Up to 30,000 passports hit by delays, says David Cameron
Up to 30,000 passport applications have been hit by delays, Prime Minister David Cameron has said.
He said hundreds of extra staff have been drafted in and new offices are being opened in Liverpool next week to help tackle the backlog.
Ed Miliband said the PM had to "get a grip" as he warned that thousands of people face cancelled holidays as a result of the problems.
But Mr Cameron accused the Labour leader of trying to "frighten people".
Passport applications have surged to a 12-year high but the agency says "99%" were being processed within four weeks.
Travel industry association ABTA says it is not seeing an increase in people cancelling holidays because their passports have not arrived but a spokesman said: "We always see some at this time time of year."
The Passport Agency is currently dealing with about 465,000 renewals and first-time passport requests, and 150,000 passports are being sent out each week.'Fewer resources'
MPs have reported an increase in constituents complaining about delays to passport applications.
Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Miliband said: "The truth is, that is tens of thousands of people who are finding their holidays are being cancelled because they are not actually getting a passport.
"You said they have increased the resources at the Passport Agency. That is not the case. There are greater responsibilities for the Passport Agency since 2010 and fewer resources.
"Will you tell the House, when did the government first know about this problem and how has it been allowed to develop?"
Mr Cameron replied: "The government has taken action to deal with this problem - not today but in weeks gone past. We have 250 staff already redeployed to the front line prioritising all outstanding applications. That will allow for an extra 25,000 examinations weekly."
The prime minister said longer opening hours had been introduced at passport offices, which were now operating seven days a week; an extra 650 helpline staff had been recruited; and new offices would be opened in Liverpool next week with an additional 100 staff.
He said: "The Home Office has been on this from the very start, but it all begins with 300,000 extra people applying for passports compared with the previous time last year."
Mr Cameron told Mr Miliband: "Those are the actions that are being taken. I hope you will be careful not to try and frighten people in the way you did with your opening question."
He said: "We have 300,000 extra applications than is normal at this time of year. We have increased massively the staff. The level of applications outside the normal three-week limit is less than 10% of that 300,000."
Labour says the number of staff at the Identity and Passport Service has fallen by 600 to 3,444 since the coalition came to power in 2010.'Exceptional' demand
The Home Office says the numbers have fallen because of the cancellation of Labour's ID card scheme.
Passport Office chief executive Paul Pugh, who will be questioned next week by MPs on the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said there had been "exceptional" summer demand but that extra staff had been brought in to handle applications.
Applying for a passport
Guidance on the Passport Office's website says it should take three weeks for passports to be renewed, although the process can take longer if more information is required or the form is not filled out correctly.
It states that people should not book holidays or make other travel plans until they have a valid passport, adding that those doing so do it "at their own risk".
Standard adult passports cost £72.50 to renew or £81.25 if you use the Post Office's Passport Check and Send service. Child passports cost £46 or £54.75 respectively.
Those needing a passport urgently can pay extra for a premium or fast-track service. A premium service, costing £128, means passports can be collected within four hours of being approved.
Under the fast-track service, costing £103, a passport is returned within a week of the application being approved.
For over-16s applying for their first adult passport, the Passport Service says people should allow for at least six weeks to receive it.
"We are operating seven days a week and our couriers are delivering passports within 24 hours of being produced," Mr Pugh said.
"We have issued almost three million passports for UK customers in 2014, including over one million issued in the eight weeks since the start of April.
"During this busy period we have processed more than 97% of straightforward passport renewal and child applications within the three-week target turnaround time."
The Public and Commercial Services Union has said it does not know how many applications have been delayed.
It has claimed the loss of a tenth of the agency's workforce in the past five years and the closure of local passport offices have contributed to "major problems".
Mike Jones, of the PCS union, told Today: "Thousands of people complain that it has taken more than two months for them to get passports, That clearly is a backlog."
In the past, overseas applications were handled by embassy and consulate officials in seven regional processing centres around the world under the direction of the Foreign Office.
But between December 2012 and March this year, responsibility for the application, handling, printing and delivery of overseas passport applications was transferred to the Passport Office in the UK.