British minister: Relaxed border checks not risky

AP News

11/8/2011 5:19:05 PM - AP News

British Home Secretary Theresa May, under increasing pressure because of an unapproved relaxation of border controls, said Tuesday the changes had not endangered national security and insisted she would not resign.

May is on the defensive because the U.K. Border Agency this summer eased controls on people entering the country. May says the agency went far beyond rules she had set out in a pilot program designed to shorten lines at British air and sea ports. But the suspended head of the border force, Brodie Clark, accused the government of misrepresenting the situation and forcing him out of his job.

May told lawmakers she would not step down and blamed Border Agency officials for taking unilateral, unauthorized steps that made it easier for people to enter Britain without proper identity checks.

She admitted it was impossible to know how many people entered without adequate checks, but asserted the practice "did not in any way put border security at risk."

Opposition lawmakers have said the program jeopardized Britain's safety and made it easier for suspected terrorists to enter the country.

May had approved a trial program under which border guards would ditch some passport checks, either to allow them to prioritize resources on specific flights which might be carrying illegal immigrants or terrorism suspects, or to cut long lines at immigration halls. She said officials flouted the terms of the trial and routinely failed to carry out the correct passenger checks.

May suspended three government officials, including border force chief Clark, amid an investigation into allegations about widespread failures to inspect biometric passports, or to match adults against lists of possible terrorism suspects or immigration registers.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who has stood behind his home secretary, said the border agency's behavior had been unacceptable.

"It has been stopped, the person responsible has been suspended," Cameron said. "But clearly this is not acceptable. It is not acceptable that it went on for so long."

May said the border agency had been plagued by systematic problems, but promised improvement.

"The UKBA of today will not be the UKBA of tomorrow," she said.

But Clark accused May of making statements that "are wrong and were made without the benefit of hearing my response to formal allegations." He said he was quitting because May's remarks had made his position "untenable" and would sue the government.

"The home secretary suggests that I added additional measures, improperly, to the trial of our risk-based controls. I did not. Those measures have been in place since 2008/09," Clark said in a statement.

"The home secretary also implies that I relaxed the controls in favor of queue management. I did not. Despite pressure to reduce queues, including from ministers, I can never be accused of compromising security for convenience," Clark said.

Yvette Cooper, opposition spokeswoman for the main opposition Labour Party, said the fiasco showed that May "clearly doesn't know what has been happening at our borders."

"Now she has lost the loyalty of one of her most senior civil servants, Cooper said.

"She needs to come to Parliament tomorrow and answer these points urgently. And this shows it is even more important she publishes all the guidance and instructions she gave the border agency so we can tell what has really been going on."