Hongkongers caught in UK passport renewal chaos fork out HK$1.3m

Residents caught in renewal backlog foot bill of HK$1.3 million as British consulate in city tops worldwide list in issuing emergency papers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 August, 2014, 6:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 10:12am

Britain's cash-strapped government has made more than HK$1.3 million from Hong Kong residents seeking emergency passports amid a massive backlog in renewals, the Sunday Morning Post has discovered.

A request under Britain's Freedom of Information Act revealed the Hong Kong consulate issued the most emergency passports of any of the nation's 306 diplomatic missions in each month of the year to June.

In the first six months, the consulate issued 1,065 emergency travel documents, an increase of 63 per cent on the same period last year.

Each cost HK$1,280, putting total revenue at HK$1.36 million.

London's Foreign and Commonwealth Office refused to be drawn on why so many emergency papers had been issued in Hong Kong.

But many Britons and holders of British National (Overseas) passports have sought emergency papers amid lengthy delays in renewals that threatened travel plans.

The backlog came after overseas passport offices, including Hong Kong's, were closed in December, and the work transferred to Her Majesty's Passport Office in Liverpool.

The consulate promised that the cost-saving measure would not mean delays.

But as many as 500,000 passports were caught in a backlog, and travellers have faced waits of up to four months to renew.

A Foreign Office spokesman said more than four million passports had been issued this year, with demand at its highest level in 12 years.

"Since January [the passport office] has been putting steps in place to deal with the extra demand, including bringing in extra staff," the spokesman said.

But corporate activist David Webb, who had to wait nine weeks to have his passport renewed, said the British government should pay back those who had been forced to use emergency documents.

"They shouldn't have to pay twice: once to renew and [again] because there's a delay in a renewal," Webb said. "Basically they should stop charging until they resolve the delays."

The number of passports reported lost or stolen in Hong Kong - the usual reason for emergency passport requests - declined year on year, British figures show.

The delays have affected not only the city's 250,000 British residents but also more than three million Hongkongers with BN(O) passports. Most holders of BN(O) documents - introduced before the 1997 handover - also hold Hong Kong passports, but must give all travel documents to British authorities during renewal.

By last month, Britain was still processing some 350,000 passport applications.

The Foreign Office has slashed costs after its budget was cut from £1.6 billion (HK$19.3 billion) to £1.36 billion.

Yet the Hong Kong consulate last year rented the third floor of the Frank Gehry-designed Opus building, home to some of the city's most expensive flats, for consul general Caroline Wilson.