Passport Office orders staff to relax application checks to help clear backlog – The Guardian

The Passport Office has ordered its staff to relax checks on applicants for British passports from abroad in an effort to reduce a backlog of at least 30,000, leaked internal documents reveal.
A briefing note sent to staff on Monday, passed to the Guardian, allows Passport Office workers to drop checks on countersignatories, as well as requirements for evidence of addresses and letters of confirmation from employers and accountants.
The beleaguered Passport Office was on Wednesday given 100 more staff by the Home Office in an effort to clear its backlog of applications, which are causing people to delay or miss holidays unless they pay £55 to have their cases fast-tracked.
But the document reveals that behind the scenes the processes are also being tweaked to combat the delays. It says the changes are required to achieve the right balance between "customer service, public protection and organisational requirements", adding: "These changes are being published now in light of the need to speed up turnaround times."
The government’s admission of problems in the passport system comes after several days of denials, but on Wednesday David Cameron blamed the situation on the fact that the Passport Office was facing 300,000 more applications than usual, which was "above normal", as he accused Ed Miliband of frightening holidaymakers.
He told MPs: "The Home Office has been on this from the very start."
Cameron said he understood people’s anxiety but said that fewer than 10% of the 300,000 cases were not being processed in the normal three-week target. But the 10% referred to by Cameron are understood to be made up of the most basic applications, while complicated cases could take the total backlog much higher.
Miliband said the problem had been caused by cuts and a failure by Theresa May, the home secretary, to keep watch as she was bickering with the education secretary. "Tens of thousands of people are finding their holidays are being cancelled because they are not actually getting a passport," he said. The briefing note, written by the Passport Office’s policy team and entitled "Overseas Policy and Procedure Changes", begins by listing a number of policy changes and informs staff that they can now relax checks if an applicant from abroad asks for a passport to be sent to an alternative address.
In these cases, evidence of a link to that address – such as a documentary evidence of a connection to the alternative property – will no longer be mandatory and the applicant will no longer have to sign a disclaimer form. The document states: "It has been agreed that, where an applicant provides an alternative address, a separate ‘disclaimer’ and evidence of a link to that address will no longer be mandatory if there are no other concerns or fraud indicators."
Staff sources claim the change could aide a fraudster who has applied for a document. Checks on countersignatories – a person of good standing or in a recognised profession who vouches for an applicant – have also been relaxed. The note says that a photocopy or scan of national ID cards from many European countries as well as Hong Kong will now be allowed as proof of evidence of a countersignatory’s identity.
"On a discretionary basis, a photocopy or emailed scan of a countersignatory’s current valid national identity card can be accepted instead of a passport copy, if the card is issued from one of the countries listed below to one of their nationals," the document says.
According to the note, if an applicant is seeking a second passport – which many frequent fliers use so they can travel on one document whilst applying for entry with another – staff no longer need to seek a letter confirming their status from an employer or accountant.
"For an application for a first additional passport where the applicant has provided their passport, the examiner can use their discretion to not seek a letter of confirmation from an employer where other information indicates that the applicant is eligible for an additional passport," it says.
Previously, the Passport Office has strictly enforced a requirement for a letter of confirmation from an employer or a self-employed person’s accountant. But sources say the change raises the possibility of identity theft because it could allow a fraudster who has stolen a UK passport to apply for a second.
Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, said the briefing showed the government was in denial about the state of the crisis and had been reduced to scaling back vital security checks. "This is seriously chaotic … if this is what the prime minister meant by getting a grip with the situation, he needs to think again," she said.
The Home Office last year cut several passport offices within foreign embassies at an annual saving of £20m and moved the work to their centres in Liverpool, Durham and Belfast. The decision was also intended to boost security, as it was considered too risky to send blank passport books abroad.
Downing Street confirmed that hundreds of extra staff had been deployed to deal with the backlog and offices would open seven days a week from 7am until midnight, after leaked photographs showed boxes of applications piling up in temporary storage. The office in Liverpool has been given 100 more staff by the Home Office to process the applications.
Last week the Guardian disclosed that a quarter of staff employed to detect fraud as well as others who would usually conduct interviews with suspect applicants have been asked to process the delayed applications.
Mark Serwotka, head of the PCS union, which represents many Passport Office staff, said: "The Home Office now has some very serious questions to answer about whether security is being compromised and whether passports could be more easily obtained by criminals."
May said the problem was caused by a "very, very high" level of applications at the beginning of 2014. She said: "We will continue to look at this issue and the Passport Office will put more staff in place and resources in place to ensure they can deal with these applications."


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