Passports problem `known for months'

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The Independent Online
THE HOME Office knew months ago that the Passport Agency was heading for the crisis it now faces but feared that telling the public would create panic, MPs were told yesterday.

The admission was made by a senior civil servant at the Home Office, who apologised to a Commons committee for the chaos caused by the passports debacle.

David Omand, the Home Office permanent secretary, told the Home Affairs Select Committee: "We deeply regret the inconvenience that has been caused." He said that he and the Home Office minister Mike O'Brien had been "following the figures on the graph with anxiety for many months".

Mr Omand said that perhaps the Home Office should have alerted people to the problems with "mass publicity" but was nervous of panicking the public into what he called "a run on the bank".

He said: "The agency was operating in a very fine margin as to whether or not it would get through the summer. In the end, the run-on-the-bank factor was more than it could cope with and for that, of course, we are all deeply regretful."

The combination of a faulty computer program, new laws requiring child passports and exceptional seasonal demand, led to huge queues around passport offices last week. The backlog in applications topped 538,000.

Mr Omand was at pains not to repeat Mr O'Brien's claim last week that the public had "panicked unnecessarily". He said the crisis had been caused by "the coincidence of a number of things" but chiefly the "quite natural and very reasonable response of many individuals" to news of the agency's difficulties.

Earlier, Mr Omand had been forced to admit that computer problems at the Immigration and Nationality Department meant that targets for handling cases would not be met.

He said that the introduction of new technology had been expected to lead to staff cuts but had led to such a "set of disasters" that 300 extra officials were now being taken on. The backlog in asylum cases has grown from 52,000 last July to 78,000 and the computer system is still not fully operational.

Mr Omand said: "To impose the new [computer system] on a demoralised staff who have had a bit of a battering would not be a very smart thing to do."

But he claimed that immigration officials had emerged "wiser and battle- hardened" from their experience. Asked by the committee chairman, Chris Mullin, whether any "heads had rolled" over the fiasco, Mr Omand said he operated a "no-blame culture". He said Tim Walker, the former director of the immigration department, had been given the job of deputy director of Customs & Excise. He agreed this was considered a promotion.

Mr Omand said two moreprograms were due to be brought online at the Prison Service and Home Office.