Wednesday, 23 July 2008

They took my 97 quid and all I got was this! (Part One) (Updated)

With the news today that 3,000 passport workers were going on strike, I thought I'd resurrect the two posts about my experience with their service! Just so that folks can see what kind of service they are possibly going to be offered should they decided to go by the expensive, "Fast Track," or, "Premium," route!

Let me start at the very beginning!

A few months ago, my son and his partner travelled on Eurostar to Belgium. I just happened to mention that I would quite fancy trying out Eurostar and my son told me that he had a special offer on tickets and why didn't we all (son + partner + me) go to Paris sometime before the offer expired? Great idea. I love Paris!

So, that was how it all started and I shall tell you how I ended up paying £97 for the above receipt, which would shame a, "Pound shop," for its lack of professional quality, losing three days' wages and not getting to Paris! Oh, and being treated in a manner, which can only be described as, "shabby," by the London Identity and Passport Service.

Ok, so we have a plan! We are all going to Paris! My son booked the seats on Eurostar and gave me time and date. All I needed then was a passport. My old one, which I had not used since 1999, and which expired in April 2007, was somewhere around the house, but a search of the obvious and not-so-obvious places did not result in finding it. No matter: it would have been useful to have the old one in applying for a new one, but a new application would have to be made anyway. I hadn't seen that passport for a number of years and had no idea in what, "safe place," I might have put it!

So, I collect a passport application form from the Post Office and discover that I need a UK passport holder to countersign. No problem! I ask a friend who has known me for around 10 years, but unfortunately, he can't find his passport. Time is getting on and I have around three weeks to get my passport after several weeks of his not finding his passport and not finding his passport!

So, I ask someone who has known me for around 17 years, but who does not live in my town. I meet up with this person on a shared holiday. He signs the form, but has forgotten to bring his passport. He will phone me with the passport number. It is now just over two weeks before the planned date of departure for my Eurostar experience.

The friend phones with the passport number and the following day I go to the Post Office to make use of their, "Check and send," (or words to that effect!) service. I complete form LSO1, lost passport form, and the woman at the PO counter checks my application form. There are problems! My photograph is not full-face and the woman notes that the passport number has obviously not been written in by the person countersigning.

Right! It's now just under two weeks to the planned trip! I need to get another person, who has known me for more than 2 years, to countersign another form. I ask the licensee at my local shop. He, being a very kind person, helps in my time of need. I go back to the Post Office to have the form checked! Everything is OK apart from the fact that my signature is a fraction of a millimetre onto the brown border!

So, I go back to my friendly local shopkeeper and he signs another form for me. There is now 10 days to go until Eurostar leaves St Pancras at 11am on Friday 13th June. I phone the national passport service helpline. I am told that if I want my passport for the day before the trip, which is, of course necessary, given the time the train leaves, I will have to have an interview at a passport office before 12 noon on Thursday 5th June, that being the latest time for the guaranteed delivery of my passport by Thursday 12th June. An appointment is made for 11.45 on Thursday 5th June at the London office of the Passport and Identity Service.

I could do without all this because I work for an agency, which means I don't go to work, I don't get paid and this means a day off. However, my very kind son has booked a treat for his mother and I really don't want to let him down. My son really is a very kind person.

Anyway, I have my appointment, I am told to arrive at least 10 minutes early, and I find a Google map for the address and postcode given: 89 Eccleston Square, SW1V 1PN.

View Larger Map

I will refer to this map a little later.

I set off really early on the morning of Thursday June 5th, allowing time for late-running trains, crossing London on the tube, and finding Eccleston Square. I arrive at Victoria at just after 11.05, with what looks like a short walk from the station to Eccleston Square. (Please now refer to map. Eccleston Square is a, "U," shape with a blue marker on the right-hand arm of the, "U." )

11.10, I start at the nearest point on Eccleston Square, the left-hand arm of the, "U," and finding low numbers, assume that number 89 must be near the other end! However, at the other end of the, "U," is number 70-something! I turn right into Belgrave Road to see if the numbers continue, but they do only for one or two buildings. I turn left, back into Eccleston Square, thinking there must be some logic to this, somewhere! The blue marker on the right-hand arm of the, "U," denotes where I then spotted a police van! Great! They should know!

There are two uniformed officers in the van, and I approach the passenger side, which is nearest to the kerb. The officer in the passenger seat looks at me and does nothing! I signal for him to lower the window. He does. "Can you tell me where the passport office is, please?" The officer points in the direction towards the base of the, "U," in the opposite direction to Belgrave Road. "It's on the corner round there," he says.

So, off I go. It's now 11.20 and I reassure myself that I will, indeed, arrive 10 minutes early. I walk right round Eccleston Square, and I don't find number 89 or the passport office, and I walk up the left-hand side of the, "U," towards Belgrave Road, where I spot a workman outside one of the houses. "Can you tell me where the passport office is, please?" He points towards Belgrave Road and tells me to cross the road and it's on the corner. (Please refer once again to the map. The passport office is located by the blue marker on what is denoted as Belgrave Road.)

I arrive at the passport office at 11.25, with certain expectations of what constitutes an, "interview." Hah! That's as sensible as my thinking that 89 Eccleston Square would be in the road indicated by that name on the map!

Through the heavy glass doors I go, and come face-to-face with a group of security guards, who point me towards a glass booth on my left. I go over there and tell the person behind the glass that I have an appointment. I am told to see the security guards. I do and they show me the way to the metal detector, which I pass through, having placed my bag on a conveyor belt, and my bunch of keys in a plastic basket. I am then directed to another reception desk, a very high one that, at 5' 0", I can hardly see over. I give my reference number and I get a numbered ticket, just like the cheese counter at Sainsbury's! "Go to the second floor. Lift over there." says the person allocating the numbers. I do!

On the second floor there are rows of seats, with a few people sitting there. There are two large screens, one with a list of numbers, denoting who is waiting. This is more like Argos than Sainsbury's cheese counter! A bot voice is calling out numbers one after the other and telling the holders which cubicle to go to. My number comes up and I go to the cubicle as directed.

As I said, I had certain expectations of what constitutes an, "interview." The cubicle I arrived at was more like a public phone booth, with glass panels on either side, and a woman sitting behind a counter, in an elevated position. So, there I am, again, 5' 0" having to raise my arms to place my forms on the counter. I wait for some kind of introductory greeting from this person who is supposed to be interviewing me, something like, "Hello," maybe. She puts on an impatient face and says, "Got your form?"

"Got your form?" Well, I would expect a more courteous standard of communication at the cheese counter at Sainsbury's! I pass the form over. "Your old passport is lost?" This woman is looking more and more irritated! "I've completed an LSO1. Would you like it?" Curl of the mouth and, "Has it been checked?" "Yes," I say, "It was checked at the psot office." The woman extends a hand and I place the form in it.

While I stand there thinking, "What on earth have I come to?" the woman taps away on her keyboard and compares what is on my form to what she is reading on her monitor. I ask if she is managing to access my old passport details. After a few seconds, she says, "Yes." I ask is everything ok then? She says, "Yes."

"Have you got proof of ID and address?" Yes, I have brought my birth certificate, my marriage certificate, my driver's licence, and a bank statement. I ask which the woman would like to see and she asks for the bank statement. I locate the envelope and hold it out.

The woman looks at me as though I am passing something contaminated and says. "Take it out of the enveolpe." Now, I may be old-fashioned, but I would have expected something like, "Would you mind taking it out of the envelope, please?", even if you never know who might be trying to spread dreadful diseases like anthrax, even a 5' 0" grandma of one! And if I were a terrorist, cunningly disguised as 5' 0" grandma of one, would such a command, issued in a seemingly disgusted tone of voice, put me off spreading anthrax?

Anyway, bank statement gets taken out of the envelope and passed over. I ask if my birth certificate is needed. "No." Then, after a few key strokes, I am handed a flimsy piece of paper and told to pay at one of the cubicles opposite. The person at this other cubicle takes my £97 in cash, and hands me, in return, the receipt copied at the top of this post. I am told that my passport will arrive on Thursday 12th June, sometime between 8am and 6pm. I look at the flimsy receipt and it occurs to me that a receipt from a, "Pound shop," would have more detail and look more professional. This is what I get to show that I have travelled here and been through an, "interview," with the, "Got your form?" woman? Having arrived at 11.25, for an 11.45 interview, my 3"x5" piece of paper bears the time, 11.32.

I leave the passport office, feeling somewhat peeved at the lack of courtesy shown, but glad that it's over, and my passport will arrive the day before my trip.

So, gentle reader, if you have read thus far, I thank you and I will create a little break and carry on in part 2!