Britain’s struggling Border Force is in no state to manage a post-Brexit migration crackdown

Sam Bowman
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The UK border
Delays at passport control are a regular annoyance for travellers (Source: Getty)

When we leave the EU, we may bring in work permits or some other way of controlling immigration from Europe. The home secretary confirmed that this was on the table this weekend.

To do this, however, we will need to overhaul our Border Force. In a new report released this week, I outline the deep problems that face the Border Force in carrying out its current duties, which Brexit will only add to.

The Force is under-equipped and reliant on outdated technology to do a job that is increasingly demanding, as passenger flows rise and the danger of terrorist attacks continues. It simply does not have the tools it needs to do its job, and nobody seems willing to take responsibility for fixing that.

Passport control is the most visible of the Border Force’s roles, and every traveller dreads a slow queue after a long-haul flight. Even in this role, the Force is not performing well.

This summer, May through August, an average of three out of four Heathrow terminals handling international traffic failed their non-EEA queuing targets every month, in some months by as much as 20 percentage points.

When similar strains occurred in 2011, the Border Force relaxed checks on some passengers to cope, a decision made by the Home Office but allegedly taken beyond those instructions by the Force. The emergence of this led to the resignation of Brodie Clark, the Border Force’s head, and at one point threatened the career of then-home secretary Theresa May.

The Home Secretary Theresa May Addresses The Police Federation Conference
A scandal involving the Border Force threatened Theresa May's career (Source: Getty)

Britain’s smaller airports and ports are surprisingly porous, with correct checking of “high-risk” private flights often not being done. Though the Border Force claims to check 99 per cent of them, a study by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration found that, on two dates studied, 7.5 per cent of high-risk flights were not checked as required, which if reflective of the rest of the year would imply several thousand high-risk flights not being screened properly.

Many of the systems used by the Border Force are out of date. The anti-terror Warnings Index, for example, was set up in the 1990s and was meant to last for seven years, but is still in use. The National Audit Office concluded that the Warnings Index is “unstable and at risk of collapsing” and needs to be replaced, but currently there is no clear strategy about how to do that.

There is no way to automatically record entry and exit, so no way to enforce immigration rules and, for example, spot visa over stayers who do not leave when they’re supposed to.

Nearly everybody agrees that a technological solution is needed. Indeed, the Home Office has tried to implement one – the e-Borders system, whose e-Gates will be familiar to most travellers. This project was never successfully completed and ended in failure, with the government ordered to compensate the firm involved.

Read more: Five ways business can win the public over to the benefits of immigration

Details of this episode are scarce but the government appears to have tried to build a system from the ground up, which given the experience of other grand government IT projects was perhaps never a good idea. It is rather like the government trying to design its own iPad for civil servants, rather than just buying one off the shelf.

We need a modern, integrated system based on biometric technology that allows for fast, accurate and easy identification of travellers as they enter and exit the country. We don’t need to build this ourselves – the government would be better off buying the technology from the private sector.

The Border Force has been failed by Whitehall, and cannot do its job properly. Someone needs to grasp the nettle and take responsibility for giving it the tools it needs.

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