The Government’s flagship border security system cannot be used to measure immigration levels because border guards are banned from asking passengers how long they intend to stay in Britain, ministers have admitted.
The Home Office has revealed that its beleaguered eBorders project, which is expected to cost the taxpayer £1.2 billion, will provide “insufficient” data on migrant levels.
It also highlighted how European Union rules prohibit immigration officers from asking EU residents about their travel plans – making it impossible to build a full picture of net migration.
Ministers said the Government could face legal challenges if border officers ask travellers too many questions about how long they intend to stay in Britain.
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The opposition immediately accused the Home Office of “abject failure” in setting up the crucial IT system, while the chairman of the home affairs select committee said he was “deeply concerned” that a “key original objective” of the scheme will now never be met.
In its response to a critical report by the Commons all-party public administration select commitee, the Home Office said: “This data is by itself insufficient to provide a direct measurement of migration flows.”
It added that the eBorders system cannot be used to replace the existing method for estimating net migration, known as the International Passenger Survey, which MPs have said is “not fit for purpose”.
Bernard Jenkin MP, the committee chairman, said: “The Government is backing off from its own proposal, and trying to reduce the expectations of what eBorders will be able to achieve.
“We were still under the impression that eBorders was going to provide some of the answers. It’s obviously disappointing that ministers don’t have the same confidence.”
He added: “Anyone coming into our country should be obliged to answer any questions that officials wish to ask, within reason. The freedom of movement principle undermines our authority to do that.”
Keith Vaz, chairman of the home affairs select committee, said: “I am deeply concerned by the Home Office’s response.
“The eBorders programme has cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds, taken more than a decade and now we know that a key original objective will never be achieved. The public have been badly let down.
“I will be writing again to the Home Secretary to ask for a clear answer on which specific objectives, named in the original business plan, will now not be achieved.”
Earlier this year Sir Charles Montgomery, the head of the Border Force, announced eBorders had been “terminated” in its current form and incorporated in a wider IT programme.
The government is still in litigation with Raytheon, the company initially hired to develop eBorders, over its sacking from the contract in 2010.
Previous costings showed eBorders would cost £1.2 billion between 2007-08 and 2021-22.
Last year John Vine, the chief inspector of borders, said he had a number of concerns about the project and noted that the original business case, drawn up under the previous Labour government, said it would provide “more reliable data for the purposes of migration and population statistics”.
However, a Home Office spokesman said last night: “It was never part of the business case that eBorders would compile migration statistics.”
David Hanson, the shadow immigration minister, said: “For ministers to admit that their new borders system will not even allow them to estimate immigration is a sign of their abject failure.
“It is central to an effective immigration system that we are able to count people into the country and know when they should have left the UK.
“Theresa May and her ministers have scrapped the eBorders programme at huge cost to the UK taxpayer with no thought to what to put in its place – once again they are failing to take the effective steps needed to strengthen our borders while being obsessed with a net migration target they fail to enforce and won’t meet.”
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The best way to stop people complaining about immigration: stop measuring it. See also coverage at The Daily Mail.