Skip to main content

Brexit: Customs and Border Staff

Volume 778: debated on Monday 6 February 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what estimate they have made of the number of additional public employees needed to meet the requirements of Brexit, in particular in customs and border control.

My Lords, the White Paper published last week set out the Government’s priorities and the broad strategy for exiting the EU. There is a number of options as to how EU migration and customs checks might work once we have exited the EU. We are considering these options, so it would be wrong to set out a further position at this stage.

My Lords, half of Britain’s trade is currently within the single market, so presumably customs checks and the space needed for them will have to be considerably expanded. Two-thirds of visitors come from the EU and the EEA, so I assume that the long queues that we already have at the external border for people going through hard border controls will be immensely lengthened and that we will need to treble the number of border staff. Are the Government already beginning to plan for the extra space and staff they need? If they cannot recruit enough, perhaps we will need to recruit border agency people from eastern Europe.

My Lords, the Government will certainly be prepared, if need be, in the way that the noble Lord said. However, the advent of e-passport gates at airports has made it quicker to get through the border, and of course the facial recognition checks at those gates have proved to be very efficient.

My Lords, if there is a range of options, there must surely be a range of costs—guestimates—available to the Government. What are they? Perhaps the Minister can help me but I cannot recall the costs used by the Brexiteers during the referendum campaign. Perhaps she can refresh my memory.

My Lords, of course there will be a range of options, none of which am I in a position to cost or comment on today, but they will become clearer. I am sure that the noble Lord has read the White Paper on the broad principles as we go forward.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that removing exit checks from our borders in 1998 was a huge mistake? Does she also agree that, Brexit or no Brexit, we now need to bring back immediately exit checks to our borders so that we are on top of things from a security point of view and from the point of view of being in control of immigration, with EU and non-EU citizens being scanned in and scanned out? In fact, I could recommend a whole list of Indian IT companies that could do the job.

I thank the noble Lord. He is right about exit checks. They were reintroduced last year and will provide some very useful information, not least on immigration.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me how many additional public employees are employed by the Government to answer questions from people who do not accept the result of the referendum?

The figures differ at various times. I can say to my noble friend—and I am sure he will agree with me—that we will be well equipped to deal with our borders when the time comes.

My Lords, what exactly do the Government mean when they say that under Brexit we will have control of our borders? Does it mean that people who should not do so will not enter this country? If so, how will the Government achieve that, bearing in mind that we are not in a position to stop illegal immigration at present—as the road haulage industry makes clear—despite the present level of co-operation with the French authorities?

My Lords, there is more than just the French authorities to consider, although we have worked very hard and in good co-operation with the French. Control of our borders means just that—control of who comes in and who goes out. However, I accept that no system is perfect.

My Lords, would not the introduction of ID cards be the cheapest way to try to deal with this problem? Would not the Government’s time be better spent looking at the proposals and seeing how effective they would be in introducing controls on our borders?

In short, no. We have moved beyond the ID card in terms of the amount of information we have on passenger movement. Technology now has almost negated the need for what the noble Lord talks about, which was quite some time ago.

My Lords, there has been a 25% reduction in funding per passenger for the UK Border Force since 2011. The Minister mentioned that e-gates—automatic gates—at airports for EEA nationals mean that the reduction in funding has not resulted in a lessening of security. Can she say what will happen when we leave the European Union and EEA nationals will no longer be subject to this, rather worryingly termed, soft border regime?

My Lords, the number of full-time Border Force employees has ranged from approximately 7,600 to 8,100 in the past few years. As I said earlier, there may have been a reduction perhaps last year in workforce because it is within that range but e-gates and other infrastructure improvements have improved the system. In 2016-17 we invested £68 million in capital for infrastructure improvements.

My Lords, have the Government worked out how much we will be saving by not having to send an endless stream of Ministers and their civil servants over to Brussels to nod through its useless and damaging legislation and by not having to enact it thereafter? Did not the British people vote specifically for more border control, which therefore becomes something of a priority, does it not?

The British public certainly did vote for more border control and this Government are very clear that we need to balance immigration with the skills that we need to provide services in this country. In terms of the savings, experts have given all sorts of figures and I will not at this point try to guess.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that asking rational and legitimate questions about process is not the same as not accepting the result of the referendum?

Asking rational questions is perfectly legitimate; noble Lords tend to ask rational questions, and that is totally legitimate. There is a wide range of views in both your Lordships’ House and the other place but I think we all accept the outcome of the referendum.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a UK border official at Charles de Gaulle airport once told me that when a passport on occasion appears in front of them that is illegal, they give it back to the French authorities and that passport often reappears, carried by somebody else, in order to try to get access to the UK?

The noble Viscount tells me something that I did not know, but the e-gates are actually very accurate at marrying up the person with the identity in the passport.