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Passport panic adds to delays

MIKE O'BRIEN, the Home Office Minister responsible for immigration, has moved to allay panic amongst holidaymakers afraid they would not be able to renew their passports in time for their vacations. He reconfirmed that people who had to cancel holidays because of administrative errors at the Passport Agency would be compensated.

He also confirmed the Passport Agency is employing motorbike couriers to rush passports to travellers on the verge of missing their holidays because of the growing application backlog.

A Home Office spokesman admitted the agency was getting "very close to the wire" with 530,000 people waiting for passports. But he said 99.99 per cent of applications were being dealt with in time. "We are pulling out all the stops."

The agency to date has had no claims for compensation, despite previous promises to reimburse anyone who misses their holiday as a result of the delays.

The crisis has been caused by a combination of factors. New equipment piloted in the Liverpool and Newport offices last year slowed processing for many months and began to function properly only recently. There is a 40 per cent increase in applications, partly because new rules require children to have passports if they are not on their parents' documents.

And reports of the problems have also created panic. Families are applying well in advance of the usual five weeks, and half of the backlog is for travel in August or beyond. Three hundred extra staff are working seven days a week.

The travel industry says people needing a passport for travel within a week should go in person to their nearest office - London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Peter- borough, Newport or Belfast.

Enormous queues are forming daily but the Agency has no plans to extend opening times to the weekend. A Home Office spokesman said: "That wouldn't necessarily deal with the problem. More staff would have to be turned from processing to deal with them."

Teresa Gorman, Conservative MP for Billericay, said the Agency should be privatised and run by the credit card industry whose spokesmen say they could process applications within four days. "There is no need for this backlog," she said. "It is because we are using a system from the Victorian age. And the people who work in the system do not want to modernise it because they see that as a prelude to job losses."