Fail to manage airport queues and see Britain’s future growth depart
HEATHROW’S immigration queue crisis is already a national embarrassment, but the true scale of the damage it is doing has yet to be recognised.
Inevitably, the coverage so far has focused on the Olympics. With hundreds of thousands of extra tourists flooding into the capital, and the attention of the world’s media and sporting establishments focused on London, the last thing we need is for our immigration system to cause huge delays.
Everyone wants the Olympics to go well, and the UK economy could certainly benefit from this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase all we have to offer. Given that we have had seven years’ notice of the event, it would be unforgivable if that chance were to be marred by the performance of the UK Border Force.
But the Games are only in the headlines because their impending approach has drawn attention to the mess our airport border controls are in. The queues at Heathrow were in existence long before now, and on current evidence they are set to continue long after the fireworks of the closing ceremony have sputtered out.
The depressing fact is that vast lines of people waiting to get into Britain at Heathrow have become a day-to-day occurrence, which harms our economy far beyond blemishing our reputation as sporting hosts.
It is essential for British business seeking inward investment or foreign customers that it should be swift and painless to enter this country. Every delay, every queue and for that matter every surly passport control officer harms our economic prospects.
Consider what you would do in the shoes of an investor from Brazil. You have the whole world to pick from when choosing where to put your money.
With a three-hour wait in store should you fly into London, you may as well fly to Paris and get the Eurostar to St Pancras. For that matter, why not look at some French companies to invest in and save the travel time? Or go direct to Germany and cut out Britain entirely?
I spoke recently to an ambassador from a major developing country. He regularly hears from ministers who are keen that he persuades his countrymen to visit Britain. Last week his family, on diplomatic passports, had to wait for hours just to be let in at Heathrow – how can he honestly tell people back home that this is a dynamic and welcoming country?
No-one should need to be told that Britain must strain every sinew to be the most attractive, efficient and welcoming place in the world to do business. And yet the very first faces of British officialdom seen by visitors when landing at Heathrow seem at best utterly blasé about the problem or at worst either grouchy or even absent from the majority of passport desks.
This is intolerable – the failure of just one government agency is putting large numbers of jobs at risk and stunting the UK’s economic growth.
I suspect that in no small part this is due to a total failure of the Border Force to appreciate the wider importance of its work. With institutional tunnel vision, it sees its role as simply to check passports for security reasons, and if people have to wait for hours then they will have to wait.
It does not need to be this way. Ensuring that the desks are properly staffed would be a welcome start in reducing queues. (No-one seems to have considered the public relations damage done by building so many desks that the majority appear to be perpetually unoccupied, which causes almost as much annoyance as the queues themselves.)
Training staff to smile, say hello and wish visitors to the UK a nice day would also be a simple thing to put in place, and yet would do a huge amount to reduce the irritation that builds up when there are queues. Perhaps the current management believe that good manners are incompatible with security, but if they do then they are mistaken.
The level of border control and security is a huge debate that will no doubt go on for the foreseeable future. Whatever degree of control is agreed, though, the UK Border Force must ensure visitors pass through it efficiently and swiftly – the future of our economy is at stake if it does not.
Simon Walker is director general of the Institute of Directors.