Inspector says poor data undermines exit checks

Report points to ‘errors and omissions’ in transport operator data

The introduction of exit checks on people leaving the country has been “severely hamstrung” by a failure to collect accurate data, says a damning report.

UK border signThe system is meant to log every entry and departure but the Home Office “overpromised” what it could achieve, the chief inspector of borders and immigration found.

As a result, ministers’ claims that border checks are the solution to tackling illegal immigration “remained wishful thinking”, David Bolt warned.

According to the inspection report on the Exit Checks Programme – which ran from 2014-16 – the root of the shortcomings in the Initial Status Analysis (ISA) system lay in “problems with data quality and gaps in data collection”.

It relied on data from transport operators taken when passengers book their journeys, but this has been “prone to errors and omissions, unlike data captured from passport swipes on entry”.

The gaps in data collection were even “harder to plug” and created the strong possibility that people were leaving the country as required even though there was “no record of departure”.

Departures problem

Data was “unreliable” where departures were “via the CTA (Common Travel Area, with the Irish Republic), or by ferry or train, or on a flight for which the data that had been ingested into ISA system was incomplete”.

There were no departure records for about one in 20 people whose leave to be in the UK expired between 2015 and last year – about 600,000 people in total.

Paper based exit checks at ports for passengers departing to EU states were abolished by the Conservatives in 1994 and Labour dropped checks for all other destinations in 1997. Exit checks were then reintroduced by the Coalition Government in 2015, with the promise that those who overstayed illegally would be pursued.

But 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.”

Serious limitations

Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of Commons Home Affairs Committee, said it had recommended the expansion of the Exit Checks Programme for 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,” she warned.

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.

Image by Fox Wu, CC BY 2.0 through flickr