Passport fiasco cost £13m, with a £16,000 bill for umbrellas plus 500 spoilt holidays

The fiasco at the Passport Agency during the summer cost the public nearly £13m, including £16,000 spent on umbrellas for people who queued in the rain for their travel documents.

The fiasco at the Passport Agency during the summer cost the public nearly £13m, including £16,000 spent on umbrellas for people who queued in the rain for their travel documents.

A damning report published yesterday by the National Audit Office, the Government's spending watchdog, said 500 people had missed their holidays because of delays in issuing passports.

Sir John Bourn, the head of the office, said the "crisis" at the Passport Agency had caused "much anxiety and inconvenience" for the travelling public. He blamed agency chiefs for their failure to realise how long staff would need to adapt to a new computer system and "insufficient contingency planning when things went wrong". He also criticised "a failure to communicate effectively with the public".

The office highlighted a catalogue of errors and emergency measures that drove up the public cost of the fiasco, which reached a peak in June this year when 565,000 passport applications were outstanding.

Thousands of holidaymakers and business travellers who camped out on pavements outside passport offices in Liverpool, London and Glasgow, were lent umbrellas at a public cost of £16,000 and given £5,000 in luncheon vouchers. Those who missed their flights because of the delays have been paid £161,000 in compensation - at least £110,000 more than the agency budgets for in relation to such errors.

The agency also spent £500,000 on a publicity campaign aimed at calming the public, who at the height of the crisis were blamed by the Home Office minister Mike O'Brien for over-reacting. By far the biggest single expense was £6m paid in overtime and additional staffing costs.

The report said that the extra expenses would contribute to the unit cost of producing a passport increasing from £12 to £17 by 2001. The Home Office said last night that the fee of £21 for a 10-year passport would be raised.

The audit office said the initial cause of the fiasco was the installation of the new computerised system at offices in Liverpool and Newport, south Wales, which delayed processing of passport applications nationwide. This was compounded by an unexpectedly high demand for the child passports needed under new regulations.

Recognising that the computer system is due to be extended to the other passport offices in London, Belfast, Glasgow and Peterborough, Sir John called on the agency to carry out greater pilot testing of new computers.

Next Wednesday, David Omand, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, Bernard Herdan, the new head of the Passport Agency, and Gary Pusey, the managing director of Siemens UK, the company that installed the new computer system, will be questioned over the matter by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Siemens has been fined £69,000 for its performance. The agency has waived a further £275,000 due from Siemens for contractual failings.

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