Plans to make it easier for millions of visitors from outside Europe to enter Britain threaten to undermine border security, the government has been told.
About 16 million visitors and migrants will no longer have to fill in landing cards when they arrive at airports and ports across the UK under plans released by the Home Office at the weekend.
The government said the move is designed to cut paperwork and save taxpayers £3.6 million each year, with the consultation highlighting savings to airlines and shipping companies, a reduction in Home Office costs and an end to the burden on travellers filling them in as benefits to scrapping the cards.
But former director general of immigration enforcement at the department David Wood described the cards as a “useful intelligence tool”, adding: “It seems the most incredible haste to abandon the system of landing cards.
“We could access them to find out where someone was staying or where they had stayed if we were carrying out an investigation,” he told The Times.
Lucy Moreton, the general secretary of the Immigration Services Union, expressed concern over the loss of the intelligence elements of the cards, warning that the move “will undermine security of the border”.
The paper landing card, which has been used since 1971, allows Border Force staff to add comments to the cards such as travelling companions, including children, and the amount of cash a person is carrying.
“This is being done in an immense hurry. I am surprised it has not been mentioned to us,” the border staff union boss added.
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After the cards are scrapped on October 1 as part of what the government calls their “digital transformation” of border controls, authorities will rely on “advance passenger information” that non-EU travellers provide, such as their name, gender, date of birth, and the country issuing their travel document.
Conservative MP Tim Loughton, who chaired the Home Affairs committee in the last parliament, slammed the move, arguing that ditching the cards was at odds with a government-wide drive to make Britain’s borders more secure.
“It defies logic, at a time when so much effort is being put into improving border security, to remove a long- standing tool like this without a proper replacement and for what is a relatively small saving,” he said.
On Sunday, immigration minister Brandon Lewis said: “We are modernising border technology to ensure Border Force staff stop dealing with outdated paperwork and can continue to focus on security and protecting the public.
“A huge export for the UK is our tourism industry, so I want people to come through our ports and have a really positive experience.”