The government’s decision to gather personal data on every traveller into and out of the UK is under threat from EU rules concerning free movement
The UK government is facing potential embarrassment after its scheme to monitor the entry and exit of travellers in this country was found to conflict with EU rules on free movement.
The e-Borders scheme was supposed to make it compulsory to collect information from everyone in advance of their travel, so that the passengers could be checked against security watchlists. In addition, it would allow the authorities to count everyone in and out of the country. For example, passengers flying out to another country would have to submit their name, date of birth and passport details ahead of the flight, and well before they actually arrived at the airport. If they didn’t, they faced the risk of being prevented from boarding.
However, the Daily Telegraph reports that the scheme, which has only just begun to be rolled out and is not expected to track every passenger until 2014, has now been watered down amid concerns it could breach EU rules over free movement.
Passengers will no longer be forced to hand over the information before they travel, and carriers will also not be ordered to refuse boarding of anyone who declines to pass on their details.
Essentially, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) will now be able to check those passengers who have not provided the data, only once they have actually arrived in the UK. In addition, according to the Telegraph, the authorities will also not be able to refuse entry to any EU citizen, or even their family members, solely on the grounds that they refused to provide the information.
This means that the principal aim of the £1.2 billion e-Borders programme – to stop certain people from arriving in the UK in the first place – can no longer operate as it can be ignored by passengers and airlines.
The issue apparently came to light after the Home Office sought assurances that asking for passenger information well ahead of flights was within EU rules. The news became public after the EU response was considered by MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee.
This Committee issued a report on Friday which warned that the e-border scheme may be illegal because EU law allows free movement of its citizens between member states, so long as they hold a passport.
The newspaper said that a letter, from Jonathan Faull, director general of the European Commission’s Justice, Freedom and Security department, stated that Passengers must be informed in advance that handing over the information is “is neither compulsory nor … a condition of purchase and sale of the ticket.”
It makes clear that EU citizens who refuse to pass on their personal information cannot be stopped from entering or leaving the UK.
The Conservative party has criticised the government for ploughing millions into the scheme prior to properly investigating its legality with EU officials.
“It seems extraordinary that, this long into a seven-year contract that costs more than £1 billion, the government hasn’t established whether it can impose this system on travellers, and it looks from this letter as it cannot,” said Damian Green, the Conservative immigration spokesman, speaking to The Telegraph.
“This is a huge embarrassment for ministers. They have set up this elaborate, hugely expensive system and the Commission is telling them it only works if people volunteer,” he added.
The Border and Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas MP, disagrees however that the e-Borders scheme is not compliant with EU law. In a statement, Wollas defended the scheme.
“e-Borders is fully compliant with EU law and this has been confirmed by the European Commission,” he said. “This allows us to continue our efforts to secure our border by counting people in and out. e-Borders has already screened over 137 million passenger journeys leading to over 4,700 arrests since 2005.”
“The system has enabled the arrest of murderers, rapists and the barring of would-be illegal immigrants,” he said. However, it was very notable that he did not talk about the being obliged to make the scheme voluntary, and how this might limit its effectiveness.