British prime minister urged to act to fix Hong Kong passport delays

British Chamber of Commerce says renewal holdup is damaging trade

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 11:54am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 May, 2014, 4:13am

Britain’s top trade body in Hong Kong has urged Prime Minister David Cameron to intervene over long holdups that are plaguing people trying to renew their passports in Hong Kong.

Christopher Hammerbeck, executive director of British Chamber of Commerce, said delays of up to three months were a serious business issue and warned it would have an impact in terms of "cost, delays and the inability to travel”.

“We raised the matter with the consulate. I also raised the matter with the MP who represents business interests in the House of Commons, and we have also had it raised with Number 10 Downing Street,” he said.

London closed the regional passport office at its Hong Kong consulate on December 28 and started issuing the travel documents from its passport office in Liverpool.

Consular officials have declined to say how many people have been affected, but the number is believed to be in the hundreds. According to the 2012 consular census, there were 250,000 full British nationals and 3.4 million British National (Overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong.

A spokeswoman for the government in London said: "It is to do with transferring from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's regional passport processing centres to Her Majesty's Passport Office."

Renewals previously took up to four weeks. However, consular officials have warned that renewals would now take at least six weeks and first-time applications could take eight weeks or longer.

"If you are planning any overseas travel in the coming weeks and months, please do not leave it until the last minute," acting consul general Karen Bell warned this month.The delays extend to the renewal  of all types of British passport holders internationally.

Some expatriates in the city have already had to wait up to three months for a new passport.

The chamber said assurances that closing the regional office would not affect the service meant nothing.

Hammerbeck said the system worked  well for a few months. “We were getting passports back in two or three weeks,” he said.

The backlog surfaced in March..

“Clearly they haven't kept to their end of the bargain. It’s not seamless and smooth,” Hammerbeck said.

He said the chief executive of the passport office had been summoned to a conference in London attended by Hong Kong Consul General Caroline Wilson.

Some expatriates who need new passports within four weeks are being forced to buy an emergency passport, which costs HK$1,200 and allows only a single trip. Normal application fees for a 10-year passport are HK$1,340 for a 32-page passport and HK$1,450 for 48 pages.

Katherine Horgan, an exchange student on an education visa expiring this week, was told to wait three to six weeks, and now has no choice but to apply for an emergency passport.

"I sent my application on time, they gave me a time frame, and I worked to it. I booked flights - non-refundable - for [Sunday], and my visa runs out [on Monday]," she said. "They are forcing me into a position where I will be staying in Hong Kong illegally against my will."