UK Border Force says selective approach to arriving passengers not ruled out as airlines warn of possible ‘gridlock’
A policy of full passport checks on all arriving passengers at Heathrow, Gatwick and other British airports may yet be lifted in the face of renewed complaints about lengthy queues in the immigration halls, the Home Office has indicated.
The home secretary, Theresa May, imposed full passport checks on all air and sea passengers arriving in Britain last autumn in the aftermath of the Brodie Clark affair during which she criticised his use of a “risk-based” approach to selective passport checks when he was head of the UK Border Force.
“We have never ruled out a risk-based approach,” said a Border Force spokesman on Monday. “What we need is clear evidence that it works. And it was made impossible to evaluate with the unauthorised relaxation of the checks in last year’s pilot. We will always put security first, and during the Olympics we will be providing the staff needed to carry out full checks.”
The first indication of a return to a more selective approach follows high-profile complaints from 11 airlines, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, that the home secretary must authorise more border control staff at the passport desks or relax the full checks on all passengers rule if they were not to face “gridlock” during busy periods.
May is expected to be questioned about the persistent delays at Heathrow on Tuesday by the Commons home affairs committee.
Immigration staff unions claim that Home Office ministers rejected a Border Force plan to recruit more staff three weeks ago.
Willie Walsh, boss of International Airlines Group, which owns British Airways, blamed the long immigration queues on the Home Office allocating “inadequate resources” for border controls. Speaking at the UK launch on Monday of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner plane, he accused the government of “undermining” airports such as Heathrow.
Asked how queues could be cut before the London 2012 Games, Walsh said that worrying about preparation for Olympic visitors ignored current problems. “We are on the world stage now,” he said. “This is a fine airport, Terminal 5 is fantastic, [BAA chief executive] Colin Matthews is doing a fine job, but everything they can do is being undermined by the government.”
The first signs of movement by the home secretary also follows a warning on Monday from Clark, that the policy of full border checks would have to be abandoned as it was causing lengthy queues and undermining security by reducing staff to little more than “box tickers”. He told the Times: “Nothing is surer, it [selective checks] will be reintroduced at some stage in the future.”
Passengers faced hours of delays at Gatwick airport last week, but similar delays have occurred at Heathrow and elsewhere. Aviation leaders have long expressed their anger at waiting times over which they have no control, especially as many have invested in streamlined check-ins, new terminals and enhanced baggage screening areas to minimise the time passengers spend in non-retail areas of the airport.
Home Office guidelines says that passengers from outside the European Economic Area should be able to get through passport control within 45 minutes and passengers arriving from within Europe within 25 minutes. But UKBA has lost more than 3,500 staff as a result of budget cuts while Heathrow alone dealt with a record 69 million passengers last year.
A BAA spokesman reiterated on Monday that waiting times at Heathrow had been unacceptable and that they had called on officials to address the problem as a matter of urgency. In a statement, BAA said: “There isn’t a trade-off between strong border security and a good passenger experience – Border Force should be delivering both.”
One Olympic official complained recently that he was made to queue for three hours at Heathrow immigration control.
The home secretary split the UK Border Agency in the wake of the Brodie Clark affair, creating a separate UK Border Force with its own law enforcement ethos.