Passport Agency pays for chaos

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THE PASSPORT AGENCY became the first body to be stripped of a government-awarded Charter Mark for good service yesterday, after the chaos caused to travellers by this summer's delays in issuing new documents.

The agency had held its Charter Mark since 1992, and had it renewed for a further three years last year despite concerns that a new computer system was causing problems.

Jack Cunningham, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, which administers the scheme, said the public had "not been well served" in recent months. "A Charter Mark is awarded in recognition of outstanding service to the public," he said. "The agency's service has clearly fallen far below the required Charter Mark standard."

Although bodies have failed to have Charter Marks renewed, this is the first time an organisation has been stripped of the award. In 1996, British Gas voluntarily relinquished its membership of the scheme before it could suffer the humiliation of having the award taken away.

The problems at the agency, blamed on the new pounds 230m computer system and regulations requiring children to have their own passports, left a backlog of 500,000 applications. Instead of the target 10-day turnaround for documents, travellers have faced delays of six weeks.

The chief executive of the Passport Agency, David Gatenby, said he very much regretted the loss of the mark and was committed to regaining it.

"Our customers have not received the high standards of service they rightly expect of us - and which we expect of ourselves - for which I apologise," he said.