pounds 10 passport sweetener for travellers

THOUSANDS OF travellers who have been waiting for more than two weeks for their passports were told last night that they will not have to pay the pounds 10 "passport tax" if they collect the documents in person.

The Home Office announced it was waiving the charge for those who had been waiting for more than a fortnight as the Government battled to repair the damage to its reputation caused by the chaos at passport offices around the country. The collection charge has added insult to injury for hundreds of people who have been forced to queue for their passports to have any hope of going on holiday on time.

The move to waive the fee was ordered by Jack Straw after the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, faced calls at question time in the Commons from Sir George Young, the shadow Leader of the House, for the "passport tax" to be scrapped.

"We were already looking at this and the Passport Agency said they could do it," said a Whitehall source. "Most of the fees have been waived anyway."

Underlining the Government's determination to get a grip on the passport backlog, the Home Secretary last night vetoed plans by 45 Passport Agency staff to take part in a sports day events tomorrow. "It's disappointing for them, but we have to draw the line," said a source.

Travellers who choose to collect their passports in person will still face a pounds 10 processing charge on top of the pounds 21 passport fee if they ordered their passports within the past fortnight. But the limited waiver will apply to those who have been caught in the processing chaos caused by problems with a new computer system, and unexpectedly high demand made worse by new requirements for children to have their own passports.

The backlog of applications waiting to be processed has soared from 60,824 in January to 565,536 last week. Mr Straw offered an apology on Tuesday to those who had been left waiting for their passports, but in a fighting performance at the dispatch box, Mr Prescott, standing in for Tony Blair who was at the Belfast peace talks, mounted a defence of the Government.

He told MPs he had been assured that by 11.30am yesterday all the queues of people waiting in person for passports at passport offices had been "cleared completely". And he dismissed suggestions by the Home Office minister Mike O'Brien on Tuesday that the jobs of the Home Office team were "on the line" over the chaos. Mr O'Brien had said: "I think all of our jobs are on the line. It includes mine, it includes the Home Secretary, it includes every member of this Government."

But in an effort to end the impression of crisis, Mr Prescott said: "Nobody's on the line." And he claimed that the latest checks showed the backlog was dropping with more staff working overtime to reduce the delays. He said the reason for children's passports being introduced was to curb child abductions.

The Home Secretary admitted that the service would not be back to normal before October - and even this deadline would depend on a predicted big drop in passport applications "at some stage next month".

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