November 7, 2011 8:31 pm

May admits extent of lapse unknown

Theresa May, home secretary, admitted on Monday that she “will never know” how many suspected terrorists, criminals or previous deportees have entered the country as a result of officials relaxing border controls this summer.

In a statement to the Commons, Ms May sought to reassure fellow MPs that she was taking action to investigate potential security lapses, but her case was weakened by new evidence that officials had been authorised to loosen controls beyond the level initially agreed by the home office.

The home secretary had previously insisted that officials were told “explicitly” that a trial programme of relaxed checks on accompanied European national children was to go no further than she had stipulated. Brodie Clark, head of the Border Force, a division of the UK Border Agency, has been suspended along with two other officials, and the home office has instigated three separate inquiries into the affair.

The growing controversy is the latest in a series of mismanagement allegations levelled at the agency, which was infamously declared “unfit for purpose” by John Reid, Labour home secretary, in 2006. Only last week, the home affairs select committee chastised the agency for losing track of 124,000 migrants and asylum seekers who are now untraceable around the UK.

The home secretary – who is now facing one of the toughest tests of her 18 months in the role – said that while she had agreed in July that border officials could pilot a scheme that would target high-risk travellers, she had not sanctioned the abandoning of biometric checks on European adults or the decision to stop fingerprint testing some non-European nationals.

She did acknowledge, however, that the pilot programme had been authorised for use across all ports and airports – overturning previous suggestions that the relaxed rules had been implemented only at Calais.

Responding to the statement Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, suggested that either the home office was negligent in not knowing the extent of the loosened security or it was to blame for allowing the changes to be made.

“How could there be continual complaints from staff for months and yet neither the immigration minister nor the home secretary knew what on earth was going on?” Ms Cooper asked. “At best they were deeply out of touch, at worst complicit in a series of serious breaches of border control.”

Despite Ms May’s attempts to shift the blame on to border force officials for acting “without ministerial approval”, internal documents released on Monday appeared to show that duty directors at the force had been given permission to expand the measures further than initially agreed.

Separately, an email sent by UKBA managers to staff also suggested Ms May was concerned that rules were being relaxed too far. “We are no longer able to suspend Secure ID [fingerprint checks], except in the most exceptional circumstances. The home secretary has not given us that flexibility. Suspension of Secure ID must therefore stop now,” the email read.

A home office official was not able to say why fingerprint scanning had been suspended or when Ms May became aware of this.

The home secretary’s popularity with her own party’s backbenchers should buy her some leeway as the controversy drags into a fourth day, but the issue of border control is close to many Tories’ hearts and is one they often used to attack Labour home affairs ministers.

A Conservative backbencher said: “It’s pretty eye-opening what a shambles this whole thing is. It is quite significant for Theresa May – 18 months into a government we cannot just spend our whole time blaming Labour. We have made immigration a cornerstone of our success on the Tory side of the coalition.”

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