Huge backlogs at passport offices

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EMERGENCY MEASURES have had to be brought in to save British holidaymakers from disappointment. Problems with new computers at Liverpool and Newport passport offices have led to 10-week backlogs.

As staff enter the busiest period of the year, they are being forced to prioritise applications according to date of travel.

The Passport Agency's backlog of applications has shot up 32 per cent in one year to 222,631. Only London is meeting Government targets.

The Home Office said that the agency was working hard to clear the backlog, but the Liberal Democrat's home affairs spokesman Alan Beith described it as a "disgraceful failure by a Government agency".

However, some systems were back to normal yesterday as Heathrow travellers were getting off on time following delays on Friday due to power cuts.

Most were gladly escaping the rain and fierce thunder storms which put paid to most people's hopes of enjoying a sunny bank holiday.

Although temperatures reached 27C (81F) on the south coast on Saturday - the warmest recorded in Britain this year - the sunshine soon gave way to rain and clouds.

Hail stones the size of pebbles were reported at Torbay, Devon, while Plymouth was battered by winds of up to 70mph. The storms left 4,000 homes temporarily without power.

The London Fire Brigade said that it had received 900 calls for help in four hours on Saturday, more than four times the average number, as fire alarms were set off by lightning and roads and houses flooded as a result of the torrential rain.

In Kent, two divers were said to be the "luckiest men alive" last night after a pilot spotted them bobbing in the middle of a shipping lane as a six-hour search for them was about to be called off. Thedrama began when the two wreck divers became separated from their party with a mere 60 minutes of remaining air.

After hours of searching through heavy downpours and thunder storms, Kent coastguards feared Nigel Ingram, 39, from Sittingbourne, and Colin Scott, 44, from Maidstone had drowned.

However, as failing light began to hinder rescue operations, the crew of an RAF helicopter spotted the divers floating five miles out in the English Channel.

The men were airlifted to the Kent and Canterbury Hospital but discharged a few hours later.

"They were a long way out to sea and were even in danger of being run down by ships in the main lanes of the Dover Straits," a coastguards spokesman said.