How My British Passport Was Cancelled Suddenly And Without An Explanation

by M. G. Sanchez

I had my first inkling that something was wrong while trying to renew my driving licence back home in the UK. The DVLA website was asking for my passport details, but for some reason the document was being rejected as a form of ID. Because I was supposed to be flying in mid-July to Gibraltar to see my mother (whom I hadn’t seen since before the start of the COVID pandemic), I decided to call Her Majesty’s Passport Office’s Adviceline to check that my passport was in good order. When I finally got through on 5 July to one of their operators, I was told that my passport had been cancelled, though the agent could not give me any precise details. ‘Are you kidding me?’ I thought on hearing this. ‘I’m about to book flights to see my family later this month. How can someone’s passport be cancelled just like that?’

Despite my pleas for information, however, the woman would not or could not tell me why my passport had been cancelled; all she said was that I needed to follow up the matter with HMPO’s Customer Service Team. At this stage I was hopeful of a quick solution – convinced as I was that all this was down to an error and that it would not be too long before I obtained a new travel document. Unfortunately, this proved to be an overoptimistic assessment on my part. Over the next few days, I called HMPO’s Adviceline various times, but failed to learn anything new. Sometimes I dialled their number and straightaway heard a message saying that the line was busy and that I should try again later. Other times the phone rang for twenty, thirty minutes and then the line suddenly went dead. On one occasion I got through to one of their operators and had my call transferred – and put on hold – to their Customer Service Team. After waiting for over thirty minutes, I hung up and called the Passport Adviceline a second time. ‘My query is not about a passport application but about a passport cancellation,’ I politely explained to another operator. ‘Would it be possible to be put through to someone who can help me instead of making me wait on this general complaints line?’ ‘Let me see what I can do,’ the man replied – and then brazenly transferred me back onto the same Customer Service helpline!

When it became obvious that I was not going to get a straight answer over the phone, I switched my focus from telephone to email and began to regularly message HMPO requesting an explanation. The replies I received ranged from the evasive to the dismissive to the downright negligent.

On 7 July I was told that my complaint ‘had been entered into the complaints process’ and that I would soon be hearing from them.

On 9 July that ‘due to the measures introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic’ their replies to people’s emails were taking longer than usual.

On 15 July that, if I wanted to hear back from them ‘in a shorter time frame’, I should call HMPO’s Adviceline.

On 20 July that my details had already been forwarded to the Resolutions Team and it was now ‘a matter of waiting to hear back from them.’

On 25 July all I got was a terse one-liner – ‘Should you wish to speak to someone regarding your complaint please contact the Passport Adviceline on 0300 222 0000.’

My lowest point came on 2 August, over four weeks after learning of the cancellation, when I received an email from HMPO’s Customer Service Team thanking me for enquiring about my recent passport application. ‘My passport application?’ I thought. ‘Are these people taking the p _ _ _ or what?’ Stung by their ineptitude, feeling that nobody gave a damn about my situation, I called the dreaded helpline later that same morning and, after another long wait, reached one of their operators. Unlike the other advisers I had previously spoken to, this man sounded like he wanted to help me. The best thing I could do, he suggested, was to make a subject access request to find out whatever information Her Majesty’s Passport Office held on me. This could be done by emailing the Passport Agency’s Disclosure Unit. On receiving the request, they’d be legally obliged to answer my query within thirty days.

I know that the guy on the phone was only trying to help, but it really floored me to hear that I needed to submit a subject access request and that I’d have to wait another thirty days to find out why my passport had been cancelled. Why this level of red tape? I thought. This reluctance to explain things? Had I done something wrong that I wasn’t aware of? Had my passport been cloned and nobody now wanted to tell me about it? Just a few days earlier, while googling the topic of cancelled passports, I had read about the case of Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a former BBC ‘Young Musician of the Year’ whose passport was cancelled in June 2020 in a move linked by some social media commentators to a growing nationwide distrust of people with ‘foreign’ names and from ethnic backgrounds. Could this be what was happening to me? Had my passport been cancelled because I was originally from Gibraltar? Because my surname was Sanchez? Because in some of my writings I have criticised the isolationist Brexit mentality? Because I have spoken candidly about one or two acts of prejudice I have suffered over the years as a Gibraltarian living in the UK? I know that some of these ‘scenarios’ may sound far-fetched, but when your passport has been cancelled and after a month you still don’t know have any answers .... well, can anybody blame me?

It was around this point, just as I felt at my lowest and most demoralised, that I received a WhatsApp message from an old friend and schoolmate who works for the Government of Gibraltar in London. Hearing about my passport woes, he agreed that my predicament was serious and vowed to do all he could to help. The next day he contacted somebody in Gibraltar for advice, but was informed that I needed to be dealing directly with the UK Passport Office. Undaunted, my pal emailed one of his work contacts in the FCDO and briefed him about my situation. The FCDO chap, in turn, messaged one of his counterparts in the Home Office, who, after a quick check of the records, managed to find out that my passport had been cancelled in error and that I needed to apply for a new passport. This information was passed on to my Gibraltarian friend’s FCDO contact, who then relayed it to my mate, who on 5 August forwarded the relevant paragraphs to me. Thus, in this roundabout way, was I able to at last obtain the answer that I had been searching for:

Mr Sanchez’s passport was issued in February 2014 and unfortunately cancelled incorrectly in March 2014. At that time Mr Sanchez applied for a diplomatic passport, which was issued. Unfortunately, the examiner incorrectly cancelled his personal passport as part of this process. Mr Sanchez just needs to send a form and photos along with a cover letter confirming what happened and we will issue a new passport to the same expiry date (it would have been March 2024, but will now be February 2024 as the extra month can’t be added).

Naturally, it was a great relief to read in this forwarded message that my passport had been incorrectly cancelled. I was also very grateful to both my friend and his FCDO contact for having gone out of their way to help me. At the same time, though, there were several things which irked me. First of all, would it have been that difficult to engage with me directly instead of in this informal, third-hand manner? Secondly, there was the matter of the replacement passport – after all the hassle they had put me through, were they really going to send me a passport with less time left on it than the document it was replacing? Could they not at least show some goodwill and issue a ten-year passport instead? Last but not least, their explanation did not make a lot of sense. Yes, it was true that I used to hold a diplomatic passport – having spent two years in Tokyo with my partner who at the time was working for the British Embassy in Japan – but how could my normal passport have been cancelled in 2014, seeing that I had travelled with it multiple times right up to 2020? ‘Anyway,’ I told myself, overlooking what I assumed to be a chronological mix-up on their part. ‘Just be grateful that your passport was cancelled in error and that all this is not part of a sinister plot to deprive you of your British citizenship!’

It was not until 9 August, however, that I heard directly from HMPO themselves, and even then it was only to be told that my complaint had ‘been logged ... and passed to their investigation team for review.’ I found this email particularly risible since by this stage they must have known what the problem was but chose to continue with the charade that my case was ‘under investigation.’ Finally, on 17 August, some 43 days after I had first contacted HMPO, I received by email a PDF copy of a letter in which it was stated, black on white, that my passport had been cancelled in error. This letter contained an apology for the cancellation and was signed by a person with a real name instead of collectively by the ‘Customer Service Team’. Six days later, I opened my post box and there in front of me was the envelope containing my replacement passport. My first reaction was one of jubilation, together with a massive sense of relief at the thought that I’d be able to visit my family and friends at last. Moreover, when I opened the envelope and checked the document’s expiry date it was August 2031 and not February 2024 – so for once HMPO had done the right thing.

Now that a month has passed and I’ve got used to the sight of my new passport, much of that early euphoria has faded. I’ve also been left with all sorts of nagging questions that I cannot get out of my head. What if I hadn’t had the luxury of a Gibraltar official, for instance, and his anonymous FCDO contact making enquiries on my behalf? Would I still be trapped in a Kafkaesque passport-less limbo? And why was I twice told that my passport had been cancelled back in March 2014 – first indirectly via my friend’s UK government contacts, and secondly in the official reply to my subject access request which I received on 9 September? Does this mean that I travelled all over the world for almost seven years (and repeatedly entered and exited the UK) on a cancelled passport? Or did someone at the Passport Agency get slightly confused with their dates? Or am I missing something here? And how, changing tack altogether, would have things panned out had I never got wind of the problem in early July and just gone ahead with my flight bookings to Gibraltar? Would I have been turned away at the boarding gate at Heathrow? Would I have got to Gibraltar and been detained at passport control? Would I have been put on the next flight back to the UK? So many variables to consider, so many unanswered and unanswerable questions. Ultimately, though, it’s not so much the cancellation or the less-than-satisfactory explanation that has most shocked me; it’s the fact that I was kept in the dark for 43 days. Cancelling a passport by mistake can be excused and forgiven on the grounds of human error; taking over six weeks to acknowledge one’s slip-up … well, it’s just not cricket, is it?

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Dr M. G. Sanchez is a Gibraltarian writer based in the UK. He has written fourteen books on Gibraltarian themes. His latest novel – The Fetishist – is being published next month and can be viewed and pre-ordered from Amazon on this link.