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Ports and Airports: Queues

Volume 829: debated on Tuesday 28 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce queues at ports and airports for United Kingdom citizens returning to the UK.

The Government have an ambitious vision for the future UK border, which will put in place the world’s most effective and secure border system. We are already using automation and trialling other technologies to improve fluidity and minimise queues for all arriving passengers, without compromising on our number one priority: the security of the border.

Last year we had the absurdity, particularly at holiday times, of having to queue to get back into our own country. Can the Government guarantee that this year at holiday times we will not have that indignity?

I am afraid I simply do not agree with the picture that the noble Lord paints. Border Force plans extensively at both local and regional levels to ensure the smoothest possible journey for all passengers, with over 90% of passengers processing through the UK border in 30 minutes or less. I remind the noble Lord that there are, on average, 144 million crossings each year at the UK border. An estimated 86% of those passengers who travel through the UK border are eligible to use the automated e-passport gates, which are currently our automated solution for processing arriving passengers.

My Lords, it was impossible not to notice what an efficient job members of the Armed Forces did when they replaced members of Border Force during the recent strike period. Indeed, some passengers are rather hoping there might be more strikes over the busy summer period. But that to one side, this is not a job for members of our Armed Forces. The MACA—military aid to the civil authorities—rules are very clear that members of the Armed Forces should be used only in extremis. Can my noble friend reassure me that contingency plans are in place to ensure that this does not happen again?

Well, I thank the noble Lord for his generous remarks about the effectiveness with which the contingency plans to deal with strikes in the Border Force succeeded in ensuring adequate—indeed, efficient—flow through the border. I can reassure him that there are certainly no plans, in a non-strike scenario, for members of the Armed Forces to replace members of Border Force. It might assist the noble Lord to know that we have in place plans to further digitise and automate the border, such that in due course the operation of e-gates will be completed solely by facial recognition and there should be no need to place your passport on the e-gate. Ultimately, we wish to simply use facial recognition alone, without the need for an e-gate. But these are, of course, all in the future.

A week ago, I suggested to the Minister that a short-term fix, at least, would be to have a separate fast-track queue for British citizens, as distinct from EU citizens. The Minister said they were included because they were “our friends”. However, the friendship is not reciprocated, and we have many friends around the world. I put it to the Minister again: why can we not have a separate fast-track line for British citizens?

As I say, and as I said to the noble Baroness on the last occasion, we take the view that it is more efficient in terms of flow for all the categories that are allowed to use the e-gate to do so. That includes our friends in America, the Five Eyes nations, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. They may all use the e-gates and this accelerates the flow through our airports. There is nothing to be gained in the view of the Home Office by providing lanes on the basis that the noble Baroness adumbrates. I can reassure her that we are not in the business of retaliating when countries wish to include British nationals in a separate queue.

My Lords, in the meantime, while we wait for the nirvana which the Minister has outlined—I have waited for well over an hour just to get through an e-gate—one of the things that could be done is to improve the software so that you do not have to attempt once, twice, three times in order to get your passport to work. The number of failures in that system is so great that it is, in fact, creating queues artificially. As the Minister will know, now that 10 year- olds can use the e-gates, we are going to have more people queueing, more second attempts, and more third attempts. Will the Government do something about the software while we wait for this nirvana?

I hate to point out to the noble Lord that in many cases a failure of the passport to be read by the e-gate is often due to a lack of care taken with the passport by the owner. In many cases, I am afraid the e-gate works perfectly well. In due course, we plan for the e-gates to open simply on recognition of the noble Lord’s face.

If the system is so good, why have airports introduced a system for people to pay extra to get through quickly, because they experience long delays and the only way they can get through quickly is by paying extra charges to the airport?

I do not know about that; I will look into it. As far as I know, the airport layout is a matter for the owner of the airport. If one pays for some sort of particular access to the border gates, that is something that the airport will do. It is certainly not the case that you can pay Border Force for quicker access across the border.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that at least some of the problems are caused by people with pre-settled and settled status under the EU settlement scheme and that they are exacerbated because there is no physical proof of that; there is only electronic proof, which causes problems with the borders? There is a lot of anecdotal evidence and we hope to report on that relatively soon. Does he accept that that is part of the problem?

It should not be a problem, in that holders of EU settled status obviously are entitled to an EU passport, which is capable of being read by our e-gates. Of itself, the existence of EU status is not an issue. The issue arises in only those cases where those people who are entitled to EU settled status do not hold a valid EU passport—and that is a small cohort, but one which we are looking into.

My Lords, whatever the causes may be for queues as they arise at ports and airports, the people working there can come under great pressure as those queues and stress levels rise. Can the Minister say what support is being given to those who work at our borders to safeguard their well-being in the midst of all this pressure?

I can certainly reassure the right reverend Prelate that the Home Office takes very seriously its obligations for the well-being of its staff both in Border Force and Immigration Enforcement. I will write to her with the detail of that.

My Lords, I would like to support the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. I visited Washington last week and, while waiting in the queues, the whole line of US citizens was being marched through and looked after. We ought to be looking after our citizens in the UK in the same way. I finish by saying that, when I came back to the UK, I waited about two minutes to get through the automatic gates and did not have to wait at all.

I am grateful to my noble friend. The issue as I understand it is that the legal framework for border crossing in America requires a face-to-face interaction with every passenger; that is the reason for the generation of queues on the other side of the Atlantic. That is not the case here. We use automation and believe that it delivers a faster and more secure border. As for the Americans allowing their own nationals to circumvent the face-to-face interview, that seems to be the logical corollary of their legal scenario; but that would not be relevant here, given the presence of automation.

The Minister has told us that border security is the Government’s number one priority, which, of course, is right. Will he comment on media reports that an email was sent to Customs staff asking them to prioritise passports over checks for drugs and other such illegal items?

My Lords, is there any intention of restricting the right to strike of Border Force officers in the interests of security?

I thank the noble Lord for that question—yes, under the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, Border Force is envisaged as being subject to the legislation and regulations could be made requiring minimum service levels on the part of Border Force staff.