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UK.gov's e-Borders zombie still lurks under the English Channel

Blighty just can't seem to get it right on entry and exit controls

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Longer queues, more inconvenience – what's the solution?

The real problem is that train journeys, unlike aeroplanes, tend to have multiple stops – something which may get more acute with the start of German train company Deutsche Bahn’s planned services from Cologne to London, currently planned for 2016, which could call at numerous stations in Schengenland.

Operators naturally want to sell as many tickets as possible, including for journeys which don’t cross the Channel, and for reasons of time, cost, passenger annoyance and data protection they do not want to demand more information from passengers just because the British government wants it.

Nevertheless, trains are meant to be covered by e-Borders during 2014. The same timescale applies to ferries. Ships generally sail just between A and B, but while some lines participate in e-Borders for freight drivers, the mass transit, turn-up-and-go model for car drivers used on many routes is not suited to advance checks. Neither is ferry operators’ practice of booking on a restaurant table basis – asking for one name and a party size, rather than details of everyone in the vehicle. For a coach, operators simply need to book space on the vehicle deck and provide a lead contact, not the details of dozens of passengers, although before sailing ships do collect the names of those aboard.

Furthermore, the Home Office has managed to discourage operators by insisting that all inbound passengers are checked with equal vigour, regardless of whether they had been through e-Borders. The result, along with hour-long queues for returning Francophile holidaymakers at overwhelmed Channel port border controls, is that the ferry companies have no real incentive to introduce the system for leisure travel. As on the trains, it would mean annoying their customers by asking for more information, upgrading their systems and potentially facing legal challenges.

“When the e-Borders project started, the Home Office promised great benefits including faster passage for low-risk passengers. None of that has been delivered,” says Tim Reardon, head of taxation, ferry and cruise for the UK Chamber of Shipping. “e-Borders is all cost and no benefit.”

Plain sailing

Meanwhile, those going to the Continent under their own steam or sail seem to have been forgotten – not that they are complaining. Under the original e-Borders plans, it seemed that anyone wishing to sail a yacht across the Channel would have been expected to ask permission electronically of the UK Border Agency, 48 hours in advance.

“As we understood it, it would have been singularly ineffective at detecting criminal activity at the border,” says the Royal Yachting Association’s cruising manager, Stuart Carruthers. The association believes asking boat owners to report suspicious behaviour would produce better results.

Nick Clegg has asked his fellow Liberal Democrat MP David Laws, who helped negotiate the coalition agreement in 2010 before resigning three weeks into his (first) ministerial career over his expenses, to look at how to fulfil its commitment to reimpose exit controls. So what are the options?

Britain could join the Schengen area (assuming Ireland was willing to do likewise), and focus its efforts on high-risk intercontinental routes – as Operation Semaphore originally did. This would save the public’s time waiting in border queues (as for travel within Europe there wouldn’t be any borders), save taxpayers’ money through the closure of many border posts and boost tourism by removing a barrier to high-rolling Chinese tourists, who are currently unwilling to buy a UK visa as well as a Schengen one.

It should be noted that Schengen includes Norway and Switzerland, neither of which are in the EU. But while this plan might appeal to Europhile LibDems, with both Labour and the Conservatives vying to be toughest on immigration, this is unlikely to happen soon.

The other way forward would be to de-spec e-Borders, particularly for travel on and under the waves. If Britain carried out different levels of border checks and data demands based on risk and practicality, rather than trying to get the same level of data for both intercontinental flights and booze-cruises to Calais, then looking at every passport in and out would be more realistic. Checking European passengers at borders, rather than seeking advance information in excess of what operators gather anyway, would also avoid legal problems.

Of course, this would mean the end of e-Borders, at least as the all-seeing border-crossing surveillance system and database its creators intended it to be. Quel dommage. ®

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