOnline of the Telegraph’s article: ‘This story totally ignores reality. Abi is a hugely talented leader, heading up our world-class visa and passport operations. With sites spread across the UK, Abi works day-in, day-out with teams around the country delivering vital services for the British public.
‘Abi’s work location has had precisely zero bearing on the current situation with passports, which has largely resulted from a drop in renewals during the pandemic. Our teams are working flat out to meet the demand.
‘We are proud to be spreading opportunity and talent across the country, moving away from the outdated notion that everything must be done in London.’
Sources within the department said Dr Tierney’s role also covers UK Visas & Immigration (UKVI), which also has offices around the country – and that being based in the East Midlands places her closer to the majority of Passport Office and UKVI teams including in Durham, Peterborough, Sheffield, Liverpool and Glasgow.
And a Home Office spokesman told MailOnline today: ‘We have Passport Offices in a range of locations across the UK, with 90 per cent of our staff based outside London. It is therefore ludicrous to suggest that any senior leader not living there would impact on their ability to do their job to the highest standards.
‘As part of the Government’s Levelling Up agenda, we are proud that we are spreading opportunities and leadership roles more evenly around the country and we will continue to do this – it is only right that we attract the best talent from across the UK.’
Dr Tierney previously worked as business development Director for Serco, a private contractor for various public services, and has a PhD from the University of Oxford.
The Passport Office headquarters are located in the Victoria area of London, with people seen waiting outside yesterday
People queue outside the customer entrance of the Passport Office headquarters in London’s Victoria yesterday
A woman speaks to a member of security staff on the door at the Passport Office in London’s Victoria yesterday
She has also held operational roles in Serco such as regional director and chief executive of Suffolk Community Services, and was also previously a director at University Hospitals of Leicester and Aberdeen City Council, and worked as a marketing leader for IBM Global Business Services.
Meanwhile the French-owned company contracted to run the Passport Office’s contact centre was ordered to hire more people to ease ‘unacceptable’ delays.
Teleperformance, the private firm responsible for the office’s call handling, has been ‘urgently tasked to add additional staff’ by the Home Office.
Dr Tierney will discuss Teleperformance’s problems with its chief executive this week, according to The Times. The company has been heavily criticised by exasperated applicants in recent weeks.
The Home Office has a £22.8million five-year contract with Teleperformance to provide ‘contact centre services’ including a ‘passport advice service for HM Passport Office’.
Priti Patel’s department is piling the pressure on the Passport Office to avoid a summer of chaos after five million people did not renew their travel documents during the pandemic.
Ministers hope the ten-week target for passport applications will not need to be extended further, amid continued warnings of delays and cancelled holidays.
Home Office minister Kevin Foster said yesterday that his advice remains unchanged and anyone heading overseas this summer should submit new passport applications and renewals as soon as possible.
But he added in the House of Commons: ‘We are making a range of efforts – staff are working weekends, incentivised overtime – and certainly we’re confident we will not need to change the ten-week target.’
MPs heard that HM Passport Office provides an expedited service where an application from the UK has been with them for longer than ten weeks, with Mr Foster confirming 42 applications have been pushed through under this criterion since March 31.
A total of 9.5million British passport applications are expected to be dealt with in 2022, with Covid restrictions on travel resulting in just four million applications in 2020 and five million in 2021 by comparison.
Labour urged ministers to ‘get a grip’ rather than float the prospect of privatising HM Passport Office.
Mr Foster, responding to an urgent question from shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, said March saw the ‘highest total for any month on record, with HM Passport Office completing the processing of over one million applications – 13 per cent higher than the previous record output’.
He added that more than 90 per cent of applications were issued within six weeks in the period between January and March, saying: ‘My advice to anyone who is looking to go on holiday this summer is exactly what I said the other day, which is to get your application in now.’
For Labour, Ms Cooper warned: ‘My constituents fear their honeymoon may now be wrecked because their passports haven’t arrived, even though they applied in plenty of time. We’ve had cases of people cancelling jobs, parents trying to get holiday for a sick child waiting since January, huge long delays by the Passport Office and by the contractor TNT.
‘The message today on the one-week fast track service says ‘System busy, please try again later’, and the online premium service has no appointments anywhere in the country.
‘So people can’t get urgent travel such as to go to funerals or to go to urgent events.’
Ms Cooper said the increase in demand was ‘totally predictable’, adding the Home Office is ‘in danger becoming a stay-at-Home-Office’.
She questioned if the Government tried to recruit 1,700 staff but only got 500, adding: ‘The Prime Minister has said the answer may be to privatise the Passport Office, but why don’t Home Office ministers just get a grip instead?’
On Tuesday, a senior Government source said Prime Minister Boris Johnson is ready to ‘privatise the arse’ out of the Passport Office amid fears that families could miss out on their summer holidays due to delays in renewing their documents.
Conservative former minister David Jones pressed ministers to pursue privatisation as he told MPs about a Clwyd West constituent who hopes to go on holiday in May but whose passport application is currently stuck in limbo and who is finding it ‘almost impossible to speak to any representative of the Passport Office’.
Mr Jones said: ‘I heard this morning that the Prime Minister has threatened the Passport Office with privatisation. May I suggest to him that he shouldn’t shy away from that? If it can be done more efficiently by the private sector, then for goodness sake enlist the private sector.’
Mr Foster replied: ‘Just to be clear, there is a range of private contractors already involved in the passport process. The bit that isn’t undertaken by private contractors is the decision itself.’
Conservative chairman of the Transport Committee Huw Merriman warned about the impact of the passport backlog on the economy.
He said: ‘The year before Covid, the aviation industry contributed £22billion to the UK economy, £3.6billion to the Exchequer from air passenger duty, and it’s expected to be at 70 per cent demand this summer, so we can’t put this at risk for the sake of our economy.’
Earlier, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said the Government is willing to consider changing the controller of passport services, but no decision has yet been taken.
On Monday, Mr Johnson said the public deserves a ‘cheaper, faster’ passport service as he refused to rule out privatisation if it cannot clear the backlog of applications.
A senior Government source said the Prime Minister was ready to ‘privatise the a**e’ out of the Passport Office amid fears families could miss out on their summer holidays due to delays in renewing their documents.
And in an interview with TalkTV, Mr Johnson said his sole concern was to ‘deliver value and a good service’ to the public. ‘I am not going to rule anything out. I don’t mind whether it is in the public or the private sector,’ he said.
‘What I want is for it to deliver value for money and help people’s costs. If you want to go on holiday with your family it can cost hundreds of pounds to get new passports. You deserve to have a cheaper, faster service.’
The Prime Minister is understood to be ‘horrified’ at the backlog in dealing with passport applications.
He is said to be concerned that families wanting to go on summer holidays are under pressure to pay up to £100 extra per passport for fast-track applications because of delays.
A source cautioned that privatisation would not be the starting point, but warned that Downing Street could look to businesses to take over if passport bosses could not meet the 10-week target for standard applications costing £75.50.
In his interview, Mr Johnson acknowledged that he had criticised ‘post-Covid, work-from-home, manana culture’ at some of the bodies for not adapting after the easing of coronavirus restrictions.
People queue outside the Passport Office on Old Hall Street in Liverpool yesterday as the chaos continues
People queue outside the Passport Office in Liverpool yesterday as officials face questions over the issues
Queues outside the Passport Office in Liverpool yesterday as concerns mount over a summer of chaos for travel
As well as the Passport Office, MPs have been raising concerns over significant delays in turning around applications for licences at the DVLA.
‘I think that we have a general issue in some of our approach to public services. We all got used to working from home, Zoom calls,’ Mr Johnson said. ‘I am the custodian of the public purse I have to ask myself whether it is as productive as all that.’
In response to the criticism of the Passport Office’s handling of the situation, a spokesman for the Passport Office said: ‘Since April 2021, we have been advising people to allow up to 10 weeks when applying for their British passport as more than five million people delayed applying due to the pandemic.
‘We urge people who need a new passport to apply for one as soon as possible, with the vast majority of all passport applications being dealt with well within 10 weeks.
‘To deal with this demand, we have increased staff numbers by 500 since April 2021. This has helped us to handle more applications than ever before, with more than one million passport applications processed in March 2022.’