Price rises pay for passport IT fiasco

Mike Simons

A leading civil servant has contradicted home secretary Jack Straw over the rise in passport charges following last...

Mike Simons

A leading civil servant has contradicted home secretary Jack Straw over the rise in passport charges following last summer's computer fiasco at the passport agency.

Straw told MPs that the rise, from £21 to £28, would fund technological development and new capacity. The Home Office insisted, "None of the increase will relate to the one-off costs incurred last summer, which will be met through efficiency savings."

However, David Omand, permanent secretary at the Home Office, told the Public Accounts Committee on Monday that part of the rise had gone towards bailing out the passport agency.

Last summer's crisis came to a head when the Passport Agency attempted to introduce a new system at the same time as the Government introduced child passports.

The Public Accounts Committee attacked the project management skills of Omand, Bernard Herdan, the current director of the Passport Agency and David Gatenby, who was director last summer and has subsequently retired.

Omand defended the "big bang" approach to the project, saying that making all the changes in one go was integral to the design of the new system. A recent PAC report on government IT failures urged consideration of a phased approach to major projects.

"Risks were taken, calculated risks," said Omand, who admitted the agency's failures included testing the system, training staff, forecasting demand and contingency planning.

Gary Pusey, managing director of system supplier Siemens, which has public sector contracts worth £1.4bn, got away comparatively lightly.

He told the committee that the project was operating to a "tough time scale". But said, "the important thing was that we met the date for functionality of the system".

However, in a parliamentary written answer last week, Home Office minister Barbara Roach admitted that the levels of productivity of the new system would not match those of the old system until the summer.

The PAC hearing coincided with the launch of a new national call centre and Web site for the Passport Agency, operated by MM Group in Bristol. It will operate on a pilot basis during February and will be fully operational from 1 March.

The hearing ended a grim week for Home Office officials and Siemens, following a damning PAC report into the crisis of the Immigration and Nationality Service IT.

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