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Immigration Queues (UK Airports)

Volume 543: debated on Monday 30 April 2012

(Urgent Question): I think that that is most fair. Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.

To ask the Minister for Immigration if he will make a statement on the immigration delays at UK airports.

The Government’s priority is the security of the UK border. The right checks need to be carried out to control immigration, protect against terrorism and tackle crime. We maintain thorough border checks. Despite those robust checks, the vast majority of passengers pass through immigration control quickly.

Let me give the House the actual figures. Between January and March, the average waiting times across the UK were six minutes for UK and EU passengers, and 25 minutes for non-EU passengers. The latest internal management information shows that, in the first two weeks of April, 99% of UK and EU passengers queued for less than 25 minutes and 96% of non-EU passengers queued for less than 45 minutes.

At Heathrow, the information shows that those target times were met every day throughout that period for UK and EU passengers, and on 11 out of 15 days for non-EU passengers. Over the weekend, there were some breaches of acceptable waiting times at Heathrow. That was caused mainly by the severe weather, leading to flight diversions and changing flight schedules, and the bunching of arrivals.

However, I stress to the House that our information shows that queuing times bore no resemblance to some of the wilder suggestions. Border Force data show that the longest queuing time for immigration control was one and a half hours on Friday night at terminal 5 for non-EU nationals, and times for UK and EU nationals were significantly lower.

These times are too long. Passengers demand an efficient service and the British public demand tough border controls. We need both. That is why we are establishing a new central control room for the UK Border Force at Heathrow; why we are putting in place mobile teams that can be deployed rapidly across the airport to deal with pressures; and why within weeks we will be implementing new rostering and shift patterns, which will provide additional flexibility, so staff can be deployed individually to meet unexpected surges in passenger flows. We are also working with airport operators and airlines to ensure they provide more accurate passenger manifests and flight schedules to help the UK Border Force to deploy staff at the right time, in the right place, to meet demand.

On top of those permanent improvements, as passenger numbers increase in the run-up to the Olympics, the UK Border Force will increase its staffing at ports and airports. The important factor is to have staff flexibly deployed in the right numbers, at the right times. That is what we are doing. The UK Border Force will ensure that all immigration desks at Heathrow and other key ports and airports in the south-east are fully staffed during peak periods over the summer. A contingency force of appropriately trained staff will be sent to the border to provide extra help to ensure passengers are processed as quickly as possible.

Border security is Britain’s first line of defence—it must not and will not be compromised—but our border force is also the first impression presented to overseas visitors and those returning home. Therefore, while we maintain the right levels of security checks, we will always seek to improve performance. That is what I—and UK Border Force—are focused on doing. This country needs a secure and efficient border, and this Government will deliver it.

I thank the Minister for his response and for acknowledging that there have been delays at Heathrow airport. As he knows, there is considerable concern about the length of waiting times in immigration halls at our airports at peak times. Of course, we must ensure that proper security checks are carried out—we do not want a repetition of the case of Sheikh Raed Salah, who was banned by the Home Secretary but able to enter Heathrow airport—but the queues have sometimes been in excess of two hours and they are and have been a serious embarrassment.

The Home Secretary made a decision in the aftermath of the Brodie Clark saga to suspend all risk-based checks. Given that, why are border desks not fully staffed at peak periods and why are electronic gates, including iris scanners, so often broken? The Home Secretary has appointed Brian Moore as the temporary seconded head of the UK Border Force, and his post has been advertised. How many times has Mr Moore visited terminal 5 at peak times?

Will the Minister confirm reports that BAA has been asked to refrain from handing out leaflets to passengers that apologise for the very long delays and advise them how to complain about them? Does he accept that hundreds of people in the arrival hall after 12-hour flights will be extremely frustrated and angry at having to queue for two hours at unattended border desks and at using—or trying to use—broken iris scanners? Does that situation not pose a public order risk?

As the Minister knows, over the weekend, the British Air Transport Association, border staff and BAA have all called for urgent action. I acknowledge what he has said today about what he intends to do, but it is important for him to hold a meeting with all those affected—all the stakeholders—and if necessary to hold it at Heathrow airport.

The UK Border Force is re-hiring former border officers to help with the Olympics. However, excessive delays in our immigration halls are not only an Olympic issue; they affect travellers today. What further action does the Minister propose to take to ensure that the reputation of Heathrow as a world-class airport and a premier international tourist destination is not damaged?

In my view, the Minister has a choice. He either hires more staff or looks again at the risk-based policy, which the Home Secretary has said she is open-minded about. The third option, which is to do nothing, is simply not acceptable.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I hope I reassured him in my opening response that doing nothing is precisely what we are not doing. We are doing quite a lot, as I will detail a little more in a moment.

The right hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions. In the few weeks he has been in charge of Border Force, Brian Moore has visited Heathrow twice, including over Easter—one of the peak busiest times of the year—to see precisely how Border Force coped over that difficult and challenging period. The answer was that, despite the predictions we had that Easter would mean gridlock at Heathrow, actually it did not. Heathrow coped well over Easter.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about e-gates and iris recognition immigration system gates. The IRIS gates commissioned by the previous Government are being phased out because they have come to the end of their technological life. They are less reliable than the e-gates that we are replacing them with and which provide a much better passenger experience.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about risk-based controls. As he knows, I have said—as has the Home Secretary in front of the Home Affairs Committee—that the principle of risk-based controls is a sound one to explore, but he will know that, as the John Vine report showed, what we had, when we thought we had risk-based controls, actually were not risk-based controls. Information had been withheld from successive Ministers over the previous five years.

The right hon. Gentleman asked, quite reasonably, what we have done. I have mentioned some of the actions we have already taken. We have rebalanced staff across Heathrow’s terminals; we are opening the new control room to allow us to monitor and deal with demand across the airports, so Border Force staff will not be stuck in terminals, as they used to be; we have completed our recruitment to mobile teams that can deal with unexpected surges; and we are encouraging all eligible passengers to use the e-passport gates, and are now getting close to 50% of those eligible to use them doing so, which significantly improves the flow-through, particularly for UK citizens.

We have, as a result, freed up more experienced staff from those e-passport gates to man the non-EU desks and to help reduce queues there. We are cross-training more and more of our staff so that they can work flexibly across all areas of border control. So very significant steps have been taken in the past few months to make the airports work more efficiently, and I am sure that passengers and the House will see the effects of that in the coming months.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments, but is there any way to give greater priority to British passport holders when there are very long queues?

British and—I suspect my hon. Friend might not wish to hear this—other EU citizens have priority. We do fewer checks on them, for obvious reasons. Our service level agreement is that 95% of them should go through in fewer than 25 minutes, as opposed to 95% in fewer than 45 minutes for non-British and non-EU passengers. We try to make the welcome back to this country for British tourists or business people travelling abroad as good as possible.

I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon. More particularly, I beg the right hon. Lady’s pardon. I am sorry. I had it down that she would be performing, but of course it would not be a normal day if we did not hear from the hon. Gentleman.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I have to say to the Minister that his was a ludicrously complacent answer. Surely it cannot be beyond the wit of man, especially with increased technology, to do two things at the same time: secure the borders and have reasonably swift queues. The problems at Heathrow and Gatwick have given a shocking impression of a Government who are out of control, just when Britain is facing a special security challenge in advance of the Olympics and when the British tourism industry is keen to make as good an impression as possible. I gather that No. 10 is now blaming it on the weather.

The figures that the Minister gave are not the full story. Even before last week, between 1 April and 15 April, Border Force missed its waiting targets for non-European economic area nationals on 13 out of 15 days, and even for people returning home to their own country, it missed them on four days. There was not a single day in that two-week period when it met all its targets.

It might be understandable if long queues meant better security, but no airport in the world is designed to kettle thousands of passengers for hours prior to passing through immigration, which is why it is vital that the Government provide enough resources to Border Force.

Sir John Vine expressly recommended that a clear understanding of what constitutes health and safety grounds for suspension should be agreed. Has that happened? Have there been any such suspensions in the last month? I ask the Minister that because I have been contacted by one passenger who says that on arrival on a Kenya Airways flight from Nairobi to terminal 4, his passport was not swiped at all. How many UK or other European nationals have had to wait more than the target of 25 minutes?

Will most people not be perplexed by the Government’s priorities? They have already cut 500 border staff—they are going to cut another 1,000—while at the same time they are spending £2.5 million on new uniforms. How can that possibly be the right set of priorities? Numbers at Heathrow are set to rise, not only for the Olympics and Paralympics, but year on year into the future, yet Border Force is running at 100% capacity, with no room for the unexpected—and clearly the Government are running way past their capacity. Is it not time that the Government shouldered their responsibility and gave Border Force the resources it truly needs to do the job properly?

Up to that point, we had heard the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, make a thoughtful contribution to what is a serious debate. Sadly, the shadow Minister for Immigration has let the side down, with a rant that had no purpose whatever. He also clearly wrote it before he had heard my statement, which addressed the measures we are taking in some detail. The only solution he has—this is instructive, as a glimpse into Labour’s approach to everything—is to spend more taxpayers’ money; and this from a member of the Government who left this country bankrupt, because of their profligate spending over 13 years.

In the midst of that rant, the hon. Gentleman raised one or two issues, so let me deal with them. First, he talked about the uniforms and implied that it was a terrible waste of money to buy new uniforms. I have to tell him that the current Border Force uniform was bought by the previous Government and was designed to last only three years, so it is now out of date and has to be replaced anyway. That money would therefore have to be spent under any circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about what was happening at the border. However, I am afraid that he is relying on unreliable reports. The monitoring for this period shows that in the first two weeks of April, we met all our targets for EU passengers, meeting targets for non-EU passengers on 11 days out of 15. Of course I would prefer to meet our targets for non-EU passengers on 15 days out of 15, but he is relying on information that does not accord with the official figures given by Border Force.

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has no particular answers to give. Indeed, what is quite surprising about everything he said was—[Interruption.] He should agree with this statement, which was made last November:

“We seemed to have a consensus from Labour ministers and I thought from…Tory ministers as well that with every year that went by, you should be strengthening the checks at the borders, adding better technology and that kind of thing”.

That was said by the shadow Home Secretary. The hon. Gentleman is now saying that we should make fewer checks. I suggest that he and she get their act together.

May I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that the hard-pressed border officers, who in times of pressure are told to get a move on, are still able to put their top priority—the safety and security of our country—first?

My hon. Friend is exactly right that, beneath this debate, we all need to remember—I can absolutely assure him that every member of Border Force securing our border knows this—that our first priority must be the security of our border. That is what had been compromised, we discovered, over many years, because when the queues rose at airports, people were ordered to reduce the checks. The big change that has happened in the past few months is that we now conduct proper checks at every airport, all the time, which is significantly improving the security of every citizen of this country.

What representations have been made by the Transport Secretary to ensure that Home Office services enable our airports to operate efficiently and safely?

The Secretary of State for Transport—who is here, as is the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers)—the Home Secretary and I meet regularly and we all agree on this matter. Although the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) does not seem to agree with his boss, I agree with mine, and we all agree on the need for proper checks and efficiently flowing airports. That is obviously a priority for the Department for Transport as well. It is a dual priority for every Government, and certainly for this one. I can only re-emphasise that we will not compromise border security in any circumstances.

Will the Minister tell the House whether equipment failures have been the source of any delays, and whether the contingency arrangements relating to equipment failure have been reviewed? If the problem is the result of the sheer volume of passengers, would he consider introducing genuine risk-based passenger assessment, which would have the potential to speed up the passage of people through airports and to improve security?

There have been one or two specific incidents in which either equipment failure or wider technical failure has contributed to problems. For example, there was a problem at Birmingham airport that was caused by a power surge that knocked out all the electrical equipment across the airport for a time. Accidents such as that will happen. On my right hon. Friend’s point about ever-rising numbers, which might well happen, this is a question of being able to deploy staff flexibly enough so that, when we know that more people are coming in, we can have more staff at the right gates and encourage as many people as possible to use the technology at the e-gates, which enables more people to go through more smoothly. That is the focus of what we are trying to do.

While no one doubts the Minister’s good intentions, does he not understand that quoting averages at passengers who have been waiting for two or three hours in very difficult conditions only makes Britain’s reputation worse, rather than better? Does he also understand that, among many senior business people—in Turkey, for example, but elsewhere as well—there is a high level of frustration at being put through an unnecessary number of hoops to get a visa in the first place, when they have been coming to this country quite safely for years, then at having to face an insulting environment when they get to Heathrow or Gatwick?

I make no apology for the fact that our visa checks are more thorough and more secure than they were when the right hon. Gentleman was Home Secretary in the previous Government. His other point is simply wrong. If he had listened to what I said, he would have heard me quite deliberately quoting the longest queuing times. I am not trying to hide behind averages. I said that the longest queuing time was one and a half hours, and that that was unacceptable and we would seek to do better. I should also say that the use of average times was not invented by this Government; the previous Government did it as well.

My hon. Friend the Minister will know that everyone in the House—except perhaps those on the Opposition Front Bench—welcomes the steps that he is taking to improve efficiency in airports in order to move people through. Does he accept, however, that the absolute priority of the Government and the UK Border Force has to be national security?

That is right, and it cannot be emphasised often enough. Of course people feel frustrated when they are in a queue. We all feel that, but we would all feel much worse if we thought that our country was not being made as safe as possible. The borders are a significant line of defence against people who want to commit criminal acts, as well as those who want to commit acts of terrorism, and I am absolutely determined that we will not compromise our security in any way.

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the staff of the UK Border Agency, who have been working incredibly hard and flexibly over the past few months and, indeed, years? There are real concerns on the front line about the lack of staff numbers, and real worries about what will happen during the Olympics. We must not score an own goal in that regard. Will he take up the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) that he visit Heathrow and meet the front-line staff, the trade unions and other stakeholders to explore their views on what could be done to improve matters?

The hon. Gentleman can be assured that I visit Heathrow regularly. I am happy to join him in paying tribute not just to the hard work of those who work as immigration officers and customs officers at our borders, but to the dedication they bring to the job. They are very serious about keeping the wrong people and the wrong things out of our country. As I say, I visit Heathrow extremely regularly and will be glad to go there in the coming weeks to see the new control room and the more flexible rostering that we are setting up and to see the better use we intend to make of those dedicated staff.

Does the Minister agree that airports themselves as well as Border Force can do more to improve this process and make sure that the right number of staff are available at the right times to deal with the expected flight volume?

I do. There are two significant areas where work could be done by our partners at airports. One is in the provision of information so that Border Force can respond as quickly as possible to any delays caused by wind or that sort of thing that makes planes occasionally bunch in their arrivals. The other is the physical layout of the airports, which is a role for airport operators. For example, people need to have clear lines of sight so that they can see the gates for as long as possible, and as much emphasis as possible should be given to reassuring passengers that they are going through a process smoothly, as often happens on the retailing side of airports.

May I welcome the efforts that the Minister is making and join in the tributes to the important and hard work of the border staff? Does my hon. Friend agree that these delays, which he has explained this afternoon, are not limited to Heathrow, as they apply to Gatwick and Stansted? While I know he agrees—and has made the point—that the delays harm Britain’s reputation, does he also agree that British business men who have to go in and out of the country all the time as they engage in the hard work of the export industry are extremely irritated by the way in which they are regularly kept in unacceptably long queues? I know that my hon. Friend will do his best to get this matter resolved, but will he acknowledge the fact that these queue problems really need to be resolved quickly?

Order. It is always a great pleasure to hear the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames). Erroneously, however, I called two Government Members in succession, so I will subsequently call two Opposition Members in succession to redress the balance. [Interruption.] It is certainly not the fault of the right hon. Member, to whose dulcet tones I feel sure we listened with considerable enthusiasm.

If the rules can be relaxed for anyone, Mr Speaker, they should be relaxed for my right hon. Friend. I take the importance of what he says. It is of course annoying not just for British business men coming back, but for foreign business people who also want as smooth a procedure as possible. That is why we worked so hard to introduce the e-passport gates. With every year that passes, 10% more British people get a new modern passport that enables them to use those gates, which can often provide a considerable improvement in itself. This debate is bedevilled by anecdote, with everyone having an individual story to tell, either good or bad. My own is that I came through Heathrow last Thursday and used the e-gates. I am happy to say that from arriving in the immigration hall to leaving took precisely four minutes.

Does the Minister understand that British subjects and British passport holders are not really interested in targets, but in getting back into their own country as quickly as possible? Will he now answer the question asked by one of his hon. Friends? Why can we not simply say to the European Union that we are going to give priority to our British passport holders, who are going to have a separate queuing lane so that they can join it and get in first? Surely that is what we should be doing as an independent country.

As the hon. Lady knows perfectly well, that would require significant changes to the law going way beyond immigration policy. I gently suggest to her that all her constituents who want to go on holiday to other countries in the European Union would feel slightly short-changed if they had to wait much longer because there was a separate lane there, too.

Terminal 5 was a triumph of British construction whose reputation was seriously marred by inept management on its opening day. Now the country is spending billions on arrangements for the Olympics, brilliantly built and organised, and our international image is already being damaged by the queues being caused once again by the useless Border Agency management. Today the Minister’s main excuse seemed to be the weather at the weekend: the wrong sort of rain. When will he really get a grip?

I am not conscious that the word “rain” has passed my lips. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would care to listen to what I am saying. Let me also gently point out to him that the management of terminal 5 has nothing to do with the UK Border Agency or Border Force, and that it was an entirely commercial operation at that time.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Olympics. Of course we are aware that this summer will be much busier, which is why we will ensure that all immigration desks at Heathrow—terminal 5 and the other terminals—and at other key ports and airports in the south-east are fully staffed whenever necessary during peak arrival periods. We are working closely with the British Airports Authority and other airport operators to ensure that the supply of information to which I referred earlier is better than ever during that period, so that we can provide the best possible experience at our airports at a time when the eyes of the world will indeed be upon us.

We all want passengers to pass efficiently through passport control and immigration, but can the Minister confirm that what we will never see repeated is what happened on occasion during Labour’s watch in 2004, when all passport gates at Heathrow terminal 3 were left open and no checks were made at all?

I can only agree with my hon. Friend. That was indeed shocking. The whole point of the reforms that we have instituted since the John Vine report is to avoid the sort of crisis in which the first reaction is often to say “We will just let everyone through to avoid queues”, because that creates a much less secure border.

When passengers arrive at airports and experience problems, they think that they should complain to the airports. We recently tried to amend the Civil Aviation Bill to require the Civil Aviation Authority to publish annual figures for delays at immigration desks, but we were effectively rebuffed by the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers). Will the Minister assure the House that those who wish to complain will know how to complain and who to complain to, and that his Department will publish those annual figures?

I am happy to report to the hon. Gentleman, who I know has transport expertise, that I too have asked the question about the ability to complain, and that Border Force is now very alive to the fact that it needs to advertise the complaints procedure and make forms available at terminals. It is aware of its responsibilities in that regard.

I am sure the Minister is aware that Hilton Hotels runs its entire worldwide operation from Watford, where it is a very large employer in my constituency and brings many, many tourists into the country. It is not concerned about the short-term matters that have been discussed by many people who have tried to take political advantage of the situation, both inside and outside the House. It is concerned about the need for the Government to make long-term arrangements to ensure that tourists arriving in this country from all over the world benefit from a world-class operation that ensures security for the country, and also makes it clear that it is as good as any other country in the world at putting people through immigration.

First, I must confess to my hon. Friend that I did not know that Hilton Hotels was based in Watford. I am ashamed of my lack of knowledge of a fact with which I have now managed to catch up.

The shadow Immigration Minister says that even he knew that, which makes me feel doubly ashamed.

My hon. Friend has made a very good point. It is not just for this summer and the Olympics that we need an improvement, although the summer will clearly be a hugely important time for our airports and the British tourism industry generally. What we need is a permanent improvement, which is why I hope that my hon. Friend has been reassured by the many changes that I announced in response to the original question. It is important not just to do something for the summer, but to change the way in which our Border Force operates and the way in which our airport operators and airlines go about their business, to ensure that there is a permanent improvement for all who travel into and out of the country.

As the Minister knows, my constituency is close to Heathrow. He may not know, however, that more headquarters of European multinational companies are located in it than in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. In recent meetings with different representatives of those companies, the first question I am asked is, “Why are the queues so long and what are you going to do about it? We may move our investment elsewhere.” The Minister will be aware of Brodie Clark’s article in The Times on 23 April, in which he said that targeting in border checks led to a 10% increase in detections and seizures. Why is the Minister not using a targeted system, as that saves money and works better?

The problem with the figures Brodie Clark quoted—and which I am sure I quoted in the past—is that they came out of the pilot that we now know was tainted by the fact that, unknown to anyone else, Border Force was relaxing the controls in an unauthorised way. We will need to think about that again, when, and if, we get to that point. I have said that, in principle, risk-based controls are an option any Government should consider, but I hope the hon. Lady will be reassured by the fact that that pilot was ended because it was tainted, and since then we have taken, and are taking, a number of practical measures to ensure that the many important businesses in her constituency can do their job efficiently.

Order. I call Mr Richard Fuller. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman was previously interested, but he does not have to ask a question if he does not want to; it is not obligatory.

The hon. Gentleman is in danger of setting a real precedent: that because it has already been said, it does not need to be said again. That really is setting a new precedent in parliamentary practice! I call Mr Stewart Jackson.

Given the news that next year Hungary will issue Hungarian passports to ethnic Hungarians who do not live in the European Union, I am somewhat surprised by the Minister’s rather nonchalant response to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). Why in this particular situation is it impossible for a sovereign nation to disaggregate in respect of its treatment between its own citizens and European Union citizens, and why are we not doing more, for instance on criminal records checks of EU citizens at our ports of entry?

Criminal records checks depend on the quality of information we get from the sending country, and that will differ between different European countries. I am conscious of my hon. Friend’s attitude to the EU, but as we are talking about the immigration laws under the current laws of this country, I think we have said enough on that particular topic for this afternoon.

The queues at Heathrow are unacceptable, but there are also reports of long queues at Gatwick and the channel tunnel. Three weeks ago, I came into Gatwick at about half-past midnight and had to wait for more than half an hour to enter the country. I witnessed families with young children who were struggling badly with the delay. What inquiries has the Minister made into queues faced by travellers outside the capital?

As I have already explained, the service level agreement is that 95% of UK and EU passengers should be processed within 25 minutes and non-EU passengers should be processed within 45 minutes. Those are the targets Border Force has been set. Without knowing the details of the individuals to whom the hon. Lady refers, I cannot say whether or not they were processed in accordance with service standards. The point she makes about Calais and Coquelles is particularly ill-advised in that we have been told that, along with Easter, the February half-term is one of the busiest weeks at Calais and Coquelles because of schools coming back from half-term trips, and we prepared and planned, and there were no problems over that busy weekend.

What steps is my hon. Friend taking to prepare our borders for next week’s planned strike, and does he detect, as I do, a whiff of political opportunism in the timing of this urgent question?

On my hon. Friend’s second point, I think that that is taken as read. On the strike set for next week, I simply say that, as on previous strike days, we will make contingency arrangements to ensure our borders are open and Britain is open for business, and if any members of the immigration service are planning to go on strike, I urge them to think again. It will do them no good, and it may do some damage to this country. I very much hope this strike does not take place.

This morning, the Prime Minister’s spokesman sought to blame the bad weather for the meltdown at Heathrow last week, but bad weather cannot be blamed for machines that are not working properly, or—worse—a lack of adequate staff training. What is the Minister going to do to make sure, in particular in advance of the Olympics, not only that all the machines will work, but that all relevant staff will know how to use them?

As I have already explained, we are ensuring that more staff will be available at peak times during the Olympics. We are proceeding on the assumption that every flight landing at Heathrow for a seven-week period will be 100% full. That assumption is likely to be wrong, but it seems a prudent assumption to make. We are making all our plans about technology and people with regard to that overall plan. I hope that that will reassure the hon. Lady that we are fully aware of the importance of the Olympics period for this country’s reputation and we are doing absolutely everything that we can to make sure that our reputation is preserved.

Can the Minister tell the House what steps he is taking to ensure that the most up-to-date working practices are used by the UK Border Force to ensure that the supply of labour meets demand, particularly at peak times?

My hon. Friend hits on exactly the right point. The deployment of staff in a flexible and efficient way, particularly around Heathrow, makes all the difference. That is why we have now set up the central control room, which will enable us to see minute by minute where queues may be building up and where the mobile teams that we have set up in the past few months can best be deployed. In that way, we will get the best possible value out of our many hard-working members of staff.

London Luton airport is seeking to expand and make a greater contribution to south-east airports’ capacity. However, the airport operator, Luton borough council and the staff themselves have serious concerns about undercapacity at immigration control and long queues. Will the Minister give specific attention to Luton airport?

Absolutely. We all want better airport capacity in the south-east of England, and I am sure that Luton airport will play an important role in that. One of the jobs of the UK Border Force is to make sure that people get through all airports as fast as possible. I know that e-gates were introduced at Luton airport relatively early, so that we can get the benefits of the technology. We will continue to treat Luton airport very seriously.

I hope that my hon. Friend has been reassured by my repeated assurance that absolutely the first priority of this Government and any responsible Government is the security of our border. That will not be compromised in any way.

We want secure borders and decent queues. When we turn left on to a long haul plane, it is usually a nice experience. When we turn left at Heathrow terminal 5 or Gatwick, leaving the American, Canadian, Indian or Turkish passenger whom we have been chatting with, to struggle through those queues, it is a very unpleasant welcome.

I welcome what the Minister has said; it is a good idea to have squads who can run around filling in the holes. But every time I have come back to Britain recently—and I come back a lot—it is embarrassing that there are so many empty control points. I really hope that hon. Members—

Order. Hon. Members should be asking short questions, not making speeches. [Interruption.] Mr MacShane, you can throw yourself back on the Bench as much as you want, but it is not going to impress me. I brought you on early to get you in, and I am sorry that you are disgruntled.

The right hon. Gentleman cannot come back often enough for some of us in the House. I take his point, but the whole purpose of having flexible rostering and flexible use of staff is that when large numbers of people are arriving, more gates will be open. It is not rocket science; that is a sensible way to run an airport.

The British public have not forgiven the previous Labour Government for their reckless open-door immigration policy, which reached the point where they could not put a number on how many people had come into the country. Will the Minister reassure us that we will give our officers as much time as they require to check who is legally allowed to enter the country?

Yes, and not only will we give them the time required, but we will allow them to use, on all occasions, the relevant technology. That was the problem before: when queues started building up, the technology was simply turned off. The investment made, in large part by the previous Government, in getting these electronic systems to make our border secure was not being allowed to do its job. We are determined not to repeat that mistake.

I know that the Minister travels with ordinary people on planes all the time, separated only by a thin curtain, but, in the light of his statement, will he condemn the remarks the Mayor of London made today that this crisis at Heathrow is damaging the reputation of the country?

I say to the hon. Gentleman that he is not up to date with the new era of Government austerity and that Ministers travel steerage class these days. The Mayor of London is, of course, concerned about the reputation of London and the ability of its airports to cope, and I look forward to working with him after he is re-elected triumphantly on Thursday.

My hon. Friend is quite right. When people talk about their experience, they will obviously measure it from the moment the plane touches the tarmac. Their view will depend on how long it takes to find a stand; how long the walk is to the immigration hall; and how long it takes to collect their baggage at the end of it. Immigration control and the actions of the UK Border Force are some of the things that people have to go through, but clearly people have other experiences between getting off the plane and getting out of the airport. We must all work together to ensure that that goes as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

This may not be popular, but I am not sure that the Minister has any need to apologise for queues that result from genuine border security operations. However, will he give a commitment to update the House at the earliest available opportunity if subsequent investigations reveal that any of these delays were in part due to staff shortages or bad management decisions at UKBA?

Well, I will be appearing before the Committee in a couple of weeks’ time, so the hon. Gentleman will be able to ask me the question again then. Of course this will be a regular discussion to be had, because it is important, but I should remind him of what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant): the UK Border Force has part of the responsibility for ensuring that airports run smoothly, just as airport operators and airlines do, and we all need to work together to make the experience of going through Britain’s airports as smooth and efficient as possible.

The hon. Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe) and I attended a briefing held by BAA, which led to our Select Committee writing to the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. I am pleased to say that he has responded and we have published the letter today, which suggests that greater co-operation is needed. Does the Minister agree that it is imperative that BAA takes its fair share of the responsibility to make sure that passengers get through the airport and that the UK Border Force and BAA do not drop the baton between them?

I am absolutely convinced that that is right. This is about not just BAA, but the airlines and Border Force. All of us need to work together, to share information and to share systems. As we do that, the experience will get better.

Despite the length of time that the Minister has been answering questions, I have still not heard him explain why there were 107 breaches of waiting times in the first 15 days of April, what caused them and what part staff cuts played in those delays.

I am sorry if the hon. Lady does not feel that she has been given enough information in the past 50 minutes or so, because I have tried to explain, repeatedly, that a range of things need to be improved at our airports to reduce these queues. To say that one reason accounts for all the delays that individual passengers may face is overly simplistic. That is not the way the world works and it is not the way airports work. What the Home Office, the Department for Transport, the airline operators and the airport operators agree is that a team effort is needed to make this better, and it is very important that we get it right.

Under the previous Government, the morale of the UK Border Force was in freefall. Will my hon. Friend tell the House what steps are being taken to improve rostering and shift patterns to improve the morale at Border Force as well as to improve the experience of passengers at airports and ports?

We are changing the rostering arrangements to ensure that we have the people who are needed at the right time and at the right place. I am sure that the many hugely conscientious and hugely keen members of Border Force will recognise that having them in the right place at the right time will enable them to do their very important job more effectively than ever before.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), the Minister said that he intends to run Heathrow for seven weeks at 100% border capacity. What assurances will he give that regional airports and smaller London airports will not have staff taken away to bring about that goal?

As I have said—I am happy to repeat it—for the seven-week Olympic period, the UK Border Force will ensure that all immigration desks at Heathrow and key ports and airports in the south-east are staffed whenever necessary during peak arrival periods. I hope that will reassure him.

May I welcome the characteristic moderation and competence with which my hon. Friend has replied to this urgent question? Interruption.] His response has been much better than that of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). My hon. Friend will be aware that it is not an unreasonable expectation of returning British citizens or foreign visitors that we should be able to combine both speed and competence. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) asked about shift working and the like. Will the Minister tell the House whether he has had any conversations with the trade unions about their likely support for those measures and others that are necessary?

As I said, new rosters are coming in at Heathrow in the coming weeks, which have been agreed with the work force. That is a significant step forward, because it will mean that they can be there when they need to be there to do the most effective job. I can only repeat what I have said before: the vast majority of the workers in Border Force are extremely knowledgeable about their job and know how important it is. They want to do it as effectively as possible and it is the job of the management of Border Force to enable them to do that.

I happened to be in the immigration queue in Birmingham airport when the systems went down—the incident to which the Minister referred. I must thank members of the UK Border Force and staff at Birmingham airport who were on hand at the time to ensure that it was resolved as soon as possible. I noticed that there seemed to be a bit of confusion about what action should be taken when the systems go down. Will he reassure me that steps are in place so that, should that happen again, we will not have the kind of delays that could have happened?

One of the lessons we drew from the John Vine report was that there needed to be much clearer instructions about what to do in those very rare emergencies. That work is now advanced and is an extremely important part of the improvements that we will see.

Given the combined challenge of securing the border, keeping unavoidable delays to a minimum and doing all that within a very constrained budget, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the things we most urgently need is a better working relationship between the UK Border Force and our airport operators?

Yes. We do work closely together, but we can always work more closely together. The Home Secretary, the senior management of Border Force and I are absolutely determined to set up systems that make it instinctive for Border Force, the airport operators and the airlines to work together, not only for the mutual benefit of all those organisations but, even more importantly, for the benefit of the hundreds of millions of passengers who use our airports every year.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and thanks to my fans for that unsolicited testimonial.

I should like to recapitulate a sentiment that has already been expressed, certainly by Government Members: having a few queues occasionally may dent Britain’s reputation, but security lapses do infinitely more damage to our reputation, and that is what our constituents are most concerned about.

That may be an appropriate thought on which to end this session, because it is absolutely correct that the first priority has to be the security of our borders; that is the first priority of this Government.