Pressure was piling on Theresa May over the borders fiasco last night after she admitted relaxing security checks at all ports over the summer.
The Home Secretary conceded in an emergency statement to MPs that she had no idea how many foreign nationals had escaped biometric checks because the controls were further eased by the UK Border Agency (UKBA). She acknowledged that ministers had, without David Cameron's knowledge, decided to run a pilot scheme to gauge the effect of relaxing the checks on British and European travellers. She even extended the trial after an initial six-week period.
A political crisis erupted for Ms May after it emerged that UKBA managers widened the pilot scheme to cover all foreign arrivals at British ports over two months. She insisted that ministers knew nothing of the covert policy until three senior UKBA staff were suspended last week – an admission that brought charges of incompetence.
The shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, said Ms May and the Immigration minister, Damian Green, were "at best were deeply out of touch, at worst complicit in a series of serious breaches of border control".
Ms May is battling the worst problem of her 18 months in her post and the UKBA faces fresh questions over its competence. The issue of immigration is particularly toxic for a Conservative Home Secretary as the party has vowed to tighten border controls and slash numbers of foreign nationals coming to Britain.
Mr Cameron yesterday expressed his full confidence in Ms May and stayed in the Commons to give her his support as she faced a torrent of opposition criticism. The furore was triggered by the suspension of Brodie Clark, the head of the UK border force, following the disclosure that immigration checks were eased for all new arrivals to Britain via Heathrow and Calais in order to cut queues. Under the pilot scheme, controls were relaxed to enable border officials the discretion to judge when to open the biometric chip, which contains a second photograph, on the passports of people from the EU.
Children from the EU with their parents or as part of a school group would also face looser checks, with those deemed a "credible risk" being checked against the database of suspected terrorists and serious criminals.
But the scrutiny was further eased, with adult arrivals not checked against the database at Calais and the fingerprints of non-European nationals from countries that require a visa were stopped. "I did not give my consent or authorisation for any of these decisions," Mrs May told MPs. "Indeed I told officials explicitly that the pilot was to go no further than we had agreed."
However, a leaked memo from the UKBA, written just days after ministers signed off the pilot scheme, referred to plans to only question visa-holders "where there is perceived to be a risk". The significance of the instruction is that only travellers from outside the European Economic Area are required to carry visas.
In addition, the memo, instructs border staff what steps to take "if, for whatever reason, it is considered necessary to take further measures" during the trial period. Last night the Home Office said ministers had not seen the document and maintained there were innocent explanations for the controversial pieces of guidance. It said visa-holders were not always questioned by border staff and the instruction on "further measures" referred to health and safety.
Ms May announced that John Vine, the independent chief inspector of the UKBA, will conduct "a thorough review to find out exactly what happened across UKBA in terms of the checks, how the chain of command in border force operates and whether the system needs to be changed in future".
* MPs are to press for a Commons debate on measures to curb immigration after an online petition yesterday gained the 100,000 supporters required for consideration. Campaigners secured the number of signatures on the "No to 70 Million" petition within a week.
Q&A: Relaxation of border checks
Q: What started this controversy?
A: Brodie Clark, the head of the UK Border Agency, and two other senior managers were suspended last Thursday when it emerged that immigration officers were authorised in August to skip biometric checks on non-European nationals at Heathrow airport and at Calais.
Q: Why does that matter?
A: It meant that there was no confirmation that the names of tens of thousands of arrivals matched the information held about them online. It also meant there was no check against international watch-lists of terrorists and criminals.
Q: How did the policy of reduced checks originate?
A: The decision was made in July to scale back checks for British and European Economic Area (EEA) passport holders (particularly for children travelling with adults) to help cut queues at airports. The move was taken on a pilot basis, but was extended to cover all arrivals.
Q: Who made those decisions?
A The initial decision (for EEA passport holders) was made by Home Office ministers – Theresa May and Damian Green – although not relayed to Downing Street. The extension of the scheme to all passport holders was, according to Ms May, made by Mr Clark and ministers were not told of the initiative.