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Northumbria research contributes to Parliamentary scrutiny of electronic border management

29th May 2024

An academic from Northumbria University has contributed to a recently completed (Parliamentary inquiry) and (Committee’s press notice) inquiry by the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee about changes in UK and EU border controls.

Northumbria Law School professor Tim J Wilson was invited to brief the Committee about his research during an initial scoping discussion that helped to shape the Committee’s approach to this work. Subsequently, in addition to giving oral evidence in public at Westminster, he contributed two written submissions published on the Inquiry webpages.

The Committee’s report examined evidence, mainly from businesses, NGOs and border control experts, about how travel will become more expensive and time consuming because of new electronic border management systems. A worst-case scenario is that badly implemented changes would cause widespread disruption at and around Dover, the Channel Tunnel Terminal and St Pancras International. Getting the changes wrong could also result in longer-term damage for the UK transport and tourism industries.

Professor Wilson discussed project delivery risks during initial briefing. His public evidence, however, focused on two issues.

Firstly, he commented on how the new systems would collect much more personal data from travellers than at present. This will be compared with information on law enforcement, security and immigration databases and stored for several years. He suggested that this could only improve security if the new data could be checked against extensive, up to data and accurate data from other countries relevant to travel patterns and potential criminality.

The central problem here for successive UK governments is that most UK travel is with EU countries (accounting for 77% of all outward travel). Prior to Brexit, British governments had consistently acknowledged that EU criminal justice databases were an unparalleled source of accurate data (including information about third country nationals collected in EU member states) covering all facets of criminal justice and border security cooperation. The EU arrangements for real-time data exchange and the extent to which they were used by the UK prior to Brexit are well known, but the equivalent UK systems and volume of data exchanged since 2020 have been veiled in secrecy.

He concurred during oral evidence with the view – later expressed in the Committee’s conclusions - that the UK needed to engage “constructively with any future EU proposals for exchanges of border management data with third countries”. He reminded the Committee, however, that as a consequence of the rule of law conditionality [ https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fsisyn.2021.100144 ] on which all UK-EU criminal justice and security cooperation depends - “there can be no question about leaving the European Convention on Human Rights.” Also, and highly relevant to data collected from travellers, EU Data Adequacy (protection) assessments for non-member states, without which data cannot be shared, cover intelligence agency as well as police and border control activities.

Secondly, effective (especially in the sense of not disrupting travel) border security enhancement is not simply a matter of installing new systems. For example, as the case of automated facial recognition in e-gates, the reliability of technological generated outcomes (allow or refuse entry) varies between different proprietorial algorithms. The accuracy of performance will also be affected by the circumstances in which it is used, and quality of the data processed. Therefore, investment in innovative technology needs to be matched by professionally skilled border staff deployed in sufficient numbers to critically review machine generated entry clearances and refusals.

The importance of system reliability and ensuring that border staff are “tech-savvy” was also acknowledged by two very different witnesses: Mr David Neale, the former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, and the Hon. Alexander Downer, Chairman of Policy Exchange, a former Australian Foreign Minister and author of the Independent Review of Border Force (2022) commissioned by Ms Priti Patel when Home Secretary.

Professor Wilson also stressed the importance of learning lessons from the implementation of the new controls by talking to the “people who work on the systems”. Professor Michael Stockdale, the Head of Northumbria Law School, has commented:

Giving voice to front-line professionals - is a distinctive strand in the School’s empirical research. We began with discussions about the changes needed to police an increasingly digitalised society [https://doi.org/10.1177/0022018320952559]. More recent work [ Digital Forensics within the Criminal Justice System: Use, Effectiveness, and Impact — Northumbria University Research Portal ] has demonstrated how this methodology can facilitate constructive and collaborative cross-professional dialogue about problems and problem solving

Professor Wilson suggested that academic research collaboration could support the ongoing Parliamentary scrutiny of the implementation of the schemes, including at inter-Parliamentary level where appropriate, the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, as advocated in the Committee’s conclusions.

Professor Alan Reed, Deputy Faculty Pro Vice-Chancellor in Business and Law, has commented:

Coupling research from the wide range of academic disciplines relevant to border management directly to the development of Parliamentary scrutiny would break new ground in direct collaboration between academics and parliamentarians. The gains would be seen chiefly in the timelier delivery of research findings with direct Parliamentary relevance.

At the present, however, the most urgent action as the Committee has indicated in its own press release, is to improve public and commercial awareness about the forthcoming changes at the UK and EU/Schengen area borders. For this reason, extended notes to editors are annexed to this press release.

 

 

 

 

 

Notes to Editors:

Professor Wilson’s two written evidence submission are available here committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/128828/pdf/

committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/129965/pdf/

and his oral evidence can be read or viewed here committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/14641/pdf/

Context:

What are the key messages in the House of Lords report to UK travellers, and the UK travel and leisure industry?

Most UK citizens and EU and other Schengen Area (Iceland, Norway and Switzerland) nationals will soon find that travel between this country and the Schengen Area has become more expensive and time consuming. Also, their personal and travel details will be accessible by police officers and other government agencies and automatically comparable with data on law enforcement, security and immigration databases for several years.

 

The UK and the EU are introducing three new electronic management systems to improve border security. These are similar systems to those introduced much earlier by countries such as Singapore, Australia and the USA.

 

There is considerable uncertainty about the precise timing of these changes and some operational details or features are not yet finalised or tested. The changes being made by the UK began in February and the first EU system is likely to be operational by October.

 

The good news for UK travellers and Schengen Area tourists planning to visit the British Isles is that - if there are no further delays and the new systems are fit for purpose when introduced or extended - all the changes should be bedded in before the main 2025 holiday season.

 

From now, it is important that anyone planning to travel between the UK and The Schengen Area should follow updates about the timescale for change, additional requirements, costs, impact on travel times and risk of problems during the implementation. Given the complexity of these changes (see below), the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs has called for a step change in publicity about these schemes.

 

There will also be additional requirements for non-visa travel from outside the Schengen Area to the UK, and additional checks on air and sea travel from the UK to the Irish Republic, however, such journeys will be affected by a single set of changes made solely and thus more easily manageable by, respectively, the UK and the Irish governments.

 

How will the changes affect individuals?

 

ETA (Electronic Travel Authorisation) for travellers who do not need a visa for short stays in the UK was initially introduced in late 2023 for citizens from Qatar. In February 2024, the scheme was extended to Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. A Home Minister told the Committee that ETA would be extended to the ‘rest-of-the-world’ excluding EU nationals, this autumn with EU-citizens coming within the schemes scope ‘early next year’.

 

Visitors to the UK required to seek ETA clearance will apply online, providing photographs of their face and the biographical details in their passport. The UK government is advising travellers that they will usually get a decision within three working days sometimes it might be quicker or take longer. The government has estimated that between 11,000 and 121,000 ETA applicants prospective travellers will be rejected each year.

 

ETA pre-travel authorisation does not guarantee that the visit will be permitted. Entry may be refused on arrival in the UK, resulting in immediate removal or temporarily admission (usually for up to a week, subject to passport impoundment and scheduled reporting to the immigration authorities).

 

The EES (European Entry System) will be used to monitor the length of most UK citizens’ short stays in Schengen countries.

 

EES enrolment will capture and record facial images, four fingerprints from the right-hand and the biographic data associated with the traveller’s passport. The enrolment and checks on subsequent visits will occur on arrival in the Schengen country except for sea, train and vehicular travel from Dover, St Pancras International and the Channel Tunnel Terminal when EES compliance will be enforced during passport checks on the UK side of the Channel.

 

The ESS replaces non-Schengen Area passport stamping. EES data, like ETIAS (see below) information, will be accessible by police officers and other government agencies in Schengen countries and automatically comparable with data on law enforcement, security and immigration databases.

 

ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) is a pre-travel authorisation system that will collect more personal information from travellers than EES, but it will only authorise travel and not guarantee entry on arrival, although the European Commission expects that it will ‘substantially reduce the number of refusals of entry at border crossing points.’

 

Most UK citizens will need to complete an online application and wait for authorisation prior to being allowed to travel to Schengen Area countries. This will normally be provided within minutes but where further checks are needed, could take up to 30 days.

 

Transit travel via UK airports will require ETA authorisation, but transit travel via Schengen Area airports will not result in EES monitoring or require ETIAS pre-travel authorisation.

 

What is the cost for individuals?

 

 

ETA

EES

ETIAS

Fee per person

£10.00

None

€7.00 but free for under 18s or over 70s.

Fee for a family of four with two children under 18

£40.00

None

€14.00

Transit travel

£10.00

Not applicable

ETIAS not required

Maximum duration

Depending on passport expiry date, up to 2 years

Depending on exit records, 3-5 years

Depending on passport expiry date, up to 3 years

Appeal against refusal

No: applicants must apply for a visa (minimum cost of £115 (standard visitor visa)

Not applicable

Yes

 

The above costs do not include increases in prices to cover increased travel operator costs or (see below) the impact of the changes on travel or leisure businesses.

 

What is known about the cost for and concerns of travel operators and travel or leisure business?

 

Both the UK and EU systems have been designed with airport travel in mind, adapting Channel Tunnel, rail and port facilities is more expensive or subject to greater space constraints. Getlink Group has spent €80 million on EES infrastructure, including capital and operational expenditure at the UK and French tunnel terminals and have also recruited 70 additional staff in the UK to support the enrolment process. Eurostar have faced ‘an extreme space challenge’ at St Pancras International to locate 49 EES kiosks, which includes overflow space elsewhere in the station. The Port of Dover will make use of a ‘glorified iPad’ developed by the French police to avoid passengers having to leave their vehicles. This device is passed around the occupants in a vehicle and ensures that passengers do not have to get out of the vehicle. Coach traffic is expected to be handled in ‘a discrete manner’ so as not to disrupt other traffic flows. An EU smartphone application may be ready in time for the 2025 peak travel season.

In addition to general concerns about the uncertain timescale for implementation and the risk of severe delays at some Channel crossings and smaller airports, the Committee also received strong representations from the travel industry that aspects of the government’s ETA requirements will place the UK at an immediate competitive disadvantage compared to its European neighbours (for example, fees chargeable for transit travel) . Other witnesses raised concerns about specific potential impacts from changes in border control. These included: a loss of tourist income in Northern Ireland from visitors who enter Ireland via the Republic; threats to the viability of school trips; and anticipated problems with cruise travel in and out of Schengen countries.

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