UK Politics

E-borders delivered most of its aims, Lin Homer tells MPs

Lin Homer
Image caption Lin Homer was chief executive of the UK border agency

The Home Office's £1bn e-borders scheme - seen by many as a costly disaster - has in fact delivered most of its aims, the woman who ran it told MPs.

Lin Homer said it had provided "12 years of continuous improvements" to border security even if progress had been "slower" than she had wanted.

She denied claims by MPs that 80% of the money spent on it was wasted.

Ms Homer, who is now boss of HM Revenue and Customs, was giving evidence to the public accounts committee.

The National Audit Office this week published a highly critical report into e-borders, which was meant to collect and analyse data on everyone travelling to and from the UK before they arrive at ports and airports.

The spending watchdog said checks at Britain's borders remained "highly manual and inefficient", and relied on outdated IT systems.

'Big and bold'

The NAO said a database known as the Warning Index - designed to flag up known criminals or terrorists - was still being used eight years after it should have been retired.

The e-borders system was meant to replace it and another "unstable" old checking system, Semaphore, in March 2014 - but it was scrapped by the government last year. A new system incorporating some of its functions is due to go live in 2019.

Image caption Stephen Phillips and Caroline Flint were among the MPs quizzing Lin Homer

Ms Homer, who was chief executive of the UK Border Agency until 2011, insisted a "significant amount" of what e-borders was meant to do "has been delivered," adding: "It would not be my view that 80% of the money we spent in those 12 years was wasted."

She denied the programme had been "over ambitious", telling MPs: "When you set contracts, sometimes they don't work. We tried something big and bold and I think a lot of it worked."

She said Semaphore, an IBM pilot system launched in 2004 to test the e-borders concept, was proving effective at analysing passenger lists.

Accounts 'destroyed'

Semaphore was beefed up into a frontline service when the coalition government sacked Raytheon, the US contractor hired by the previous Labour government to deliver e-borders, in 2010 after delays.

Raytheon threatened to sue the Home Office for £500m, blaming the UK Border Agency for failings. In March 2015, the government agreed to pay £150m to the company to settle the dispute.

Ms Homer told MPs: "I would accept that a significant amount of the money we paid to Raytheon did not give us value for money but that is not the whole £700m."

She told the MPs she had not been the "architect" of e-borders but it had been her "vision".

How e-borders went wrong

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Tony Blair launched the e-borders programme to improve security

Tony Blair launched the e-borders programme in 2003 to help combat the terror threat and tighten immigration controls

It was originally meant to come on stream in 2007 to work alongside "biometric" identity cards and facial recognition technology

The system was meant to collect details from passenger lists of all people entering and leaving the UK so that they can be checked against security watch lists

The US firm handed a £750m contract by Labour to deliver e-borders, Raytheon, was fired by the coalition government in 2010 for "extremely disappointing" performance

Two old systems were upgraded at a cost of £89m - they are now collecting advance passport data on 86% of passengers travelling to the UK and nearly 100% of passengers leaving the UK

From 2003 to 2015, the Home Office spent "at least £830m" on e-borders and planned to spend a further £275m on the successor programme, according to the NAO.

But the spending watchdog said it could not be more precise because spending records between 2003 and 2006 had apparently been destroyed.

Committee chairman, Labour MP Meg Hillier, said she found it "hard to believe" the records no longer existed, but if that was the case "we would like to know when it was destroyed and who authorised it".

Mark Sedwill, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, said the missing records were due to a change in accounting procedures, but he said he would investigate whether they could be retrieved.

Lessons learned?

Labour MP Caroline Flint, a former Home Office minister, and Conservative MP Stephen Phillips, suggested it might have worked out cheaper to relaunch the Raytheon contract, as Ms Homer had wanted, rather than sacking the firm.

But Mr Sedwill said it had not just been about the money, telling the MPs: "It was fundamentally about confidence in delivery, particularly with the Olympics coming."

Raytheon's main complaint about the contract was that the Home Office kept changing what it wanted from e-borders.

Asked what lessons could be learned to prevent taxpayers money being wasted in the future, Richard Daniel, chief executive of Raytheon UK, said: "Maybe we could have spent more time understanding the Home Office and how they worked."

He added: "From early on, there was a difference in expectations in terms of how the contract would run."

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