UK's chief immigration inspector says e-Borders has 'some way to go'

On Wednesday 9th October 2013, the UK's chief inspector of immigration and borders, John Vine, issued a highly critical report about the UK's e-Borders programme. The report says that the programme is not yet complete ten years after being announced and has 'yet to deliver many of [its] anticipated benefits'. The report has been censored by the UK's Home Secretary Theresa May on security grounds.

The e-Borders programme was announced in 2003 by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair. Mr Blair said that the details of all people entering and leaving the UK would be held on a computerised database by 2010.

Mr Blair predicted that the system would be invaluable in the 'war on terror' and in fighting crime. He also predicted that it would assist in the prevention of benefit fraud and tax evasion and said it could be used to gather immigration statistics. These could be used in the formulation of public policy once the numbers of people in the country were known.

System has been of great use to the police

Mr Vine's report says that the system is still not complete and is yet to deliver most of the benefits promised by Mr Blair. Mr Vine says that, to date, only 65% of air passenger movements are recorded and the system has yet to be extended to sea passengers. Nonetheless, even though much of the programme has not been completed, (indeed, much of it has yet to be commenced) it has been of great use to the police.

The contract for the e-Borders project was originally awarded to the 'Trusted Borders Consortium', a group of IT companies led by US IT provider Raytheon. Other companies involved in the consortium were Serco, Detica, Accenture and Qinetiq. In 2010, Raytheon's contract was terminated after numerous delays to the project. Legal action continues. Raytheon was replaced by IBM but progress with the project is still slow.

The new Coalition government which came to power in 2010 acted to ensure that e-Borders was operational at nine airports in time for the London Olympics in 2012. The contract for the rest of the programme has not yet been signed and no service providers have been named.

System has led to the arrest of thousands of individuals

Mr Vine's report said that e-Borders is delivering intelligence to the police and security services. He said that the project has led to 'the arrests of thousands of individuals wanted by the police in connection with various offences including murder and rape'.

However, Mr Vine said that the programme was seriously behind schedule. He said that this was in large part because the original timetable for the completion of the project had been unrealistic. He added that progress had been slowed further by contractual disputes with contractors.

The original intention was that 95% of travel data should be recorded by 2010. Problems with IT and the dispute with Raytheon meant that this deadline was missed. The Home Office imposed a new deadline in 2013 but this too has been missed.

Project delayed by inadequate IT equipment

At present, only 65% of data is recorded. Mr Vine said that the project has been delayed due to inadequate IT equipment and a lack of understanding of the systems by UK immigration staff.

Mr Vine says that one of the original aims of e-Borders was to 'allow foreign national passengers to be counted in and counted out of the UK, providing more reliable data for the purposes of immigration and population statistics and in planning the provision of public services'.

He says that 'the data set collected by e-Borders was not extensive enough for these purposes' and adds that there is no likelihood that this problem will be remedied until 2018 at the very earliest.

UK has failed to 'export the border'

Mr Vine told BBC Radio 4's PM news programme that the government had originally intended to 'export the border' so that undesirable people could be prevented from boarding planes, trains or boats to the UK, thereby stopping them from making asylum applications on arrival. The system still cannot do this, he said.

Instead, undesirable people are still boarding flights to the UK. Worse still, though the system generates warnings which would allow immigration staff to meet undesirables at UK airports, immigration staff at all UK airports other than Heathrow routinely ignore these warnings.

The report says that staff at Luton and Gatwick airports did not even know that they should meet undesirable passengers on arrival and so they are allowed to pass through the airport unchallenged.

EU data protection rules prevent UK receiving data

The report says that, although the system probably has the capacity to receive all general aviation passenger data, that data is not currently being received. There are various reasons for this, one reason being that the government failed to appreciate that the data protection rules in other EU countries prevents information being shared with the UK. Mr Vine's report also says that financial savings for the government stemming from the identification of benefits fraudsters and tax evaders have not materialised.

The immigration minister Mark Harper said that the system is working well. He said 'We have the best coverage of any country in Europe, but we are working to improve our coverage further. We will take the findings of the independent inspector into account as we continue to develop our advance passenger information policies and coverage'.

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