By Tony Collins
Are Passport Office systems crashing regularly – for up to half a day – without anyone outside knowing?
Last month a Home Office spokesman told Government Computing that IT was “not to blame” for delays in issuing passports.
But yesterday a Passport Office insider gave the opposite impression to Eddie Mair’s BBC R4 “PM” programme. She said that passport systems are sometimes out of action for up to half a day.
It also emerges that the Passport Office’s contract with one of its contractors, Steria, takes into account, in peak periods, the sorts of numbers of applications that offices are receiving – about 150,000 a week.
Home Office minister James Brokenshire told the House of Commons yesterday (7 July 2014) that there have been about 4 million applications so far this year, implying that the number is unexpectedly high.
But 4 million applications is not out of line with Steria’s contractual expectations of up to 150,000 applications a week.
This raises the question of whether the delays are due to a combination of IT problems and high numbers of applications – rather than high numbers alone.
On the BBC “PM” programme the comments by the Passport Office insider were spoken by an actor. She said the backlog of passport applications has increased since the government announced emergency measures last month.
” The numbers have increased significantly and they are just the ones in the system. What you need to take into account – and I don’t think people have realised – is that we have another huge backlog of applications that have not been scanned onto the system and are not in process.
“The backlog of applications – what they call “work in progress” – is not a true figure because but you still have another backlog that has not been scanned …”
BBC reporter: So there is another set of passports that don’t appear in official figures?
She said that increasing backlogs are indicated on figures on boards around offices that give dates of which offices are working on what on certain dates.
“Her Majesty’s Passport Office is in total crisis. It’s a total mess … it is chaos.”
BBC reporter: A member of my family phoned up to try and make an appointment to sort out a passport last week and while she was on the phone she was told the computer kept crashing. Is that a common problem?
“Yes. Once the system crashes you cannot issue anything or do anything. You just have to sit there until the technicians or the IT experts reboot the system or put a patch in to get it up and running again.”
BBC: How long does that last? How long are the computers and therefore the people handling the passports out of action for?
“Sometimes I would say a minimum of half an hour up to half a day.”
She said that passports are being stored in meeting and conference rooms which are locked. The windows have been “blacked out or covered with paper so no photos can appear, for instance, in the Guardian“.
She does not believe the Home Secretary Theresa May or her ministers have a grip of the situation. “I don’t think they understand. I am not too sure whether it is because they haven’t been fed the correct information or whether they are just putting their heads in the sand.”
The Home Office said a minister was not available to speak to the BBC. It provided a statement instead – which gave no response to the insider’s claims of computer problems.
The statement said:
“These allegations are false. We receive thousands of application every week with their numbers constantly changing. We aim to log applications within 48 hours of receipt at which point they become active work in progress…”
Update 18.00 8 July 2014
Paul Pugh, Chief Executive of the Passport Office, appeared before MPs on the Home Affairs Committee this afternoon and was not asked about IT problems and made no mention of any.
He declined to say how many applications have been received by the Passport Office which have not been scanned into the systems. He said the number varied daily. He conveyed a quiet self-confidence which wasn’t in any way dented by committee members who in general did not put him under pressure.
They thanked him repeatedly for dealing with complaints from their constituents. Committee chairman Keith Vaz handed Pugh 180 emails from people who are facing delays and need a passport urgently.
He denied the Passport Office was in chaos and said the “vast majority” of people working there would disagree with the comments of the anonymous contributor to the BBC “PM” programme.
The insider’s comments may be relevant given that the Passport Office had serious IT processing difficulties when it has changed its main processing systems in 1989 and 1999. Has it had a third IT-related calamity as a result of an upgrade of passport systems in 2013?
US-based supplier CSC helped with the upgrade last year but no information has been released on the change-over. The new system was installed as part of a $570m services contract the Passport Office awarded CSC in 2009.
Steria manages the front-end of passport application processing. It receives applications from the public, scans them digitally, verifies the contents, checksthe scanned documents for accuracy and makes corrections where necessary, and banks payments received. It then passes applications to Her Majesty’s Passport Office to complete the examination.
Steria expected up to 150,000 passport applications a week at peak times and it appears that actual applications have been around this number for much of this year. So why are ministers and officials blaming delays on a record number of applications?
There may be IT problems that nobody in officialdom is mentioning.
The most worrying thing is that they do not have to mention them. Perhaps the cause or causes are complex and they are unsure who bears most of the responsibility.
In politics nobody seems to expect the truth to be told. So it’s likely that ministers and officials will continue to blame the delays in issuing passports on record numbers of applications, and not mention anything to do with IT, except to deny it has anything to do with the backlog.
BBC PM programme (approx 47 minutes into the programme).