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Brexit: Border Controls

Volume 798: debated on Wednesday 19 June 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) whether there are sufficient resources at the United Kingdom’s borders to prevent illegal arms and illicit drugs entering the country; and (2) whether such resources would need to be increased when the United Kingdom exits the European Union.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as declared in the register and beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the Border Force and other law enforcement organisations are successfully working together with international partners to secure our borders from a range of threats, including firearms and harmful substances, and to disrupt and prosecute organised criminal groups. The Government have been consistently clear that border security will remain our priority now and after the UK leaves the EU.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, but it sounds rather complacent. For example, Chief Constable Andy Cooke has warned that police and border officials are struggling to stem the rise in illegal guns being smuggled into this country. The National Crime Agency has pointed out that most criminal firearms have not been used before, which suggests that a “fluid supply” of guns is crossing the border. We also know the degree of confusion and chaos that is likely following Brexit. We know that the senior official responsible for this at the Department for Exiting the EU has just resigned. Is the Minister really saying that she has confidence, first, that the system is preventing dangerous and illegal materials entering this country at the moment and, secondly, that it will continue to do so after Brexit?

I am saying that I am confident. A number of the measures that we have taken over the past few months underline my comments. On EU exit, the Border Force has had an additional £91.7 million on top of its gross annual budget.

I turn to the work we are doing in other states, which is incredibly important because drugs and firearms, which the noble Lord raised, are not a UK problem—they are a global problem and require a global response. We liaise and communicate in a number of forums to ensure the global response that we intend to maintain when the UK leaves the European Union. The noble Lord will also know that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, in his meeting with Monsieur Castaner back in January, boosted and bolstered our response to the juxtaposed controls and the channel.

My Lords, is the Minister saying that she is happy with the situation? Is she not well aware that something like 50 Home Office officials, mainly connected with the border agency, have been sent to prison in the last few years? Is she not aware of the case raised by my Written Question and to which she replied, in which, on 16 November last year, one Home Office official, accused of smuggling drugs and firearms, was sent to prison for 23 years? Does that not indicate something pretty awful?

I am well aware of what my noble friend talks about. I pay tribute to the Border Force and the work it has done. He will probably acknowledge that in any organisation, there will be people who seek to break the law and that is what happened here. Nevertheless, the Border Force is an excellent organisation that does great work.

My Lords, in November 2018, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration was quoted in the Telegraph as saying that Britain’s borders had been left open to illegal immigrants because of a chronic staff shortage at ports. The Border Force replied that it was recruiting 1,000 officers nationally,

“to meet normal staff turnover”,

as well as an additional 300 front-line officers. More than six months on, how many short of the new 1,300 Border Force officers are we, and what continuing gaps in the UK border does that leave?

I hope the noble Lord will be pleased to know that we have recruited, and are in the process of training and bringing up to speed, 900 Border Force officers. In addition to that, we are preparing for the summer and EU exit. He will also know that, in respect of e-passport gates, we have expanded eligibility to include the B5J plus Singapore and South Korea, increasing e-passport gate capability, which should make travel through the border a lot more streamlined.

My Lords, 169 illegal immigrants were picked up in the channel over the last week, more than there have been for a considerable time. We do not know how many might have got ashore whom we do not know about; we know that our minor ports up the east coast and around the channel are not properly monitored or covered by shipping assets or drones. Clearly, the system is not working: we do not have a waterproof system to stop people getting into this country. Will the Minister tell us whether we are increasing assets? It is all very well having good intelligence and deals with the French, but we need assets to be able to stop, monitor and cover these areas.

The noble Lord is absolutely right. I talked about my right honourable friend the Home Secretary signing the joint action plan with his French counterpart, Monsieur Castaner. The plan that they agreed built on the existing border security partnership by setting out more than £6 million-worth of investment for new security equipment as well as the intelligence that he talked about and CCTV coverage of ports. On the small ports, we have enhanced our field intelligence and our search capability.

My Lords, a chain is as strong as its weakest link. What efforts have the Government made to identify and strengthen the smaller ports that are particularly vulnerable?

As I just said, we have strengthened both our field intelligence capabilities and our search capabilities for smaller ports. As the noble Lord said, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and, of course, as we strengthen some ports, people will try to find inroads into the smaller ones.

My Lords, tackling the smuggling of firearms and drugs clearly requires our services, whether the Border Force or the police, to co-operate with our European partners. Does the Minister think that this will be helped if we crash out of Europe without a deal?

My Lords, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, we intend to keep those lines of co-operation fully open, deal or no deal. The issues he talked about are not UK-wide, or even EU-wide: they are global and need a global response both upstream and among our various partners.