Exit checks were reintroduced three years ago, allowing the authorities to pursue anyone who had overstayed
Exit checks were reintroduced three years ago, allowing the authorities to pursue anyone who had overstayedRUI VIEIRA/PA
The Home Office has lost track of more than 600,000 foreigners who should have left the UK, according to a report that lays bare Britain’s “shambolic” border checks.
The government has spent £800 million on a borders system that is intended to log every entry into and departure from the country but inspectors from the immigration watchdog uncovered a catalogue of failings.
Home Office staff admitted that they lacked confidence in the system, with one saying it had been “mis-sold”. An airline official described the introduction of exit checks as shambolic.
In a report published yesterday, David Bolt, chief inspector of borders and immigration, found that the exit check system was so unreliable that there were no departure records for 88,000 non-EU citizens whose visas — typically lasting six months — had expired, or for more than 500,000 non-visa travellers including from the US, Australia, Argentina and Brazil. This is equivalent to about one in 20 people whose leave to be in the UK expired between 2015 and last year.
Exit checks were reintroduced by the coalition government in 2015 so that the Home Office could see that those who entered the UK left when they were supposed to. Those who overstayed illegally would then be pursued.
Paper-based exit checks at ports for passengers departing to EU states had been abolished by the Conservatives in 1994 and Labour dropped checks for all other destinations in 1997. The new system is based on the collection of passenger information recorded by airlines and other transport carriers and passed to the Home Office.
Yesterday’s report accused the department of “overpromising”. It found that at the end of August last year there were about ten million people recorded on a Home Office database whose last period of leave to stay in the country had expired in the preceding two years. The database had no evidence that 601,000 had left the country. Mr Bolt said that the value of the information on the database was “severely hamstrung” because of problems with data and gaps in the collection of travellers’ details.
The report said that by the end of last March no effort had been made to contact the non-visa visitors for whom there was no record of departure.
Mr Bolt 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.”
The report found that of 50 “hits” for “persons of interest” leaving via Eurostar over a ten-month period, law enforcement was able to intercept only four people as data was not transmitted until after the train had left. Tens of thousands of Chinese citizens identified as possibly remaining beyond their visas were found to have returned to their home country, it said.
Home Office staff spoke openly to inspectors about their lack of faith in the system, with one saying: “We were certainly mis-sold the programme.”
Some larger groups travelling on privately chartered flights were not recorded on departure, including four football teams and the entire staff of two Gulf ruling families.
The report was released yesterday afternoon hours after Amber Rudd, the home secretary, appeared before the Commons home affairs committee.
Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the committee, said: “This is a very critical report on the operation and design of the exit checks programme. This is an important policy which the home affairs select committee has recommended should be expanded so it can play a more effective role in immigration enforcement. Instead the chief inspector’s report shows that serious limitations and gaps in data mean it isn’t even doing the job it was supposed to.”
The Home Office said that a lack of evidence of departure was not confirmation that an individual remained in the country, only that they had not been matched to a departure record. “Exit checks are helping us focus operational activity better on those people who do not comply with our immigration rules,” it said.