Government bows to EU, undermining 1.2bn electronic borders scheme
Richard Ford, Home Correspondent
From The Times
December 18, 2009
Serious doubts over the viability of the scheme to track people in and out of the country emerged today after the Government gave way to pressure from the European Commission over the collection of travellers' personal information.
The Home Office offered a series of concessions to ensure the 1.2 billion electronic borders scheme would not fall foul of EU rules.
But the concessions to the European Commission threaten to undermine the whole reason for the system which was to enable officials to check travellers against watchlists of terrorists and criminals.
The Governments climbdown on the collection of information came during intensive negotiations over whether the scheme breached the free movement of people within the EU.
Under the e-Borders rules airlines, ferries and rail companies had to collect the name of the carrier, departure and arrival points plus information held on a travellers passport.
This would enable the British authorities to check their details against the watchlists held by police and the security services.
During the negotiations with the Commission, the Home Office agreed that the collection of the information will now be voluntary.
A letter from the Commission to the Home Office also made clear that the Government had given an assurance that it would not bar EU citizens from entering the UK.
The letter said that passengers from the EU or members of their family would not be stopped from entering the UK if their personal details were not available to the British border authorities.
The concessions offered by the Government means that it can no longer insist on obtaining the details of passengers and crew in advance of people travelling to the UK.
Ministers had said that getting the information in advance meant the UK had exported its borders overseas as it would identify in advance travellers who are a potential risk.
It would allow the UK Border Agency to check travellers against lists of people known to pose a threat and compile a profile of suspect passengers, their travel patterns and networks.
Todays disclosure of a government climbdown threatens to under mine the whole reason for the massive scheme which was to allow the authorities to have details of those entering the country which could be checked against watchlists.
The disclosure of Government concessions over the scheme emerged as the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee today was attacking ministers for pressing ahead with e-Borders without making sure it was legal.
Keith Vaz, chairman of the committee, said: The programme is intended to cost the taxpayer 1.2 billion and may be illegal. It is shocking that money has already been spent on a programme which could never be implemented.
He added: We cannot have another massive IT project which flounders or is even abandoned at huge cost to the taxpayer, it is simply unacceptable.
The Home Office had hoped to collect data on 60 per cent of international passengers by the end of this year but the problems with the EU have resulted in the department missing the target.
Latest figures show only 38 per cent of passengers are being tracked under the e-Borders scheme because airlines, including German carriers, are not co-operating with the British authorites.
Phil Woolas, the Immigration Minister, said: e-Borders is fully compliant with EU law and this has been confirmed by the European Commission.
Mr Woolas did not refer to the concessions made by the Government during negotiations with the EU.
Asked about the fact it will no longer be compulsory to collect the personal data, a Home Office spokesman said the department would consider the letter from the Commission.
Damian Green, the Shadow Immigration Minister, said: Over a billion pounds of taxpayers money has been spent on e-Borders and yet many of the most basic problems have not been resolved. The Governments flagship policy to protect our borders is in danger of sinking.
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