THERE IS no such thing as a free lunch, unless you happen to need a new passport. In an attempt to restore its tattered reputation, the Passport Agency has been handing out pounds 1.25 luncheon vouchers to those unfortunates queuing outside its offices.
The Home Office confirmed the existence of the scheme yesterday, and said it was part of a "queue management system" implemented at the height of the passport chaos earlier this summer.
Passport offices around the country have been plagued by a backlog of applications, caused by the failure of a new computer system and the introduction of regulations stipulating that children must have their own passports.
Applicants queuing at lunchtime are being given the vouchers, with a ticket guaranteeing their place in the queue. A Home Office spokesman said yesterday that the scheme, which has seen 4,000 vouchers handed out over recent weeks, was conducted "on a goodwill basis".
He said: "It is about customer care and alleviating the discomfort of people who have to wait," he said. "We could have handed out coffee to them ourselves. Instead we are giving them the opportunity to spend money at a local coffee shop."
The scheme is one of a number of measures dreamt up by the Passport Office, which include giving priority to women with children and to people planning to travel in the immediate future. The backlog of passport applications waiting to be processed, which reached 500,000 at the peak of the crisis, is now down to fewer than 300,000.
The Home Office claimed yesterday that a new passport could be issued within a day, provided all documentation and checks were complete. "The only people who are queuing at the moment are those who arrive before offices open," it said.
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