Risk management

Toby Harris on the government’s reluctance to plan properly for border security, post-Brexit

While Brexit was supposed to be all about taking back control of our borders, the reality is that these are already too porous. Indeed, leaving the EU will place so much additional pressure on the UK Border Agency that the situation will only get worse.

Three years ago, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan asked me to review the capital’s preparedness to respond to a major terrorist attack. Concerned about the leakage of firearms into our country, I recommended an increase in the routine screening and searching of cars and freight entering the UK, along with an uplift in Border Force coverage.

Merseyside’s Chief Constable Andy Cooke has warned that police and border officials are struggling to stem the rise in illegal guns being smuggled into the country. The National Crime Agency meanwhile, highlights how most criminal firearms have not been used before – suggesting “a fluid supply” of guns crossing the border.

And it is not just guns. Large quantities of illegal drugs arrive in the UK undetected, without interception.  Likewise, tonnes of unsafe consumer goods that fail basic electrical tests enter our ports. Some are stopped and destroyed but many find their way into shops and markets, despite the valiant efforts of customs officers and trading standards officials.

Last October the National Audit Office published a review of the UK border’s preparedness for Brexit. A bleak assessment, it warned that it would be “very challenging” for the Border Force to recruit, clear and train the 2000 staff needed to manage our departure, estimating that it could take up to three years to put the infrastructure in place. At that point, only 452 offers of employment had been made – with just 149 posts filled.

The postponement of Brexit is of course, providing some extra time to prepare. Earlier this month however, the key government official heading up the Border Delivery Group, Karen Wheeler, quit her job and warned that there were no magic technological solutions to delivering frictionless border arrangements.

The government has instructed that the flow of goods should be prioritised. Nobody wants huge lorry tailbacks and queues at entry points, but in practice flow will be prioritised over security and compliance. So fewer checks against illegal or unsafe goods entering our country. And the clear risk that Brexit will bring chaos to our borders at a time when the authorities are barely able to cope. 

This issue has been raised repeatedly in the House of Lords, and I will do so again this week in the hope that Ministers will stop being complacent and understand that the risks are real and pressing.

Lord Toby Harris of Haringey is a Labour Peer and a member of the joint parliamentary committee on National Security Strategy. He tweets at @LordTobySays

Published 18th June 2019

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