Clause 73

Policing and Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:45 pm on 24th February 2009.

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General information powers in relation to persons entering or leaving the UK

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The clause refers to the very important question of the powers that the state has in relation to persons entering or leaving the UK. It goes to the very heart of the broader issue of border control. It will amend the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 by inserting a new section, which will enable an officer of Revenue and Customs to require a person entering or leaving the UK to produce their passport or travel documents and answer questions about their journey.

These are sensible powers. They are also desirable because porous borders only lend succour and aid to those who wish to commit crime. The UK’s border is too porous in our view. I know that Ministers in the Home Office are not happy either. The Minister for Borders and Immigration said:

“we have, compared to other rich countries, been liberal in our border controls”.

I infer from that that he thinks the Government could do better at border control. If that inference is correct, Ministers should adopt the Opposition’s suggestion and have a dedicated border police force to toughen up our borders.

Sixty per cent. of illegal immigrants resident in the United Kingdom arrived here illegally, the majority in the back of a lorry, extraordinarily enough. People will  not need reminding that the economic and social costs of people trafficking to the UK amounted to £1 billion in 2003. Some would put the estimates much higher than that, particularly in non-pecuniary terms. We know that weapons are smuggled across UK borders and we must do better at clamping down on that.

The powers in the clause will be important in improving our performance in stamping out illegal weapon transmission into this country, people trafficking and people wishing to enter the country illegally. The powers will clamp down on those problems by sensible questions being asked of individuals along with the requirement for them to produce their passport and other documents when asked to by an official of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

The clause raises a bigger question. The Government have not been slouches on this issue. They have decided to enter the electronic age in announcing the e-Borders programme. I will not detain the Committee for too long on this point. The e-Borders system is under development in this country. It will ensure that the state can access a comprehensive record of everyone wanting to come into or leave this country and of everyone who crosses our borders. That will strengthen the security of those who live in and visit our country, make it easier for those who are travelling and trading legitimately, and maintain tight control of our border.

Under the e-Borders programme information will be collected from the carrier, not the passenger. The carrier will be legally required to collect information and provide it to the UK border authorities as part of a check-in process.

The clause asks sensibly for more information from individuals who wish to cross our borders. I will try not to stray out of order. The e-Borders programme must be integral to and complementary to the powers in the clause that will improve the information and details individuals must furnish when they wish to cross our borders. In that context, will the Minister say at what stage Her Majesty’s Government are in the e-Borders programme?

Information supplied to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch suggests that airlines, which will be the prime furnishers under the e-Borders programme, are concerned about the costly changes they will have to make to their reservation and departure control systems to comply with the programme. They are also concerned about a lack of information from the Government to prepare them for the changes. We are advised that the e-Borders programme should have gone live on 2 October 2008, but carriers were not told until 24 October that the deadline had been revised. I have been told that the Home Office puts an unrealistic time scale on carriers making the relevant changes. Some airlines will have to make significant changes to meet the terms of the scheme as set out by the Government.

Running the e-Borders programme is a £650 million contract, which was awarded in November 2007 to Trusted Borders, a consortium led by Raytheon Systems. A delay has occurred, but I have been advised that the programme is now scheduled to start being rolled out at the end of February. That is pertinent when we are discussing the clause, because the type of information required from passengers who are, after all, crossing our  borders will include personal information such as their date and place of birth, their address and the type of information that would allow them to be checked against the watch list of individuals who might pose a threat to the British state.

My information is that Trusted Borders, when asked, has given no public information on progress. One might say that that is commercial in confidence information and that it cannot really talk about it, but in these days of an ever present threat of terrorism, we are talking about a Government programme that has been announced and will allow for better alerts at relevant border points where individuals who might pose a threat to this country are identified, but we do not have a clear indication of when the e-Borders programme will be up and running. If the Minister, who has made some sensible proposals on the information individuals will have to provide, wants our support for the clause, he should also tell us where we are on the e-Borders programme.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield 7:00 pm, 24th February 2009

I have been advised by the usual channels—I am merely a servant of the Committee—that they hope to make certain progress by the time of the Division on the Floor of the House, which I understand will take place at about 20 minutes past seven. I say that merely to concentrate the minds of Committee members.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

Thank you, Sir Nicholas. Before I address the specifics of the clause, I will give the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds some of the information on the e-Borders programme that he requested and that he and other Committee members might find useful. So far, the £1.2 billion e-Borders system has screened more than 78 million passengers travelling to and from the UK, leading to more than 2,700 arrests, including those of murderers, drug dealers and sex offenders. Other interventions have resulted in the seizure of improperly used British passports, the confiscation of drugs and the refusal of leave to enter to a substantial number of foreign nationals. E-Borders will screen against watch lists 60 per cent. of all passenger and crew movements in and out of the UK by December 2009, rising to 95 per cent. by December 2010 and 100 per cent. by March 2014. That answers the hon. Gentleman’s specific question about the progress of the e-Borders programme, and I hope that that is of help to him and the Committee.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for what I think is a reasonable change to the powers that customs officers have. Clause 73 supplements the existing customs powers available to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the UK Border Agency in relation to people arriving in the UK, which, broadly speaking, are currently limited to questioning travellers about their goods and baggage. Customs checks are no longer random, but risk-based and intelligence-led. Customs officers and UKBA officers need first to establish whether the person in front of them is the person they are looking for or, if they are at a busy airport, whether they have arrived on a high-risk flight that they are targeting. For that purpose, the clause gives customs officers powers to require the people to produce identity and travel documents and ask questions of passengers about their journey. That will enable officers to decide whether to proceed with further checks, such as examination of baggage.

I think that that important alignment of powers between Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs officers and those of the UK Border Agency will make a significant difference, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. This is one of those measures that, on reading it, I asked, “Can’t they do this already?” It is a sensible measure, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 73 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 74 to 76 ordered to stand part of the Bill.