Passport delays causing 'misery' for hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers, damning report finds

Sunseekers on a beach in Marseilles. A British passport.
Passport delays have created headaches for holidaymakers, a new report has found. Credit: AP

Hundreds of thousands of people have missed out on holidays, family emergencies, weddings and business trips, thanks to 'unacceptable' passport delays, a new report has found.

Brits' travel plans are being hampered by chaos at the Passport Office, MPs have warned.

A damning new report from the Committee of Public Accounts investigating the delays found travellers were being 'let down' by long waits for new passport applications and renewals.

This week, travellers trying to book an emergency passport or fast-track renewal appointment online found none available, as Passport Office workers launched a strike.

But MPs have described holidays and important family plans being thrown into 'jeopardy,' and causing widespread 'misery,' long before the five-week walkout began.

People missed out on important events like weddings due to passport delays, the report said. Credit: Pexels

Committee member Nick Smith said: “Despite efforts to prepare for the predicted surge in passport applications, many people were let down. Family holidays and important trips were thrown into jeopardy with many forced to fork out fees to ensure their passports arrived on time.

"It became the number one casework issue in my office, crowding out other important work as staff strove to help with multiple urgent cases every day.

"It is disappointing that HMPO’s decision making failed to focus on the customers’ experience during this frustrating time, and I’m concerned that a failure to upgrade their clunky system may result in similar scenes this year."

Another Passports Committee member, Peter Grant, said: “The level of service our constituents received from the Passport Office last spring and summer was simply unacceptable. Passport Office staff did the best they could but they were fighting a losing battle against antiquated processes and poor planning.

"These failings resulted in misery for 360,000 people whose passports experienced severe delays. It’s astonishing that even today the Passport Office hasn’t attempted to find out how many of these people had to cancel holidays or were unable to travel for family weddings or other big occasions.

"This has given the Committee real concern as to whether the Passport Office really understands how much it needs to improve if the public are to get the level of service they’re entitled to expect.”

Why is the UK being hit by passport delays?The new report, released on Friday, blames the delays on poorly performing external contractors handling customer support helplines and document processing, and also points the finger at a lack of ambition in the Passport Office.

Committee members also aired doubts about digital transformation plans which they fear may have knock on effects for years.The problems began when the Passport Office was swamped with a record number of passport applications after the UK’s Covid travel restrictions were lifted last year.The Passport Office had anticipated the surge in applications and made plans to prepare for it. While staff did process record numbers of applications, the office's performance "let down hundreds of thousands of customers who faced unacceptable delays" in receiving their passports, the committee's report said.

The report said between January and September 2022, approximately 95% of people received their passports within the advertised 10 weeks.

However, some 360,000 customers had to wait more than 10 weeks for their passports.

The Passport Office blamed the higher than anticipated demand that May for the delays - but the actual total demand in 2022 was lower than it had forecasted.

People are being advised to plan ahead when booking holidays after Brexit. Credit: PA

The Passport Office's digital system was unable to handle the surge in demand and the full range of applications, and so 134,000 applications were moved to the less efficient, paper-based system, the report continued.As a result of the delays, some customers faced not being able to attend family emergencies, not being able to gain employment, losing holidays, or not being able to prove their identities.

The Passport Office was criticised by the committee for a "concerning lack of curiosity about the consequences of these delays for its customers" - pointing out that it didn't even know how many of its customers had been forced to cancel their plans.

While it had offered refunds for some delayed customers, it had been unable to say how many, or how much this cost.

The Passport Office is establishing a new complaints resolution hub, but does not expect this to be ready in time for the 2023 surge in demand, the report warned.

The committee said weak performance by contractors and poor management information exacerbated the problems, and stoked customers' confusion and frustration.

The Passport Office is currently planning for another surge in applications this year, as post-pandemic travel returns to ordinary levels.

But the committee warns it will need to successfully implement its delayed digital transformation programme to perform better, and to be better at managing demand rather than just reacting to it.ITV News has approached the Home Office for comment in response to the committee's report.

PCS union members at eight Passport Offices are walking out in an escalation of a long-running row. Credit: Jane Barlow/PA

Will the Passport Office workers' strike make delays worse?

The union representing Passport Office workers warned the industrial action is likely to spark summer holiday travel delays.The five-week strike, which began on Monday, is taking place over peak holiday periods, including the Easter bank holiday weekend.More than 1,000 members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union are taking part in the strike action, which runs from April 3 to May 5, in an escalation of a dispute over jobs, pay and conditions.The PCS warned the industrial action was likely to have a “significant impact” on the delivery of passports as the summer approaches.

Downing Street said ministers would work to “mitigate” the impact of the strikes, but that added that there are no plans to change guidance on the waiting times for passports ahead of summer.No.10 said the current guidance to allow at least 10 weeks waiting time for a passport would remain in place.

Can you get an emergency passport during the strikes?

Ordinarily, people who need to urgently apply for a new passport or get their existing one renewed are advised to use the online premium or one-week Fast Track services.

However, there is reduced availability for the emergency passport services during the strike, the Home Office confirmed.

At many points this week, no appointments appeared to be available, according to the Home Office web page used for booking fast track face-to-face meeting applications.

There are no appointments for emergency passport renewal this week, according to the Home Office website. Credit: ITV News

It comes ahead of the peak travel season, when many holidaymakers are trying to get their passports renewed.

Many destinations require travelers to have at least three to six months left before their passport's expiry date to be allowed to enter the country.Desperate social media users have reported struggles to get their passports renewed in time due to a lack of fast-track appointments.

The Home Office has said new appointments will be released every day but they often get booked up very quickly.

Is Brexit to blame for travel delays?Cross-Channel travel operators have pointed the finger at Brexit as they admit passport checking requirements are slowing down travel.

Ahead of this weekend's Easter getaway peak, 90-minute long queues for passport checks by French officials built up at Dover, ferry operator DFDS said, citing high volumes of traffic.

The weekend before the Bank Holiday, thousands of people were delayed, reportedly by up to 14 hours.Delays at the key port have been blamed on French border officials carrying out extra checks and stamping UK passports following Brexit.

Traffic at the Port of Dover in Kent as the getaway begins for the Easter weekend. Credit: PA

Similarly, Eurostar passengers have reported delays to boarding the train service between the UK and destinations including Paris and Brussels due to bottlenecks.Eurostar said it was being forced to leave hundreds of seats empty on trains to and from London to avoid long queues at stations.

Earlier this year, Eurostar chief executive Gwendoline Cazenave said a reduction in the number of border officials was driving an almost 30% increase in the time it takes to process passengers departing from London St Pancras, compared with before the pandemic and Brexit.

Travellers arriving from France on the Eurostar at St Pancras International railway station in London. Credit: PA

The post-Brexit requirement to stamp UK passports for outbound travel is also contributing to the cross-Channel travel delays, she said.

As a result, passengers were being asked to arrive at St Pancras station up to 90 minutes ahead of their travel departure time, to ensure they have enough time to pass through border checks.

That's three times longer than the recommended arrival time in place before the pandemic.

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