Britain orders inquiry into passport check scandal

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Britain's interior minister ordered an independent inquiry Saturday after the head of the border agency was suspended amid claims guards ceased some passport checks in recent months.

Border chief Brodie Clark and two other officials were suspended after checks for non-EU nationals aimed at stopping suspected terrorists, illegal immigrants and fraudsters from entering the country were reportedly relaxed.

Interior minister Theresa May was said to be furious about the claims, which emerged in press reports Saturday, and has asked the chief inspector of the UK Border Agency, John Vine, to investigate.

But unions and the opposition Labour party claimed the relaxation of checks had been authorised by ministers and blamed staff shortages caused by cuts at the agency, introduced as part of the government's austerity drive.

"It seems as if what's happened was that ministers' advice in July was actually precisely to do that: to cut some corners because there was a shortage of staff," Labour home affairs spokesman Chris Bryant told Sky News TV.

He urged a full inquiry that would address the possible role of ministers as well as border staff, and called for the publication of all paperwork between ministers and the agency.

Sue Smith, of the Public and Commercial Services Union, blamed what she said had been a 10 percent reduction in border force employees.

According to reports, guards were told in recent months not to check fingerprints and other personal details against an interior ministry database of terror suspects and illegal immigrants.

They were also reportedly told to drop checks on biometric chips on the passports of citizens from outside the European Union aimed at ensuring they are not fraudsters.

© 2011 AFP

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