Plans to force UK sailors to submit online details of crew and voyage before going abroad raise many serious questions

Should we be worried about the decision by the UK Government to plough on with their plan to force sailors to fill in a form online every time they enter or leave the country?

The RYA thinks so. Certainly the e-Borders programme seems very ill thought-out.

This scheme comes into force in 2014 and will oblige everyone to submit online all the details of who is board, when and where they are going a minimum of 24 hours beforehand.

The detail hasn’t been spelled and key questions are unanswered. How is it going to work in practice and what happens if you have to change your plans or head towards somewhere else but can’t get internet access?

Since it covers all voyages beyond territorial waters, will it affect everyone making a passage across Lyme Bay or the Bristol Channel? Will you have to apply online before doing the Fastnet Race?

The RYA has repeatedly pointed out flaws to the scheme, arguing that e-Borders is not flexible enough for yachts. It is, they say, ‘an inappropriate, disproportionate, ineffective and inefficient mechanism for securing the sea border’.

A while back, the idea was that it might be possible to submit information by some alternative means, such as text message or voice telephone service, but that no is no longer on offer. This gives a clue to the probability that this harder line is being driven not by policy but costs.

Gus Lewis, legal adviser of the RYA, elucidates. “The Government ran into difficulties with the technology contractor that was going to deliver the platform and as they can no longer afford it they’ve proposed to revert to the previous web-only method of submission,” he tells me. “It seems they are making no effort to address our concerns.”

But he also points out that the requirement for personal ID and other information for making private voyages might actually fall foul of European law and could be challenged as illegal. The RYA is still arguing and lobbying against the whole principle.

“There is clearly a conflict with the Government’s assurance to the EU Commission that they will not regulate EU citizens who have the right to travel freely and it is difficult to see how the Government can reconcile e-Borders with those assurances,” says Lewis.

“A Home Affairs select committee investigation in 2009 concluded that there was a significant possibility that [e-Borders] would contravene EU law and open the UK up to infraction proceedings.”

Just to add my own concern about e-Borders, it’s clearly as much about monitoring the movement of boats as the ID of people aboard them. And the thing is that UK yachts don’t have to be registered. It’s hard to track them properly when you don’t have any verifiable way of knowing who owns them.

The devil, as they say, is in the detail. The government should tell us how this scheme is going to work and whether or not they are going to keep a record of yacht crews and ownership. This would be a quite fundamental change in the UK, and in these straitened times it’s not too hard to see where a central register of private yachts might go next.