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Thursday, July 1, 1999 Published at 18:32 GMT 19:32 UK

UK Politics

Post offices to ease passport backlog

The move may save many people's holidays

Post offices are to be drafted in to help ease the passports crisis.

The Home Office has announced that from next Wednesday all 1,500 main UK post offices will provide free two-year extensions to passports.

Cary Johnston reports: "A telephone helpline is being launched"
In addition, the embattled Passport Agency is setting up a national telephone centre on Friday to deal personally with inquiries from people travelling within a week.

About 500,000 people have already waited longer than the 10 working days passports are supposed to take and more than 90 people have failed to receive their documents before their travel dates.

The delays have been caused by a combination of new computer technology introduced last October at the same time as new rules requiring children and babies to have their own passports.

Jack Straw: "The old computer system had to be replaced"
Home Secretary Jack Straw has admitted that the service will not be back to normal before September - and even that deadline would depend on a predicted big drop in passport applications happening "at some stage next month".

[ image: Queues of anxious holiday-makers have embarrassed ministers]
Queues of anxious holiday-makers have embarrassed ministers
It has already been announced that an extra 100 staff will be recruited to help tackle the backlog, in addition to the 300 workers already hired, and staff are working into the night and at weekends to try to cut delays.

As queues built up again on Thursday, the owner of Harrods Mohammed al-Fayed, provided refreshments for people waiting outside the agency's central London headquarters.

Mr al-Fayed is currently in the process of appealing against the government's decision to grant him a British passport.

A Harrods spokesman said: "Mohammed sympathises, having had to wait five years for his passport."

Extensions to cover most people

The two-year extensions to passports will be issued for people whose travel documents are about to expire or which have expired in the past five years.

They will be issued subject to adequate proof of identity such as an old passport or driving licence.

[ image: Extensions will be available from main post offices]
Extensions will be available from main post offices
They will be granted in many cases to include children on their parents' passports up to their 16th birthday.

Where the eldest child is 14 or more the passport (for all travellers on it) will be extended up to the eldest child's 16th birthday.

The call centre to field queries from applicants will open from 7am on Friday on 0845 600 46 46. It will operate seven days a week from 7am to 11pm.

The latest moves to alleviate the crisis came hours after Passport Agency staff were told they could not take part in the traditional Home Office annual sports day because of the overwhelming backlog in applications.

Staff had long planned to take the day off work for the event, which dates back to 1927.

However, Mr Straw insisted there was "no suggestion whatsoever" that the crisis was in any way the fault of the passport staff, who were working "round the clock".

'Rubbing salt in the wound'

Earlier Barry Reamsbottom, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, hit back at criticism from newspapers that civil service staff were partly to blame for the passport problems.

"It most certainly is not," he insisted. "This really is rubbing salt in the wounds. We're not talking about overpaid executives here.

"We're talking about fairly modestly paid clerical workers who've been working flat out, giving up their leave, coming in at weekends and evenings."

Although extra staff had been taken on to cope with the crisis, it took time to train them.

"The problem is a computer system that's failed to deliver what it promised, not civil servants' incompetence."

Mr Reamsbottom echoed Conservative criticism that the timing of new rules for passports had contributed to the crisis: "New rules on top of a system that's not delivering haven't helped."

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