Where’s my passport?

Failure to spot a problem undermines the Home Secretary

The surge in demand for passports was foreseeable and should have been foreseen. The Prime Minister’s defence on Wednesday, when challenged by Ed Miliband, was self-contradicting. “The Home Office has been on this from the very start,” he said, “but it all begins with 300,000 extra people applying for passports compared with this time last year.” That the Home Office did not expect a rise in applications was evidence that it was not “on” this.

The main factor behind the rise is economic growth: more people want to go on foreign holidays, and more people are travelling abroad for business. Given David Cameron’s triumphalism about the rapid fall in unemployment, it is a paradox that a government department should be so unprepared for the apparent success of the Government’s own economic policy.

The last time there were queues outside passport offices, in 1998, the problem was sorted out, in reasonable time, by a concerted effort of public-sector efficiency. The passport service continued to run smoothly, but it now appears that it operated on the assumption of stable or only gradually increasing demand.

Neither the agency nor the Home Office seems to have given any thought to forecasting demand, which could have been done at least a year ago. Neither seems to have picked up the signs in the past few months that delays were starting to clog up the system. For weeks before the story reached the newspaper front pages, MPs were reporting problems faced by constituents whose travel plans were being disrupted.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, told the Commons yesterday that there was “no big bang” solution. That is merely a statement of the obvious. What she needed, and what undermines her reputation for quiet, persistent competence, was an early-warning system capable of spotting a problem as obvious as this long before it became a crisis.

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