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Lessons must be learned from passport problems

The Passport Office says there is no backlog in the processing of applications, but how does that square with the pictures of boxes of applications piled up in a meeting room in its Liverpool office?

Or the fact staff in the Glasgow office are being drafted in to help deal with applications? Or the fact Scottish mother Louise Costello still does not know, many weeks after she applied, if her child will receive a passport in time to come home to the UK?

The case of Mrs Costello is a striking illustration of the kind of problems the passport service is facing and its personal and financial costs. For the past year, Mrs Costello and her husband Paul, a GP, have been living in Brisbane but they need to return to the UK by the end of June so Dr Costello can resume his work at a surgery in Glasgow. The couple were told that a passport for their son, who was born out in Australia, would take around six weeks, but some 11 weeks later, the passport has still not been issued and Mrs Costello is facing the prospect of having to stay behind in Australia with her son while her husband comes back to Scotland.

This obviously has serious implications for the Costello family - they may have to pay to extend the lease on their home in Australia - but it also raises questions about how the passport service is operating. Applying for a passport for a baby from abroad is not a straightforward case and thorough checks need to be made, but neither is it an unusual one. Mrs Costello was also diligent, followed the correct procedure and applied in plenty of time and yet still has not received the passport.

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union says the Costello family is not alone and that there are thousands of others in the same boat as them. Paul Pugh, the chief executive of the Passport Office, on the other hand, denies there is a problem. There is no backlog, he says, and almost 100 per cent of what he calls straightforward applications are being processed within four weeks.

Mr Pugh may well be right that most applications are going through as normal, but the problems being experienced by many applicants require an explanation and a better response. The PCS union says cost cutting is to blame (and the Glasgow office has indeed faced job cuts and scaled back the service it offers); Mr Pugh says the economic recovery has led to more people going on holiday and applying for passports, although the Passport Office must surely take responsibility for planning for summer peaks in demand.

Whoever is right, many people at home and abroad are facing problems in applying for passports which means the Passport Office must explain the extent of the problem and how it intends to fix it. It must also urgently update the official advice so that everyone, in Britain or abroad, knows how long they are likely to have to wait for a passport. Everyone has to take personal responsibility and ensure they apply for a passport in good time, but Mr Pugh and his staff must also learn the lesson of the past few days and make much better contingency plans for peaks in demand.

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