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Blair backs electronic border checks

By Patrick Hennessy, Political Editor
(Filed: 13/06/2004)

Britain is preparing to move to a system of electronic border controls within the next three years, reveals leaked Cabinet documents

A confidential memo shows that Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, believes that a new electronic system is "unavoidable" as the Government steps up both the war on terrorism and its clampdown on illegal immigrants.

Electronic border systems, once in operation, would enable immigration officials and airline staff to check fingerprints and other biometric data, such as iris identification, on people seeking to come to Britain, rather than relying simply on passport checks.

The leaked eight-page memo, written by Kate Gross, a policy adviser at No 10, reveals that Mr Blair and other senior ministers were briefed on "e-borders" at last month's "immigration stock-take" at Downing Street by Bill Jeffrey, the head of the Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Directorate.

He said that such systems could deliver "much tighter border control", in particular by providing on-line information about passengers checking in for journeys to Britain.

"Airlines could be refused authority to carry them" if suspicions were awakened, the memo said.

It added: "The system would have major implications for operations against organised crime and terrorism as well as immigration control, and the police, customs and security services were closely involved in the planning.

"The US was investing heavily in systems of this kind and internationally it was generally recognised that this was how to handle future global migration movements.

"The Home Secretary said that while this was new territory, it could deliver major practical gains relatively quickly. With funding, around 80 per cent of a comprehensive e-borders system could be delivered by end-2007."

Mr Blunkett told the meeting that such a step would also "make a strong political announcement".

Ms Gross's memo revealed: "The Prime Minister acknowledged there was a good case for the e-borders project: at some point a system of this sort seemed unavoidable."

Mr Blair sounded a warning, however, over "funding constraints" in the run-up to next month's Comprehensive Spending Review by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, which will set Whitehall budgets for the next three years.

Another warning note came from Patricia Hewitt, the Trade Secretary. According to the memo, she cautioned against transferring costs to airlines. The memo added: "She recalled the sensitivities around Asylum Bill proposals to impose a document-copying requirement on airlines and recommended working closely with carriers."

Under an electronic border system passengers would be checked at ports and airports against lists held by police and other authorities, allowing suspect travellers to be more easily detained.

Fully integrated systems would include fingerprint-checking machines and iris-recognition devices that would operate by passengers staring into lenses.

These could be combined with new credit-card style "passport cards" which could in time replace the traditional passport. Travellers would simply swipe their cards through a machine to be granted access to a country - so long as the information tallied with the recorded biometric data.

It was revealed last week how the memo also contains secret plans to set quotas that would keep out thousands of black and Asian immigrants from countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.