UK may get one border police
By Philip Johnston,
Home Affairs Editor
Last Updated: 1:44am BST 11/07/2007
A single UK border police force might be created after the conviction of four would-be suicide bombers further exposed gaping holes in Britain's security system.
Ministers have indicated that years of dithering over whether to set up a new border agency are coming to an end.
The plan has consistently been pushed by the Tories and was recommended by a Commons committee five years ago.
Tony McNulty, the security minister, yesterday said the Government was ready to look seriously at the idea.
The move came as Britain's asylum and security policies – and the ease with which they are exploited by terrorists – came under unprecedented scrutiny.
The four men convicted of conspiracy to murder possibly hundreds of passengers on the London transport system on July 21, 2005, were all in the country as refugees.
Mukthar Ibrahim, the leader of the gang that brought fresh terror to London just a fortnight after bombs killed 52 travellers, was on bail for a public order offence after being arrested for distributing extremist material.
When he left the country to travel to Pakistan, he was stopped and questioned by Special Branch officers at Heathrow. They were acting on a request from MI5, who had followed a car in which Ibrahim was a passenger to the airport.
He was allowed on his way even though he aroused suspicion because he had 2,000 in cash, claimed to be attending a wedding but did not know whose, and had cold weather mountain gear in his luggage.
While he was abroad, a warrant was issued for his arrest for missing a court appearance. Yet when he came back to Britain a few months later, he was never placed under surveillance nor was the arrest warrant followed up.
On his trip to Pakistan, Ibrahim – who was given a British passport in July 2004 – visited an al-Qa'eda training camp where he learned to make bombs.
It also emerged that Hussain Osman, another of the convicted plotters, who came to Britain in 1996 claiming to be a Somali, was in fact an Ethiopian who had been living in Italy.
He came to the UK when his Italian visa ran out and claimed asylum. This was turned down, but in 2004 he was given discretionary leave to remain.
After his failed bomb attack on the London Underground, Osman fled back to Italy. He travelled unchallenged through the Waterloo Eurostar terminus despite the biggest manhunt in British history.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, yesterday said the case had exposed ''systemic'' failings in the border system.
''When will the Government answer our call to establish a dedicated UK border police force to secure our porous borders?”
Support for the idea also came yesterday from Bob Milton, a former senior police officer responsible for security at UK ports. He accused the Government of paying “lip service” to the crucial role of border security. “It has got to the point where the Government needs to accept that simply getting the agencies talking to each other is not the answer,'' he said.
“If this country is serious about protecting itself from terrorism we need an effective anti-terrorism security force at the border.”
A border force uniting the police, Customs and immigration officers was proposed by MPs in a report in 2002 and again two years later, when they accused ministers of “undue delay” in reaching a decision.
Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of counter-terrorist laws, has warned on several occasions that Britain's borders are too poorly policed to act as a serious deterrent to terrorists.
Customs staff were “thinly spread” despite persistent warnings to the Government that this was a serious gap in the country's defences.
In his annual report last year, Lord Carlile said his previous criticisms about staffing levels at the ports had not been acted upon.
Mr McNulty, interviewed on Sky News, said Gordon Brown had indicated he was ready to consider as UK border agency. However, he also insisted that co-operation between the various border agencies was better than ever. ''In a whole host of different ways, our borders are much stronger than they were in 1997,'' he added. Geoffrey Van Orden, the Conservative MEP and spokesman on security in Brussels, said: ''It is impossible for modestly sized security and police services to maintain surveillance or control over an ever increasing population of potential recruits to extremism.”