Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Passport Office backlog: Belfast staff told 'to ease some checks in an attempt to speed up turnaround times'

Ministers have now stepped in to prevent officials relaxing the checks on overseas applicants for British passports
Ministers have now stepped in to prevent officials relaxing the checks on overseas applicants for British passports

Staff at one of the UK's primary passport offices in Belfast were told to relax application checks to help deal with a massive backlog in applications, it has been reported.

Ministers have now stepped in to prevent officials relaxing the checks on overseas applicants for British passports as they scramble to deal with a backlog of at least 30,000 applications.

The Guardian published details of a leaked briefing note issued to HM Passport Office staff in Liverpool, Durham and Belfast instructing them to ease some checks in an attempt to speed up turnaround times.

But in a terse statement, the Home Office said that ministers had not been informed of the note and had demanded that it should be rescinded.

"Ministers were unaware of this document and have instructed HM Passport Office to withdraw it immediately," a spokesman said.

The disclosure is a further embarrassment for the Government after David Cameron came under fire at Prime Minister's Questions over the build-up of tens of thousands of applications which had lain waiting for three weeks or longer.

The briefing note, posted on The Guardian website, allows staff to drop checks on counter-signatories, as well as requirements for evidence of addresses and letters of confirmation from employers and accountants.

"The changes are focused on achieving the right balance between customer service, public protection and organisational requirements," it states.

"These changes are being published now in light of the need to speed up turnaround times."

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the briefing showed the Government was in denial about the state of the crisis.

"This is seriously chaotic," she told The Guardian. "If this is what the Prime Minister meant by getting a grip with the situation, he needs to think again."

Earlier, it was announced that new passport offices were to be opened in an effort to get rid of the backlog of applications ahead of the great summer getaway.

Ministers blamed a surge in applications since the start of 2014, which have pushed numbers up to a 12-year high, and said the Passport Office was putting more staff and resources into dealing with the problem.

But Labour leader Ed Miliband said tens of thousands of families were facing the possible cancellation of their holidays and called on ministers to "get a grip".

Labour has secured a debate on the Passport Office in the Commons at 10.30 this morning, after Speaker John Bercow granted an urgent question to the Home Office from shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper.

The Home Office confirmed that Home Secretary Theresa May will come to the Commons to answer Labour's urgent question.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg suggested that the surge in passport applications may have been triggered by increasing economic confidence.

Mr Clegg told LBC 97.3 radio: "In one sense, it is a great thing that many, many more people appear to be planning to go away on holiday.

"Maybe that's a sign of people feeling that they have got a bit of extra money in their pocket and can afford to go on a summer holiday this year, the way they didn't last year."

He added: "I have a lot of sympathy with people who have sent in their passports and are now worried about whether they are going to get them back in time to go on holiday."

Mr Clegg confirmed that he had checked that his own family's passports are up to date for a summer getaway.

And he added: "We must throw every single measure we can at this problem to make sure people's passports are returned quickly."

Asked whether he agreed with the unions that the problem was caused by staffing cuts, Mr Clegg said that it had been necessary for the Government to make savings following the financial downturn, adding: "The unions will always say things like that."

He said: "Let's now sort this problem out as best we can. I think the way to do that is by throwing more people at it, working seven days a week, delivering these passports 24 hours a day."

Further reading

Ministers step in over passport row

Union warning over passport service 

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