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The Identity and Passport Service has successfully completed its project to introduce electronic passports, or ePassports, on time and to the required international standards. However, longer term risks to value for money remain because of the newness of the technology and unknown performance of border control readers in high-volume situations, a National Audit Office report concludes today.

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Total set-up costs, when the project closes in a few months’ time are expected to be £61 million compared to a budget of £63 million. The additional cost of producing the electronic element of the new passports is estimated at £195 million between 2005-06 and 2010-11. To cover these costs, the fee for a standard adult passport went up on 5 October 2006 from £51 to £66 and for a child passport from £34 to £45.

Following a gradual transition from digital passport production, the Identity and Passport Service achieved full production of ePassports in September 2006 thereby ensuring the UK’s continued participation in the US Visa Waiver Program. The UK ePassport also meets international standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization and has performed well in international tests of its interaction with a range of ePassport readers.

The Immigration and Nationality Directorate is responsible for upgrading readers at border control to read ePassports. Although the Immigration and Nationality Directorate is, like the Identity and Passport Service, a part of the Home Office, the two bodies did not formally liaise over upgrading passport readers at UK border control. Increased security benefits are intended to flow from the additional checks which immigration officers will be able to perform, on ePassports from all countries, but roll-out of ePassport readers at UK ports of entry will have been completed only by March 2007.

UK ePassport readers currently take around eight seconds to read an ePassport chip, and reader performance in high volume situations is unknown. Although the UK ePassport has been subject to a range of tests, its ability to withstand normal usage for the full ten-year passport lifespan is unproven. Because of the newness of the technology, the chip and antenna within ePassports are guaranteed for only two years.

Between May 2003 and the end of November 2006, the Identity and Passport Service spent £4.9 million on full-time consultants working on the ePassports project. Although the use of technical consultants contributed to the successful completion of the project, the use of consultants risks the loss of institutional knowledge for follow-on projects, such as second generation ePassports and identity cards. £3 million of the £4.9 million total consultancy spend was on non-technical consultants such as project managers, business analysts and administrators. The NAO estimates that at least £3.5 million could be saved over five years by using civil servants instead of consultants in these non-technical roles if proved possible to recruit them.

“The Identity and Passport Service used sound project management techniques and made effective use of technical specialists to ensure the ePassports project was delivered on time and UK ePassports meet international standards.

“However, the full security benefits of ePassports will not be realised until UK border control readers are fully upgraded, and it is only then that we will know the impact of this new technology on travellers. To ensure future projects deliver value for money, the Identity and Passport Service should aim to improve its engagement with other parts of government, and develop greater in-house expertise to reduce its reliance on external consultants.”

Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office


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