Border scandal: 500,000 passengers allowed to enter Britain without checks
More than 500,000 people were allowed into Britain unchecked due to the repeated suspension of vital checks, opening up an “unacceptable” breach in the country’s defences against terrorists and criminals, an official investigation has found.
At times immigration staff acted potentially illegally by relaxing the supervision of travellers entering this country at least 15,000 times in the last five years, John Vine, the independent inspector of the Border Agency, found.
Such was the confusion and mismanagement uncovered that Mr Vine raised concerns about security during the London Olympics.
His report, published yesterday afternoon, left Theresa May, the Home Secretary, facing fresh questions about her grip on border security and the Coalition’s failure to get a grip on problems she claimed had began under Labour.
Labour accused her of “hiding from her responsibilities” by blaming her staff after figures showed the number of times that restrictions were relaxed increased significantly after the Coalition came to power in May 2010.
Mr Vine last night said that ministers, senior officials and border staff must all share the blame for potential security breaches.
“There is a whole range of culpability,” he told the BBC.
The 84-page report paints a picture of confusion, mismanagement and miscommunication.
“Overall, I found poor communication, poor managerial oversight and a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities,” he concluded.
Mrs May responded to the report by announcing that the UK Border Force would be split off from the UK Border Agency and made directly accountable to ministers. She also told MPs that the problems began under Labour.
“There is no getting away from the fact that UKBA, of which the Border Force is part, has been a troubled organisation since it was founded in 2008,” she said.
However, Mr Vine’s report suggested that relaxations of border checks have been more frequent and widespread under the Coalition.
Mrs May said the report vindicated her by showing that border staff had defied ministerial orders to relax entry checks.
Mr Vine did find that, in some cases, officials had clearly exceeded the authority they were given by ministers. But he also found that poor communication and a lack of clarity from ministers sometimes left officials without clear instructions on what was and was not permitted.
Mr Vine last night said he had been “surprised” at the extent of the relaxations in checks his investigation had uncovered, which included some directly ordered by Mrs May and other ministers.
Last summer, ministers secretly authorised a pilot scheme allowing immigration officials to relax checks on the “biometric” chips in European passports at airports during the busy holiday period.
But on several occasions border staff went further by relaxing checks on other arrivals.
The language used by ministers and officials at the start of the pilot “was not clear and was open to misinterpretation”, Mr Vine found. The result was that border staff interpreted and operated the policy differently at different ports.
“In terms of border security, it is not possible to quantify the extent of the risk that these measures presented,” the report concluded.
Border staff at Heathrow also began their own operation to allow some students from “low risk” countries to enter the UK without proper entry clearance. Mr Vine said these relaxations were “potentially unlawful” because staff exceeded their legal powers.
The report also found that biometric chip checks were routinely suspended before the pilot began. Between January and June last year, chip reading was suspended 14,812 times, but the Border Agency was “unable to explain definitively why these suspensions occurred.
The range of checks suspended included the most important — verification of the Warnings Index, a watchlist of suspected terrorists and criminals.
Mrs May told MPs that the regular suspension of Warnings Index checks began at Calais under the Labour government.
Mr Vine found that checks at Calais were suspended six times in 2009. In the following two years, they were halted 83 times. During 2011, index checks were also suspended on several occasions at Birmingham and Luton airports.
A separate relaxation, for school parties travelling through French ports, meant that during 2011 reduced Warnings Index checks were applied to more than 7,700 coach loads of passengers.
Because staff were “confused”, checks were waived not just for schoolchildren, as ministers intended, but also for elderly passengers and sports teams.
The biggest relaxation began in June 2007 and meant that European passport holders on Eurostar services from Disneyland Paris and other French resorts were not checked against the index.
Mr Vine found Coalition ministers were unaware of the situation until November 2011, when the checks were reinstated.
Around 500,000 people had entered the UK during that time.
Since November, border checks have been tightened up significantly, Mr Vine found, but the Coalition had not yet answered “a fundamental question” of how free the Border Agency should be to decide its own operational priorities.
Most significantly, he raised doubts about whether the Border Agency can continue its “stronger grip” on border security during the London Games.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, told MPs that Mrs May was personally to blame for the fiasco.
She said: “It is time for her to stop hiding and to take responsibility for things that have happened on her watch, for the unclear instructions from her office, for the policy decision to downgrade border controls, for the failure to monitor and check what was going on, and the for the failure to take responsibility now.”