Border Force failing to protect UK say MPs
Decision to carry out full passport checks on passengers last year led to fewer searches for illicit goods and illegal immigrants.
The Border Force’s decision to prioritise passenger checks last year led to the suspension of illegal immigrant checks on freight and contributed to a failure to examine tens of thousands of private planes and boats arriving in the UK, a committee of MPs has found.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the body tasked with securing Britain’s air, sea and rail ports admitted it was failing to meet eight of its 19 performance targets. MPs found that poor planning and outdated IT systems mean it is failing to protect borders properly.
The report will make uncomfortable reading for Theresa May, the home secretary, who was behind drives to ensure that full passport checks were carried out in Britain in 2012.
Margaret Hodge, the chair of the committee, said: “The Border Force prioritised passenger checks on arrival at the expense of other duties and weakened the security of our borders.
“The force neglected to examine freight for illicit goods, neglected to check lorries in Calais for concealed illegal entrants, and failed to check passengers coming into Britain on private planes or boats, potentially letting billionaire gangsters off the hook.
“The morale of staff is at rock bottom, threatening the prospect of achieving the increases in productivity and flexibility of workforce which the Border Force so sorely needs. Senior management must provide strong and stable leadership capable of providing a sense of purpose.”
The Border Force’s 7,600 staff operate immigration and customs controls at 138 air, sea and rail ports across the UK, and in France and Belgium, to prevent “harmful” individuals and goods entering the UK.
In March 2012, May split the £604m Border Force from the UK Border Agency after a much-publicised row over the relaxation of border controls.
According to the report, the home secretary required the Border Force to carry out checks on all passengers arriving in the UK, which resulted in a diversion of staff away from other work. For example, freight checks in Calais, where many illegal immigrants cross the border, were suspended 19 times over three days in April this year.
MPs expressed concern over the large number of private flights that go unchecked under the new regime. Border staff in Luton, which receives nearly a fifth of Britain’s inbound private international flights, told them they had been ordered to prioritise commercial flights, leaving many people coming in on smaller planes unchecked.
The report also points out that the Home Office has worked hard to secure funds to increase staff numbers from 7,600 to 8,000 next year but questions why ministers had previously made 500 staff redundant between 2010 and 2012 at a cost of £39.2m.
The committee said the Border Force needs to set out plans for how it will meet its obligations in a time of squeezed budgets. The committee said in recent years the number of officers has been cut, only to go straight back up again.
A clear timescale should also be laid out for improvements to the IT systems assisting the work of officers, the MPs concluded.
Responding to the report, the immigration minister Mark Harper said last year’s decision to split from the UK Border Agency was made to create a separate command.
“It is making significant improvements in its performance – excessive queues at airports are gone and security strengthened. This extends to both passengers and goods and is underpinned, for the first time, by a clear Operating Mandate set by ministers.
“It will take time to transform Border Force and fix all the problems we inherited but I am confident that we are making the right changes. None of the issues raised in this report come as a surprise and they are already being actively addressed,” he said.