In dramatic testimony at Westminster yesterday, Brodie Clark, the former head of the UK Border Force, denied having gone behind Mrs May’s back by relaxing fingerprint checks on foreigners coming into the country.
Instead, he insisted he had acted under long-standing Home Office policy, which allows for a reduction in scrutiny at airports and ports during particularly busy times.
Mrs May had made his position “untenable”, he said, by blaming him two weeks ago when she claimed the rules had been relaxed without her knowledge and that he had “let down” border staff.
His fierce attack on Mrs May’s conduct puts her under fresh pressure, particularly as Mr Clark is expected to proceed with a claim of constructive dismissal.
The row began last month after details emerged of a pilot scheme authorised by Mrs May, which allowed checks on some European travellers to be relaxed to ease queues at border points.
At the same time, it emerged that fingerprint checks on some foreign visitors had also been relaxed – a move which Mrs May explicitly ruled out in the pilot.
Mr Clark acknowledged yesterday that Mrs May had not wanted fingerprint checks to be relaxed as part of the pilot programme. But he explained that his decision had been based on “long-standing contingency arrangements” in place since 2007, also designed to ease the pressure at immigration desks.
He told MPs: “The discussion has been confused by a conflation of two things: firstly, our long-standing Home Office policy on dealing with critical health and safety issues at ports, and secondly, the Home Secretary’s recently introduced pilot on risk-based activity to improve performance.”
Consequently, he said, he had “introduced no additions to the Home Secretary’s trial. Neither did I extend it or alter it in any way whatsoever.” He added: “I did not enlarge, extend or redefine the scope in any way.”
Mr Clark said: “Over 40 years I have built up a reputation, and over two days that reputation has been destroyed, and I believe that has been largely because of the contribution made by the Home Secretary. I am no rogue officer. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Mr Clark acknowledged that the 2007 guidance also did not permit the relaxation of fingerprint checks. But he said he had made an operational judgment – asking borders officials to keep checking a “warnings index” of criminals, which he deemed more important for security.
He said that ministers would have known about the 2007 guidance, adding he had always acted to ensure that security was maintained at border posts as best as possible during a 40-year career.
However, speaking after Mr Clark yesterday, his former boss, UK Border Agency chief executive Rob Whiteman, said Mr Clark had got it wrong. He said it was “completely inconsistent” for Mr Clark to have been told by ministers not to include a suspension of fingerprint checks in the pilot, but then to go ahead with it anyway under a different policy.
Nonetheless, Mrs May’s decision to pin the blame on Mr Clark earlier this month was attacked by Labour figures last night. Former home secretary Alan Johnson said: “She [Theresa May] should not have, under any circumstances, fingered a senior civil servant when there hadn’t even been a proper investigation into what happened.”
The chairman of the home affairs committee, Keith Vaz MP, said there was a clear need for a root-and-branch external review of the UK Border Agency.
The Public and Commercial Services Union also wrote to John Vine, the chief inspector of the UKBA, saying it believed the agency was suffering from “a culture of mismanagement”.
Later, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said David Cameron had “full confidence” in Mrs May.