Hongkongers react angrily to news UK was warned about passport delays in January

Brits caught in travel chaos irate that consulate kept them in the dark when it stopped service

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 June, 2014, 12:36pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 June, 2014, 3:05am

Hong Kong residents who have waited months to renew their British passports are angry London did not warn them earlier about potential delays for overseas applications.

Thousands of people have waited for up to four months because of a backlog.

British Home Secretary Theresa May on Thursday introduced special measures to fast-track urgent cases for travellers based in the UK.

In Hong Kong, anyone renewing an existing passport will be able to apply to the British consulate for it to be extended for 12 months. No additional fees will be charged.

Families and individuals have been forced to postpone holidays and business trips. One person missed a family funeral because of the delay. Some have resorted to getting an emergency travel document, which costs almost as much as a replacement.

Many of Hong Kong's 3.2 million British National (Overseas) passport holders, issued before the 1997 handover, and 250,000 Britons have been left in limbo as Her Majesty's Passport Office, based in Liverpool, struggles to clear a backlog of applications.

The responsibility for issuing passports overseas was transferred to the office after consulates around the world stopped processing applications in December. It now has to deal with 350,000 applications from overseas a year.

At a British parliamentary hearing in January, officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which used to be in charge of issuing passports overseas, warned lawmakers that closing the service was risky and delays could be expected for people applying from overseas.

Despite that warning, it was not until May 21 that the British consulate issued widespread alerts about longer processing times. Teacher Clare Stearns, who waited for 10 weeks for a new passport, described the anxiety and vulnerability she felt during the prolonged wait.

Stearns, 60, a Hong Kong resident for 35 years, applied in March to renew her 48-page passport. New application fees for a 10-year passport are HK$1,340 for a 32-page document and HK$1,450 for 48 pages.

Stearns said that if she had known about the delay she would have flown back to London to get a new document.

"It was distressing; you couldn't get any information and you had no idea how long it would take," she said. "Wherever you were in the world, whatever trouble, you could always go to your local embassy. But in this case, the door was shut on me."

Events organiser Greg Hunt said he waited for 10 weeks for his new passport.

Paul Neale, who applied on behalf of his 14-year-old son, received the passport more than four months later.

It took lawyer Richard Healy three months to get his new passport, while exchange student Katherine Horgan is still waiting for hers after 11 weeks.

Home Secretary May said the government was "doing everything we can", as she signalled that Her Majesty's Passport Office could be brought under government management.

Ministers have yet to address issues concerning travellers who run out of space on their passports. Business travellers have complained that the 48-page passport, the largest offered, is still too small.