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Immigration: Controls at Airports

Volume 737: debated on Wednesday 16 May 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of immigration controls at British airports.

My Lords, the Government have announced several measures on these issues. National resources are being used flexibly to provide up to 80 additional staff at Heathrow every day. Mobile teams are deployable to assist with surges in passenger numbers and the skills and experience of staff are being maximised. Additionally, a border force is working with the airport operators and airlines to ensure that they receive accurate and timely information to enable resources to be deployed effectively.

My Lords, it does not seem to be working. At 10.30 pm one evening last week in Terminal 1, five immigration officers were dealing with British and EU people and two were dealing with people with other passports. The e-passport system was not working. Although it may have taken under half an hour for people like me to get through, the foreigners with other passports looked like they were waiting for hours and hours. Does the Minister agree that this is simply not acceptable and is a consequence of the Government’s cutbacks in staff?

My Lords, I totally reject what the noble Lord says about cutbacks in staff affecting what is happening. It is not a question of numbers. The important thing is to make sure that we get the right people in the right places at the right time. Rostering, therefore, is done in line with the schedules as they vary between summer and winter. We then adjust them accordingly in line with information we receive, say, from BAA or the airlines about flight delays, weather and so on. We have also brought in this mobile force which we can move around a certain amount to make sure that the right people are there at the right time to deal with the numbers. Obviously, it will always be difficult but we want to continue to improve things and I believe that we are making progress. Perhaps I may remind the noble Lord that at the Home Affairs Select Committee meeting only yesterday, Andrew Lord, director of operations at British Airways, made it clear that it had seen great improvements in recent weeks.

Will my noble friend confirm that the denial of visas at British posts abroad is not used as a means of controlling the administrative chaos at some of our airports? This morning, in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Room, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association had a meeting with the Tanzanian parliamentary committee on privilege and ethics. None of them could attend because they were all denied a visa to enter the country.

My Lords, we are not using denial of visas to adjust these numbers, but obviously we want to deal with passport control as we can at the point of exit, where it is possible. That is one of the things that we do, and it is good to make things easier for visa control later on.

My Lords, the Minister referred in his Answer to people with skills and experience and referred in his subsequent answer to the right people in the right places. Will he explain to the House what skills and experience are required for somebody to become a member of the UK Border Agency, how they acquire those skills and where the UK Border Agency is recruiting from?

My Lords, at the Dispatch Box, in answer to a question, I am not going to go through in detail the recruiting processes of UKBA and the border force. Obviously, they have to make sure that they get the right people who get the right training, and that they deal with things in the proper ways. At the same time, we also want to make sure that we use technology as best we can, as in the past we did with IRIS and in the future we will do that with e-gates. As a result, we hope that we will be able to improve the service for all those people and improve the security that we can offer to the country in dealing with these matters.

My Lords, will the Minister make representation to the Government of the Republic of Ireland and request that they also review and, if necessary, improve their border securities, ensuring that persons arriving in the Republic of Ireland and then crossing into the United Kingdom by the unmanned and thus unchecked land border are given suitable clearance?

The noble Lord will be well aware that we have common border arrangements with the Republic of Ireland and that they will continue, as is quite convenient. But I shall certainly make sure that appropriate representations are made to the Government of the Republic of Ireland.

My Lords, recently a good friend of mine who has for many years been a prominent businessman and economist in the north-eastern part of the United States rang me to demand to know why he and his wife had been held for two and a half hours at Heathrow trying to get through border controls. What explanation or excuse would my noble friend wish that I had given him?

My Lords, I cannot give an answer to my noble friend on an individual case. If he wishes to write to me, I will be more than happy to take a look at that case.

My Lords, there are very simple answers to these problems, and we need better training for the immigration officers. I refer to the way in which they treated me when I came through and waved my passport at a British entrance. Because I was born in Iran, I was treated like a real terrorist. I kept on saying, “Look, it says ‘Baroness’ here”, and he said, “Oh, I thought that was your first name”. I really do think that they need better training.

I am sure that the noble Baroness is right to point to the need for better training. I am sure that the border force and the border agency will take that on board. But it is more than that; there are other matters that we can deal with to improve service in this area.

My Lords, does the noble Lord find it humiliating that the queues at Heathrow are the butt of Twitter messages and jokes around the world? Does he accept the strong criticism from the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration that the problems at Heathrow are caused by massive cuts of 15% of the staff, at the same time as massive organisational changes and a massive lack of good management; or, does he agree with the Immigration Minister in the other place, Damian Green, who says that since May 2010 there has been the wrong kind of wind?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is very selective in what she says about my honourable friend’s evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee yesterday. That is not surprising. I say yet again that all we get from the Opposition is that this is due to a reduction in numbers of staff. It is nothing to do with reductions in numbers of staff.

It is a matter of getting the right staff into the right place, getting rid of some of the union restrictions that are in place within the border force and making sure that we get rostering under control. We can get these things moving far better, and we will.