Interviews for first-time applicants for passports have been suspended in London as staff struggle to deal with the 30,000 backlog of applications, the Home Office has said.
First-time adult applicants who have booked interviews at HM Passport Office's Globe House in Victoria are being directed to other offices in South East England so staff can concentrate on fast-track renewals.
A Home Office spokeswoman said it was normal practice during busy times and that only a "handful" of people had been affected.
"It is standard practice. It is nothing out of the ordinary. It happened last year," she said.
Overseas passport applicants will be offered a 12 month extension while travelers with an urgent need to go abroad will have their passport applications fast-tracked free of charge, the Home Secretary Theresa May has said.In a statement to the House of Commons, she announced:
- People with an urgent need to travel abroad will have their passport applications fast-tracked free of charge
- Overseas applicants would also be offered a 12 month extension
- Two reviews - the first to ensure the passport office is working efficiently as possible, while the second will consider whether HMPO's agency status should be removed
Home Secretary Theresa May has responded to an urgent question from Labour in the House of Commons by saying there was no "big bang" solution to tackle delays in issuing passports. She said the government would take a "series of measures to address pinch points".
She said there was "no single solution" to address a backlog in applications.
Overseas applicants would also be offered a 12 month extension, alongside a free upgrade for urgent applicants, the Home Secretary said in a statement.
Operations will also be reviewed at the passport office, she added.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper tabled the urgent question on passports and told the House of Commons the current situation was a "sorry shambles".
Labour has secured a debate on the Passport Office in the Commons at 10.30 this morning, after Speaker John Bercow granted an urgent question to the Home Office from shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper.
The briefing note, posted on The Guardian website, allows staff to drop checks on counter-signatories, as well as requirements for evidence of addresses and letters of confirmation from employers and accountants.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the briefing showed the Government was in denial about the state of the crisis.
"This is seriously chaotic," she told The Guardian.
"If this is what the Prime Minister meant by getting a grip with the situation, he needs to think again."
The Government is facing fresh embarrassment over the passports backlog as a leaked briefing note shows HM Passport Office staff in Liverpool, Durham and Belfast were told to ease some checks in an attempt to speed up turnaround times.
The document, which was leaked to The Guardian, allows staff to relax checks on overseas applicants for British passports as they attempt to deal with a backlog of at least 30,000 applications.
It advises dropping checks on counter-signatories, as well as requirements for evidence of addresses and letters of confirmation from employers and accountants.
"The changes are focused on achieving the right balance between customer service, public protection and organisational requirements," it said.
"These changes are being published now in light of the need to speed up turnaround times."
But the Home Office said that ministers had not been informed of the note and had demanded that it should be rescinded.
"Ministers were unaware of this document and have instructed HM Passport Office to withdraw it immediately," a spokesman said.
Ministers are being "misleading at best" if they claim the government has increased staffing levels in the passport service by using the last two years as a baseline, a senior Labour source has said.
– Labour source
"During that same time the workload has increased dramatically because of the Passport Office taking over from the Foreign Office the job of issuing passports overseas.
One of the big reasons for the backlog is that they have had a huge increase in responsibility and a decrease in staff.
According to Home Office figures, staffing levels in the passport service stood around 14% lower in 2013/14 than in the first year of the coalition government.
- 2010/11: 4,017
- 2011/12: 3,134
- 2012/13: 3,284
- 2013/14 (announced in parliament yesterday): 3,444
The Passport Office is so "inundated" with calls that "you can't speak to anybody", a frustrated member of the public told ITV News today.
Speaking outside the headquarters in Liverpool, another told ITV News the only option available to book a renewal appointment was in Belfast.
A union at the heart of a row over passport service staffing levels has suggested strikes may take place if the government does not review its "job cuts programme" - a move which could prompt further delays.
Paul O'Connor from the Public and Commercial Services Union said "all our industrial options" would be considered if discussions with the government did not come to a satisfactory conclusion to ease the current "crisis".
The government has put passport services under strain with fewer staff but greater responsibility since 2010, Ed Miliband said at Prime Minister's Questions.
The Labour leader told MPs the problems showed the Home Secretary had "not been paying attention to the business of government" during her row with Education Secretary Michael Gove.