Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. Thank you. I think the Ports Division is currently under-complement. If that is the case, what sort of time-scale would you need to fill those posts?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I am afraid I do not have the complement figure. I would have to give you that precisely, if I may, afterwards. As I say, we are in a period of substantial growth of the kind I described.

  41. The Home Office annual report shows efficiency targets for the Immigration Service which involve reducing the unit cost of immigration port checks from £5.43 in the last financial year to £4.92 by March 2002. Do you think that is achievable?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Yes, I think that broadly is. It obviously reflects the fact that the number of passengers will be coming through in much greater numbers, but I think we are on course, so far, and I hope we can continue to stay on course.

  Chairman: That is very good news indeed.

Mrs Dean

  42. Mr Boys Smith, when I talk about advanced technology I am not sure dogs come into that, really. Could you tell us why sniffer dogs are not yet in use at Harwich and Felixstowe whereas they are in Dover?
  (Mr Boys Smith) It is a question of where we put our resources and effort. I think this is another example of what I said before, and fully understand, that we must be constantly flexing in order to deal with the threat as it evolves, because it will evolve. Clearly, we do need to have dogs in other places, and that is something that we must do, against a background where, as the Chairman has just mentioned, we have felt very constrained by resources to have that kind of flexibility. We are now moving into a different situation. I do not wish to say that we will definitely have dogs in Harwich, but if we need them, if they are material to the control, there is no magic in just having them at Dover.

  43. Could you tell us what the cost of training and operating a dog team is in immigration?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I could not, off the cuff.
  (Mr Roberts) It is quite significant. I think the unit cost of training and providing a dog for a year runs to about £4,000, and we have had a mobile capability before and, as Mr Boys Smith recognised, our priority is Dover so we have been unable to offer dog teams to Harwich. We have put them into Harwich and, indeed, other ferry ports, when we have judged it to be right, and we hope to return to that.

  44. Is it fair to say that the Immigration Service has not been at the cutting edge of applying information technology to its work?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I would not wish to ascribe that remark to the Immigration Service. I am head of IND (Immigration and Nationality Directorate), of which the Immigration Service is part, as you know. I think it is absolutely fair to say that IND has been slow in taking advantage of technology and that it is those working for the Immigration Service in ports, not necessarily, obviously, in headquarters, who have been less well-served by the availability of IT. I entirely accept this. I do not think it is a happy story as far as IND is concerned. I think, now, again, we are moving; we have just taken the important strategic decisions to make the Home Office office-wide system available to the majority of ports, and that work will start quite shortly. So I think we are now moving forward, clearly from a very low base, I entirely admit. I would want to make one exception to that: I think the Warnings Index has been a successful operation. It is one of the earlier ones, and it has worked. Moreover, the recent up-grade has been a great success. I would not wish you to have the impression that it was completely negative, but it has not been adequate and it is now going to get better.

  45. Did the constraints on resources in the latter half of the 1990s have an effect—either by delay or cancellation—on planned information technology?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I was not there through much of the latter part of the 1990s, I arrived at the end of 1998, and I must not seek to speak for those who took decisions when I was not party to them. Undoubtedly, resources were the important consideration, though not necessarily the only one. As you know, IND was heavily involved in a case-work IT application at the same time and I think eyes were particularly on that ball rather than on other balls.

  46. Which other country's information technology systems for immigration work do you most admire?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I am not in a position to answer that question. I would invite either of my colleagues, but they may not feel able to either.

  47. It is something you will be looking into?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Indeed. Sure, we are always anxious to learn from whatever other people are doing, but with IT we have to move forward in a way that suits our particular chances, and the chances that because a particular application is used in the immigration service of some country it will, therefore, be applicable here, I suspect, are fairly slender. IS is part of IND, and IND is part of the Home Office and the coherence of that as a whole organisation having a common IT infrastructure is, of course, very important—just as is the interface between the equipment used at ports and the case-working system that I have referred to. I think we really have to build on that basis rather than, so to speak, take off the shelf elsewhere.

  Mrs Dean: In the unlikely event of resources being unlimited, what available technology would you like to be acquiring now?


  48. Wish out loud, Mr Boys Smith.
  (Mr Boys Smith) If it were available technology I cannot easily answer that because there are lots of technological advances that we wish were available—in particular, for example, in space detection and so on—but they are not yet available in any practical terms. I am going to have to say, and you may feel it is a rather unimaginative answer, that it would be to click my fingers and have the whole of the IND (and, therefore, essentially, we are talking about the IS) fully equipped with the office-wide system, with a fully operational interface into the case-working system that we are now testing and, I hope, will start to become available before too long. So that I would rather build on what we have got.

  49. What about any technology that might be available at the ports rather than the office-wide system?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I think I will ask Mr Wilson to come in, but speaking for myself I think it is not a question of technologies that we know are now operating that we wish we had so much as technologies we would like to have but are not yet properly available. I am conscious there has been work on space detection, for example. If it were possible, safely, to check moving vehicles for the presence of hidden individuals that would be marvellous, but it is not yet available technology, I think, whatever may be in the laboratory. I do not know if Mr Wilson wishes to speculate more imaginatively.

  50. Just to throw in a last speculation before he answers, what advanced technology might be in use in immigration work here and abroad in a decade's time?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I think the big area there will be biometrics and smart card passports—that is to say, a means of identifying somebody instantaneously and checking them against some kind of database by virtue of the fingerprint or the eye, or whatever it may be—all linked into a smart card passport that is electronically checkable as well. I think that would be the big step forward, but that is not yet available technology in the terms to which you refer.
  (Mr Wilson) I would only add that in terms of development, by comparison with most of our EU colleagues, we certainly have not cornered the market in being slow to take advantage of existing technology and developing technology, but in patches we are quite good. I think you are coming down to Status Park, which is where the National Forgery Section is located, and you will see we do have the latest state-of-the-art equipment, because we do liaise quite closely with the developers and the companies who manufacture the equipment. They are happy for us to test their products to see if they work. I think, in that respect, we have done quite well. The system operates in that once the National Forgery Section has either used up or tested a piece of equipment so that it works, there is a programme whereby the equipment is sent out to the ports so that at each port they will have, at some places, quite sophisticated forgery detection equipment whilst at the smaller ports, really, more basic stuff, but the basic stuff is often the best stuff—the magnifying glass and microscope are often as good as the multi-thousand pound piece of equipment.

Mr Howarth

  51. Going back to basic equipment, we saw in Dover the operation of the sniffer dogs and the CO2 detectors. They seem extremely cost-effective tools to use for the purpose, and I think the public would be astonished that these are not available at other ports. Given the great publicity that there now is surrounding the upgrading of the controls on the Calais-Dover run, there must be a temptation to those engaged in smuggling people to look to other ports. Surely, failing to provide this basic equipment at £4,000 a sniffer dog does seem to be rather penny-pinching and ineffective.
  (Mr Boys Smith) I accept, as both Mr Roberts and I have said, that we have focussed our efforts on Dover hitherto. We are now moving into a new situation where the civil penalty will very shortly be rolled out round the rest of the country. Clearly, we must ensure that we are equipped adequately to deal with the threat as it appears at individual ports other than Dover. So, I expect all these things to come—

  52. Forgive me, I do not wish to accuse you of complacency but it does sound as though you are focussing on one port now, getting everything up and running and making sure that it is all-singing and dancing, and then when you have done that you will move on to the next port—and, meanwhile, these guys are entrepreneurs and ahead of you.
  (Mr Boys Smith) Sure. I am not complacent, I entirely understand that we have to move very fast and keep up with those who are seeking to breach the system. We have focussed our attention on Dover because that is where the resources seemed most successfully deployed. Mr Roberts reminded me and said to the Committee that the dogs have, in fact, been used elsewhere, both the dogs and CO2 wands. We will make the necessary deployments. No way am I complacent about either the threat we face or the fact that we need to change to follow on with the civil penalty.

  53. Can we have an assurance that they will be put in place in the next few weeks?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I cannot say in the next few weeks but we will put the necessary equipment in place, whether it is dogs or wands, wherever there is a threat to which they are material. If there is any detail Mr Roberts can add.
  (Mr Roberts) I think Mr Howarth is absolutely right. The "opposition", if you like, are very flexible and we have to be very flexible in return. Putting a dedicated dog team in Harwich, if the problem were to displace to Portsmouth, is not a sensible use of that flexibility. We need to build the expertise—and dog handling is a particular skill—and it may or may not make sense to have dog-handlers permanently based at Harwich. Vulnerability at Harwich is different from that at Dover and there, as you have seen yourselves, they essentially have trailers that are tugged off and on, and you can search those easily, because they are static and they are in a contained area, with a CO2 detector, whereas with the volumes of accompanied freight at Dover you may need a different approach. In terms of being flexible, we can assure the Committee that we are aware of that and once resources allow us to get into that position we will be as flexible as we need to be.

Mr Singh

  54. I just want to know if there are any plans to use x-ray technology to detect illegals in lorries.
  (Mr Boys Smith) There are no present plans, going back to Mrs Dean's earlier questions, because there is no available technology that meets our requirement as to being safe and as effective as CO2 and the dogs together. Obviously, if something becomes available and is as effective, then we will look at it.

  55. I understand that Customs and Excise are actually tendering, at the moment, for either static or mobile x-ray technology. Is there any possibility of dual use of that technology between Customs and the Immigration Service?
  (Mr Boys Smith) At the moment that is not the proposal. They are, indeed, moving down that road, we will see how that goes, and we will obviously want to co-operate—continue to co-operate—with Customs at Dover and elsewhere, exactly as we do now. If something comes out of that which is applicable for our purposes then, of course, we would want to make use of it and would expect and be confident we could work closely with Customs on that.

Mr Linton

  56. I have a few questions on the effectiveness of border controls in general. Just looking at the Home Office evidence, I think you more or less acknowledge there that the reason we stayed out of Schengen is because we believed the land border controls are ineffective or, at least, less effective than the controls we have, being a virtual island. However, we do sit on the Schengen Evaluation Group and I wonder if you could tell us, have you been able to make border controls in the European Union more effective, and do you think the Evaluation Group has had any successes?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I think it has. We do sit in these various fora; we relate to our Schengen colleagues and we also sit on EU-wide groups to do with frontier controls. We have played a significant part in helping accession countries get up to speed, both in the immigration field and in things to do with organised crime and so on. We will continue to co-operate on that. It is absolutely the case that a land frontier is harder to police, or control, than is a maritime one, and the evidence for that, of course, is Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which, in the circumstances of a few years ago, was very hard to seal. The only way to seal a land frontier is by the old iron curtain with a series of barbed wire fences. So, there are clearly difficulties on any land frontier, and we will continue to work with European colleagues. I think the Schengen Evaluation process has proved to be pretty strenuous, anyhow, and an example of that is that Greece joined Schengen in 1992 and it took eight years before the other Schengen countries were satisfied as to the Greek controls and prepared to remove their own internal frontiers between themselves and Greece. The Nordic countries will take five years, and internal controls will be removed next year. I cannot speculate or speak, obviously, for colleagues in Schengen countries, but I think it is reasonable to assume that it will be many years before the internal frontier is removed between the new countries joining Schengen—say, Poland—and the actual Schengen countries themselves.

  57. Coming on to the new countries, as it has been put to us, even on the present border, say, between Germany and Poland, which we are going to visit, you may not be able to go through the border post but you can walk through the forest. What are the chances going to be, say, on the Hungarian/German frontier in the depths of Transylvania or, indeed, on the Polish/Ukrainian frontier, of effective border controls?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Those are immense difficulties. The border control, of course, in Schengen countries is supplemented by other internal arrangements, whether it is the use of ID cards and things of that nature, so one has to see the internal and the frontier hand-in-hand. Undoubtedly, as I say, there are difficulties, as we ourselves have seen through Northern Ireland, in wholly policing a frontier of that kind. I think it is, therefore, the kind of thinking that you are articulating that has led successive ministers to conclude they wanted to retain the frontier control as far as the UK itself was concerned, and that is now in the Treaty of Amsterdam.

  58. Can I put it to you: do you think that any borders are going to be effective against the amount of pressure for economic migration? We have seen an estimate that there are probably already some 30 million illegal immigrants in the world at large, and we have no idea how many of those will be in the UK. Obviously, land control is very difficult to police, but so are sea controls. The economic pressure for migration continues to grow. Do you think that we will be forced to look more closely at in-country controls?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I have no reason to think that we will make a sort of fundamental switch to in-country controls. You are obviously now asking me a major policy issue on which the Government has not taken any view. You are absolutely right about pressure; the pressures will remain intense, both in terms of the task of dealing with legitimate passengers—the 90 million or so that came in last year—as well as the increasing sophistication of those who want to come in illegally. We have got—by legal framework, adequacy of resources and managerial flexibility—to try to keep up with that game all the time, to encompass new technology where it is relevant, but we will never be standing still any more than those who seek to come here illegally will be standing still. So it will be a constant—"battle" is not perhaps the right word—challenge to us.

  59. One further question to follow up on the question of forgeries, which Mr Wilson dealt with. In Dover we saw UK passports where the back page had been slit open to substitute another photograph, and it seems quite a surprisingly easy process. Is there no technological way in which passports can be redesigned to make it much more difficult to make a simple substitution of the photograph in an existing passport?
  (Mr Wilson) Yes, there is. In fact, the latest version of the British passport does not have the passport photograph on the cover, so that you can no longer do that. It is a fact that since October 1998 two million new-style passports have been issued and we have not yet discovered one forgery that has successfully passed through the control. The difficulty, of course, is that most of us hold passports that were issued before October 1998 and there will be a ten-year period before everybody holds the new-style passport. The EU has issued an explanatory memorandum which went before our Parliament earlier this year, in which it introduces minimum security standards for travel documents, and the UK already meets all of those.

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