From Today's Daily Mail
Huge demand: Passport applications are 300,000 up on the same period last year. Staff are so overwhelmed that they are struggling to issue the travel documents in time for next week's half-term holidays
A whistleblower said customers were left waiting on the phone for up to an hour because HM Passport Office had just eight staff to take more than 1,000 calls a day.
Unions said the agency was in crisis because job cuts and office closures had left it unable to handle the level of demand.
The Passport Office, part of the Home Office, has received around 300,000 more applications since January than in the same period last year. A spokesman for the agency blamed the surge on ‘the improving economy and a rise in holiday bookings’.
Parents already pay a premium during school breaks because travel firms, airlines and hotels raise prices. But if a family of four wanted to ensure passports in time they would have to pay almost £200 in fast-track fees.
The Passport Office, which recorded a surplus of £72.9million in 2012-13, has been accused by parents of running a ‘scam’ to increase revenue.
TRAVELLERS FORCED TO PAY £55 FAST-TRACK FEE
A standard adult passport or renewal costs £72.50, or £81.25 if you use the Post Office’s Check and Send service, which ensures forms have been filled out correctly.
Choosing to fast-track the passport – meaning it is delivered in just a week – costs £103 and the premium four-hour service costs £128.
A standard child passport costs £46, or £54.75 with the Post Office’s Check and Send service.
Fast-tracking the application is £87.
In September 2012, the Government reduced the standard adult passport fee by £5 for two years, from £77.50.
It followed criticism of a price increase from £72 to £77.50 in 2009, during the recession.
One mother-of-two said her son’s passport arrived just three days before their half-term trip to Italy this weekend. The 43-year-old said she phoned the agency every day for a week and then received an unexpected call last Sunday offering to guarantee delivery if she agreed to pay the additional fee.
The Passport Office advice line is closed at weekends so the family, from north London, believe it is exploiting customers’ frustration over delays by getting staff to suggest upgrades.
The woman, who asked not be named, said: ‘We were told by a member of staff that hundreds and hundreds of people are upgrading … The implication was that if we didn’t pay it, we wouldn’t get our passport.
‘We felt held over a barrel … The cynical side of me thinks they may be incentivised in some way. We assume that staff paint the most negative picture to try and scare people into paying.’
She said the passport was help up by a spot check, adding: ‘There seems to be a particular money-making scam involving children’s passports, forcing parents to pay the extra money.’
An anonymous whistleblower, who worked at the agency, said: ‘The truth is people are all at the mercy of the Passport Office.
‘If you don’t go down the premium route then getting your passport is a bit like playing the lottery.’
Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn’s office said the Passport Office was ‘overwhelmed’ and one Tory MP has dealt with 20 constituents’ complaints about the agency in just one month.
Users of online forum Mumsnet vented their frustration.
Cost: There are claims some holidaymakers are being advised to pay up to £55.50 extra each to get their passport applications fast-tracked, guaranteeing the documents arrive on time
One called Dylan said: ‘We were told originally that four weeks was plenty for the passport to be returned … Now it looks as though we won’t get it in time … Our holiday has been booked for over a year and now it’s ruined at the last minute.’
Another parent called Mike branded the waiting times ‘a complete joke’, adding: ‘In my workplace, if it’s going to be a busy period, more people are given shifts so problems like this don’t happen.’
The Home Office website advises it takes three weeks to renew a passport. But Richard Simcox, of the Public and Commercial Services union, said cuts meant holidaymakers would ‘suffer’ – and warned problems would worsen in the summer.
When the Mail called the Passport Office a reporter was told delivery of the travel documents was likely to take longer than the usual three weeks.
A customer service adviser said: ‘It is extremely busy … You should get your passport within four weeks, but if you want it guaranteed then I would advise the upgrade service.’
Labour’s immigration spokesman, David Hanson, said ministers owed victims an ‘apology’, adding: ‘It’s unbelievable but yet again on Theresa May’s watch there’s a crisis in her department which is ruining people’s holidays, honeymoons and family visits.’
Home Office figures show that since the start of April, 6,753 passports did not meet target times, out of a total of 980,695.
A spokesman for the Passport Office said: ‘We have brought in extra staff to respond to the extra demand, we are operating seven days a week and our couriers are delivering passports within 24 hours of [them] being produced.
‘There is no backlog, we have issued over three million passports so far this year and more than 98 per cent of straightforward passport renewals continue to be processed within three weeks.’