Friday, June 21, 2024

When are passport offices going on strike?


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More than a million passport applications could hit a roadblock due to a five-week strike by HM Passport Office staff.

In a “significant escalation” of the dispute over jobs, pay and conditions, “around 2,000” members of the Public and Commercial Service (PCS) union have walked out of all eight passport processing offices across the UK until 6 May.

It is part of a wider civil service dispute over pay, pension, job security and redundancy conditions.

For the week of 2 to 6 May they will join 1,000 staff at the HM Passport Office in Birmingham, Corby, Hemel Hempstead, Leeds, Portsmouth, Sheffield and Plymouth, among other roles including interviewing officers.

HM Passport Office still insists on allowing travelers 10 weeks for passport applications, even if they are direct renewals. But according to the National Audit Office, as of last autumn the average processing time for passports was 12 days for straightforward applications and 29 days for more complex cases. But as demand continues to rise as the Easter holidays approach, summer is set to be its busiest since 2019.

What would this mean for the holidays? These are the key questions and answers.

Is it surprising?

In pursuit of a better pay deal, unions are seeking to make their civil service strikes as effective and high-profile as possible – with more people planning to travel abroad any time soon since Covid, holidaymakers Have clear goals.

The PCS union says: “Members taking this action will be supported by the strike fund, with the strike fund levy being paid by all PCS members.”

Secretary-General Mark Serwotka said: “The scale of industrial action in the civil service reflects the strength of spirit among PCS members on the issues of contention and the anguish caused by the cost of life crisis they are facing.

“These are hard working public servants who helped carry this country through a pandemic and they deserve fair treatment.”

What is the effect of the strike?

Since the spurt in passport applications a year ago, which led to some very long delays and people missing out on holidays, the issuance process has been working quite smoothly.

At peak times – including April – HM Passport Office can receive up to 250,000 applications per week. I estimate that more than one million passport applications are likely to come during the strike. Some of those will be urgent cases, but it may be that the fast track option has been turned off, so available efforts can be deployed to process “normal” applications.

On the eve of the strike, a spokesman for the Home Office said: “We are disappointed with the union’s decision to strike.

“We are working to manage the impact of the strike action, ensuring we can continue to provide vital services to the public with comprehensive contingency plans in place.

“There are currently no plans to change our guidance which states that it takes up to ten weeks to obtain a passport.”

The union says: “The furlough of staff at Newport and Glasgow passport offices has caused serious disruption.

“With work being moved around to different offices, backlogs are starting to build up and very few appointments are available for emergency/fast-track passports.”

What should passengers do?

Panic about the prospect of long wait times led to an increase in unnecessary applications and became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with people upgrading out of caution.

This also happened after Brexit when the UK government misinformed on passport expiry rules for EU travellers.

The actual tests for British passport holders in the EU and wider Schengen area – including Iceland, Norway and Switzerland – are as follows:

  • Passport issued 10 years prior to the day of arrival in the EU.
  • Passport expiry date at least three months from the intended date of departure from the EU.

For example, someone planning a May holiday in Spain who holds a passport issued on 1 June 2013 that expires on 1 March 2024 is entitled to travel to the EU for a stay of up to 90 days.

For many other countries, including the US and Australia, your passport is valid until the expiration date. However, some countries require six months of validity.

But I’m told passports expire after 10 years and six months validity is required everywhere?

The unnecessary anxiety created by sources making nonsense claims about the validity of passports is dangerous. Parts of the travel industry and the media make two false claims about the validity of British passports.

The first is that the date of issue matters around the world, and passports expire after 10 years. This is nonsense. The date of issue is irrelevant in any context except for adult passports for the EU/Schengen area – where the rule is that you cannot enter the EU with a passport issued more than 10 years ago.

Another fallacy is that popular destinations like the US and Australia require six months’ validity on passports.

Searching online for “foreign office” and the name of the country you plan to visit will reveal the exact entry rules for your destination.

Last year, the MP came to the rescue in case of serious delay in passport processing. Will it happen this time?

No. During the passport crisis in 2022, HM Passport Office operated a “hotline” and had a special desk for MPs’ passport requests for constituents in urgent need of travel. But the concerns were not related to industrial action, and I don’t expect a similar response this time around.

Can I claim travel insurance if I miss my trip due to non-receipt of passport on time?

No, you are expected to have all your documents in order. It’s possible that some travel companies may be lenient if passport issues become really serious.

What will this do for confidence in the travel industry?

With ongoing security strikes at Heathrow and French air-traffic control walk-outs continuing after the mass cancellations and airport meltdown a year ago, the passport freeze will further erode confidence in going abroad.