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June 12, 2014 7:01 pm
Theresa May was warned in a report a year ago that the closure of overseas passport offices would lead to 350,000 extra applications to UK centres. But thousands of Britons have been left unable to travel after a subsequent surge in passport applications.
The Home Secretary argued this week that processing delays, affecting holidaymakers and business travellers, were caused by an “unprecedented” level of applications.
But in a report published in July Paul Pugh, head of the Identity and Passport Service, estimated there would be an extra 350,000 applications to UK-based centres in 2014. This was because of overseas embassies shutting their passport desks and transferring operations to Britain, he said.
The closure of seven processing centres in Paris, Düsseldorf, Madrid, Hong Kong, Pretoria, Washington DC and Wellington was part of a plan to save £20m a year and bring 120 jobs to England and Northern Ireland. The Home Office has not released figures on how many extra staff were hired in the UK since the overseas offices were closed.
When summoned to the House of Commons on Thursday, Ms May said the Passport Office was receiving “350,000 more applications for passport applications and renewals” than normal for this time of year.
Despite announcing emergency measures to alleviate the crisis – such as automatic 12-month extensions for Britons renewing their passports from overseas – the home secretary did not give a reason for the rise in demand.
James Brokenshire, immigration minister, suggested this week that the increase in applications, which are at a 12-year-high, was a part of the economic recovery.
But Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, accused Ms May of ignoring warnings.
“Not only are Home Office ministers presiding over a department in total chaos, we now find they have been spinning people a line that increased demand has taken everyone by surprise”, she said.
Ms Cooper also urged the Home Office to publish “all the information and advice” ministers had in the run-up to the crisis.
Keith Vaz, a Labour MP who chairs the Commons’ home affairs committee, said the current flood of applications should not have come as a surprise since the head of the Passport Service was “crystal clear”. Mr Vaz described the shutting of overseas passport centres as a “serious error of judgment”.
The Home Office declined to give details of exactly what plans were made to cope with the closure of overseas passport offices but said it would be “unwise” to equate the IPS report’s forecast of 350,000 extra applications with the 350,000 figure quoted to MPs by Ms May.
It said the forecast was an annual figure, while the home secretary’s statistics only referred to the increase in applications between January and May.
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