POLITICS

Theresa May Forced To Step In Over Passport Application Chaos, As Backlog Hits 500,000

12/06/2014 12:25 BST | Updated 12/06/2014 16:59 BST

Theresa May has been forced to step in and announce a series of emergency measures to help clear the chronic backlog in passport applications.

People with an urgent need to travel abroad will have their passport applications fast-tracked free of charge, the Home Secretary has said, as HM Passport Office scrambles to deal with a backlog of 30,000 applications.

In an emergency Commons statement, May told MPs: "Where people have an urgent need to travel, HMPO has agreed to upgrade them - that is their application will be considered in full, it will be expedited in terms of it's processing, printing and delivery - free of charge."

But Labour has said May had lost her grip and called for an apology.

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Leaked photos from a Passport Office in Liverpool have laid bare the scale of the task that officials have to complete.

Unions have claimed a backlog in passport applications is surging above 500,000 despite emergency plans being put in place.

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These leaked pictures show the backlog at the office in Liverpool

May suggested the passport office could be stripped of its agency status so ministers could have more control. She revealed two reviews will be launched to make sure "HMPO works as efficiently as possible, with better customer services, better processes and better outcomes."

"In the medium to long term the answer is not just to throw more staff at the problem, but to make sure HMPO is running as efficiently as possible and is as accountable as possible," she said.

She said the review would asses whether HMPO's agency status should be removed so it can be brought into the Home Office, reporting directly to ministers, in line with other parts of the immigration system since the abolition of the UK Border Agency.

She said the government would do "everything it can" while maintaining security to "make sure people receive their passports in time" but there was no "big bang" solution.

"I understand their anxiety and the Government will do everything it can while maintaining the security of the passport to make sure that people get their passports in time," she said.

However shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said that she needed to apologise to the thousands of people whose travel plans had been thrown into doubt.

"This has been a sorry shambles from a sorry department and a Home Secretary who can't even bring herself to say the word," Ms Cooper said.

"Government incompetence means people are at risk of missing their holidays, their honeymoons, their business trips. Every MP has been inundated with these cases and the Home Secretary hasn't seemed to even know what is going on."

Passport Office plans to relax security checks on applications from overseas have been blocked by ministers, as staff tackle a major backlog of cases.

Leaked documents suggest passport officials wanted to ease rules on the supporting evidence that UK nationals living abroad have to provide, where it did not compromise security.

The Home Office said it was "unaware" of the proposed change and the guidelines had now been withdrawn.

Labour said the situation had become "seriously chaotic".

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"Now we find out staff have been told to scale back vital security checks," shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said.

"If this is what the prime minister meant by getting a grip on the situation, he needs to think again."

It's all good news though, according to Home Office minister James Brokenshire, who told MPs in the House of Commons on Tuesday night that the “significant surge” was “an indication that as the economy is improving more people are understandably planning to travel”.