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UK passport and visa service 'in crisis'

The UK's passport service is in 'total crisis' according to an anonymous whistle blower who works for the service.

There have been concerns about the service since June this year when the BBC carried reports of delays in processing of applications causing some people to miss travel dates.

The UK Passport and Visa Service aims to process a first-time passport application within six weeks and a replacement passport application within three weeks.

Target met 90% of the time

Paul Pugh, the hear od Her Majesty's Passport Office (HMPO) says that this target is being met in 90% of cases.

The Home Office says that the HMPO has already processed over 3m passport applications this year; if Mr Pugh is right and 90% are processed within the target timeframe, that means 10% or just over 300,000 people have so far experienced delays.

Sanwar Ali of said 'It is definitely worth making your application many months before you intend to travel'.

Political row

A political row has broken out around the reasons for the delays.

The Home Office says that demand is at the highest level for twelve years. The government says that this is caused by the upturn in the UK's economy.

The unions say that the delays have been caused by two government decisions.

The first was the decision to close passport processing departments in several UK embassies throughout the world. The passports that were previously processed in these centres are now returned to the UK for processing.

550 staff axed

The second was a decision to axe 550 jobs in the HMPO which left the department understaffed.

The government denies the unions' claims.

It seems that both sides are right to some extent. Mr Pugh was aware that the closure of passport offices in seven British embassies would lead to increased pressure on UK offices last year. In his foreword to the HMPO 2013 report, he predicted increased demand because of these closures.

Demand has risen sharply

But it is also true that demand has risen sharply. The Unions say that this should have been expected as the country emerges from recession and say that the government should have known that cutting staff at a time of low demand would leave the system unable to cope when demand returned.

The government counters by saying that the 550 staff had been working on preparations for the introduction of the UK's identity card, which had been proposed by the previous Labour government. The current Coalition government announced that the Identity Card scheme would be scrapped in 2010. Therefore, the government says, their redundancy has no bearing on the current delays.

On 12th June, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced measures to help eliminate the backlogs.

Measures to eliminate backlogs

These were;
  • Overseas customers were to be allowed to renew existing passports for an extra year. These renewals would be carried out by consular staff abroad. There would be no need to send the passport off. No fees would be charged
  • Parents or guardians of children living overseas who need a UK passport to travel to the UK would be issued with emergency travel documents rather than passports. All UK diplomatic posts that have access to the passport database would be able to issue them.
  • People in the UK with urgent travel needs would be able to fast-track their application without paying the £79 fee which is currently charged.

However, it seems that these measures have not reduced the backlog. On 7th July, an HMPO staff member spoke to the BBC and said that the backlog was growing. The unnamed staff member was interviewed for BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The staff member, whose words were spoken by a female actor on air, said that the backlogs had grown significantly and were now at around 537,000. In addition, she said, a further 100,000 applications had not even been entered into the system because there were insufficient staff to do so.

remedial measures 'are making things worse'

She said that the measures introduced by the Home Secretary were not helping to reduce delays but were, in fact, making things worse because the staff who had been drafted in to help had never worked on passport applications before and had received no training.

This was also increasing the risk of passport fraud because the staff would not be able to spot fraudulent applications, she said.

She said 'It's just chaos. It doesn't make any sense whatsoever'. She added that staff were 'very angry' and 'appalled at the situation'. She added that she believed that it was possible that Mrs May and immigration minister James Brokenshire were 'putting their heads in the sand'.

Allegations 'are false'

The Home Office has issued a statement saying that these allegations are false.

It says 'All staff examining passport applications receive appropriate training, including on policies and processes to identify suspected fraud. This is supported by supervision and stringent quality checks to prevent fraudulent passports being issued'.

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