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UK Home Sec: 'I authorised biometric bypass pilot'

MPs told passport checks 'abandoned on occasion'

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Home Secretary Theresa May fought for her political life in Parliament on Monday after it was revealed that immigration border guards were told to ignore biometric chips on the passports of non-eurozone citizens.

The head of the UK border force, Brodie Clark, "authorised the wider relaxation of border controls without ministerial sanction", May told the House of Commons, ahead of delivering an emergency statement about the matter.

She said: "I did not give my authorisation or consent ... as a result of these actions we will never know how many people passed through."

Hundreds of thousands of people were able to enter the UK without proper checks, following Clark's instructions to border officials to relax controls at busy times in the summer. They were told to stop cross-checking personal information and fingerprints against a Home Office database of terror suspects and illegal immigrants.

May, flanked by Prime Minister David Cameron, said in her statement to MPs that she agreed to a limited pilot in July this year. Border officials were given "discretion" about when to "open the biometric chip", the Home Secretary said.

"Biometric checks were thought to have been abandoned on occasion" and she added that Clark confirmed this happened without prior ministerial approval.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper fired back: "This is her watch, her decision and her government's mistake."

"I am very happy to stand here and take responsibility for the decisions I have taken," May told MPs.

Cooper asked May to provide an estimate of the number of people who had "passed through under the reduced regime".

May declined to respond ahead of her statement to the House. Instead she pointed to the failures of the previous Labour government to secure the border when guards were under immense strain and that "checks were lifted".

Labour backbencher Tom Watson retorted that "18 months in, [the] decisions taken [were] her decisions and her decisions alone".

May said an independent inquiry would determine why controls were relaxed. The independent Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency John Vine will publish a report on his findings in January 2012.

Number 10 said Cameron had full confidence in May, who, despite the controversy, failed to offer her resignation. According to officials, Cameron didn't know that border controls had been relaxed over the summer. Downing Street said such an operational decision would have been determined within the Home Office.

Immigration minister Damian Green said that 5,200 UK Border Agency staff would be cut, with the total number of guards reduced to 18,000 by 2015. He said the move would not affect the frontline.

He said: "It's important to have intelligent border controls using technology, putting the right people in the right places, so we can keep our border secure." ®

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