Straw climbdown on passport chaos

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JACK STRAW has agreed to allow people to travel on outdated passports as part of a series of emergency measures introduced yesterday to overcome the vast backlog in passport applications.

The Home Secretary announced that travellers could visit any of the 1,500 main Post Offices in the United Kingdom to obtain a free two-year extension to passports that were about to expire or have expired in the past five years.

The Home Secretary also said the Passport Agency was setting up a national telephone centre to deal with inquiries from people who are due to travel in the next week. The telephone line, 0845-600 4646, operates from 7am today.

The measures represent a climbdown by ministers who had previously blamed the chaos at the Passport Agency on the travellers and the media.

The Home Office minister Mike O'Brien visited the queues of potential travellers outside the agency's offices in London at the weekend and said many were "panicking" unnecessarily. But Mr Straw has since responded to criticisms of the backlog by announcing the recruitment of hundreds of staff and cancelling weekend leave at the Passport Agency's offices. He said Siemens Business Services, the company that provided the computer at the heart of the backlog problem, had been fined and may face further financial penalties.

Mr Straw also said that people who had been erroneously surcharged pounds 10 for collecting their passports in person would be reimbursed. The fiasco will cost the Passport Agency many thousands of pounds in reimbursing those who missed their holidays altogether.

Yesterday, the applications backlog stood at 531,000. Waiting times for non-urgent applications are up to eight weeks.

People travelling within one week are still advised to collect their passports in person. Those who have not already put in their applications are advised to visit in person if they are due to travel within two weeks.

Queues outside the Passport Agency offices are now diminishing. But yesterday the owner of Harrods, Mohamed al- Fayed, sent refreshments to people waiting outside the London office. He said he sympathised with their plight as the Home Office had kept him waiting five years for his passport.

People applying for extensions to passports at Post Offices will be required to provide adequate proof of their identity, such as an old passport.