The Home Office respond to our request to know why Border Agency patrols have been asking for ID and papers, but exactly what powers are they exercising?
One of the tenets of British democracy is that while we go about our lawful business it is for agents of the state to prove who they are to us and not the other way round.
That is why there is such deep-rooted resistance to the introduction of ID cards and the building and sharing of large databases of personal information.
Safeguards for the individual against the powers of the state are considered vitally important and many are enshrined in law.
For example, if you are stopped by police it is the officer who must give you a form stating his or her name. But you don’t have to give any personal information whatsoever, except for your ethnicity, unless you are being reported for an offence.
So why has the newly empowered UK Border Agency (UKBA) been stopping UK pleasure vessels coasting in UK waters and asking crew for ID and documentation?
What powers does the UKBA have to ask for it?
Following complaints by members this year who had been boarded in territorial waters and asked to produce documentation, the RYA wrote to the government in August outlining its concerns.
To date, there has been no reply from the Minister.
If you are a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that I took a different tack and submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Home Office (read more here and here) I asked for information about the frequency of boarding of pleasure craft in UK waters in the period overlapping the handover from Customs to the UK Border Agency.
And I wanted to know how often UKBA patrols had asked British yachts while coasting for ID or other documentation, which of course we do not have to possess or carry.
This FOI request was submitted in September. By law, the deadline for a response or agreement for an extension is 20 working days. This has long expired. I have not received a reply to my latest emails asking why.
In the meantime I have also been in contact with the Home Office press office. This has been a frustrating process. At first a spokesman claimed to be confused about what I wanted to find out, then I was told I was confused and what I really wanted to know was about the EBorders scheme for going foreign (I didn’t), and now we are back to them being confused.
However, after my stroppy blog (here) last week the Home Office promptly sent a statement which I have posted below. This confirms that there is no compulsion to carry ID or yacht documentation and no penalty for failing to produce it when asked.
So exactly why, then, are the UKBA even asking for this information and what are they doing with it?
I asked the Home Office and the reply stated that: ‘The powers of the officers are provided through the 1979 Customs and Excise Management Act. This gives officers the necessary powers to stop, board and search vessels and ask questions’.
You certainly cannot willfully obstruct an officer wishing to board your yacht. But does this Act really empower them to ask about and keep a record of personal information? Gus Lewis, the RYA’s legal manager, doesn’t believe so.
Or have new powers been granted that are buried away in a piece of anti-terrorism legislation – let’s say like the RIPA powers that were being exercised recently by Poole Council to carry out surveillance on residents seeking a local school place for their child.
So I have asked the Home Office to clarify exactly which powers the UKBA are exercising, if any.
A couple of final points.
The Home Office have repeatedly assured me that they are talking to the RYA about these matters. Sort of but not exactly.
Within the last few weeks, the UKBA have been keen to set up a meeting with the RYA. The RYA wonders and I suspect that the purpose is to offer reassurances over a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits, with the hope that this response will be accepted instead of a formal written reply from the Minister to their letter.
The thing is that briefings and chats such as this are deniable whereas a letter from the Minister incontrovertibly sets out government policy.
In a similar vein, the statement below from the Home Office offers an oblique reply to my FOI request, stating that ‘as there is no compulsion for UK residents sailing within UK waters to carry identification, the UK Border Agency does not collate figures on how many times we have asked for identification.’
A nice one, don’t you think? But that reply is quite different to a formal Freedom of Information statement that there is no such publicly held data.
So we will keep on trying to obtain an answer and any statistics to which we – and you – have a legal entitlement.
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HOME OFFICE STATEMENT
There is no compulsion for UK residents sailing for pleasure within UK waters to carry identification with them. There is no penalty for those who fail to supply identification when requested by UK Border Agency officers.
As there is no compulsion for UK residents sailing within UK waters to carry identification, the UK Border Agency does not collate figures on how many times we have asked for identification
Our prime responsibility is to protect the border from illegal immigration, smuggling and prevent border tax fraud on all vessels. This applies to any vessel, whether it has sailed from a port within the EU or from a country outside the EU.
As part of our law enforcement responsibility, we play a key role in protecting society and the boating community from the threat of criminality.
When boarding a vessel to investigate possible illegal immigration or smuggling, we may ask for proof of identity and ask a number of questions. This can help us establish the rightful owner of the vessel to prevent pleasure craft theft, as well as to determine who people are.