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Brexit: Border Control

Volume 793: debated on Monday 29 October 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of whether sufficient personnel will be trained and equipment will be ready to take full control of the United Kingdom's borders by the end of March 2019.

My Lords, we will always ensure that we have the resources and the workforce that we need to keep the border secure. In addition to the creation of 300 Readiness Task Force, approximately 600 Border Force officers are being recruited in 2018-19 to respond to future requirements as a result of EU exit and to provide operational resilience at the border.

My Lords, the NAO report states that for a deal we will need 1,000 more Border Force members, who will have to be fully trained, which takes 12 months, and 2,000 more for no deal and that as of 8 October 2018 we had managed to recruit 149. Perhaps a few more will arrive in the next few months. It also states that there will be an acute shortage of vets for hygiene border controls. On resources, HMRC reports that it will take up to three years for it to get its new systems in order. As we heard last week in the Answer to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord West, we now have, as I understand it, two offshore patrol boats to protect our maritime borders, a third is on station in the Falklands Islands and it might be agreed to build some new ones over the next several years. The tone of the NAO report is of uncertainty and insufficient time. Do the Government think that we can take back control as was promised in the referendum?

I shall address the two areas of the noble Lord’s question. The first was on the recruitment of sufficient numbers of staff. The EU exit recruitment strategy for 2018-19 is actually deal-agnostic. It is being taken forward in three broad phases: before Christmas with a flexible workforce of 300; an additional 300 leading up to Brexit; and another 300 post Brexit. Secondly, the noble Lord asked about the border patrol service. It operates a fleet of five cutters and six coastal patrol vessels around the UK coastline. They are deployed on a risk or intelligence basis and fulfil a number of tasks.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the craft of the Border Force but she knows very well that at any given time only two or maybe sometimes three of them are actually able to operate. For comparison, Holland and France operate well over 100 craft to do a similar task. The NAO study itself refused to even spot the fact that we are an island. I must say that I am beginning to feel rather depressed by this. There is a huge coastline to look after. Does the Minister not agree that we really need to do something to ensure that we have enough vessels to look after our territorial seas?

I completely agree with the noble Lord. We have a border delivery group in place ensuring that it looks at the risks and the commitments made to maintain flow and security. The boats that we are talking about are flexible to a number of needs. We have always been an island—that is nothing new—but the noble Lord is right that we have to have sufficient infrastructure to patrol it.

My Lords, if I may return to dry land, will the Minister confirm that it is the Government’s intention to offer visa-free access to EU citizens unless they wish to come here to work? If they were to do that, it would enormously reduce the extra burden on the Border Force and on the borders in general.

We have visa-free access for many countries. The exact look of our immigration system as we leave the EU is of course subject to the negotiations, but to have people flow as freely as possible through our borders is the ultimate aim.

My Lords, if we are to change the number of border officers, will the Minister consider changing the passenger survey method of counting immigration, which currently asks 0.6% of people arriving in this country whether they are tourists or immigrants? The answers are not verified, and the statistics produced do not tally with other statistics such as national insurance costs.

My noble friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of getting better and richer statistical data. For the last few years we have been introducing exit checks, which add to the picture of what our immigration and emigration system looks like.

I am very grateful. Does the Minister appreciate the worries in the port of Holyhead, expressed very strongly by people from Stena Line and from the port authority itself, that there are inadequate numbers of staff to cope with the very high volumes that come from Ireland? Unless something is done urgently, there is no chance of being in a position by 29 March. Can she give some assurance to the House?

I certainly appreciate any concern that we have sufficient numbers of staff to meet demand at the border. People coming from Ireland are often not subject to those sorts of checks but it is important that we have the right number of border staff in place as we leave the European Union.

My Lords, this is really not appropriate during Questions. We will hear quickly from the Liberal Democrat Benches.

My Lords, the Minister talked about an additional 600 staff being recruited in 2018-19. Does she not agree that there were in fact 450 fewer full-time equivalents in Border Force in 2017-18 than there were five years ago, despite a significant increase in the number of people coming across the border?

I did not actually talk about 600 staff; I talked about 900 in three lots of 300. In fact, the number permanently employed in Border Force at the end of 2017-18 was 7,700, and the forecast for 2019 is 8,600.