Holiday plans in tatters as Hong Kong passports held up in UK document fiasco
People applying to renew BN(O) passports must submit SAR travel documents, but the wait to get them back is ruining holiday plans
People with Hong Kong passports are being denied the chance to travel because their documents are caught up in British bureaucracy.
Holders of British National (Overseas) passports who want to renew their documents must submit all valid passports in the renewal process - including those issued by Hong Kong.
Hong Kong residents trying to renew British passports have suffered delays of up to four months since the British consulate in the city closed its passport office in December. The cost-saving measure has left business and holiday plans in tatters for many.
The situation is just as bad in Britain, where the government is struggling to clear a backlog of 500,000 applications.
Wai Man-lai, 33, has been without her travel documents for nine weeks. A reduction in fees for passport renewals in April prompted her to renew.
"I thought it was the perfect opportunity to renew my BN(O) which had already expired," she said. "Thinking back, this was probably a really bad idea."
Unaware of the delays, she had believed the process would take no more than a month after her Scottish husband Stephen's experience last year.
"To make matters worse, my Hong Kong passport had to be sent away with this application and now I hold no travel documents." She has suspended her plan to visit Scotland next month.
"The HK SAR passport or other valid travel documents are indeed necessary, but customers can request their return if they have urgent need to travel," said Rosa Pilcher, a spokeswoman for the British Home Office.
Many Hongkongers said they were unwilling to send their SAR passports to Her Majesty's Passport Office, based in Liverpool, for fear of them getting lost or held up in lengthy delays.
"The Passport Office needs to change the rules. I don't know what they need my Hong Kong SAR passport for," said Chan Yu-pik, 38.
Chan submitted high-quality photocopies of her Hong Kong passport to the Liverpool office, under a provision in the guidelines that allows copies to be sent if the document is required for urgent travel. While her application was accepted, she still feels the rules should change.
"The impression you get is the Passport Office wants you to submit any other existing valid passport, not just a copy, Chan said.
Almost 3.5 million BN(O) passports were issued in the run up to the 1997 handover, of which more than 3 million are held by people who live in Hong Kong.
Like the city's 250,000 British citizens, BN(O) passport holders can apply for an emergency British travel document - but the cost is HK$1,280.
British Home Secretary Theresa May last Wednesday apologised for the debacle, telling lawmakers, "I am sorry and the government is sorry."
At a parliamentary hearing in London last Tuesday, Passport Office chief executive Paul Pugh admitted it had not adequately planned for a surge in passport applications. Pugh said he had considered resigning.
British firms increasingly seeking workers who can speak Putonghua
British firms are increasingly seeking workers who can speak Putonghua, Britain's biggest employers' organisation said yesterday.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) found that while European languages were still in demand, there were signs of businesses increasingly seeking language skills that could help break them into new markets.
The annual CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey of 300 British firms found that nearly two-thirds said they had a need for foreign language skills.
The most popular was French (50 per cent), followed by German (49 per cent) and then Spanish (44 per cent). But 31 per cent rated Putonghua as useful, up from 25 per cent in 2012. And 23 per cent said they thought Arabic was useful, up from 19 per cent two years ago.
"With the EU still our largest export market, it's no surprise to see German, French and Spanish language skills so highly prized by companies," CBI deputy director general Katja Hall said.
"But with China and Latin America seeing solid growth, ambitious firms want the language skills that can smooth the path into new markets." She added: "Young people considering their future subject choices should be made more aware of the benefits to their careers that can come from studying a foreign language."