Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Fast-track passport fees dropped

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

Fast-track processing fees for passport applicants who need to travel abroad urgently are to be dropped, Home Secretary Theresa May has announced, amid growing anger at the build-up of delays.

In an emergency Commons statement , Mrs May insisted the Government was doing all it could to deal with the backlog of more than 30,000 applications which had not been dealt with within the normal three-week deadline.

For Labour, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper accused Mrs May of presiding over a "sorry shambles" and called on her to apologise to the thousands of people whose travel plans had been thrown into doubt.

In a clear sign of ministerial frustration at the mounting political damage to the Government, the Home Secretary said she was considering stripping HM Passport Office (HMPO) of its agency status and bringing it under direct Home Office control.

Mrs May said that HMPO was increasing the number of examiners and call handlers by a further 200 on top of the 900 staff already re-assigned to deal with what she said was the highest level of applications for 12 years.

In addition, HMPO had agreed to drop the £55 fast-track processing fee for applicants who needed to travel urgently while people applying to renew passports overseas for travel to the UK would be given an automatic 12-month extension.

Those applying for passports overseas for their children would also be issued with emergency travel documents for travel to the UK - although they will still have to provide "comprehensive proof" that they are the parents.

But while Mrs May said the measures would help ease the pressure, she warned there was no quick "big bang, single solution" and that Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill will carry out a series of reviews into the way HMPO was operating.

The first would ensure it was working as efficiently as possible, with "better customer services, better processes and better outcomes" while the second will consider whether its agency status should be removed so it can be brought into the Home Office, reporting directly to ministers.

"In the medium to long term the answer is not just to throw more staff at the problem, but to make sure HMPO is running as efficiently as possible and is as accountable as possible," she said.

Her statement did little to assuage the anger of MPs, with Ms Cooper accusing her of failing to take control of the situation.

"This has been a sorry shambles from a sorry department and a Home Secretary who can't even bring herself to say the word," Ms Cooper said.

"Government incompetence means people are at risk of missing their holidays, their honeymoons, their business trips. Every MP has been inundated with these cases and the Home Secretary hasn't seemed to even know what is going on."

Earlier, ministers were forced to step in to prevent officials relaxing checks on overseas applicants for passports in an attempt to get to grips with the backlog.

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 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."

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