Ibiza it's not, as shivering queue waits for passports

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The Independent Online
SHIVERING in the rain and simmering with anger they stood in their thousands, waiting for the right to call themselves British but dreaming of faraway foreign lands.

The flimsy canopy of umbrellas and the sodden sleeping bags gave little respite to what looked like an army of British refugees filling the pavements outside the offices of the government's Passport Agency yesterday.

Some wished to visit relatives abroad. Most simply wanted the summer holiday in the sun they had already paid for. Instead they have become the victims of a national scandal.

Yet as they stood queuing in the rain yesterday, Mike O'Brien, the Home Office minister, suggested that the predicament was all of their own making. "I think there is a certain amount of panic going on," Mr O'Brien said. "When I was in the queue yesterday there were people queuing up who were trying to travel in September and August. That's nonsense. They should only be in the queue if they are travelling in the next week."

Those waiting outside the London passport office in Petty France, a stone's throw from Mr O'Brien's office, reacted with fury and incredulity to the minister's comments.

Mark Smith, a 22-year-old motorcycle courier, said three "administrative delays" had brought him there with his 22-month old daughter, Miria, who amused herself by kicking the puddles on the canopy of her pushchair.

"I've done two days here - 15 hours. I'm meant to be going to Ibiza. If I don't get my passport today, I will lose pounds 500. That's not including three days of lost work. The staff are helpful but there is just not enough of them. The queues are huge. It's just ridiculous. How can you say it's our fault? I'm standing here with my little girl, cold, wet and in the rain."

Contrary to Mr O'Brien's belief that many of those queuing were panicking unnecessarily, Kirsty Jones, 18, was due to fly to Greece tomorrow. "I wouldn't be here if they had sorted it weeks ago," she said. "I've had to fill in three application forms so far. It's a complete rigmarole."

The system in place yesterday tested the British penchant for queuing to the very limits. Callers queue for the right to queue. Hours of queuing yield a ticket that allows them to queue for the right to be dealt with.

Yesterday in the Commons, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, admitted the crisis would continue until September. He announced that 100 extra staff were being taken on in addition to the 300 already being recruited, and said a pounds 500,000 publicity campaign would advise people on how to submit their applications.

The first visible signal of the passport fiasco came some four weeks ago when a small encampment of sleeping bags and collapsible beds sprang up on the pavement outside Liverpool's passport office in India Buildings.

By yesterday, would-be holidaymakers were queuing in their thousands around Passport Agency offices in Glasgow, Liverpool and London, the vanguard of a backlog of applicants which now stands at 538,000.

They are the victims of an ill-managed plan to catapult the old paper- based system for processing one of the world's most instantly recognisable documents into the age of information technology.

As the new programme struggled to its feet last year, it was bowled over by a surge in applications for the newly required child passports and a 20 per cent increase in seasonal demand.

Passport hold-ups are not entirely new. In 1989, the backlog also reached half a million and a plan was devised to introduce new efficiency.

Two years later, the Passport Agency was established, which decided in 1996 to switch from a paper-based application process to a computer system.

The contract was awarded in July 1997 to the computer company Siemens Business Services but by the following spring, staff who tested the system were concerned. It was being implemented too quickly, they said.

Within a year, their fears had been borne out. Processing times at Liverpool rose from an average of 11 days to 41 days. At the Newport office in south Wales, the average wait lengthened from 15 days to 38.

In the autumn, the agency's management took the decision not to roll- out the computer system to its other offices in Peterborough, Belfast, Glasgow and London.

But the backlog grew. In March, Kevin Sheehan, the agency's operations director, sent a memo to senior managers suggesting that some security checks be dropped in order to speed up the process.

But the arrival of the summer season brought on desperation among those without their passports. More than 1.1 million inquiry calls to the agency went unanswered in May alone as staff were swamped. The agency issued a public apology and promised to compensate those who missed their holidays. It said yesterday that only 93 people were in such a position, while 3.25 million passports had been issued this year.

But Mr Sheehan did himself few favours last weekend when he closed the offices for the weekend at the usual 4pm on Friday and, proclaiming he was "frankly tired" of all the fuss, decamped to his country home called "Two Hoots".

Parliament, page 8

Proof of

Identity

EVERY BRITISH passport carries a petition from Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requiring and requesting "all those whom it may concern" to allow the bearer "to pass freely without let or hindrance".

But with many of those queuing yesterday wanting to travel only within the European Union, questions were being asked as to why they needed a passport at all. The principle reason, according to the Home Office, is the passport's security value as an identity document. With Britain never having introduced a national ID card scheme, the passport has been the only document trusted to perform such a service.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The main reason we need passports is that it's a document of security which establishes our identity and nationality. It's the easiest and most conclusive way of proving you are who you say you are." She said that travel couriers insisted on travellers carrying a passport no matter which country they were visiting. "It is part of your contract of travel to carry one," she said.

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