A passport to misery, if you ask me…
We’re askin; are ye dancin?!
By Jenny McCartney
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 25/03/2007
When it emerged last week that people who apply for a passport will soon be required to submit to an official interrogation, in which they will be compelled to answer in person from a list of 200 questions, I was filled with a distinct unease. For the truth is that I have only a hazy impression of the factual details of my own life. Indeed, it is quite possible I would fail a test to prove that I am me.
I’m good on names but worryingly poor on dates, and I see that some of the sample questions are rather keen on the latter. A query such as “Precisely when did you move into your current residence?” is exactly the sort that could have me bemusedly gaping like a goldfish as the interrogator slowly, grimly shakes his head.
Bernard Herdan, the executive director of the Identity and Passport Agency, wishes to reassure us: “This is not meant to be a daunting experience for people. We will seek to make it customer-friendly.” Whatever Mr Herdan’s intentions, he is wrong: the process will be intensely unfriendly. My reason for so thinking is that a visit to the London Passport Office last summer, even under its current system, left me feeling as though I had narrowly made it through Checkpoint Charlie into West Berlin.
A few weeks before going on holiday, we had realised that our baby would need his own passport imminently, and that it would be swifter to make an appointment to sort it out in person. The passport form was complicated, and there seemed to be infinite ways of messing it up. On the day of the appointment, already frayed from the effort of marshalling the baby and his documentation to a given place at a fixed time, we found ourselves in a snaking queue outside the passport office. Suddenly an official appeared, herding people according to reference numbers. “Without a reference number you can’t come in!” he cried.
We had no reference number. Gradually, a dim recollection took shape in my mind, of something scribbled down and placed carefully in a kitchen drawer. I felt like crying. Fortunately, however, there was a number you could ring to rediscover your reference number. The pleasant lady next to me was carrying a sheaf of applications on behalf of her brother and his family: he had just broken his leg, and they were all due to go on holiday in two days’ time.
Half an hour later I stood in front of a female passport official. We both understood our roles: she was sternly officious, I was humble and ingratiating. Then she discovered that my Christian names were apparently displayed in the wrong order on my own passport. She paused, quizzical and outraged, as though seriously considering whether to refuse the whole thing.
Finally, I was allowed to creep away with the baby’s new passport and a ticking off.
The nice lady from the queue, who was at the desk next to me, was not so lucky: her distracted brother had apparently filled in a detail incorrectly, and the application was promptly rejected. As she left, despondent, the official concerned turned to his colleague and remarked with a distinct whiff of self-righteous satisfaction: “Well, that’s another one who won’t be going on holiday this year!”
Most British people intensely loathe such brushes with paperwork and officialdom. Since passports are important and necessary documents, however, we are prepared to put up with a bit of it. Yet this Government seems intent upon vastly increasing the tiresome bureaucracy we must endure. It is establishing 69 centres across the country, at an enormous cost to the taxpayer, in order to “authenticate by interview” first-time applicants. By 2009, anyone wishing to renew a passport will also be compelled to attend one of these centres, in which they will be fingerprinted and have their details fed into a national database. Passports and their administration centres are being used as the Trojan horse for the ID card scheme, which will carry a wealth of personal information and biometric data.
The Government has justified these intrusive methods as a security measure, which is presumably why it was so eager to advertise last week that 10,000 British passports each year are sent out to bogus claimants. It cited in particular the case of Dhiren Barot, the British al-Qaeda member who was found to have seven British passports in his own name and two in false ones.
Yet seemingly no one at the sharp-eyed passport agency even noticed that Mr Barot had “lost” an unusual number of passports. Why not? Surely it would be easier to devise a scanning system whereby a passport reported lost or stolen is automatically invalidated and detected if used, than to criminalise the blameless majority of citizens. If the government’s passport and ID card schemes come to fruition, however, I suspect that my stressful little trip to the Passport Office last year will seem, in comparison, as serene as a yoga session on a far-away beach. […]