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Immigration: Airports

Volume 699: debated on Thursday 28 February 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they will take to tackle the length of immigration control queues at the United Kingdom’s major airports.

My Lords, border control manages staff deployment on a command basis, ensuring that resources are deployed according to business needs using a recently updated staffing methodology. In line with government commitments, financial resources are increasingly focused on providing staff and front-line activities. The BIA is committed to increasing the use of automated technology to facilitate passengers through arrivals controls without compromising border security. An example is the iris-recognition immigration system.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. It is of course essential that we do not compromise security, but the opening shortly of Terminal 5 provides an excellent opportunity for setting standards for immigration queues across our major airports. Surely it is unacceptable that our overseas visitors should have to wait 45 minutes to clear immigration and that that should be set as the benchmark. What are the sanctions for failing to hit that benchmark? Do we know whether we are hitting the benchmark at the moment? In the Minister’s Answer to my Written Question, he stated that figures were,

“unavailable due to data collection and quality issues”.—[Official Report, 9/1/08; col. WA 199.]

Tesco would not accept that. Does he agree that without figures we do not know whether we are achieving benchmarks or whether we are improving?

My Lords, first, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, for the fact that we had not responded to her Written Question. I was appalled to find out how long it had taken. I have put in hand some mechanisms within the department to resolve that because it is quite unacceptable. I am very sorry for the delay. I took some advice from the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, on it.

On the specifics, until the middle of last year we did not keep records of numbers, but now we do. I have, for example, some numbers for the year to date. Yes, we are setting a 25-minute target for someone from the EEA, but at Heathrow Terminal 1 the average is six minutes at the moment and the longest we have had is 47 minutes; at Gatwick North the average is six minutes and the longest that we have had is about one hour 10 minutes. I agree that those are too long, but generally we are considerably below the 25-minute target and the 45-minute target for non-EEA nationals.

My Lords, despite the long queues at some airports, on which the Minister has sought to reassure us, we know that in many cases women and children who have been trafficked here are habitually clearing immigration control with no trouble. Will the Government follow Conservative policy and introduce separate interviews for women and children travelling with men who are not members of their family to help to tackle that loophole?

My Lords, the introduction last year of the 100 per cent check and the fact that we check passports mechanically so that they can be compared with records on the Home Office computer allow us much greater control now and the ability to identify such people. With e-borders, we will be able to do even better and I think that that problem will be resolved.

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned the use of biometrics. Will he say whether iris scans have speeded matters up? What percentage of people have taken up this facility?

My Lords, my noble friend raises a good point. I have had my eyes done on the iris system because I wanted to try to get through the queues, which were extremely long in the middle of last year, although we have worked to make them better. That gives you a shorter queue to go into. My concern is that, when everyone has their irises done, the same might not be the case and we might need more lines for people to go through. So far, about 172,000 have gone down this route. I will have to get back to the noble Lord in writing with the precise figure if that is wrong.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the figures published by the website UK Airport Delays showing that the average delay at Manchester is 68 minutes, at Stansted 45 minutes and at Gatwick 24 minutes, whereas a number of other airports, including Prestwick and London City, have zero delays? In view of the wide variation between one airport and another, will the Government ask the UK Border Agency to commission regular monitoring to see how best practice can be used to harmonise the delays between one airport and another and to reduce them to the minimum possible?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a good point. London airports generally have very good times; the average is certainly well below the required level. The provincial airports are not so good. The BIA looks at moving staff around to try to cover this and improve it. We have now introduced a requirement for weekly information on queue lengths, which is compiled in a monthly performance check, along with information on measures that are being taken to make the timings shorter. We are trying to tackle the problem and are recruiting an additional 385 staff to assist with that.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the quality of our border control is a disgrace to the Government? There is no routine control over people leaving and the control over people coming in—the swiping of passports—makes no record of those who have come in. Does he agree that the principle of being out of Schengen, because we can do this better outside, is undermined by the deplorable fact that we will not have electronic border control until 2013? Will the Government do something about that?

My Lords, I disagree with what has just been said. We have some very good border controls and the moves that are being made this year are quite remarkable in making the situation better. It is certainly true to say that until we have e-borders in place we will not fully check everybody in and out, but we are aiming for that and moving towards it. When we do that, we will be a lot safer and will have much better control of people. We have done a great deal to make this better. By the end of the year, with the three phases that we are stepping through, the situation will be remarkably good.

My Lords, will the Minister assure me that the layout of immigration desks in the new Terminal 5—there will be two tiers, with four desks at the front and four at the back—has not been specifically designed to make it less obvious when only half the immigration officers are on duty, as compared to the straight-across barrier that makes it very apparent when no one is there to let you in?

My Lords, the noble Baroness clearly has detailed knowledge of this area, which I do not. I am afraid that I may have to get back to her in writing on that, because I do not really know. However, we are constantly in dialogue with the airport authorities to look at better ways of allowing queues to form and people to move through the terminal and to make coming through the airports a better experience. There is constant debate and dialogue to achieve that.

My Lords, has the Minister read the article in today’s Times by Anatole Kaletsky, which canvasses the possibility of relieving the increasing pressure on Heathrow with an artificial island on the Thames estuary, similar to what has been done in Japan, Hong Kong and many other places? Have the Government looked at this possibility? If so, what can the Minister say about their views?

My Lords, I have not read that article, but I know that there has been debate about these issues. What we are looking at now, and what the debate is about, is the extensions to Heathrow. That is the prime focus.