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 Q&A: Immigration checks

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Registration date : 2011-02-23

PostSubject: Q&A: Immigration checks   Mon Nov 07, 2011 9:31 pm

By Dominic Casciani Home affairs correspondent
Brodie Clark It is claimed Brodie Clark authorised officials to abandon biometric checks on some occasions
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Home Secretary Theresa May is said to be "furious" over claims border controls were relaxed without being sanctioned by ministers.

Labour have demanded to know whether anyone posing a risk to national security was allowed to enter the UK as a result.

So what is the background to the furore?

What has happened?

Three senior UK Border Agency officials have been suspended over claims that staff were told to relax the checks made on non-EU nationals arriving in the UK.

The three people are Brodie Clark, the head of the Border Force, Graeme Kyle, the border director for Heathrow and Carole Upshall, director of Border Force South and Europe, responsible for checks at Calais and the Eurostar terminal in Paris.

On the evening of 2 November, Mr Clark confirmed to the UKBA's chief executive that he had authorised abandoning specific border checks at ports including Heathrow and Calais. This was allegedly done without ministerial instructions.

Mr Clarke was suspended with immediate effect the following morning. Home Secretary Theresa May was informed and launched an investigation headed by another UKBA official. Mrs May has also asked John Vine, the independent UKBA watchdog, to look into what happened.

How wide is the investigation?

Officials are also looking into the "role and activity" of UKBA officials who worked directly under Mr Clark. Although the allegations centre on Heathrow and Calais, no other ports have yet been ruled out.

What happens at the border?

It is all about the types of checks that border guards conduct. When a traveller arrives at border control, officials can check the details and, where applicable, the data stored on the biometric chip in a modern passport. Staff can also check an individual against watch lists, known as the Warnings Index. This index is a special security log of people of concern, such as criminals or suspected terrorists, or people excluded from the UK.

Some people require a visa to enter the UK and in these cases there is a mandatory check of fingerprints to ensure that the individual who presents themselves is the same person who applied.

Officials can carry out further checks, such as full interviews, perhaps with the assistance of the police and other agencies.

So what exactly happened?

In July 2011, ministers agreed that the UKBA could pilot what has been described as a "risk-based approach" to checks in certain circumstances to allow officials to focus their energies on people who may present a higher risk.

In essence, this meant officers were told they could use their discretion to:

* Stop checking biometric chips on every passport belonging to UK nationals and other citizens from inside the European Economic Area.
* Stop checking EEA children travelling with their families or in a school party against the warnings index

All other passengers would, the Home Office says, continue to have full checks.

But immigration officials were allegedly authorised to go further than the order and to:

* Abandon biometric checks on non-EEA nationals
* Abandon the verification of fingerprints contained in visas given to non-EEA nationals
* Abandon watch list checks at Calais

It is not clear how far the orders extended, but Border Agency sources have told the BBC that the directive may have gone to all ports.

What are biometric chips?

Most modern passports have a biometric chip - they are now almost universal across Europe. A biometric chip includes an encoded image of the passport holder - meaning that it is very difficult to forge. When the passport is swiped through a reader, the immigration officer's screen shows the picture encoded on the chip so they can check it is the same as the picture fixed in the passport and the person in front of them.

Why were checks changed in the first place?

We have not had the full explanation from government but unions say that it was to cut costs. Approximately 5,000 jobs are going from the UKBA as part of the Spending Review. Some of the jobs have gone from ports like Heathrow and, during the summer, queues can build in arrival halls. Unions say that even if it only takes 30 seconds to check a check or visa fingerprint, some passengers may end up waiting hours. By dropping checks, say unions, passengers get through more quickly.

Are these checks important?

They form part of the border frontier security apparatus. But there is a parallel tier of defence - the "sixth sense" that border officers try to develop in the job. Decisions to further interview people at the border usually come because of how people respond to basic questions at the passport desk - questions asked while the computer is checking the other details and biometric chip. Some immigration officers are clearly concerned that if they cannot take the time to properly check biometrics, then it narrows their window to ask important questions that may uncover someone who is lying. The rules say quite clearly they should use their discretion - but unions say staff are under pressure to get people through quickly.

How damaging are these allegations?

The Home Secretary ordered the UKBA not to accept any offer to resign made by Mr Clark which would possible trigger a discretionary payment.

The Home Office has also warned that criminal charges will be brought if any laws have been broken.

In short, the allegations are damaging to the credibility of the border agency which has struggled to shake off the accusation that it is "not fit for purpose" - the judgement of former Labour home secretary John Reid. The attacks on the UKBA have barely let up - and Conservative ministers went into the Home Office declaring that they would put the organisation right.

Have they done so?

The UKBA has already been under attack in the last week because of other problems. The cross-party Home Affairs Committee Parliament accused the agency's in-country operation of giving up on tracking down some 124,000 failed asylum seekers and other over-stayers as part of a mammoth five-year operation to clear case backlogs.

Earlier in the year, there was a row over how a controversial Palestinian activist managed to reach the UK even though he had been banned two days previously.

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