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PASSPORT CHAOS

Comment on the crisis at the Passport Agency which has led to a backlog of 500,000 applications

Daily Star

HOME OFFICE minister Mike O'Brien is a prize prat. He's trying to blame the passport shambles on "panicking" holidaymakers. Hogwash. The whole sorry mess is the fault of fools like himself. As minister in charge, he should have stepped in months ago to sort out the millions of unanswered phone calls and clear the backlog of applications. Instead he just made matters worse by pressing ahead with a daft new plan to give passports to babies. The bungling pipsqueak must go. And we don't mean on a foreign holiday.

The Daily Telegraph

THE PRESENT crisis should sound the death-knell for the Passport Agency. The agency should be abolished and the function of issuing passports distributed as widely as possible. The Government would continue to own our passports and have the right to withdraw them, but the issuing would be entrusted to specific agents. At present there are only six places in the United Kingdom from which a passport can be obtained. Multiplying the points of distribution would make the operation quicker and competition for the business would encourage a reduction in the fee. And, why not accompany such a reform by the re-introduction of the old British passport?

The Times

EVERY PASSPORT carries an eloquent petition from Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State, who requires and requests "all those whom it may concern" to allow the document's bearer "to pass freely without let or hindrance". The current obstacle to over half a million people's travel, however, is that they have no passport at all. Computer failure, compounded by a new passport regulation, has caused turmoil at the Passport Agency. There is now a five week backlog of passport applications. The Passport Agency's incompetence marks another pathetic episode in the history of government information technology projects. A thorough inquiry is needed into the causes of this shambles, and radical ideas should be considered if it is to be prevented in the future.Ministers and civil servants have cobbled together poor excuses for the fiasco. Like bad workmen, they are blaming their tools. But "operational problems" caused by two new computer systems at just two of the agency's regional offices do not explain why there was no back-up system in place in the event of failure. The agency has belatedly admitted that it was caught unawares by the new regulation, which requires children under the age of 16 who are not listed on one of their parents' passports to get a passport of their own. But such a confession reveals managerial incompetence of the highest order.

Daily MAil

DAY BY day the passports fiasco sinks deeper into the realms of the surreal. First we had the saga of the Home Office sports day, (itself an event which sounds like a novelist's invention). Naturally it provoked incredulity, though officials seemed not to understand why. And then there was the business of the pounds 10 fee paid by those who turn up in person to apply for passports - in effect "fining" them for civil servant's incompetence. A convention of headless chickens could have put on a more convincing performance. This is becoming a story of incompetence at its mind-boggling worst. Isn't there anyone in Government capable of taking a grip?

The Guardian

THROUGH O'BRIEN'S pugnacious defence of the Immigration and Asylum Bill, he has already established himself as the nastiest yob on the government payroll. Now, with two of the worst public service failures in years, he has proved his privatising zeal. If there were any honour in politics, he would of course resign. In the brave new world of New Labour, however, can promotion to the cabinet be very far behind? (Francis Wheen)

Let's pause for reflection

NORTHERN IRELAND PEACE AGREEMENT

Irish discussion on the likelihood of a successful

conclusion to the peace talks in Belfast

Irish News

Belfast

THOUGH STRIKING a political deal was always going to be extremely difficult in the approach to Drumcree and July's [marching] period, there would be real danger involved in adjourning the discussions for several weeks or months.The momentum which has brought us to such a decisive stage would be lost, and the opportunity for evil men to exploit the deadlock through the use of violence could be heightened. This is a frightening prospect, and it is essential that every possible opportunity and opening should be explored during the present talks. Within our grasp is a structure which would allow Nationalists and Unionists to work together for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland. It could be many long and frustrating years before a similar opportunity presents itself.

Irish Independent

Dublin

AT THIS moment, one has to conclude that Mr Adams made a historic offer, in good faith, to the Unionists, and they turned him down. Why? On the evidence, the allegation of lack of a written commitment holds no water. The demand for an immediate handover of arms in place of a guarantee of total disarmament and the real hope of permanent peace shows no grasp of reality. Did the dissidents in Trimble's party think their demand either achievable or sensible? Or did they act out of age-old prejudice? But a far more vital question is whether, when talks resume, Trimble can find it in himself to face down the dissidents, and risk the consequences.

Belfast Telegraph

TONY BLAIR and Bertie Ahern are to be congratulated for their endurance, but, if they are contemplating failure, they should weigh up the options with special care. There has been an underlying threat to the Assembly if the worst comes to the worst, but that would be folly at this stage. The rejectionists in Republicanism, as in Unionism, would have scored a victory and it could be impossible to construct another forum for years. The only conclusion is that the Good Friday Agreement was, because of its inherent loopholes, democratically flawed. It could mean one thing to Nationalists and something completely different to Unionists.

Such a mistake cannot be made again. Better to pause for reflection, if nothing can be agreed this time, and start talking again in September, after the marching season.

An Phlobacht

Republican News

Belfast and Dublin

THE PERSON with the power to deliver political change is Tony Blair. He must press ahead with an agenda for change. Regardless of the outcome of political talks and the future of the Agreement itself, many of the issues addressed by the Agreement, such as human rights and equality and an acceptable policing service, are the responsibility of the British government as long as it claims jurisdiction over the Six Counties. The Irish government also has an onerous responsibility to defend the rights and interests of Irish citizens in the Six Counties. Whatever the outcome, Republicans approached the talks in good faith, and with a willingness to do all in our power to make them work.

The Irish Times

Dublin

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern have shown extraordinary resolution and stamina in pursuing this process to the very last possibility of a successful conclusion. The Prime Minister has not only missed the opening of Scotland's new parliament but does seem determined to remain in the negotiations until every possible spark of hope of a resolution at this time is extinguished. It may be that as the hours of the night and morning pass by, or in resumed discussions, they may be able to bridge the remaining gap between the two sides. It would take just the smallest additional measure of courage and will. It may be, as Mr Blair has said, that regrettably, it is not to be found. If not, the price of failure will be incalculable.

The Examiner

Cork

AFTER 30 years of bloodshed it defies the comprehension of the civilised world that, in the closing year of the millennium, politicians should stubbornly refuse to grasp a deal involving a twin commitment to institutions of government and total decommissioning by May 2000. Lack of trust and continuing Unionist suspicions remain a cancer undermining the considerable progress of recent months. Bertie Ahern, the taoiseach, puts the matter squarely when he states that there is an awful lot to gain and a frightening amount to lose. The entire nation is praying that the opposing parties will find the courage to compromise and take the final steps towards democratic government with a commitment to peace in a society where the gun no longer rules.

ABDULLAH OCALAN

International reaction to the death sentence passed on the Kurdish rebel leader by a Turkish court

Milliyet

Turkey

WHAT ABOUT the blood spilled and the pain of the martyrs' families? It is necessary to be calm. The head of state cannot act emotionally. Turkey's interests should be widely observed. Does the application of capital punishment increase bloodshed? Does it affect our economy? Does it give harm to the relations with Western countries? Does it make Ocalan a hero? Does it harm social peace? This is why I am not in favour of capital punishment. (Hasan Cemal)

Il Giorno

Italy

INDIGNATION EXPRESSED by European leaders in the wake of the death sentence is hypocritical. He was sentenced because of his leadership of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, not unlike the KLA whose leaders were celebrated as martyrs of freedom. Its leaders were accepted in Western diplomatic circles, whilst Ocalan was pushed towards the gallows. Turkey, for decades responsible of crimes against the Kurds, has, as member of NATO, presented itself as a defender of human rights in Kosovo.

Khaleej Times

UAE

CLEMENCY WOULD bolster Ankara's effort to persuade Kurds to accept political and cultural recognition short of independence. And improve Turkey's relations with the Europeans. Hanging Ocalan risks isolating Turkey. The Kurdish question has been a perennial irritant in the country's relations with Europe; that the Ocalan trial has failed to meet Western standards of fair trial has made matters only worse. Ankara has to choose between Ocalan's olive branch and Turks' visceral desire for revenge.

Sabah

Turkey

If we abolish capital punishment because of Apo I will be upset. If the capital punishments of the cases waiting are implemented because of Apo, I will be incredibly upset. Aren't you disturbed by this situation? For the Europeans the Kurdistan Worker's Party is not a problem, their problem is Kurds. But for me their real problem is Turks. They do not like Kurds, but they hate Turks.

SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT

Scottish comment on the official opening of their parliament on Thursday

The Scotsman

SCOTS FACE a potentially bright future in which they can lead the rest of the United Kingdom, or even Europe, by the originality of their ideas for raising the quality of life. There will no longer be any excuses for defining ourselves in negative terms. We have the chance to define exactly who we are and show what we are capable of in a fast-moving, highly competitive, increasingly complex world. We may now have the power, but will we wield it wisely and dynamically?

Daily Record

THE CALIBRE of the majority of our 129 MSPs may not inspire too much confidence and First Minster Donald Dewar admitted that they will make mistakes. After the bungling of the first 50 days, he hardly needed to remind us of that. But he also promised to strive to do right by the Scottish people, to respect their priorities and to better their lot. If he can do that - and if the MSPs can learn to live up to the people's expectations - it will in time become a Scottish Parliament worthy of the name. And worthy of the high hopes that were re-born yesterday.

The Herald

WE BELIEVE the Parliament will be a success. The judgement will stand or fall on whether it makes Scotland a better, fairer society that excludes no one. For that to happen there must be a discernible element of the new politics much talked about before the election. It means that politics must be less conflict-based, more open, and less centralised and secretive. As far as possible it should emphasise consensus, and participation, and in that respect we acknowledge the inaugural meeting of the Scottish Youth Parliament. We have achieved something worth smiling about, and will achieve much more.

MANCHESTER UNITED

Tabloid reaction to the decision to allow the treble winners to miss next season's FA Cup

The Express

THE CONTEMPT that the FA has shown for its own trophy - and fans - in offering to allow the team a year's absence from the FA Cup is breathtaking. Does tradition mean nothing to the bureaucrats at Lancaster Gate? Since top teams are already granted byes into the third round, it would be far more consistent and more sensible to offer the elite teams - such as last year's semi-finalists, or the top four in the Premiership - a further bye into the fifth round. That would enable United to play in both the club championship and the FA Cup.

The Mirror

THE FA Cup has been kicked into the gutter and may never recover from this hammer blow. The men who run Manchester United and the FA should hang their heads in shame. And they should know this: The Mirror will not rest until this disgusting decision is reversed. You will NOT ruin the FA Cup just to suck up to some German busybody called Sepp Blatter.

The Sun

SO MANCHESTER United cannot play home and away at the same time. But the FA is WRONG to let them pull out of the entire FA Cup for the sake of a world team tournament. It may boost our chances of hosting the World Cup Finals in 2006. But the opt-out makes a mockery of the FA Cup. Why should fans have to accept a devalued competition?

Whoever wins will never be sure they would have done so if United had been in.Why not let United - if they survive to the Fourth Round - play their game later in January? We know world contests are the future of the game. Of course we want British clubs to win them. But better no FA Cup than a meaningless one.

MISCELLANEOUS

Stories from around the world

Boston Globe

US

THERE IS one place where ink-stained skin has not caught on, at least not legally: Massachusetts. In fact, it is just one of three states, along with culturally conservative locales like Oklahoma and North Carolina, where state law bans the practice of artistic tattooing. But tattoo artists and civil libertarians, long frustrated by the 1962 law that bans the practice here, are hopeful that they are making progress toward changing it. This week, a legislative committee backed a bill that would allow tattooing. These new debates over how to govern body art - exotic fare for the staid world of state government - are perhaps an inevitable result of a recent explosion of tattoos and piercings in youth culture.

Times of India

AMERICAN SECRETARY of State Mrs Albright's penchant is for brooches. Art experts say that often Mrs Albright uses jewellery as "intellectual armour and symbolic language". Recently, when the Iraqi press called her a serpent, she wore a serpent brooch. In the West Asia talks, it was a dove brooch signalling a switch to the peace mode. Clausewitz thought of war as diplomacy by other means. Presumably jewellery can also help, and perhaps diplomacy could be more honoured in the brooch than in the observance.

Quotes of the Week

"I just feel like saying `Take your pictures and leave us alone'" Catherine Zeta Jones, actress, on the paparazzi (above)

"If I had been aware of Jeremy Paxman's reputation I would never have agreed to take part in the programme"

Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, after facing a stiff interrogation from Paxman

"Any Labour supporter, Old or New, who thinks the next election is in the

bag had better think again"

Michael Howard, Tory MP and former Home Secretary

"I am amazed how many young stars today allow themselves to be caught with a mouth full of food. No wonder they don't like the paparazzi"

Peter Stringfellow, nightclub owner

"We used an elephant to crush a gnat. The gnat is not dead and the elephant is limping"

Unnamed US senator, quoted by Michael Portillo, former Tory MP, on the Kosovo campaign

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