Monday, November 14, 2011

Checks on asylum seekers halted in row over stab vests

Does the saga of British incompetence and stupidity never end?

Border control chiefs ordered officers to stop carrying out crucial checks on asylum seekers because of a dispute over the wearing of stab vests. They halted the monitoring of asylum seekers for several weeks during the same period that the border force also relaxed checks on the passports of non-EU nationals entering Britain.

Officers at the UK Border Agency headquarters in West London had demanded stab vests after a colleague was threatened by a knife-wielding asylum seeker. But Rebecca Baumgartner, UKBA’s deputy director for London, ruled they could not wear them for the checks – conducted at asylum seekers’ living accommodation – while a review of the policy was under way. As a compromise, she said officers should not monitor asylum seekers in all parts of London until they made a decision.

As a result, for several weeks between June and July, UKBA officers across the capital did not carry out spot-checks on hundreds of asylum seekers whose applications were being processed by the Home Office.

Directors in London finally announced stab vests would remain banned, despite claims that officers in other parts of the country, such as Kent, are allowed to wear them. Officers were told to resume spot-checks, but if there was a chance that a search could be confrontational, they should either not to do them or else take police officers with them.

The Government is still reeling from the UKBA’s ‘reckless’ decision to relax passport checks on non-EU nationals entering the country as a way of reducing airport queues.

Last month, Home Secretary Theresa May suspended three of the force’s directors and told Parliament she only authorised a pilot scheme where checks on EU passports could be relaxed to ease the backlog.

She said UKBA directors had extended the scheme to non-EU passports without ministerial approval.

UKBA sources say the spot-checks in the community are the only way to keep track of asylum seekers while their claims are being handled. They also help ensure asylum seekers are not working illegally. One officer said: ‘Suspending checks just gave a red light to God knows how many people to abscond.’

Although they have now resumed, some officers have dismissed them as ineffective, since the more dangerous asylum seekers are no longer monitored.

It has also been revealed that despite the passports furore, UKBA chief executive Rob Whiteman has emailed staff saying that they ‘have done nothing wrong’, and that recent events ‘do not mean we should worry about sometimes making genuine mistakes; we all want to perform at the highest level.’

UKBA said: ‘The UK Border Agency has a wide range of measures to combat asylum absconders. All those in receipt of support must meet reporting conditions. ‘All immigration officers carrying out enforcement work wear stab vests. Those assessing support claims for asylum seekers in the community do not as it is not felt that this role presents any significant risk.’


Labour dragged into border fiasco over dropped passport checks

Millions of people are feared to have been allowed into Britain without full passport checks in a major new borders scandal.

All but the most cursory checks were abandoned on passengers on British-registered coaches as they arrived at Dover, Britain's biggest port.

Instead of passports being scanned electronically, border guards checked that the picture matched the holder. It means they were not cross-checked to a computer database to establish if the holder was a wanted terrorist, criminal or immigration offender.

The policy was in place for four years after being introduced when Labour was in power, but never disclosed to Parliament.

It was implemented because the French complained about congestion in Calais caused by backlogs at passport control.

Ministers discovered the scheme earlier this month and ended it ten days ago when the Border Agency official in charge of the southern ports was suspended, along with Brodie Clark, the director of the UK Border Force, who was accused of relaxing passport checks at airports on non-European Union citizens without ministers' permission.

The Dover scandal has the potential to be bigger than that at the airports and will add to political pressure on Theresa May, the Home Secretary.

It is estimated that up to 17 million coach passengers passed through Dover's ferry terminal in the last four years, of whom the majority would have been on British-registered coaches.

It was not known last night if the policy was implemented at other ports, and whether it was operated around the clock or at the busiest times.

Relaxing controls at Dover is particularly damaging because the port has been identified as one of the main routes for illegal entry to the country.

Camps of people trying to make their way into Britain have sprung up in the French port, with repeated attempts to close them and stop smugglers using lorries or desperate people climbing onto trains and under vans and coaches to enter the UK.

Last night there were calls for a full statement on the suspension of checks at Dover, and for the Home Office to make clear whether it affected other ports on the south coast of England.

Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons' Home Affairs Select Committee said he would ask for detailed information on whether ministers were aware of the changes, when Mr Clark and Rob Whiteman, the UKBA chief executive, appear before MPs this week to be questioned on the airports scandal.

"This information raises serious concerns about the history of checks undertaken by the UKBA [United Kingdom Border Agency]," he said. "We must ensure our border checks are not compromised and that the UKBA has the resources it needs to thoroughly check every individual coming into Britain. "The committee will question Rob Whiteman and Brodie Clark this Tuesday on exactly what checks have been used and when and who was notified."

The relaxed security checks were introduced during 2007. That year Jacqui Smith took over as home secretary from Dr John Reid, now Lord Reid of Cardowan, although it is unclear exactly when the changes were introduced. The key question will be whether Labour ministers were informed. Coalition ministers were unaware of the policy until this month.

The UKBA's shelving of full passport checks on coach passengers was understood to have been one of the reasons behind the decision to suspend Carole Upshall, director of the UK Border Force's south and European operations. She was sent home on the same day as Mr Clark, who resigned last week.

He has denied acting without authorisation when he allowed non-European Union citizens to be let through passport controls without full checks when queues became unwieldy at airports.

Managers at the UKBA encouraged staff not to examine the contents of passport biometric microchips, and also dropped "warnings index checks" - the database of people who should be stopped at the border because they are due to be in limited circumstances.

But the revelation that potentially millions of travellers underwent even less rigorous security will raise yet more questions about the way the Home Office has failed to safeguard Britain's borders.

An estimated 86,000 coaches pass through Dover every year. The Home Office refused to disclose if the scheme was limited to private hire coaches, which make up a significant proportion of coach traffic at the ports and would be likely to have mostly British passengers on board, or included scheduled services to Britain from destinations in Europe, which would include significant proportions of foreigners.

Mr Clark is due to give evidence on Tuesday to the Commons' Home Affairs Select Committee, and the scandal is likely to be reignited as the former civil servant gives his first detailed account of his dealings with Mrs May and other ministers.

Mrs May has consistently denied that she authorised in any fashion the relaxation of controls at airports ordered by Mr Clark. She has been backed by his superior, Mr Whiteman, who issued a statement saying that Mr Clark had "admitted to me on November 2 that on a number of occasions this year he authorised his staff to go further than ministerial instruction".

However, the emergence of separate relaxations at ports for British coaches may serve to increase political pressure on Mrs May.

Labour refused to comment last night on what its ministers knew when they were in government.

Chris Bryant, shadow immigration minister, said: "Theresa May needs to urgently publish the data we know exists and come clean about the scale of the problem - so we can learn lessons and make sure we stop illegal entrants in future."

Separately, it has also emerged that security checks at Heathrow were significantly watered down on a previous occasion, leading to a dramatic fall in the number of foreign travellers who were refused permission to enter Britain.

During a two-day strike by immigration officers in October last year managers instituted what they described as "light touch" security with fewer checks.

Documents show 22 people were refused leave to enter on the day before the strike, but over the two day action nine were refused.

A Home Office spokesman said: "Nothing is more important than the integrity of our border in order to protect national security and reduce and control immigration. "There are ongoing investigations into allegations regarding the relaxation of border controls without ministerial approval.

“UKBA ensured additional trained staff authorised to carry out all necessary checks were in place at the border during the strike last year.”


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