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Border Control Scheme

Volume 535: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2011

Let me apologise for the fact that the Home Secretary cannot be here; she is attending an important meeting of the National Security Council.

It is simply not true that immigration and customs checks for all private flights were abandoned under this Government. In fact, the controls against high-risk private flights were strengthened, and that is entirely consistent with our overall approach to border security of using more intelligence-led checks against high-risk passengers and journeys. Far from weakening our border controls, those measures were aimed at strengthening our border.

Under the previous Government, it was clear that the UK Border Agency’s procedures for private flights meant that some high-risk flights were missed, and this left our country open to the risk of drug smuggling, illegal immigration and gun running. In fact, the previous Government did not even have agreed definitions of high-risk, medium-risk or low-risk private flights, and there were no standard operational procedures: flights landing in one part of the country might be met by a UKBA team; the exact same flight landing somewhere else might not.

Indeed, under the previous Government, Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, called private aviation the UK’s “soft underbelly”. To get a grip on that chaotic situation, in January the UKBA developed a new strategy for private flights, with the aim of meeting 100% of all high-risk flights through the use of better intelligence and increased compliance, the greater use of the warnings index and a standardised risk-assessment procedure. It gave us for the first time a consistent national system for dealing with private aviation, and it drew on the resources of the police and other agencies to make sure that all high-risk flights were met.

The strategy makes use of the legal requirement for pilots to submit records of their passengers. Those are checked against the warnings index, and a full, standardised risk assessment is carried out. The UKBA will deploy officers to meet any flight on which police or other intelligence causes concern, or on which there is a warnings index hit. Local UKBA teams, field intelligence officers and the police then work to ensure a high level of compliance with these procedures, which are, for the first time, consistent across the country. In the view of UKBA senior management, the new strategy is finally getting on top of the risk from private aviation.

Everything that Ministers in this Government have authorised has been done to strengthen our borders: resources focused on high-risk passengers and journeys, a new strategy to sort out private aviation, a new National Crime Agency with a border policing command, e-Borders to check passengers in and out of the country, and tough enforcement. Some 400,000 visas were rejected last year and 68,000 people with the wrong documents were prevented from coming to Britain in the first place.

These particular operational changes were made to address a problem that had existed for years and had been identified but not acted on by the Government of whom the shadow Home Secretary was a member. The border is safer now than it was two years ago. I commend this statement to the House.

Last week, the Home Secretary told the House:

“the only incident of which I am aware when passengers were waved through passport control without any checks at all did not occur during my pilot. It happened in 2004”.—[Official Report, 9 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 324.]

Yesterday, I was shown e-mails from the border agency from June 2011, which show that immigrations and customs checks were stopped on arrivals of private flights, in accordance with a new national general aviation strategy. That and the answer the Minister for Immigration has just given contradict the information given by the Home Secretary last week.

Why, then, does the Home Secretary not feel that she should come to this House to answer the growing number of questions about this borders fiasco? She has refused to come to the House and she has refused to do interviews for nearly two weeks. One e-mail from 14 June refers to the instruction not to see passengers arriving on private charter flights for either immigrations or customs purposes and states:

“we are not allowed to physically see the passengers”.

Does the Minister for Immigration agree that the Home Secretary was wrong to say that no passengers had been, as she put it, “waved through” on arrival? Will he now correct that?

According to Treasury figures, there are 80,000 to 90,000 private flights a year. Will the Minister tell the House how many of those flights went through with no checks on arrival and what the security and immigration implications are of not even checking whether the number of people getting off the plane is the same as had been advised? If there was a new general aviation strategy, why did the Home Secretary not refer to it last week? Did she even know it existed? Was it in the weekly updates we now know went to the Minister for Immigration? How does that strategy relate to the so-called pilot?

There are far more questions than answers in this continuing borders fiasco. How on earth can we have any confidence in what the Home Secretary says is happening at our borders? She will not come and answer the questions. She said that no one was waved through, but it is clear that many passengers were. She said that Brodie Clark went further than she authorised and admitted he had done so, but this morning Brodie Clark has said categorically that he did not. She said that the performance of the border agency improved this summer, but this morning the head of the statistics agency described that as a highly selective use of statistics that may, indeed, be in breach of the ministerial code. Did the Home Secretary knowingly provide wrong information or did she just not have a clue what was going on at Britain’s borders? She cannot keep running away. She must come to this House herself and answer these vital questions about what was happening at the border agency this summer.

It is a shame that the shadow Home Secretary wrote that rant before she listened to what I said in response to her first question. To say that the Home Secretary has not been visible in this House is palpably absurd. She was here twice last week—[Hon. Members: “ Where is she?”] She is attending a meeting of the National Security Council. I am sorry that the shadow Home Secretary does not seem to think that that is an important part of the Home Secretary’s responsibilities. I am sure that the House thinks it is an important part of the Home Secretary’s responsibilities. The right hon. Lady’s basic accusation that the Home Secretary has in any way not answered these questions is, as I say, palpably absurd.

The second question the right hon. Lady asked—indeed, the only substantive one in her rather scatter-gun approach —was about how many people were coming through without being checked. The answer, now, is that every private flight is checked against the warnings index. [Interruption.] I commend Opposition Front Benchers for saying that it is a bit late now. Yes, it is—for 13 years, nothing happened; the right hon. Lady has put her finger on it. There was a shambles in the immigration system, and private aviation was part of it. That was identified by the Government’s own counter-terrorism adviser, but they did nothing about it. We now have done something about it, and that means that every flight is checked against the warnings index and every high-risk flight is met. If there have been changes, as there have been this year, they have been for the better and they have made our borders safer.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement on private flights and the need for consistency across the country with every flight checked, as he confirmed. Does he agree that the border force is responsible for allowing only legitimate entry and exit, and that that is what our constituents expect?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. He makes a good point about the border force. The men and women at the border are doing a very good job. All our changes are designed to ensure a more risk-based approach to immigration control—an approach that I was glad to hear commended by the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), on the radio this morning—and to make the border safer, precisely by using the expertise of the men and women in the border force who check people coming through the border. Using their expertise more intelligently, and not just having a one-size-fits-all border security system will make, and already is making, our border safer. I think that underneath their bluster, the Opposition agree with that.

Is it not a fact that what the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister said in this House last Wednesday has been completely undermined by the latest revelations, which demonstrate that either they did know what was going on but would not tell the House or they did not know what was going on and could not tell the House? Is it not a fact that our borders are now less secure under this Government, with people coming in who are not even seen by the border agency? This Government have let the country down, and it is about time the Home Secretary went.

Does the Minister agree that it is this coalition Government who are going to have to clear up the mess left by Labour, reform a Department deemed not fit for purpose, and secure our borders so that our debate on immigration can be about the skills that the UK economy and the public sector need, rather than about border controls?

My right hon. Friend is right. I am sorry that the Opposition cannot elevate the tone of the debate. As I say, it is interesting that when Labour Home Secretaries cease to be Home Secretaries and become former Home Secretaries, they commend the degree of consensus about using a risk-based approach to security control and immigration control. That would be a sensible way for this debate to go forward, because it is perfectly clear that the long-term solution to the many challenges at our border is to use our resources as intelligently as possible and to use the very good people we have at the border to cope with and combat the highest risks. That is what the general aviation policy was meant to do, as was our pilot over the summer, and the early signs are that they are indeed successful. The Opposition can argue about the details, but I would genuinely welcome some common sense and support for these principles from the shadow Home Secretary. That would be a more sensible approach that the one she has taken until now.

Given that the Home Secretary’s policy was consistent across the country, will the Minister confirm that a number of private planes were allowed to land at Manchester airport this summer without proper customs and immigration checks? If that is the case, will he tell me how many?

The point of the pilot and of the private jets policy was to improve checks. The idea that there were no immigration checks is simply wrong. It is wrong in relation to Manchester airport and wrong in relation to other airports. The right hon. Gentleman asked how many flights arrived without immigration checks. The answer is none.

Could the Minister kindly explain what happened under the previous Government before the change to the new general aviation policy that is based on a risk-based assessment?

What used to happen under the previous Government was that flights were designated as high, medium or low risk, but there were no criteria by which anyone could judge whether flights were high, medium or low risk. All the very good people at the border therefore took a view on an individual basis. The result was complete inconsistency between different parts of the country. I cannot think that anyone addressing this matter in a fair-minded way would say that having a decent set of national criteria about what is a high or a medium-risk flight is less sensible than the chaos that existed before.

The shadow Home Secretary asked the Minister a direct question. What he has announced this morning is inconsistent with what the Home Secretary told the House last week. Did the Home Secretary know?

Nothing that I have said this morning is in any way inconsistent with what the Home Secretary said last week.

Has the Labour party passed on all the details that it says it has received from border agency staff about private flights? Has the Home Office had time to check the veracity and accuracy of those allegations?

The Labour party, predictably, has passed the information on to newspapers, so we know what it has. [Interruption.] I do know about that. I will not stand here and condemn people for using leaked information. I merely point out to the shadow Home Secretary that it is rather more effective when one produces documents that show that Ministers have done something wrong. Throughout this affair, she has so far signally failed to do that.

All the big ones. I have been to all the major airports and all the major UKBA centres, as well as to several of the biggest overseas visa operations. The hon. Lady is quite right to suggest that Ministers should get out and talk to people who are actually doing the job. I do that as often as I can.

As somebody who has spent their fair share of time with wailing infants in long immigration queues, I think that families across the country would welcome a more rational, risk-based approach to delivering results with scarce resources. Does the Minister agree that the fake outrage from the Labour party sits badly with its track record of 2.2 million people coming to this country, half a million asylum seeker claims and an open border—

Order. We are grateful to the hon. Lady for getting her views on the record. Unfortunately for her, the Minister is not responsible for the record of the previous Government.

The public know that this is a shambles. We are getting the facts today only because of an urgent question from my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary. Will the Minister put on the record the times that he has met Brodie Clark to discuss the pilot and the change in aviation strategy so that we can get the truth? The only way we are getting the truth at the moment is by forcing Ministers to come to the Dispatch Box.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. He said some disobliging things about me in the debate last week, which was sad because I have always got on with him. He has given me the opportunity to say that in the year that he spent as shadow Immigration Minister he did not put down one written question on immigration. I am therefore entitled to doubt his deep interest in this subject. The answer to his question is that there are investigations going on. Clearly, all the facts are being put to the investigators. John Vine will publish his investigation in due course. He is an independent investigator and he will decide what to publish.

I have been contacted in the past hour by a constituent who is a photographer, who carried metal boxes full of photographic equipment on private flights and took them through Stansted, with no checks, in the years up to 2002. The problem has therefore existed for years, including when the Labour party was in power, and it is plain wrong for the Opposition to raise the issue in the manner in which they have.

My hon. Friend is quite right to point out the shambles that was in place before, but as you pointed out, Mr Speaker, that is not my responsibility. I am very grateful for that. What I am responsible for is what happens now, and my hon. Friend makes a good point. That is precisely why we are making the changes that we are across the borders system. As I have said, using risk-based and intelligence-based measures will give us safer borders in the long run. Stansted is one of the airports where there have already been significant changes to plug some of the loopholes that existed. There is certainly more to be done at Stansted, Manchester and other airports, and I am not saying that the system is now perfect, but it is getting better.

Part of Durham Tees Valley airport is in my constituency, and today we are getting conflicting information from officials there, one claiming that security is very much compromised, particularly in the case of private flights, and another claiming in today’s Evening Gazette that the airport is 100% secure. Will the Minister please tell the House who is right, and at least try to reassure the people of Teesside and beyond that their airport has taken the necessary steps to protect them and our borders?

The hon. Gentleman actually makes a very deep and important point. Different people working at the front line, presumably alongside each other, can genuinely have different perceptions of how good the system is. I would not go as far as the optimistic one of his constituents who says that it is 100% secure all the time—it would be foolish for any Immigration Minister to say at any time that every part of our border is 100% secure. However, I can absolutely reassure him, his constituents and the workers at the airport that we are doing our best to set up systems that make it more secure, and that we will keep doing so.

For years there has been contamination of people arriving at entry points on domestic and international flights. Can the Minister assure us that such contamination will come to an end, and that there will be segregation of incoming passengers?

I am indeed aware of that, particularly at Stansted and Gatwick, and it is one of the priorities at the moment.

May I push the Minister for a little further clarification on the issue of flight warnings? There are 80,000 to 90,000 flights entering the United Kingdom. Can he assure us that the new checks that he mentioned will apply to flights that land in Northern Ireland, that there is no loophole for entry into the United Kingdom without those checks and that devolution does not have an impact on this aspect of the matter?

Any overseas flight that arrives in Northern Ireland from outside the common travel area will be treated like any other flight. Of course, the hon. Gentleman will know that there are complications and issues to consider with the common travel area, and as part of the list of things on which we are now acting, I am considering how to strengthen it so that we properly address the various problems that I know he and his colleagues from Northern Ireland have identified.

Does the Minister agree that the previous Government’s reckless open-door immigration policy resulted in problems in community cohesion in many of our towns, and that we should not be taking lectures from individuals on the Opposition Benches?

Order. The hon. Gentleman has put his concerns on the record, but we must stick to the Minister’s responsibility.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister remind the House what lessons have been learned as a result of the pilot, and what changes he is making to the system to ensure that our borders are secure?

The pilot is still being evaluated, but my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already said that the initial reported information suggests that it led to more interception of illegal immigrants, fraudulent documents, drugs and guns. The initial signs from the management information that we have suggest that the pilot was extremely positive, but there will be a full evaluation and then we will decide what is best to do for the future.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) about Durham Tees Valley airport, will the Minister say exactly how many private flights arrived and were not checked? If he does not have that information to hand today, will he publish it?

As I have said several times, every private flight is checked against the warnings index. [Interruption.] The shadow Home Secretary, characteristically chuntering from a sedentary position, as she does throughout, is talking about that happening when flights arrive. It is actually safer to check them before they arrive, and that is what the warnings index is for. All private flights are checked against the warnings index before they arrive, and I tell the right hon. Lady—[Interruption.] I will tell her, if she will stop talking for a second and listen, that it is safer to check them before they arrive. That was why her Government and the current Government spent hundreds of millions of pounds on the e-Borders project—so that we could get the information before people came to this country. That was how we managed to prevent 68,000 people from even getting on planes to come here. If the Opposition Front Benchers cannot understand that stopping people before they arrive here is a better system, I fear that they do not understand the first thing about immigration control.

In his evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, Brodie Clark said that he had sanctioned the relaxation of fingerprint checks at Heathrow. Was the Minister made aware of that?

For understandable reasons I have not been following what Brodie Clark has been saying over the past hour. I think it would injudicious of me to comment on anything that was said at a Select Committee hearing this morning when I was concentrating on the urgent question.

Durham Tees Valley airport is in my constituency. How secure can the people of Teesside and Durham be if people arriving at the airport are not checked, not passed through immigration—not even waved through—and not even seen, because they have arrived on a private jet?

For the fourth time, I will tell Opposition Members—I wish their Whips could have thought of more than one question for them to read out—that every private flight is checked against the warnings index before it arrives. That is what makes it safe.

My constituents want to know the definition of private flights, which of the main airports they fly to, and what proportion of total passenger numbers is made up of such flights.

The definition is a flight that is not a scheduled flight. The number of airports that they fly into is in the hundreds, because frankly anyone who puts up a windsock in a field can have a private airport, but the number regularly used for private flights is between 100 and 150. The biggest usage of private flights is into our biggest airports, because most of them tend to be business flights.

The Minister keeps reassuring us that the system he has put in place is now safer, but UKBA staff are clearly not reassured of that, because one e-mail from them states:

“we are not allowed to physically see the passengers…we have no way of checking whether the handling agent information is correct or even if the number of people arriving…matches the number we have been advised.”

How, in that case, can the Minister tell us that he knows who is arriving and exactly how many people are on the incoming planes?

Because we are working much better than ever before with airports overseas, so we can check who is getting on the planes in the first place. As I keep repeating, it is better to do that overseas than to wait until people are in this country.

Is it not necessary for us to bring in these tighter controls, because of the 2.2 million net immigration between 1997 and 2009 under the last Government?

There are two separate issues here, both of which need addressing. One is the vast number of people who arrived legally under the previous Government’s conscious policy of increasing immigration to unsustainable levels. Secondly, there is what we are discussing this morning—the fact that our borders were not sufficiently secure. Just as important as bringing down the legal numbers is making our borders more secure by a number of methods, such as the use of technology, the pilots that we operated in the summer and changing how we look at private flights. The various actions that we are taking are all designed to make the border safer.

The question has been asked several times, and I know that the Minister is frustrated, but I wonder whether he will give an answer. Does he think it acceptable that on his watch the UKBA could not even check passengers coming off private flights? Any chance of an answer?

I am tempted to revive that old parliamentary chestnut: “I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago.” As I keep saying, it is better to do it overseas, which is what we do. It is also safer, and all the experts agree it is safer—and frankly, if the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) were still sitting on the Government Benches, she would be saying that it was safer as well.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint some colleagues, but time is against us—there is heavy pressure on time from Backbench Business Committee business—and we must now proceed.