UK committee claims IRIS money would be better spent on immigration staff

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The UK Home Affairs Select Committee has criticized the money UK Border Agency's (UKBA) has spent on the IRIS biometric scanning system saying it would have been better used to pay for more immigration staff.

The IRIS system, introduced in 2006, scans registered passenger eyes with a special camera that is then checked against Iris patterns stored in a security database. It was created to help expedite the process of going through UK immigration for frequent air travellers. But now, the scanners are only available in Heathrow and Gatwick airport and enrolment for the scheme has been closed. Also, the scanners are set to be turned off after the 2012 Olympics.

In its report, the Home Affairs Select Committee criticised the cost of the IRIS scheme: "[IRIS'] sole value appears to have been that it provided data for the e-gates. This money could have been better spent on border staff - at least 60 immigration officers could have been employed with the money spent on IRIS."

IRIS will be replaced by e-gates which uses facial recognition instead of eye scans and compares a passenger's face to the photograph saved on the chip in their passport. The e-gates are currently in use in nine UK airports, but have to be overseen by UKBA staff. In the future, the UKBA hopes they will become fully automated and require no human intervention.

However, the committee claimed that UKBA staff have also been discouraging passengers from using the e-gates and IRIS scanner.

"It has been alleged that some of the machines, including iris scanners, are malfunctioning and that agency staff have actively discouraged people from using e-gates. Members of the committee have seen for themselves the closure of this facility and confusion of staff about how to manage and direct the flow of travellers, with staff only able to advise that 'it's not working'," the report stated.

The British Air Transport Association (BATA) recently called on UK ministers and the UKBA to increase immigration staffing or consider a risk-based approach to screening specific passengers at passport control. BAA, which operates Heathrow airport, is also calling for extra staffing to deal with passport and visa checks, as according to them immigration queues can become especially long during peak travel times.

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