649,000 smuggling alerts deleted
More than 649,000 alerts relating to potential drug and tobacco smuggling into the UK were deleted from a Government system for border controls without being read, an inspection has found.
The deletions had a "significant impact" on the ability of staff at the border to seize banned goods and arrest those responsible for smuggling them into the country, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration John Vine said.
This amounted to three quarters of all the customs work completed at National Border Targeting Centre (NBTC), the hi-tech hub where watch-list checks on passengers entering and leaving Britain are carried out, his report said.
Mr Vine uncovered the deletions as part of an inspection into the multimillion- pound eBorders programme, set up by the Home Office 10 years ago to prevent passengers from travelling where they were considered a threat to the UK.
The programme involved the collection of Advance Passenger Information (API) for all scheduled inbound and outbound passengers, in advance of travel - which is then checked against terror and criminal watch lists.
The inspector also found that the e-borders programme had not delivered the planned increases in passenger data collection, with only 65% of all passenger movements into and out of the UK covered, due to complications surrounding European law.
Mr Vine said: "Despite being in development for over a decade, and costing over half a billion pounds, the e-borders programme has yet to deliver many of the anticipated benefits originally set out in 2007."
He added: "I was surprised that the use of e-Borders information to "export the border" by preventing the arrival of a passenger because they had either been deported or excluded from the UK previously, was not happening.
"The Home Office should now define clearly what the aims of the e-borders programme are ahead of the new procurement exercise, and be transparent about what e-borders will deliver and by when."
The IT platform procured to test the e-Borders concept - known as Semaphore - continues to be used pending procurement of a fully capable e-Borders IT system, the report said.
Mr Vine found that records relating to drug and tobacco smuggling were deleted from Semaphore over a 10-month period due to "poor data quality and the prioritisation of immigration over customs work".
The report said: " These deletions had a significant impact on the ability of staff at the border to seize prohibited and restricted goods and deal with those responsible."
It added: "This amounted to three quarters of all the customs work generated in NBTC and impacted on the ability of e-Borders to deliver anticipated benefits in relation to the seizure of prohibited and restricted goods."
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "Theresa May needs to sort out the catalogue of chaos at border control.
"She needs to stop drug-smuggling information being deleted and get the proper border controls in place, rather than relying on divisive gimmicks like ad vans instead.
"The Home Secretary must urgently explain why hundreds of thousands of possible drug-smuggling records were deleted in 2012 without having ever been read.
"John Vine has said this meant UKBA couldn't stop this illegal smuggling. It is an outrage that drug smugglers have been able to get away with it because basic information was never acted on."
Keith Vaz, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which is responsible for scrutinising the work of the Home Office, said: " The e-borders programme has been a disaster for successive governments and is a classic example of how not to procure.
"The promise for e-borders to secure our borders is simple and has been successfully implemented in Australia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.
"Yet this ongoing saga has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds.
"It is essential for our national security that exit checks are implemented as a matter of urgency."
Immigration minister Mark Harper said: " Border Force - which the Government split from the UK Border Agency in 2011 - is making significant improvements in its performance.
"The 2011 Vine Report revealed that border security checks had been waived without ministerial authorisation consistently since 2007. Today, there is a clear operating mandate and all checks are carried out.
"A year ago, the Border Force had trouble with excessive queues at airports. Today, 99% of travellers are cleared within the service standards we've agreed.
"The security of the border is now at the heart of everything Border Force does.
"Passengers travelling to Britain are checked across a variety of databases before departure and upon arrival.
"We now take Advance Passenger Information from 78% of those travelling to the UK by plane, and require this information from 100% of those travelling from outside the EU.
"We have the best coverage of any country in Europe but we are working to improve our coverage further. We will take the findings of the Independent Chief Inspector into account as we continue to develop our API policies and coverage."