22/11/2011 09:26 GMT

Dame Helen Ghosh Defends Suspension Of Brodie Clark Over Border Fiasco

The most senior official at the Home Office, Dame Helen Ghosh, has fully backed Theresa May's account of the UK Border Fiasco. The row led to the suspension of UK Border Force official Brodie Clark, who maintains he did not overstretch his remit when relaxing checks on some passengers entering Britain.

But her evidence, coupled with that of immigration minister Damian Green, still fails to draw a decisive conclusion to the row because the documents which would prove their case have yet to be made public. This is irritating the Commons Home Affairs Commitee, who want to conclude their own investigation into the lapses at the UK Border Agency.

Dame Helen told MPs that the pilot scheme, designed to introduce an "intelligence-led" approach to checking passports, had been discussed in full with Brodie Clark, but that Clark had failed to ever tell ministers that he'd relaxed the biometric fingerprint checks on some non-EEA nationals. "We had regular weekly briefings from Brodie Clark which never mentioned fingerprints," she said.

Brodie Clark has admitted relaxing the checks, but told MPs last week that he had done so in favour of abandoning checks of the Warnings Index of high-risk passengers. His explanation for this was that fingerprint checks tended to flag up fewer suspects at the border than the Warnings Index.

What is baffling about the whole saga is the way that two different schemes were in place. There was a long-running set of guidelines that have existed since 2007, which permit some checks on EEA citizens to be relaxed for health and safety reasons, including overcrowding at airport arrivals halls.

Then there is the pilot scheme which ran in the summer of this year, which ministers approved, but which the Home Secretary and her officials insist should never have included the relaxation of fingerprint checks. These could only have applied to non-EEA nationals because ministers insist they are not taken from EEA citizens anyway.

The confusion about the two sets of guidelines, plus the obvious failure of ministers and officials to assess exactly which checks were being dropped, means none of the key players in the saga come out in glory.

Dame Helen Ghosh, very calm and smiling under pressure, told MPs that Clark went beyond the scope of 2007 guidelines by relaxing checks on non EEA nationals, but baffled MPs by saying that Theresa May had never been told of those guidelines.

"We put all the relevant facts before the home secretary," she said, adding that she had visited a number of points of entry over the summer, including Gatwick and Heathrow. MPs were bemused at how the relaxation of fingerprints for non EEA nationals had gone undetected for so long, and were only noticed by an independent inspector, John Vine, a few weeks ago.

Dame Helen said that Brodie Clark should have included his decision to relax fingerprint checks in his weekly reports to the Home Secretary, but added that a logging system was now being introduced at ports to ensure that ministers are made aware of exactly what checks are being carried out.

On the suspension of Brodie Clark - who then resigned a few days later - Ghosh was unable to produce any evidence to rebut Clark's claim for constructive dismissal. Clark told MPs last week that he had been offered a retirement package and been encouraged to accept it by the head of the UK Border Agency, Rob Whiteman. That package was withdrawn the next day.

Dame Helen told MPs: "I discovered at the end of the day that Brodie Clark was proposing to retire. I understood at that stage that he [was] simply retiring. I then discovered he had been offered enhanced terms which included an additional package.

"I concluded the it was quite inappropriate under the circumstances to offer an enhanced package."

She added: "I believe that Brodie Clark had a long career In a number of high profile, high risk jobs, and he always led from the front," but she refused to describe Clark's career as "distinguished."

Later the immigration minister Damian Green appeared before the Home Affairs committee and said that the pilot scheme had been judged a success because it had led to a 10% rise in the detection rate of illegal immigrants at the border.

When asked if the pilot scheme would be extended into a formal policy he said: "If the pilot can be cleaned up from what's happening."