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Home Office loses track of more than 600,000 people who should have left country, finds immigration watchdog

UK border checks branded 'shambolic'

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 29 March 2018 16:39 BST

UK border checks have been branded "shambolic" after it emerged the Home Office has lost track of more than 600,000 people who should have left the country in the past two years.

A report by the immigration watchdog found the government had “over promised” in its plans for exit checks, with Home Office staff saying it was a "rushed project" that was "always going to be flawed".

Rolled out in 2015, Theresa May repeatedly lauded the scheme, claiming it would give a much clearer picture of movements to and from the UK.

But the report found that of the roughly 10 million individuals whose last period of leave to be in the UK expired in the preceding two years, the database contained no evidence of departure for 601,222 – meaning around one in 20 were unaccounted for.

The figure includes 513,088 “non-visa nationals” - citizens from non-EU countries who require no visa to enter the UK but are typically granted entry for a period of six months, such as the US and Australia. The remaining 88,134 individuals are “visa nationals” from countries outside the EU who must obtain a visa prior to coming to Britain.

The Home Office said that no evidence of departure was not confirmation that an individual remains in the country, only that they have not been matched to a departure record.

Travel industry representatives said the planning and execution of exit checks had been “shambolic”, with unrealistic timelines and a long lead-in time just to agree what the government actually wanted, according to the report.

Of 50 “persons of interest” departing the UK via Eurostar over a 10-month period, border officials were able to intercept only four individuals as the travel data was not transmitted until after the train had left, it said.

David Bolt, chief inspector of borders and immigration, said: “Overall, the sense was that the Home Office had overpromised when setting out its plans for exit checks, and then closed the exit check programme prematurely, declaring exit checks to be ‘business as usual’ when a significant amount of work remained to be done to get full value from them.”

He added: “In the meantime, the Home Office needed to be more careful about presenting exit checks as the answer to managing the illegal migrant population, which for now remained wishful thinking.”

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who chairs the Commons Home Affairs Committee, said the "very critical" report showed that "serious limitations and gaps in data means it isn't even doing the job it was supposed to".

She added that the committee had recommended that the policy should be expanded so it can play a more effective role in immigration enforcement.

A Home Office spokesman said: “Exit checks are helping us focus operational activity better on those people who do not comply with our immigration rules.

”Information gathered has also been invaluable to the police and security services who have used it to help track known criminals and terrorists, supporting wider work taking place across government and law enforcement.“

The department acknowledged that ”more work can be done to realise the full operational potential of data collected“.

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