Chief Inspector unimpressed with Agency

Last year’s border row resulted in John Vine CBE QPM (Independent Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency, “the Inspector”) being commissioned by the Home Secretary “to investigate and report on the level of checks operated at ports of entry to the UK.” Subsequently, the investigation culminated in An Investigation into borders security checks (“the report”). In addition to reviewing internal correspondence, policy submissions, operational instructions and minutes of meetings, this eighty-four page long document builds on interviews with a variety of the Agency’s executive, managerial functionaries and front-line staff.

The Home Secretary, the Immigration Minister, the former Head of Border Force – Brodie Clark, who was initially suspended for his unauthorised suspension of border security checks but later resigned – were interviewed by the Inspector; in producing his report he also liaised with Agency staff, trade unions and representatives of the British Airports Authority. In the aftermath of the report, the Home Secretary has vowed to split up the UK Border Agency by making the Border Force a separate enforcement agency. Her statement on border security to Parliament is available here.

The terms of reference for the investigation were to:

  • Investigate and report the level of checks operated by the UKBA at ports in light of the operational requirements approved by Ministers and report any potential risks to border security created by any unauthorised relaxation.
  • Establish the effectiveness of management oversight in the UKBA including the guidance given to staff on the checks to be undertaken, the levels of authorisation required for any relaxation of checks, whether any unauthorised relaxation of checks occurred and, if so, the reasons why they occurred and whether any assessment of the risk was made and communicated.
  • Investigate and report on the accuracy and consistency of record-keeping at ports in that period and make recommendations on the management information and assurance systems that are required in the UKBA, both locally and nationally, to ensure compliance with all required border security checks.
  • Review and report on any work put in place in UKBA since 4 November 2011 to improve security at the border including arrangements to ensure compliance with all required border security checks.
  • Make any further recommendations on whether operational changes are required to ensure that checks are being operated within the framework approved by Ministers.

The Inspector chose a sample of 17 major airports (including Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester) and seaports – covering 22 terminals across the UK – and examined the records and in made independent observations; 16 smaller ports were also examined.

In the report, John Vine found “an urgent need to establish a new framework of border security checks” which “unambiguously” specified which checks were mandatory was needed. Once this was accomplished, any confusion in relation to mandatory checks – as opposed to discretionary checks (which can be suspended on the basis or risk or health and safety) – could be eliminated. The report is explicit about the fact that “greater clarity” is required not only in relation to the level of authorisation required to “suspend checks”, but also “when decisions require the explicit agreement of Ministers.” In achieving more clarity, “language and terminology” in the Agency’s internal work/operations must be “precise” so that misunderstandings by front-line staff can be prevented. It was quite obvious that the keeping of records aided in knowing which checks were suspended and why; the Inspector made it plain that Ministers have the right to know what is going on at the border.

The report describes the Agency’s management and division of responsibilities as “poor” because “no single framework setting out all potential border security checks” existed; no coherent system of ascertaining the circumstances in which checks could be suspended, and whether the authority required to do so was Ministerial, was in place; this, in turn, raised the “fundamental question how free the Agency should be to decide its own operational priorities”?

The suspension of security checks was recorded but records were not sufficiently detailed. Equally, “significant discrepancies” existed between the records maintained in the Agency and those kept at the ports. Staff at ports did not follow “why detailed and accurate records” were “needed” and what role these played for the Agency’s future needs and efficient operation. The suspension of checks was not controlled and the Inspector made clear, (emphasis supplied), “There is nothing I have discovered which could not have been identified by senior managers exercising proper oversight.”

Moreover, the Inspector (who found it to be potentially unlawful) was “particularly concerned” about “a local initiative operating at Heathrow” – known as Operation Savant, overseas students were allowed to enter the UK without entry clearance – where checks were ditched in the absence of “scrutiny by more senior managers or Ministers.”

The lapses in performing security checks can be extracted from the report as:

Home Office Warnings Index (or WI)

Used to ascertain whether passengers are of interest to the UK Border Agency, the police or other government departments:

Of considerable concern is that WI checks had not been carried out on EEA nationals travelling to the UK on Eurostar services from Disneyland Paris and other French resorts since 2007. Although the Agency assessed these passengers to have been low risk this measure is likely to have resulted in approximately 500,000 EEA nationals not being checked against the WI. We did not find evidence that these suspensions had been authorised by Ministers. (Para. 6, Executive Summary, pp. 9 -14.)

But the above must be “kept in perspective” because, at page 6, the Inspector:

[F]ound that the WI check which indicates whether a passenger has previously committed a terrorist, criminal or immigration offence or is of interest to law enforcement agencies was generally carried out consistently.

Secure ID

Checks passengers’ fingerprints at the immigration controls and verifies them against those previously provided during the visa application process:

Secure ID was suspended a total of 482 times between June 2010 and November 2011. We noted that 463 of these suspensions occurred at Heathrow… Suspension of Secure ID potentially exposed the border to greater risk. However, we note that this risk would have been mitigated to some extent because passengers continued to be checked against the WI and, other than the specific instances approved by Ministers, travel documents were examined and biometric chips in travel documents were opened in most cases. (ES, paras. 9 and 16.)

Level 2 Pilot  

A risk-based approach to border checks where it was no longer routine to:

  • Open the biometric chip within European Economic Area (EEA) passports; and
  • Perform WI checks of EEA children where they were travelling in obvious family units or school groups.

The report established, Executive Summary at para. 25:

[T]hat there was confusion amongst staff, particularly at Heathrow and Gatwick South about whether the Level 2 pilot included the suspension of Secure ID. We believe this was caused in part by similar terminology used during the contingency plans for the industrial action on 30 June 2011.

Other Measures

In addition to the above security checks, other operational failures such as not opening biometric chips in e-passports for EEA (other than French) and British nationals were “unacceptable”. Although the risk posed by such lapses was “difficult to quantify” it:

[W]ould have been mitigated to some extent because passengers continued to be checked against the WI and their travel documents were examined. (ES at para. 34)


The Inspector explained that as a result of his intervention the Agency’s grip on border security checks was “much firmer”: maintaining this grip in relation to the large volumes of passengers expected for the approaching Paralympic and Olympic Games remained a “significant test”.

It was recommended that:

(1) The extent of the UKBA’s operational autonomy from the Home Office needs to be explicit, with a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities.

(2) A new framework of border security checks, authorised by Ministers, should be produced and implemented urgently. This needs to take account of the different operational environments at ports, the benefits to border security of conducting the checks and the implications for border security of any reduction in checks.

(3) Ministers should decide the minimum standard of border security checks to be applied at UK ports before allowing entry to the UK.

(4) Ministerial decisions, policy proposals and operational instructions must be communicated effectively with specific and careful use of language.

(5) The level of authorisation required for any suspension of or reduction in border security checks must be explicitly set out and authorised by Ministers.

(6) Suspension of border security checks should only take place when absolutely necessary. Records showing the frequency of these, the reasons for them and the level of authorisation obtained should be reported to Ministers and senior managers on a quarterly or more frequent basis.

(7) To ensure suspension of border security checks is kept to an absolute minimum, a clear understanding of what constitutes health and safety grounds for suspension should be agreed.

(8) An operating policy for fingerprint verification of all visa nationals (Secure ID) needs to be produced as a matter of urgency. It must take into account its importance relative to other checks contained within any new framework of border security checks.

(9) Record-keeping at ports should be overhauled ensuring that staff know what to record, and why, whilst keeping bureaucracy to a minimum. Management should ask for and review records of border security checks to inform development of policy.

(10) A rigorous management assurance process needs to be put in place so that Ministers and the UKBA can be assured that policy is being translated into practice on the ground.

(11) The UKBA must ensure that any local initiative regarding suspension of border security checks does not contradict any new framework of border security checks and is lawful and properly authorised.

(12) Service standards for passenger queuing times and staffing levels at ports should be reviewed to ensure they are compatible with any new framework of border security checks.

The report is available below

About Asad Ali Khan, BA, MSc, MA, LL.B (Hons), LL.M

Senior Partner, Khan & Co, Barristers-at-Law
This entry was posted in Arrivals, Chief Independent Inspector, Security Checks, UKBA and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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