A House of Commons committee has declared that it is has increasingly “serious” concerns about the e-Borders programme, citing technical problems in the aviation and maritime sector.
The Home Affairs Committee presented its view in the, "UK Border Agency: Follow-up on Asylum Cases and E-Borders Programme" report, which updated a report issued on 18 December 2009. The latter report investigated the implementation of the programme, which is a system for gathering information electronically on all travellers entering or leaving the UK by air, sea or rail.
"We note the government’s strongly-held view that the e-Borders project is vital to the security of the UK’s borders, in terms of combating illegal immigration, serious crime and terrorism. This being so, the fact that so many major difficulties with the programme remain to be resolved causes us serious concern," the latest report said.
To illustrate the extent of the committee’s concerns, the committee has provided comment on the report response. Normal practice would be to publish the government’s response and any written and oral evidence to the December report without comment.
"We were struck by the fact that, despite the assurances given by the government in their responses to our original reports, the subsequent evidence we have received reinforces and, in some areas, increases the concerns we felt at the end of last year," it said.
The committee said that there were serious practical obstacles, technical and logistical, to the implementation of the programme, in its December report. For instance, all the stakeholders were concerned that the e-Borders Programme breached EU Directives on data protection and free movement of persons in the EU.
However, despite the European Commission confirming that the programme is not breaching these directives, the Home Affairs committee believes that other issues still need to be addressed.
In the latest report, the committee maintains that due to “slow progress” so far in discussions with the maritime and rail sectors, and the aviation’s experience of practical problems, ranging from technical to a physical inability to send data, it was “sceptical” about UK Border Agency’s (UKBA) ability to resolve the remaining problems quickly.
"We remain of the view that the current timetable will be impossible to achieve," the committee wrote.
This statement was backed by the Chamber of Shipping, which said in a memorandum that it was “bemused” by the statements about how the programme would be screening all passengers heading for major UK ports by the end of this year.
"Systems to achieve such universal screening simply could not have been put in place within that timescale, even if the legal obstacles had been cleared," it said.
Airlines were also concerned by the prime minister’s statement in January, in light of the attempted Christmas day bombing, that the e-Borders scheme would enable UK authorities to obtain full details on everyone on a flight 24 hours before the departure. Currently, this information is only available a few minutes before take-off.
Virgin Atlantic Airways, in its response to the December report, said that it has been supplying data on its passengers and crew to the UKBA since last September. However, it said that the data is being supplied “much later” than 24 hours before the flight, which has raised concerns at the airline.
"This would mean yet another change to our technical design and operational process and it would have been helpful to know this long-term intention before work on the programme commenced," Virgin Atlantic Airways said.
In a memorandum, the Board of Airline Representatives in the UK said that EU citizens travelling in the EU have the right to decline providing their data, but that airline systems are not able to provide passenger data according to individual passenger wishes.
"Systems are required to have data for ALL passengers or alternatively for NONE at all," the Board said, which a memorandum submitted by travel company TUI Travel supported.
"We have no facility to enable a passenger to refuse to give data, whilst providing data on the remaining passengers," said TUI Travel.
The committee also warned: "None of these issues will be resolved within the next few months, and all will have a serious impact on thousands of people."
The systems for the e-Borders programme are projected to cost £650 million and are being delivered by the Trusted Borders consortium - led by Raytheon and including Accenture, Detica, Serco, QinetiQ, Steria, Capgemini and DAON.
Georgina O'Toole, analyst at TechmarketView , said "In the run-up to the General Election, with IT programmes being targeted by all political parties for future cuts, this report has the potential to give yet another major IT project a bad name. However, these are not technical issues, they are legal and data protection issues that should have been resolved far earlier in the Programme – arguably before the Home Office let a £650m contract."
The Home Office said the systems have over 148 million passenger movements in and out of the UK since the programme’s introduction in November 2007. Over 5,100 arrests have taken place for crimes including murder, rape, assault and significant counter terrorist interventions.
The programme remains controversial, in part because of its heavy reliance on extensive databases of citizen information, and its interaction with the £4.7 billion ID cards scheme, which the Conservative Party have already threatened to axe, if it forms the next government.