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Passport chaos that threatens holidays blamed on North-East office
HOLIDAYMAKERS are facing a ruined summer as passport office staff battle to clear a backlog of half a million applications.
Union leaders claim the service is in "crisis" while a senior Labour MP has suggested many delays nationally can be traced back to the Durham processing office.
The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union has blamed the backlog on Government job cuts and has warned that its members will strike if the delays are not tackled by the end of the month.
The union said more than 300 jobs had been lost in recent years and at least 20 passport offices had closed.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "The passport office is failing holidaymakers because of a political decision to cut staff and close local offices.
"While the economy is showing signs of recovery for some, the damage being done by the Government's spending cuts is evident to anyone trying to get a passport at the moment and we are not prepared to stand by and allow this to happen."
Darlington MP Jenny Chapman said she was receiving a steady stream of complaints about the delays from constituents.
Urging ministers to act quickly to prevent a summer of travel chaos for holidaymakers, the MP said: "What this demonstrates is the low morale among staff and pressure they are under.
"Staff at the Passport Office want to do a good job. They don't want to continue working with excessive delays and I expect they are at the end of their tether."
Retired nurse Eileen Shepherd, 67, from Darlington, missed out on a £1,700 cruise after repeated attempts to renew her passport failed.
York Central MP Hugh Bayley said he had intervened for seven people who have complained their passports have not arrived on time.
He has written to chief executive of Her Majesty's Passport Office, Paul Pugh demanding to know what is causing the delay in processing applications.
David Hanson, Labour's shadow immigration spokesman, claimed that many of the problems centred on Durham Passport Office and said they were worse for those applying to change their name after marriage or applying for children's first passports.
He told the BBC: "In 22 years as an MP I've never had anything like the number of desperate individuals contacting my office and it seems many MPs are experiencing the same."
But Mr Pugh denied there was a backlog.
He said: "We have been experiencing exceptional early summer demand for passports, which seems to be in part due to the improving economy and a rise in holiday bookings.
"Staff were brought in immediately to respond to the extra demand. We are operating seven days a week and our couriers are delivering passports within 24 hours of being produced."
Mr Pugh said staff had dealt with almost three million passports for UK customers in 2014, including over one million issued in the eight weeks since the start of April.
He added: "There is no backlog, with over 99 per cent of straightforward applications being processed within four weeks."
Mr Pugh said people applying for a passport should allow plenty of time and not book travel until they had received their passport.
According to reports last week, passport office fraud staff had been diverted to help clear the mounting backlog of passport applications before the summer holiday season.
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