Checks 'still priority' after e-Borders 'terminated'
The Home Office has denied downgrading plans to check all people entering and leaving the UK.
The head of the UK Border Force, Sir Charles Montgomery, told MPs on Tuesday the troubled e-Borders scheme had been "terminated" in its current form.
Officials said the original scheme had been dropped last summer, saying the checks and screening were now incorporated into a new programme.
Home Affairs committee chairman Keith Vaz MP called it a "shambles".
And Labour said ministers needed to "come clean" about what would replace the scheme.
E-Borders, devised by the Labour government in 2003, was designed to count everyone in and out of the UK by collecting advance passenger information on all scheduled inbound and outbound journeys to and from the UK.
The system, which was expected to cost £536m from 2007 to 2015, has been dogged by problems over the past decade.
It was delayed for several years, its brief changed, and the government has become embroiled in a legal battle with a former contractor, US firm Raytheon, after it was fired in 2010 for what officials said was an "extremely disappointing" performance.
Giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, director general of the UK Border Force Sir Charles was asked about the future of e-Borders and the government's goal of re-introducing full exit checks on those leaving the UK by the time of the 2015 election.
"The permanent secretary (of the Home Office) is aware that the E-borders programme has been terminated," he said.
While he said he hoped universal exit checks would be in place by next year, he suggested the "full e-Borders capability" - as originally envisaged - would not be.
In response, the Home Office said more priority, not less, was being given to the issue and all the checks and screening involved in e-borders had been incorporated, since last summer, into the Border Systems Programme.
This programme incorporates information provided by airlines on passengers in advance of their journeys, the operation of the Warnings Index to identify individuals considered a potential threat, security exit checks and other screening.
Exit checks are currently carried out on 80% of people leaving the UK and the Home Office said the commitment to make this universal by the time of the next election remained in place.
The Home Office said the original business plan for e-Borders had been "changed and improved" after the contract with Raytheon was cancelled.
But Computer Weekly said a report by Chief Inspector of Borders John Vine, published in October, suggested e-Borders had been using two systems known to contain "critical system vulnerabilities", one of which was understood to be 15 years old.
The report also concluded a major rethink on e-Borders was needed because airports were not meeting those with terrorist alerts against them on arrival.
Labour MP Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, said the government still had questions to answer.
"The e-Borders project has ended in a shambles," he told the BBC.
"This debacle has cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds, taken more than a decade and yet we still do not know if the original objectives will ever be achieved."
He added: "Promises have been made that exit checks will be in place by the general election, but given past failures the government need to urgently clarify the timetable for the completion of the rest of the programme and what components of the original e-borders programme have been dropped."
The Home Office said it had written to Mr Vaz last summer to advise him of the changes to e-Borders and this had been acknowledged in a committee report in November.
Shadow immigration minister David Hanson said the project had been "quietly dropped".
"It is indefensible that ministers have wasted four years in legal battles, hiding details and refusing to answer questions about how secure our borders are," he said.
"The ability both to count people in and count them out is vital if we are to secure the borders of the UK and to have controlled immigration and yet we are further away from that than we have been for a decade."
Business group London First said it threatened the transparency of the immigration system.
"The key question is what has replaced e-Borders? Without a workable alternative, politicians will be making policy based on a best guess, rather than hard fact," said its head of immigration policy Mark Hilton.