MPs slam £9m bill for axed eye-scan border system

The UK Border Agency (UKBA) spent £9.1 million on an iris-scanning system designed to accelerate border control that would have been better invested in staff, a committee of MPs has found.

Introduced in 2006, the iris recognition immigration system (IRIS) was a voluntary scheme designed to allow frequent travelers to skip passport control by having their eyes scanned. The biometric reading is compared against a database of iris images to identify the passenger.

However, "IRIS had been criticised by travellers for taking longer than going through passport control," the Home Affairs Select Committee said in a report published today.

UKBA said in February of this year that the IRIS contract would not be renewed. The scanning systems have already been switched off at Birmingham and Manchester airports, while scanners in Heathrow and Gatwick will be disabled after the Olympics.

IRIS’ £9.1 million price tag "could have been better spent on border staff," the committee said in its report. "At least 60 immigration officers could have been employed with the money spent on IRIS."

The IRIS system was supplied by French defence contractor SAGEM SA.

The UK Border Agency is currently developing a new electronic border control system called e-Gates. Rather than comparing biometrics database, e-Gates compares a facial recognition reading with data held in a chip in the traveler’s passport.

Giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, UKBA chief executive Rob Whiteman revealed that there is a "detachment between senior management and staff" at the organisation.

"Morale is low, and I have really to make sure that senior managers have the competence and the capability…to be much more closely aligned with staff," Whiteman said. "If e-Gates are seen as a threat [to employee’s jobs], then it probably touches on… the culture and the gap between management and front-line staff."

Whiteman insisted that "e-Gates and automation will allow us to carry out a more efficient border check in order that our staff can focus on the higher risk cases in which we want secondary checks to take place".

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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