COLUMN INCHES

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As thousands of travellers faced missing their holidays due to chaos in the passport offices, here is how some press commentators reacted:

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. Passport staff deserved their outing, it was said. Only when the scale of the debacle dawned on him did Home Secretary Jack Straw announce that officials would work as usual....

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?

Daily Mail, Comment

THE SPECTACLE of people queueing in the rain yesterday for passports, and the prospect that this farce will continue throughout the summer, prompts three observations. First, the law requiring children under 16 to have their own passports is an unwarranted imposition. According to Mike O'Brien, the Home Office Minister, it was enacted in order to improve security, make child abduction more difficult, facilitate travel and maintain the Passport Agency's efficiency. In the light of what has happened in the past few days, the only one of those reasons which does not invite ridicule is the second; and even then the incidence of child abduction does not justify the inconvenience to which the population at large has been put. The trend should be to include as many people on one passport as possible, not the other way round.

Second, bureaucratic incompetence has been swiftly followed by ministerial arrogance. Yesterday, the same Mr O'Brien berated the public for panicking and queueing early to get passports. Humble pie would have been more appropriate; his department was asking for trouble by requiring babies and children to apply for passports at the same time as the issuing authority was introducing a new computer system. Third, the present crisis should sound the death- knell for the Passport Agency. The reminder yesterday that David Gatenby, its chief executive, is stepping down in October is a pathetic palliative. The agency should be abolished and the function of issuing passports distributed as widely as possible.... Finally, why not accompany such a reform by the re-introduction of the old British passport?

Daily Telegraph, Leader

IT HAS become the rule for government ministers and functionaries that when something goes badly wrong, they shift the blame....

Everyone and everything is to blame except the senior executives at the Passport Agency who decided to install complex new computer systems to process passports at exactly the time when the Home Office changed the law to require children under 16 to have their own passports...

When the dust has settled, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, should take a hard look at the terms of the pounds 77m Private Finance Initiative contract which authorised Siemens to scan passport agency documents on to electronic files, but apparently omitted to authorise the back-up system in case things went wrong.

Evening Standard, Leader

DESPITE THIS chaos and the huge backlog, the boss of the Passport Agency, Mr Kevin Sheehan, who lives, not surprisingly, at a house called Two Hoots, saw no need to open his offices over the weekend. Home Secretary Jack Straw thankfully realised that large numbers of the population would be less than happy if their annual holidays were ruined and, rather late in the day, has stepped in. For many though, it will be too late. Despite Mr Straw aiming a well-deserved kick at the complacent Mr Sheehan's backside there is still no sign of the passport offices opening at the weekend....

All this proves one sad fact about life in modern Britain. We can buy in the most sophisticated computer systems known to man. We can pay focus groups to tell us new and innovative ways for government to carry out its daily tasks. All of this is designed to make life simpler. In fact, it all ends up in a horrendous muddle. Consider this - as we get sucked more and more into the bureaucratic hellhole that is Europe, you can be guaranteed that life will become infinitely more complicated. It's so depressing I need a holiday to recover. Now, where did I put that passport?

Jack Irvine, The Mirror

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