Labour frontbench spokesperson Richard Rosser on the continued poor management of the UK's borders
Return of the UK Border Farce. That was the headline on the front page of The Metro newspaper earlier this week. The reference was to yet more failings at the UK Border Agency whose performance will be debated in the Lords today.
There is much to talk about. This latest media story referred to a National Audit Office report revealing that hiring of extra staff after some 1000 staff cuts by UKBA have led to chaos at our borders. All this because of the Coalition government’s policy of drastically cutting public expenditure without paying regard to the consequences.
These reductions in staffing, which Ministers said would not affect front line services, have resulted in lengthy waits and long queues to get through passport and immigration checks at our major airports, not least Heathrow.
Figures we have obtained show that in the last week in June, waits in immigration queues for non-EU passengers at Terminals 3,4 and 5 exceeded the target time of 45 minutes on 4, 5 and 4 days of the week respectively. For the month of June as a whole the figures for Terminals 3, 4 and 5 were 13, 21 and 18 days respectively – with the longest wait being over 2 hours.
The Immigration Minister has previously given assurances that all desks at Heathrow, and other key ports and airports in the South East, would be fully staffed during peak periods this summer. Unless you take the view that June is not a summer month, those assurances have not been delivered. The data we have obtained shows that all desks are not being manned at peak times, hence the queues.
Long waits for passengers arriving in the UK give a poor first impression of our country and its level of efficiency. Along with additional staff temporarily drafted in, special arrangements have been made to avoid extended waits for Olympic Games personnel. The question Ministers must answer is what happens after the Olympics. Will we revert back to waits of up to 2 hours in passport and immigration queues once the additional staff have gone? At the moment that looks likely.
The Home Secretary intends to cut staff levels at UKBA and the Border Force by 5000 by the end of this Parliament, despite the long airport queues, despite the increased number of people absconding from Heathrow, and despite deportations last year of around 1000 fewer foreign prisoners than in the final year of the last Labour government.
Ministers need to get a grip on border control and security. It is not much good trying to encourage new businesses, and more visitors, to come here if their welcome on arrival amounts to queuing for two hours. The potential loss to our economy, and our image and reputation, must surely be greater than the cost of employing sufficient border staff.
If the government can give priority to awarding millionaires a 5p in the £ tax cut, why can’t they afford to staff, control and secure our borders properly – to do the job they are meant to do, on our behalf.
Lord Richard Rosser is a member of Labour’s Shadow Home Office team in the House of Lords