Fit for purpose? Or bordering on the ridiculous?

by David Moss

April 2009
updated May 2009
updated June 2009
updated October 2009
updated February 2010
updated April 2010
updated July 2010
updated August 2010
updated November 2010
updated August 2011
updated October 2013
updated November 2015
updated December 2015


Time was when everyone leaving the country had their passport checked.

Then in 1994, the Conservatives abolished embarkation controls for people visiting EU countries and in 1998 Labour abolished embarkation controls altogether. According to then Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien:

"We have ... decided to replace the residual embarkation controls with an intelligence and target-led operation, involving a partnership between enforcement agencies, carriers and port authorities."

Was that a good idea?


There was a qualification:

Closed-circuit TV cameras will be used to film people leaving and facilities will be retained to allow full checks to be mounted during special alerts.

That turned out to be false. The weeks following 7 July 2005 were a time of special alert. But when one of the 21/7 would-be bombers escaped from the UK to France, all he had to do was hop on a train at Waterloo. No facilities had been retained to mount full checks.

And what about people coming in to the country?

Cast your mind back five years to March 2004.

Michael Howard is leader of the Conservative Party, David Blunkett is Home Secretary and Beverley Hughes is Home Office Minister in charge of immigration.

Not for long she isn't. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) were charged with clearing a backlog of immigration applications, which they did by cutting corners, even providing an entry permit to a one-legged Romanian who claimed to be a roofer. The upshot? Before IND could grant indefinite leave to remain to a one-armed Bulgarian violinist, Ms Hughes was forced to resign.

Now roll forward two years to April 2006. Michael Howard has resigned (once), David Blunkett has resigned (twice) and Charles Clarke is Home Secretary.

Not for long he isn't. It turns out that over the previous seven years 1,000 foreigners in British prisons have been released without being considered for deportation, despite the fact that the judges in their cases had recommended that they should be. Three murderers, nine rapists and five child sex offenders are now roaming the streets and by 5 May 2006 so is Mr Clarke.

Mr Clarke is succeeded by John Reid, who wastes no time identifying the problem – IND is "not fit for purpose", he tells the Home Affairs Committee, and it has inadequate leadership and management systems. Also:

During the committee hearing Lin Homer, director general [since 2005] of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND), revealed that 20 of the foreign prisoners were known to have been re-convicted of "more serious" offences after their release.

Home Office Minister Tony McNulty moves jobs, to take up responsibility for the Police, his place at Immigration is taken by Liam Byrne, and in March 2007 the Home Office and the FCO jointly publish their plans for eBorders (electronic borders), "our vision and strategy for protecting the UK border" – plans intended to make IND fit for purpose:

Border control can no longer just be a fixed line on a map. Using new technology, particularly biometrics, and new approaches to managing risk and intelligence, we must create a new offshore line of defence, checking individuals as far from the UK as possible and through each stage of their journey. Our aim is to make legitimate travel easier, yet prevent those who might cause us harm from travelling here. We want the UK to be attractive and welcoming to business, tourist, student and family visitors, skilled migrants and returning nationals and residents, but halt those with no right to come to this country well away from our shores.

No-one in the know believes that the biometrics used by eBorders work. They aren't admissible as evidence in court. They're not reliable enough and ePassports are a waste of time and money as a result.

But never mind that for the moment.

And never mind that if eBorders aren't just fixed lines on a map, then they can be anywhere Liam Byrne says they are. Instead, roll forward a few months to June, Tony Blair goes, Gordon Brown comes, John Reid goes, Jacqui Smith comes, and Lin Homer is still there, although by now IND has become BIA, the Border and Immigration Agency.

Not for long though, because it keeps being mistaken for Birmingham International Airport, so then it becomes UKBA, the UK Border Agency.

In October 2007, Gordon Brown makes his famous speech on liberty, in which he raves:

... a new chapter in our country's story of liberty ... new issues of terrorism and security ... new frontiers in both our lives and our liberties ... new challenges ... new rights for the public expression of dissent ... new freedoms that guarantee the independence of non-governmental organisations ... new rights to access public information ... new rights against arbitrary intrusion ... new technology ... new rights to protect your private information ... new provision for independent judicial scrutiny and open parliamentary oversight ... Renewing for our time our commitment to freedom ... a new British constitutional settlement for our generation ... the new tests of our time ... we meet these tests not by abandoning principles of liberty but by giving them new life ... a new generation ... new challenges ... new measures ... the new rules ... the new rules ... New rules ... What is new about 21st century ideas of privacy ... new powers of access to information ... new opportunities to use biometrics ... the opportunities of new technology ... a new and imaginative approach to accountability ... new laptop computers ... new powers ... the new information age ... new threats to our security ... a new British Bill of Rights and Duties ... a new chapter in the British story of liberty ...

Is it a speech on liberty? Or on novelty? What does it all mean?

In November 2007 we find out part of the answer – Raytheon, manufacturers of the Cruise missile, have been awarded a £1 billion contract to keep our borders safe. And we are to be subject to random searches at major railway stations "whilst doing everything to avoid inconvenience to passengers", a new and imaginative approach to freedom at one of Mr Byrne's new eBorder crossing points.

There are bridges to mend.

Back in December 2004, Interpol complained that passport numbers aren't checked on entry to the UK. Interpol has a database of 5 million stolen passports, the EU has a database of 10 million lost and stolen passports and the UK doesn't check people on entry against either of them.

Three years later, in July 2007, just after the accession of Gordon Brown, Interpol complained again, this time that the UK don't check would-be immigrants against the global database of suspected terrorists:

Interpol said last night that the UK makes just 50 checks a month of the database; France by comparison makes 700,000 checks and Switzerland makes 300,000.

In case anyone missed the point:

Mr Noble [the head of Interpol] said that Gordon Brown's promise last week to share a list of potential terrorists with other countries had yet to materialize. "British citizens might be surprised to find that this watch list announced by your prime minister last week has not been sent to Interpol," he said. "Why is it that some countries make sure passengers do not carry a bottle of spring water on to a plane, yet aren't careful to ensure convicted felons aren't entering their borders with stolen passports?"

Nothing has changed. In February 2009 we learnt that:

Britain's police forces are still unable to use a pan-European database of criminals, prompting warnings that this could hinder their ability to track terror suspects entering Europe ahead of the Olympics.

The UK was given access to sensitive information on criminal and policing matters held on the Schengen Information System, an EU-wide directory, in 2000, but there have been repeated technical problems ...

Experts say the database could form a powerful weapon in the fight against crime and terrorism. In the past, Home Office officials have said that connecting British forces to the system had proved impossible due to technical difficulties and "acts of God", such as a fire that destroyed vital IT equipment.

We just don't seem to be very good at using data provided by other countries. It's all reminiscent of the events of January 2007, when it transpired that records of 27,529 British citizens who had gained criminal records overseas had been sent to the Home Office, where they, the records, were left in boxes on someone's desk. In those boxes were the records of 25 rapes, three attempted rapes, 29 paedophiles and 17 other sex offenders, five murders and nine attempted murders, 13 manslaughters, and 29 robberies.

Joan Ryan said ministers knew nothing about these records.

Not so, said ACPO, the Association of Chief Police Officers – they had written to Tony McNulty about this problem in October 2006. And again in November 2006.

Be that as it may, perhaps now, in Gordon Brown's new world, with a commercial partner with a track record of success with complex project management (Raytheon), the Keystone Cops days of UKBA would be over? No more one-legged roofers and no more foreign murderers released into the care of the community? No more complaints from Interpol and ACPO? No more forgetting to open the post?

And perhaps not.

There had been a few warnings about eBorders in July 2007:

... the Foreign Office came under fire from travel industry insiders for contracting-out vital security checks on immigrants ...

In a little-noticed move earlier this year, the Foreign Office transferred responsibility for security checks on immigrants from countries including India and Pakistan to VFS Global, a company based in India ..., a migration advice firm, said: "Once you put this work in the hands of private companies overseas, you no longer have the same protection".

In February, the Foreign Office announced a 300 million, five-year detail to outsource the checks to VFS and US company, Computer Sciences Corporation [CSC] ...

It was a bit of a shock to discover in October 2007 that with eBorders, and Gordon Brown's new freedoms, people would require passports to travel between the UK and Ireland.

Even more of a shock to discover in November 2007 that eBorders means we may all have to answer 53 questions before we are allowed to travel abroad. Gordon Brown's 21st century idea of privacy is to store the 53 answers to these questions on a computer in Wythenshawe and share all our personal and travel data with any agency in the EU and the US that wants it. Intelligence is out. Embarkation controls are back.

In August 2008 a trial of biometrics started at Manchester airport. It got off to a bad start:

"The trials are already being boycotted by members of the Government's new border force because of concerns they might not stop terrorists coming into the UK".

That was August. Then in October:

Sources from the UK Border Agency (UKBA) have revealed that the devices [electronic gates or, inevitably, eGates] are failing to detect when two people pass through them at the same time ...

Immigration officers had been able to accompany travellers through the scanners without an alarm being triggered, even though the booths are supposed to detect if more than one person enters at a time ...

"There are five 'pods' and when one breaks down, they all break down," he said ...

"Up until the point of the official launch, it [the biometrics equipment] was rejecting 30 per cent of those who tried to get through it," the UKBA worker said ...

"We believe they had to recalibrate it – essentially make it easier to get through the system."

In March 2009, Lin Homer was named Public Servant of the Year. "It is the team that has won this," she said, but the team just keep on releasing disobliging information (April 2009):

In a leaked memo, an official says the machines have been recalibrated to an "unacceptable" level meaning travellers whose faces are shown to have only a 30 per cent likeness to their passport photographs can pass through ...

The technology was designed to help immigration officials spot people traveling under false passports, particularly terrorists, but the multi-million pound scheme now appears to be in jeopardy ...

Rob Jenkins, an expert in facial recognition at Glasgow University's psychology department, said lowering the match level to 30 per cent would make the system almost worthless ...

Using facial recognition software from Sydney airport in Australia set at 30 per cent, he found the machines could not tell the difference between Osama bin Laden and the actors Kevin Spacey or even the actress Winona Ryder ...

Even the Keystone Cops, surely, wouldn't rely on technology that can't distinguish Osama bin Laden from Winona Ryder? Not when they're supposed to be defending the nation from criminals and terrorists.

Or would they? Since November 2008, non-EEA people have been issued with cards which record their fingerprints. Particularly students and the fiancé(e)s of UK residents. But no educational establishments have a card reader to check the bearer's prints. Neither do the police or the job centres or the hospitals or GPs. That might seem to you and me to make the exercise pointless. But not to UKBA:

Physical checks can also be performed on the card. As it is made entirely from polycarbonate, it will have a distinctive sound when flicked ...

Roll forward, at last, to the events of the past few days and the 12 suspected terrorists arrested after now ex-Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick inadvertently publicised details of an MI5 investigation:

At least two of the men suspected of being members of an alleged al-Qaeda cell had been allowed to stay in Britain despite allegedly breaching the conditions of their student visas ...
One man was stopped by immigration officials at Manchester Airport last week as he arrived from Pakistan, but was allowed to enter the country despite his visa documents being "all over the place", according to one source.
Another suspect was threatened with deportation after immigration officials discovered he was working as a security guard instead of studying, but he was nonetheless allowed to stay.

That is a clear demonstration that eBorders doesn't work.

For years we have been spending a fortune with Raytheon in the UK and with Computer Sciences Corporation and VFS Global abroad, suspected terrorists aren't intercepted before they get here, if they get here with their documents "all over the place" they're still allowed in, and if they're meant to be studying but instead they're working, they're still allowed to stay. The procedures aren't followed, and as to the technology – the biometrics – even UKBA say that it doesn't work.

eBorders does have its defenders. Two of them.

1. Faced with clear evidence that eBorders doesn't work, what does Phil Woolas (the latest Beverley Hughes) do? Bafflingly, he goes on BBC Radio 4's World At One news programme (10 April 2009) and derides the Conservatives and the Lib Dems for opposing eBorders.

2. David Goodhart, the editor of Prospect magazine, writes in the Times that: "The liberty lobby conveniently forgets that the state needs our data to protect us". This is a repeat of his article in Prospect, where the "liberty lobby" are wittily accused of being rebels without a cause.

Everyone else, including Interpol, can see that you can offer Lin Homer's UKBA all the personal data in the world and they are still not fit for purpose. Just look at the record. Thanks to UKBA, the streets are paved with other people's murderers and rapists, paedophiles and robbers, and suspected terrorists.

For 40 years after the Second World War the Stasi built up a reputation for ruthlessly thorough suppression. New freedoms for a new dispensation. There is a temptation sometimes to compare the apparatchiks of Gordon Brown's new world with the Stasi. That comparison is quite unfair. It must drive the surviving Stasi mad to see their global brand ascribed to and tarnished by the Keystone Cops.

† It has changed now. UKBA is now using an Interpol database.


18 April 2009: Asylum seekers win right to stay because of 'shambolic' immigration hearings
19 April 2009: New border controls could penalise Britons with dual nationality
21 April 2009: Student visa checks
21 April 2009: Visa applications over the phone
6 May 2009: Fraudsters 'offered no win, no fee services for Britain's largest visa scam'
12 May 2009: 13,500 fewer colleges for visas
21 May 2009: Degrees of Dishonesty
22 May 2009: 'Approved' college sells diplomas to help foreign students stay in UK
23 May 2009: Investigation of colleges by The Times prompts parliamentary inquiry
16 June 2009: Every college may have to be accredited to combat bogus centres
29 June 2009: Man given job of closing bogus colleges was sacked by university
20 October 2009: 'No record' of 40,000 immigrants
29 January 2010: Interpol chief questions body scanner rollout
22 July 2010: May sacks Raytheon from e-borders contract
27 July 2010: UK Border Agency had ''serious failings''
2 August2010: UK immigration system barely 'fit for purpose' Damian Green has suggested
4 November2010: Brussels blocks UK from biometric superdatabase
1 December2010: Airport face-scan gate unilaterally imprisons traveller
12 July 2011: BBC Radio 4, File on 4, 'Open Borders?', transcript, audio
25 August 2011: Government sued for over 500million by US contractor Raytheon over loss of e-Borders contract
8 November 2011: Brodie Clark alone
9 January 2012: Brodie Clark and the scoop the media missed
23 May 2012: The Home Office, Heathrow Airport, the security of the UK border and the safety of the Olympics
8 January 2013: Facial recognition blarney
9 October 2013: E-borders system 'failing on passenger checks'
2 May 2014: Are the UK's borders being compromised by legacy IT systems?
18 August 2014: 224m payout to US firm despite e-Borders ‘mess’
18 August 2014: Taxpayer hit with 224m bill over Theresa May's decision to cancel immigration computer system
18 August 2014: UK faces 220m bill over e-borders contract termination
23 November 2014: Current and future uses of biometric data and technologies
16 February 2015: The most unhappy science of face recognition
17 September 2015: So where are we on astrology?
3 December 2015: 830m border watchlist system breaks down twice every week

David Moss has spent six years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.

2009 Business Consultancy Services Ltd
on behalf of Dematerialised ID Ltd