Crisis will continue until autumn, Straw admits

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The Independent Online
THE PASSPORT crisis could last until September, the Home Secretary admitted in the Commons yesterday.

One hundred extra staff are being taken on in addition to the 300 already being recruited, Jack Straw said, and a pounds 500,000 publicity campaign will advise people on how to submit their applications. The Government is also considering the introduction of a voluntary system of identity cards as a long-term solution to the present crisis.

Last night, the Home Office minister Mike O'Brien staked his job on sorting out the chaos at the Passport Agency. Ministers would quit if the problems were not resolved, he pledged.

The recent chaotic scenes at Passport Agency offices are the results of the Government's first attempt at a private finance initiative. Its chosen partner, the German computer company Siemens Business Services (SBS), is a subsidiary of the giant Siemens plc, which produces everything from power stations to washing machines.

The Government offered SBS a contract worth pounds 120m over 10 years to take the Passport Agency into the era of information technology.

The plan was to improve security checks on passport applications by installing a system that the heads of the agency hoped might also reduce the number of staff it was necessary to employ at its offices. Instead applications, which took an average of 11 days to process last year, are now taking 35 to 39 days. Siemens says the system was delivered on time and attributes the delays to "teething problems" and exceptionally high seasonal demand.

But the difficulties are not the first experienced by SBS on a government information technology project. The previous Tory government chose the same company to oversee the installation of a computer-based system at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate.

This pounds 77m project - attacked by the National Audit Office in March for being "too ambitious" - has contributed to the shambolic state of the department, which was also struggling to cope with moving offices and revamping its business plan. Siemens also won the contract to take over administration of the Government's National Savings scheme.

Tony Collins, executive editor of Computer Weekly magazine, said that Siemens - which competes with other international giants such as the American companies EDS and Andersen Consultants and the British-based ICL - had "hardly existed" in terms of government contracts until three years ago.

Andersen has had its own difficulties with installing the computerised National Insurance recording system for the Department of Social Security.

Mr Collins said the companies installing the government computer systems must take a share of the blame for the problems. "I can't think of one that has gone smoothly," he said.