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Passport e-Gates Network Outage

Volume 749: debated on Wednesday 8 May 2024

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement about disruption at the border.

At around a quarter to eight last night, the Home Office became aware of a significant IT outage. Investigations determined that the incident was caused by technical issues within the Home Office network. The relevant teams quickly swung into action and a technical response was under way within six minutes. Once the fault was identified, officials worked closely with partners to rectify the problem and restore service. I joined a gold call with the lead officials at midnight last night, and the issue was resolved shortly before half-past midnight.

My information this morning is that all impacted systems have been restored and the incident has been formally closed, with all due diligence checks completed. At this stage, I can assure the House and the wider public that all security checks were maintained throughout. Border security was not compromised at any point, and there is no indication of malicious cyber-activity. Police access to operational systems was unaffected.

As a result of the outage, there were delays at some airports, as Members will be aware. The queues remained manageable and within health and safety parameters. Staff on the ground supported passengers, including through the provision of water, and ensured that welfare needs were met. Although undoubtedly inconvenient, the delays were necessary to maintain the integrity of our border. That is not to minimise the impact of the disruption; I realise that it will have been frustrating for all those affected. I offer my thanks to passengers for their patience as urgent activity was mounted to resolve the incident. I also place on record my gratitude to all the personnel who were involved in the response, including staff within the Home Office and Border Force, and at airports.

I realise that a number of questions will arise from this occurrence. I will, of course, do my utmost to provide as much information as possible, with the caveat that detailed work to understand the circumstances is ongoing. As the House and the public would expect, comprehensive activity to ascertain all relevant information about what happened will be undertaken in earnest in the coming days. Any incident involving our border systems causes concern—that is perfectly understandable. It is worth putting this into context, however. Border Force facilitated over 132 million passenger arrivals last year, consistently processing over 90% of passengers within service standards. As I have said, security was maintained at all times, an urgent response was mounted, and the issue was fully resolved in a matter of hours. None the less, I sincerely apologise for the disruption that occurred.

I can assure the House that the Home Secretary and I will be unswerving in our determination to ensure that every possible lesson is learned and that this does not happen again, and I know that will be the objective of everyone across the Home Office. The security, integrity and effectiveness of the UK border is paramount. It is my foremost priority, and will be for the entirety of the time that I have in this role. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for advance sight of it. I join him in paying tribute to the staff who responded swiftly to resolve last night’s e-gate network outage, whose actions should be commended. It is also right to pay tribute, as he did, to the passengers who waited patiently for hours—some after very long flights.

Our border security is not and should not be a dividing issue. The Minister has done the right thing by coming to the House today with the aim of providing clarity and reassurance on this extremely important matter. However, I am sure that the House will agree that the chaotic scenes across many of the UK’s major airports last night were unacceptable, not least because e-gates have failed on several occasions in recent years. The system collapsed at the start of the late May bank holiday weekend in 2023 because of a failed system upgrade, and technical issues in 2021 caused the gates to fail three times in two months.

That is unacceptable, and it brings into sharp focus how the current high-capacity e-gate system is no longer reliable enough and risks further damaging public trust in the Government’s management of our border security. Furthermore, although the Minister has made it clear that last night’s e-gate failure was down to technical issues rather than malign activity, the Home Office and Border Force must make every effort to ensure that any such technical issues do not expose vulnerabilities in the system that could be exploited by our adversaries, be they state or non-state malign actors. Britain’s border system should at all times allow lawful entry into our country and stop illegal entry. The safety and security of our country depends on it.

I would be grateful if the Minister answered the following questions. First, at this stage, is he able to confirm whether the same technical issue responsible for previous e-gate failures is behind last night’s events? If so, what urgent action will be taken to ensure that it is finally resolved? Secondly, does he believe that the contingency plan for a national e-gate failure worked last night, and what does he deem to be an acceptable wait time for processing entries into the UK when e-gates fail? Thirdly, is he able to share figures on how many Border Force officers were redirected from other vital duties to manually process entries in the UK last night, and were there backlogs in other parts of the border system as a result?

While he is answering questions about mobility and security at the border, can the Minister give a guarantee that full preparations are in place at Dover to avoid queues when the European entry and exit checks are introduced in the autumn? Finally, will he take this opportunity to give an assurance that no other national e-gate failure will happen on his watch? I hope that the Minister will take those questions in the constructive spirit in which they are intended. If he is not able to answer them today, will he write to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), and to me?

There cannot be another repeat of the chaos seen at Britain’s border last night. The Government must do everything they can to resolve these persistent problems for once and for all. The public must have faith that the UK’s border security system still works.

I am very grateful to the shadow Minister for the tone with which he has approached today’s statement and the response on behalf of His Majesty’s Opposition. I reiterate the thanks and appreciation that were reflected in his remarks on Border Force staff and the teams within the airports, who worked alongside the airlines to support passengers during this period of disruption. Again, I place on record my sincere apologies to all passengers who were affected by this issue last night. I can understand their frustration, and I sincerely apologise for it.

The hon. Gentleman specifically asked whether the contingency plan that was in place worked. Of course, we will always learn lessons from contingencies, evolve those models and make sure we are responsive to feedback. However, I think it is fair to say that overall, the contingency plans did work last night, with that strong partnership underpinning them—working with the airlines and airports, with leadership from Border Force teams. He also asked whether border security was compromised. I can confirm that it was not: proper checks were undertaken in the way that we would expect, just not in the automated manner that people would wish to see, with greater manual processing of cases but relying on the underlying systems. Again, that demonstrates that the contingency plans that we put in place for incidents such as this one were robust and did work. The response was triggered within six minutes; the operational contingency then began within an hour. That has subsequently been assured as well, to ensure that the integrity of the border was maintained at all times.

Turning to the security breach aspect of this issue, let me again be clear that this was not a cyber-attack, but the hon. Gentleman is right about the need for us always to be vigilant when it comes to border security and making sure that the IT systems that underpin it are able to withstand those sorts of pressures. We continue to factor that into the work that we are taking forward through our future borders endeavour. When it comes to the root cause of what has happened—how we got to this point in the first place—as soon as the fix was put in place, the posture changed to getting us to a place where we better understand that root cause. That work is ongoing, and it would not be right for me to speculate on it, but I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that we will get to the bottom of this issue.

As for the specific technical issue last night, I am assured that the technical team are confident that there is now a permanent fix to that issue. When it comes to e-gate reliability in general, more than 90 million passengers use e-gates each year, and we are world leading in their use. This is an extremely rare occurrence; as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, one can never guarantee that any IT system will be 100% reliable 100% of the time, but that is why it is imperative that robust contingencies are in place to underlie all those systems, to maintain the integrity of our border.

As a Government, we are clear that we must never compromise border security, and we did not: the border was operational, albeit slower than any of us would like, for which I am sorry. This incident also demonstrates why automation at the border and e-gates are such an important part of the way in which people enter the country: without them, we would see the sort of operation that we saw last night all the time. In fact, last year, over 90% of people cleared the border within 30 minutes, which demonstrates just how integral e-gates are and why we place a real emphasis on making sure they are available. As I have said, we will get to the bottom of this.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about the EU entry-exit system. In recent weeks, we have had a number of opportunities to debate that system in the House. An enormous amount of cross-Government work is going on at the moment to ensure we have the best possible plans in place. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman)—who is in his place—and I are working very closely together on this matter, alongside colleagues from across Government, as well as engaging thoroughly with our EU and French counterparts. We have made real progress in recent weeks, and we will continue to sustain that effort.

May I press the Minister a little further on the reliability of the airports’ contingency plans when we have failures such as this one? As he has alluded to, this is not the first time that this has occurred. I would be interested to know what lessons learned from previous handlings were deployed on this occasion, particularly for supporting passengers who are elderly, have disabilities or young families, or require additional care and support, so that they do not suffer unduly during delays.

My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Transport Committee is right to raise those concerns about passengers and their experiences. As I say, this was a highly regrettable situation, but the response swung into action very quickly. It is fair to say that we always iterate and always learn. We probably will not have got everything 100% right in the immediate response, but there was a genuine effort, co-ordinated by Border Force, with the airlines and airports, to support passengers, particularly vulnerable ones. Individuals who were at airports last night have said to me that they were impressed by the contingency arrangements that were in place, but there are always things that we can learn from these efforts, and we will do exactly that. Our contingency plans always have to be iterated; we always have to be responsive. The integrity of our border is of the utmost importance, and supporting people—particularly vulnerable people—when things go wrong is at the forefront of our considerations.

As was said by the Labour shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), this is the third e-gate failure in a year, and just weeks ago, travellers in Edinburgh, Manchester and Bristol faced hour-long queues. It sounds like the Minister is conducting a thorough investigation; could he confirm that, and also confirm that he will report his findings to the House in a future statement?

This time, the problem appeared to affect not just e-gates. Belfast international airport, which does not have e-gates, said that the Border Force systems had been impacted. Could the Minister please clarify that issue? Finally, the Home Office has been talking for a long time about introducing other technological innovations in order to carry out its business. What lessons does the Minister think this example provides?

I thank the SNP spokesman for the constructive tone he has taken in asking his questions. He has raised a number of points. I can absolutely guarantee him that a thorough investigation is ongoing to establish exactly what went wrong. The technical team is confident that the fix that has been put in place addresses the issue, but of course, we want to understand the underlying causes of what went wrong last night to ensure that the system is as robust as it can possibly be, so that it can withstand any technical challenges going forward. I will gladly take away his point about updating the House, and will consider how that can best be achieved.

The hon. Gentleman has raised a point about Belfast airport. If he does not mind, I would like to take that point away, speak to Border Force officials about it, and provide him with a written update. As for the wider point about delivery of a considerable programme of change at our domestic border over the coming months, he will recall that we are rolling out changes through the electronic travel authorisation scheme. We have been delivering that in phases, and the early indications have been good. That scheme gives us much greater information upstream about passengers before they arrive at our border. That helps us to tackle threats before passengers travel, which is an improved situation, and allows us to understand more about passengers whom we currently know very little about before they set off for the United Kingdom, as opposed to trying to deal with issues at the border. We have also introduced e-visas, which are another important part of our programme to digitise the border.

It is important to say that there will always be a physical Border Force presence at our airports. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) remarks on that point; I wanted to make it clear to the House, because although there is always a place for technology, and automation has an important role to play, it is right that there always be a physical presence as well, to support people who arrive at our ports, and to ensure that we can respond to any issues. Automation will allow us to focus increasingly on risk, and to deploy more Border Force officers to deal with it, as well as to improve the passenger experience, so the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) is right to raise the issue. Any and all learning will be taken forward as we develop processes and programmes, but I am confident that our plans for them are robust. We will get on with delivering on the commitments we have made.

Whenever there are malfunctions of the e-gates at the UK border, it is the airport operators, including Gatwick in my constituency, that have to bear the brunt of the congestion caused by the delays that result. As the Home Office updates the e-gates system with new technology, what assurances can the Minister give me that he and the Home Office will engage with the airport operators, so that they are very much part of ensuring that we have a secure and free-flowing border?

I know that my hon. Friend recognises the importance of the digitisation that we are undertaking of our border from a security, efficiency and customer service perspective. All of those are very important to airlines as well as airport operators. My understanding is that there has consistently been significant engagement with our work on the future borders programme, in addition to routine engagement with Border Force officials. That was reflected in the work done on the ground last night in responding to the issue; it showed how strong those links and connections are. However, we must never be complacent, and when it comes to the programmes that we are developing and have made commitments to deliver, I guarantee my hon. Friend that we will sustain that drumbeat of engagement. I am keen to lean into that as the Minister, and officials will continue to do so as well. I am very grateful for his efforts in raising Gatwick airport’s issues and concerns. He is a very diligent representative of his area, and I am really appreciative of his input.

I commend the Minister for making the statement; it is good to see such transparency. Can he clarify how long it took from the moment the service went down to its restoration? Was it one, two, or three hours? What is the longest period that passengers had to wait? If it was not a cyber-attack and there was no malicious activity, as he said, what was the problemt? Was it with the IT, was it some kind of glitch—a Horizon kind of glitch—or was it the physical operation of the barriers?

Last night was not the day with the largest number of travellers in the UK. We will have days later on this year when we could have significantly larger numbers—for instance, the Whitsun bank holiday. What is the Minister putting in place to ensure that there are sufficient contingency measures, just in case the system goes down again?

Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he puts his questions. Many passengers saw waits of two to three hours last night as they were processed at the border. As I set out in my statement, the fix began to take effect at around half-past midnight, so there were several hours between the issue first becoming known—the response kicked in around six minutes later—and the fix beginning to make a difference at around 12.30 am.

The hon. Gentleman asked what more we can do on the contingency side. I think that there will be learning that comes out of last night. We will take that on board, and there will be opportunities for us to discuss and evaluate it, working with the airports and the airlines. As I have consistently said, I think the response last night proved that there is robust contingency planning in place. It did make a difference, and it meant that the integrity of the border was maintained, but I am sorry that passengers had a longer wait than any of us would want.

On the technical issue, I will not pre-empt the work ongoing at pace in the Department to get to the bottom of the specifics, but we will of course respond to that issue, and any learning required that flows from that will take place.

The British are world-renowned for their patience in queueing, but I thank the Minister for his statement, and for his apology, especially for my Dudley constituents. I think the part that my constituents would struggle with more is his saying that it is a No. 1 priority to make sure that our borders are 100% secure, when the same constituents can see hundreds of people, if not 1,000 a day, landing on the beaches with no documentation whatsoever, and being allowed to stay in this country; if they go on to commit a crime, several years later, they may still be allowed to stay in this country. It is a very real frustration, and something that even I cannot reconcile.

I think my hon. Friend will recognise that there are proper checks in place when people arrive at our airports, as there were last night. Those people were arriving in our country and going about their business perfectly legally. The work we are taking forward—initiatives such as the electronic travel authorisation scheme—will only enhance the security of our border, which I think his constituents would welcome. That is akin to what we see in the United States and countries such as Australia.

However, my hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of illegal migration. I can assure him and his constituents that proper security checks are carried out when people arrive clandestinely. People should not be making small boat crossings of the channel, and should not be coming to the United Kingdom in the backs of lorries. It is completely unacceptable, and that is why his constituents so strongly support the work that the Government are taking forward, particularly focused on making channel crossings unviable. Those crossings happen at the hands of evil criminal gangs, who take people’s money, put them in small boats, and have no regard to whether they get safely to the other side. It is heinous, and that is why we are determined to put them out of business.

I think travellers last night were given an authentic introduction to life in Brexit Britain under this UK Government, where absolutely nothing works whatsoever. That is the churlish point over, but clearly passengers in Glasgow were impacted by this issue. However, the fix at 12.30 am came just before whole slew of 12 flights arrived, so Glasgow in many ways was a lucky airport, as were the passengers arriving there.

The Minister speaks about the contingency plans working. What he is doing to reach out to individual airports, and to look at how their contingency plans worked last night? What resources are available to those airports for improving those contingency plans?

On the first part of the hon. Member’s question, what a load of rubbish. E-gates were an important part of our border infrastructure when we were a member of the European Union, and they continue to be important now that we are a non-member of the European Union, so I think we can discount that perspective.

However, the second half of the hon. Member’s question was very valid. That is precisely why I want operational teams to spend time engaging with airports and airlines following the incident last night, to make sure that we capture any and all learning flowing from it. As I have said, I think it is fair to say that across those organisations, working in partnership, there was a robust response. The contingency plan did work, but there will be things that we can learn from the incident. That is as relevant to Gatwick as it is to Heathrow, Stansted, Belfast and other airports. We should and will have those conversations.

It is probably worth reminding ourselves why the expansion of the use of e-gates, including to families with children aged 10 and over, has been useful, not just from a passenger comfort and convenience point of view, but because there is a range of security benefits to the checks that machines can perform, particularly biometric checks, but I am sure that the Minister will be grateful to me for not going into that on the Floor of the House of Commons.

On this type of outage, inevitably, when a technology is being relied on, there is the potential for something to happen. It is reassuring to hear that in this instance the problem was not caused by a malign influence. If it later emerged that it had been, I am sure that the Minister would come back to the House, but I can imagine the type of assurance that has been given in the Home Office before he came here to give his assurance from the Dispatch Box.

For me, it is about further exploring the opportunities for other agencies and authorities to support Border Force in delivering the border. It seems clear from the Minister’s statement that at all times people are still being checked, but just by an officer, rather than through an e-gate. What further work could be done on rapid deployment through support agreements, potentially with officers from other parts of the civil service who have the training to operate the border, but are not necessarily routinely positioned on it? We must consider the fact that our core goal for the border, particularly as the electronic travel authorisation scheme comes in, is to stop people who are a threat or who we do not want to allow into the country from getting on a plane in the first place to come to the United Kingdom. We should increasingly be declining them at the place where they check in, rather than at the UK border.

My hon. Friend speaks with real authority on these issues, having been the architect of so much of the change we are introducing at the border. He is right that the possibilities of automation are enormous, for improving the passenger experience and having a greater understanding of many of those individuals who are travelling to our country and being able to prevent some of that travel in the first place, rather than responding to that at the border, where risk is involved.

My hon. Friend asked about contingencies. There is always a place for ensuring wider training and opportunity within the organisation to surge capacity when there are challenges. We have done that in responding to a number of different challenges over the years. It is fair to say that last night there were Border Force staff members who are perhaps not on the primary control point ordinarily who were surged in to support the team working on the PCP to help get people through the border as quickly as possible. In particular where there are protracted issues affecting our ports, we should always look at what we can do to provide additional support from other parts of the Home Office and perhaps even elsewhere.

I pay tribute to the staff who worked so hard to respond to the crisis and to every traveller who waited so patiently. The episode says a lot about the Government’s priorities when it comes to controlling our borders properly. Instead of chasing headlines on immoral and expensive policies to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, can the Minister assure me that he will focus on ensuring that my Bath constituents can travel freely, safely and without huge delays?

That is always the priority of the Government. I have set out the focus on security, efficiency and ensuring that passengers have the best possible experience of the UK border. I have been able to set out the fact that in so many instances—a very high percentage of occasions—the e-gates work successfully. Some 90 million passengers pass through the e-gates quickly every year. When it comes to border security, I am probably right in saying that the hon. Lady voted against the sorts of measures, such as the electronic travel authorisation scheme, that we legislated for through the Nationality and Borders Act 2022. That is a cornerstone of our efforts to help improve security at the border, improve that automation and be able to bring passengers through more quickly.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—you perhaps saw the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) handing me the wooden spoon on his way out of the Chamber earlier.

None of this will surprise those of us who think that the Home Office’s default position is to make entering the UK as difficult as possible, because this is essentially a manifestation of the hostile environment writ large. May I press the Minister on the contingencies and redundancies? When people are processed manually at the border, is it essentially the e-gate system with a human being doing the verification, or is it sufficiently separate that people can be processed manually through the border while the e-gates are down? What is his relationship with the airlines and the airports? Is there awareness, as my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) said, when large numbers of flights are expected, so that the e-gates are fully operational and fully staffed? Certainly in my experience and that of some constituents, that is not always the case.

I rather wonder whether the SNP reshuffle is on the minds of SNP colleagues here this afternoon, and their prospects, because we have heard some rather bizarre angles in some of the questions. On the more serious points that the hon. Gentleman raises, when it comes to how we dealt with this incident yesterday, there was underlying system availability to support manual checks to get people through the border as quickly as possible. We also work closely with the airlines and the airports to ensure that we maximise the staffing on the primary control at peak times to ensure that people can be processed as quickly as possible. There are people who pass through having face-to-face interactions with Border Force officers, and there are people who pass through the e-gates. We make sure that we take proper account of the flows through our ports and that staffing reflects the demand at any given point of the day.

Bill Presented

Medicines (Vitamin B12 Injections) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Jane Hunt, supported by Peter Aldous and Anthony Mangnall, presented a Bill to provide that vitamin B12 injections may be sold, supplied or administered by a registered pharmacist without a prescription; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 7 June, and to be printed (Bill 213).