Wednesday 22 February 2012

John Vine report published

John Vine CBE QPM is the Independent Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency (UKBA). His report on the Brodie Clark affair was published on Monday 20 February 2012. Like the Home Affairs Committee report Inquiry into the provision of UK Border Controls published a month earlier on Thursday 19 January 2012, it is a historic document. It criticises the Executive and yet, there it is, in a brave move of the Home Secretary's, it’s been published by the Executive.

If you went to bed on 20 February 2012 having learnt about Mr Vine’s report only from reading the Guardian live blog (starting at 4:12 p.m.) and from hearing Yvette Cooper talking about it on the radio, then you probably slept badly with thoughts of something sacred (England) having been defiled (by the invention of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) disturbing your sleep and perhaps remembering that Hopkins poem, “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,/More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring ...”.

Your mood will not have been improved in the morning by the woodentop predictability of the Daily Mail, with their Britain's 'Mickey Mouse' border controls let 500,000 into the country without any checks for FIVE YEARS headline and so you will have sat down to write your blog, entered the bilious title which wrote itself – John Vine signs death certificate – Home Office RIP – and then ... and then thought perhaps it might be a good idea to read the report first.

It's long. There's a lot in it. There's a lot to think about.

First things first, Mr Vine's report describes an exemplary piece of detective work. He has abided by his terms of reference, the work was done quickly and apparently thoroughly and he writes clearly. He hasn't been cross-examined in an open court of law, of course, but prima facie some of his findings look pretty damning.

Writing about the "intelligence-led" trial in Chapter 4 of his report, he successfully debunks UKBA, who obviously haven't got a clue how to run a trial. At para.4.103 he fingers UKBA for claiming that the trial had been a success on the basis of certain drug seizures they made, without being able to prove that they made the drug seizures because of the trial. If drugs companies conducted trials in the same way, we'd all be dead.

No-one knows what "intelligence-led" means, least of all the poor old Home Secretary – regular readers will remember this interchange when she gave evidence in front of the Home Affairs Committee:
Q33 Michael Ellis: ... can you elaborate on what is meant by intelligence-led security measures? ...

Theresa May: Indeed. The basis on which the pilot was to operate was that it was to enable a greater focus on those who were at higher risk. Intelligence-led, led also at the discretion of the officers at the border so that they would be assessing within the two categories of EEA nationals and the biometric chips, and EEA national children ...
Mr Vine's dissection of the Secure ID business in Chapter 3 of his report is minute. "Secure ID" is a misnomer and denotes checking travellers' fingerprints.

Mr Vine is at some pains to show how the failure of immigration officers to do their Secure ID checks can be explained by their inadvertently confusing "Level 2" and "Scenario 2" (para.4.39) or by their failure to understand that Damian Green MP's approval for the suspension of Secure ID checks was a "provisional" approval (para.3.67).

But in the end he has to give up and decide that the immigration officers at Heathrow, in particular, jolly well knew they were flouting ministerial instructions when they suspended Secure ID.

Why would they do that? Are they all rogues?

Maybe not. Maybe they suspended Secure ID because they knew it was a waste of time that they didn't have to waste.

Brodie Clark said when he gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee that fingerprint checks are the least reliable security/identity checks available and that they are the ninth and bottom priority. Mr Vine doesn't disagree. Indeed he quotes Brodie Clark in this connection saying that there have only been seven "hits" from Secure ID (3.13) since it was introduced in 2009-10.

Let's take a bit of time out here for some numbers. In the first 18 months of the coalition government, the period ending 31 October 2011, two days before Brodie Clark was suspended, the following payments were made by UKBA to contractors involved with computerised border security systems including fingerprint-checking:
Atos ............................... 67,461,976
CapGemini .............................. 90,000
CSC (Computer Sciences Corporation) 140,023,212
Detica ................................ 821,034
Fujitsu ........................... 175,743,106
IBM ............................... 155,438,327
Morpho .............................. 1,227,389
PA Consulting ....................... 3,428,522
QinetiQ ............................... 582,868
Serco ............................. 103,590,132
Steria ............................. 19,084,494
VF Worldwide ....................... 67,416,851

Total ............................ £734,907,911

Did those seven hits Brodie Clark talks of cost £105,000,000 each? A cheap mind might say so. Money is the only currency some people can deal in.

But Mr Vine offers us something subtler and more human. He contrasts the pestilentially inflexible computer system which made it hard for immigration officers to collate the statistics of their drugs seizures (4.98) with the benefit of human beings with the gift of judgement, specifically an immigration officer faced with a traveller with impeccable credentials who turned out to have 93 packets of cocaine inside him (Figure 12, p.66).

The computer wouldn't have discovered that cocaine. The traveller's papers were in order. The immigration officer did. He disobeyed instructions and questioned the traveller. He had a hunch. He had a certain amount of autonomy and discretion. And presumably a sound understanding of his duty and an admirable commitment. Which one does the Daily Mail want? Which one do you want?

If you are persuaded that border security depends on people and not on senseless automata then, the more you read John Vine's report, the more you understand what that belief means. It means that forms won't always be filled in correctly. It means that the people at head office will add up the figures and get a different total. It means that one man's "provisional" is another man's "unqualified". No computer would confuse "Level 2" with "Scenario 2", but then no computer will find those 93 packets of cocaine.

Chapter 2 of Mr Vine's report is devoted to the Warnings Index (WI). The WI checks have had to be suspended too often, usually for good reasons (2.21) ...
For example, on 15 July 2011, 100% checks were suspended for one hour and 20 minutes and the reason for this was recorded as “Coaches blocking roundabout”, whilst on 16 July 2011, the reason recorded was “Coaches tailed back to motorway”.
 ... but not always for good reasons. Figure 6 on p.23 of Mr Vine's report lists suspensions of WI checks by port, ending with 106 suspensions at "Other ports combined". Mr Vine attaches a footnote, footnote no.13, one for the history books, explaining that these other combined ports include three holiday destinations. One of them is Disneyland Paris, side-splittingly referred to in the Daily Mail headline above. The three holiday destinations reported just one suspension each, which sounds statistically insignificant. It's just that the suspension went on in each case for four years, Yvette Cooper please note.

It's not good. In fact, it's bad. But look why it's bad. It's profiling.

Some clot decided that no-one coming home from Disneyland Paris was likely to be a security threat and stuck to it for four years. If you believe in the efficacy of targeting, though, this is the kind of result you must expect. This, and the rogue "Operation Savant" uncovered by Mr Vine and dealt with in Chapter 5 of his report.

It does have funny consequences. Also in Chapter 5, Mr Vine records the procedure at Portsmouth, where immigration officers didn't bother to "open the chip" in ePassports, except to annoy French travellers.

But in general, think twice before agreeing that profiling is a good idea.

It sounds targeted or intelligence-led or risk-based, it sounds advanced and scientific. The suggestion is of a crack team of 26 PhDs in the UKBA command and control bunker using advanced pattern-recognition to detect, hidden away in a mineful of data, the geometry of an organised crime or a planned act of terrorism. But as no-one knows the shape of organised crime or terrorism it's baloney.

Mr Vine says in his introduction that "there is nothing I have discovered which could not have been identified and addressed by senior managers exercising proper oversight" (p.6). Which senior managers does he mean?

Go back to the Home Affairs Committee report. The Committee say:
14. ... The UK Border Agency is described as "an executive agency of the Home Office" but it is in fact an integral part of the Department. While it has its own management and budgetary structure, the UK Border Agency is still under the aegis of the Home Office and it no longer formulates its own policy—that is the responsibility of Home Office Ministers, on the advice of Home Office and UK Border Agency officials.

22. ... If we are to accept the version of events as recounted by Ministers and senior Home Office staff then it creates the impression that Mr Clark was running the UK Border Force without effective checks or balances from either his superiors or immediate colleagues despite the fact that the Border Force is not a separate organisation, nor even part of an independent agency, but is part of the mainstream responsibility of the Home Office and comes directly under the responsibility of the Permanent Secretary and the Board of the Department.
So that's who Mr Vine thinks should have exercised proper oversight. The problems aren't all the responsibility of Brodie Clark and a few senior UKBA staff at Heathrow. Responsibility is shared right up into the heart of the Home Office, right up to Dame Helen Ghosh, the Permanent Secretary. And the problems didn't start last year when she started. Dame Helen inherited a lot of the mess from Sir David Normington, her predecessor as Permanent Secretary, who remains as silent about her travails as his ex-boss, Sir Gus, now Lord O'Donnell.

What's the solution? Split the Border Force from the rest of UKBA? That's obviously what Dame Helen and Theresa May have decided to do. A mistake. Especially if they accompany that move with a lot of opprobrium heaped undiscriminatingly on the heads of all their staff. There are success stories. Like the introduction of checks on lost and stolen passports. Success stories which it might be nice if Mr Vine had included in his report.

It could work, though, if UKBA stop wasting lorry-loads of public money on glitzy technology and plausible consultants and contractors and spend a bit instead on the human beings that border security really relies on.

Is there any hope of that happening? On past experience, no. But just maybe the Financial Times story about the deployment of smart gates at UK airports being delayed in advance of Mr Vine's report could herald a break with past experience – maybe UKBA will abort the deployment of smart gates and cut back on their staff cutbacks.


Anonymous said...

"HMRC is shite" also throws Lin Homer's name into the frame :

Anonymous said...

"How to run a trial" seems worth probing.

I guess it can't help if you do all the preparatory work and decide how to cascade the details down to your complex organisation and get it signed off by one Minister - only to be prompted to get it ticked off by the SpAds who then get the boss Minister to change it drastically with very little time left for implementation and communication. With precious little attention to detail or clarification of understanding. "Just how long is an unreasonable queue, Minister ?".

Is it any wonder that the guys on the front-line are confused and demoralised ?

What's going to pep them up for the Olympics ? Perhaps Theresa should give them each a personally signed cuddly toy Wenlock mascot.

Anonymous said...

"You can save time at the UK border by enrolling your biometric information before you travel to the UK."

That could well be true !

David Moss said...

Anonymous said...
"HMRC is shite" also throws Lin Homer's name into the frame:

Few people are unremittingly good (Clint Eastwood?) and luckily few people are unremittingly bad (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown).

It may be an open shut case that Lin Homer is guilty of turning Birmingham into a banana republic. I don't know.

I do know that she said she would implement checks for lost and stolen passports at the UK border and that together with Brodie Clark she did implement checks for lost and stolen passports at the UK border.

I don't claim that that success makes her unremittingly good. Perhaps you shouldn't claim that the Birmingham postal votes scandal makes her or John Prescott unremittingly bad, or "shite" as you unpleasantly term it.

David Moss said...

Anonymous said...
"How to run a trial" seems worth probing.

It certainly does.

The model for a well-conducted trial is provided by the pharmaceutical industry. UKBA's trial of intelligence-led border control fails even to register on the scale of academically valid trials. It's not just that we don't know whether the trial succeeded. We don't even know what it was a trial of.

UKBA claimed to have performed a trial of smart gates at UK airports on the basis of which they decided that it was worth spending lorry-loads of the public's money on this duff face recognition technology.

John Vine said he couldn't find any evidence of any attempt to perform any assessment of the technology whatever. Were UKBA lying about having conducted trials? Is it the case that they just want to buy this technology, they don't care whether it works?

The Home Office did try to run a trial properly once. Never again. It blew up in their face.

In 2004, they did a "scenario test" on face recognition, flat print fingerprinting and iris scanning, three biometrics, please see the UKPS biometrics enrolment trial report compiled by Atos Origin and published in May 2005. The results demonstrated clearly that the technology was too unreliable to do the jobs required of it and that there was no justification for investing public money in it.

Not the result the Home office wanted, so they carried on and spent our money anyway, toughed it out with the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, who took them to task over the matter and ended up having to argue that it wasn't really a biometrics enrolment trial at all, despite the name. Wriggling.

Much "probing required."

David Moss said...

"You can save time at the UK border by enrolling your biometric information before you travel to the UK."

That could well be true !

Speeding up the border crossing for Olympians and their entourages, as keen readers of UK Border Agency News, the bi-monthly page-turner, will know, is an objective of IABS, the Immigration and Asylum Biometric System currently being deployed by Jackie Keane, a senior civil servant at UKBA.

Click on the link, browse to p.10, and you will find that the team forced themselves to go to Istanbul, to do IABS practice at the world wrestling championships.

IABS uses biometric technology provided by Morpho (previously Sagem Sécurité) and is run by IBM.

IBM conducted a trial to choose the best biometric technology. It was no doubt conducted more professionally than UKBA's own trials, see above. But we don't know that for sure as we the public are not allowed to see the trial report. We've paid for it. Our security and convenience depend on it. But we're not allowed to see it.

Maybe the biometrics work. Maybe they don't. We don't know. All we know is that the coalition government spent £735 million of our money in their first 18 months in power on systems whose success depends on these biometrics being reliable.

Fingers crossed. That's the scientific way.

Anonymous said...

Damian seems confident (maybe he has his fingers crossed).

David Moss said...

Thank you very much indeed Anonymous for bringing this Damian Green speech to everyone's attention.

Mr Green says:
"... the legacy given to this government left a lot to be desired ... We inherited a Border Force that failed to conduct all the checks it should have done ... A Border Force where communications between staff and managers were unclear; and where our policy towards key checks was ambiguous or non-existent. This was completely unacceptable."

Mr Green is accusing the entire board of UKBA of incompetence or worse. And senior officials in the Home Office, too, since UKBA is/was an executive agency of the Home Office. And not just officials but secretaries of state and understrapper ministers.

• Lin Homer, previously chief executive of UKBA, is now chief executive of HMRC.
• Sir David Normington, previously permanent secretary at the Home Office, is now First Civil Service Commissioner.
• Dame Helen Ghosh was and still is permanent secretary at the Home Office.
• John Reid, Jacqui Smith and Alan Johnson were Home Secretaries during the period in question.

Their careers haven't suffered as a result of the allegedly unauthorised suspension of border security checks.

How very useful Brodie Clark is.

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