Oral statement to Parliament

Securing borders: Home Secretary's oral statement on suspensions in UK Border Force

This statement was given by Home Secretary Theresa May on 7 November 2011. This version is checked against delivery.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

With permission Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the UK Border Force, an operational division of the UK Border Agency.

The Border Force is responsible for ensuring that only legitimate travellers and goods are allowed to enter and leave the UK, while reducing threats including illegal immigration, drug smuggling and terrorism.

Border Force activities include verifying the immigration status of passengers arriving and departing the UK; checking baggage, vehicles and cargo for illicit goods; and searching for illegal immigrants.

Border Force officers confirm the identity of passengers arriving at the UK border; check passengers against a watchlist known as the Warnings Index; and undertake a visual inspection of passengers’ passports. Where a biometric passport is held, the biometric chip, which contains a second photograph, is opened and verified.

Non-EU passengers undergo additional checks.  Officers establish whether a visa is required and whether a visa is held; if the passenger has a biometric visa then a fingerprint database check can be made; and officers decide whether the passenger should be granted entry to the UK.

In the past, under the last government, some of these checks were lifted at times of pressure on the border.

In the summer of 2008 Warnings Index checks were suspended on EEA nationals - children and adults - on Eurostar services. At Calais, Warnings Index checks were suspended on European Economic Area and UK car passengers - again, adults as well as children were not run against the Index. Since 2008, at various ports and airports, this happened on more than 100 occasions.

Officials have told me that once, in 2004, local managers at Heathrow Terminal Three decided to open controls and no checks were made.

To prevent this happening again, and to allow resources to be focused on the highest-risk passengers and journeys, in July I agreed that the UK Border Agency could pilot a scheme that would allow Border Force officials to target intelligence-led checks on higher-risk categories of travellers.

Initial options had been put to the then Security Minister and the Immigration Minister in January who agreed them as a basis for further work, and this resulted in proposals for a risk-based strategy coming to me in April.  After further work, I agreed an amended and limited pilot scheme in July.

This meant that, under limited circumstances, EEA national children, travelling with their parents or as part of a school group, would be checked against the Warnings Index - designed to detect terrorists and serious criminals - when assessed by a Border Force official to be a credible risk.

The pilot also allowed, under limited circumstances, Border Force officials the discretion to judge when to open the biometric chip - which contains a second photograph and no further information - on the passports of EEA nationals.

Those circumstances were that the measures would always be subject to a risk-based assessment, that they should not be routine, and that the volume of passengers would be such that border security would be stronger with more risk-based checks and fewer mandatory checks than with more mandatory checks on low-risk passengers and fewer risk-based checks for high-risk passengers. The advice of security officials was sought and they confirmed that they were content with the measures. 

I want everybody to understand what was supposed to happen under the terms of the pilot.  In usual circumstances, all checks would be carried out on all passengers.  Under the risk-based controls, everybody’s passports would be checked.  Nobody would be waved through. Visa nationals’ finger prints checked.  All non-EEA nationals’ biometric chip checked.  All adults run past the Warnings Index.  All non-EEA nationals run past the Warnings Index.  Border officials free to use their professional judgement to check the biometric chip of EEA passengers.  Free to use their professional judgement to check EEA children travelling with parents or a school group against the Warnings Index.

The pilot was extended on 19 September and was due to end last Friday.  The results are not yet fully evaluated.  But UKBA’s statistics show that compared to the same period last year, the number of illegal immigrants detected increased by nearly ten per cent. 

Last week, John Vine, the independent Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency, raised concerns with Rob Whiteman, the Chief Executive of UKBA, that security checks were not being implemented properly. 

On Wednesday, the Head of the UK Border Force, Brodie Clark, confirmed to Mr Whiteman that border controls had been relaxed without ministerial approval.

First, biometric checks on EEA nationals and Warnings Index checks on EEA national children were abandoned on a regular basis, without ministerial approval.

Biometric checks on non-EEA nationals were also thought to have been abandoned on occasions, without ministerial approval.

Second, adults were not checked against the Warnings Index at Calais, without ministerial approval.

Third, the verification of the fingerprints of non-EEA nationals from countries that require a visa was stopped, without ministerial approval.

I did not give my consent or authorisation for any of these decisions.  Indeed I told officials explicitly that the pilot was to go no further than we had agreed.

As a result of these unauthorised actions, we will never know how many people entered the country who should have been prevented from doing so after being flagged by the Warnings Index. 

Following Mr Clark’s conversation with Mr Whiteman, the latter carried out further investigations and on Thursday morning he suspended Mr Clark from duty with immediate effect. The Home Office Permanent Secretary, the Immigration Minister and I were notified of his decision that morning.

The pilot scheme, which had been due to end the next day, was suspended immediately.

And on Friday two other Border Force officials, Graeme Kyle, Director of Operations at Heathrow, and Carole Upshall, Director of Border Force South and European Operations, were also suspended from duty on a precautionary basis.

Mr Speaker, there is nothing more important than the security of our border, and because of the seriousness of these allegations, I have ordered a number of investigations.

Dave Wood, head of the UKBA Enforcement and Crime Group and a former Metropolitan Police Officer, will carry out an investigation into exactly how, when and where the suspension of checks might have taken place.

Mike Anderson, Director General of Immigration, is looking at the actions of the wider team working for Brodie Clark.

And John Vine will conduct a thorough review to find out exactly what happened across UKBA in terms of the checks, how the chain of command in Border Force operates and whether the system needs to be changed in future.  And, for the sake of clarity, I am very happy for Mr Vine to look at what decisions were made and when by ministers.

That investigation will begin immediately and will report by the end of January.

I will place the terms of reference for these inquiries in the House of Commons Library.

Mr Speaker, border security is fundamental to our national security and to our policy of reducing and controlling immigration. 

The pilots run by the UK Border Force this summer were designed to improve border security, by focusing resources at passengers and journeys that intelligence led officers to believe posed the greatest risk.

The vast majority of those officers are hard-working, dedicated public servants.  Just like all of us, they want to see tough immigration controls and strong enforcement.  But they have been let down by senior officials at the head of the organisation who put at risk the security of our border. 

Our task now is to make sure that those responsible are punished and to make sure that Border Force officials can never take such risks with border security again.  That is what I am determined to do.

I commend this statement to the House.



Published 7 November 2011