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UK Borders: Surveillance

Volume 787: debated on Monday 18 December 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they plan to take to improve surveillance of the United Kingdom’s borders, including at smaller ports and harbours, coastal waters and private airstrips.

My Lords, the Border Force works closely with other law enforcement agencies, security services and international partners on an intelligence-led approach to identify unlawful maritime and aviation activity. It also uses a combination of cutters, radar, onshore assets and aerial surveillance to detect and stop small craft.

I congratulate the Government on the announcement that they are going to double the number of cutters around our coast from two to four. I think that means that we will have one cutter for every 3,000 miles of coastline if they all operate at the same time—rather fewer than the Dutch have for a far shorter coastline. Has the Minister read the Public Accounts Committee’s report of two weeks ago that points out that there are 21 departments and agencies in Whitehall concerned with the management of borders, not one of which is in overall control? Does she know of the report issued last March by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders, which pointed out that nearly half the small ports on our east coast had not been visited by any member of Border Force in the preceding 15 months? The leave campaign talked about taking back control of Britain’s borders. Is it not the case that we do not have effective control of British borders at present and that perhaps we ought to consider putting more effort into that?

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord says but, of course, it is not a question simply of the number of cutters and RIBs that we have in the sea. We are heavily reliant on the most effective method of border control: namely, the multiagency, intelligence-led information that we have. We deploy on the back of that intelligence and risk assessment. That is the most effective way of manning certainly our maritime borders.

My Lords, given what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has just said, would my noble friend the Minister confirm that it was a very good thing that we did not join the Schengen agreement when it came out, and that there were people in this country who wanted to join Schengen to show up their European credentials?

I note what my noble friend says—but, as we move towards exiting the European Union, Border Force will make sure that its recruiting plans are flexible to ensure that its approach can be flexed as future requirements become clearer.

My Lords, the Minister makes rather light of the real problem. There is no doubt whatever that all the departments and assets looking after our territorial seas and exclusive economic zone are not being co-ordinated at the moment. I know that there are plans to move forward, but it is not being done. The intelligence from the NMIC, which was established some five years or so ago, is very good but we are not co-ordinating assets, and we do not have enough assets. However, my question relates to our British Overseas Territories, each of which has territorial seas and exclusive economic zones. Indeed, we have responsibility for the largest area of ocean of any country in the world. In that circumstance, does it not make sense not to get rid of the offshore patrol vessels, which are relatively new, when the new ones come online, and to use those to look after these vast areas of ocean that at the moment are not being properly protected?

The noble Lord makes a valid point about our offshore patrol vessels—and there are no plans to get rid of them. However, my point, which I hope I was not making lightly, was that the most effective work we can do at the border is intelligence-led work that is successful at pinpointing areas of high risk.

My Lords, in April last year the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, confirmed in the other place that in 2016-17 the Border Force agency’s revenue budget, which covers staffing, would be 0.4% less compared with 2015-16. However, the Government insist that Border Force spending has been protected because spending on technology such as electronic passport gates has increased. Can the Minister explain what happens at many of the ports of entry where there are no electronic passport gates in the light of the reduction in Border Force staff? Can she also confirm that most of the time, even where there are electronic passport gates, there are not enough staff to keep them open?

On the first part of the noble Lord’s question, he is absolutely right that we have invested in technology such as e-gates, and just before the Calais clearance, my right honourable friend Amber Rudd in the other place stated that £36 million would be committed to support France in the Calais camp clearance. However, on his main point, which is about people being at ports and borders at all times, if we lined this country wall to wall with people, it would still not be as effective as going after the intelligence-led risk, which operates so well.

My Lords, as someone who uses airstrips and small airfields in this country, perhaps I might ask the Minister to confirm that, as regards the operations of light aircraft and business aircraft, the regulations already in place are greatly enhanced to protect us and our borders from any illegal intrusions? Would she not agree that anything too onerous as extra requirements could harm our general aviation and business aviation unnecessarily?

My noble friend is absolutely right that good measures and regulations are in place to ensure that our GA flights are notified to Border Force. We continue to assess 100% of them, aiming to meet all GA flights to ensure that flights are met by immigration staff and that all checks are completed.