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Electronic Passport Control Systems

Volume 830: debated on Wednesday 7 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to improve the reliability of their electronic passport control systems.

The UK border has a highly resilient e-gate infrastructure, with over 50% of all arrivals successfully using automation in the year ending March 2023. On Friday 26 May we had a nationwide border system issue, the unintended consequence of a change, which meant that we had to take our e-gates offline. We are undertaking a full review of the incident and are fully committed to ensuring that resilience is at the heart of our transformation of the border.

I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. When you are standing for many hours at an e-gate, resilient is not the adjective I would use, but at least the Home Office issued a press release the next day, saying that it had put in place “robust plans” to deploy officers. That is useful. Is it not time that we had a contingency plan for e-gates, three years after the Government vowed to take back control of our Brexit borders, rather than relying on the odd person to check your passport manually? Is it not more important to do that than to see the Prime Minister flying off to Dover, putting on a life jacket, standing in a dinghy and pretending he is King Canute to keep a few illegal immigrants out?

As the noble Lord well knows, 95.9% of recorded wait times in the first three months of 2023 were within published service standard. The UK border system has, as I have already said, a highly resilient e-gate infrastructure, with circa 65 million passengers being processed in the year to May 2023. There are currently 288 e-gates operational, comprising 22 at air and rail terminals, including in Paris, at Gare du Nord, and Brussels, at Gare du Midi. From April 2011 to June 2021, e-gates processed 258 million passengers through the UK border. As the noble Lord will see, it is a highly effective addition to our UK border infrastructure.

My Lords, the Minister said there was an issue. Will he give the House a hint as to what this issue was and who was responsible for it?

The noble Lord asks a fair question. However, as he probably knows, it has never been government practice, for reasons of law enforcement, to comment on operational issues relating to border security and immigration controls. This includes offering commentary on the performance of border systems and e-passport gates specifically. The e-gates process passengers arriving in the UK, and provide a secure border check on approved travel documents, and refer passengers to an officer if required. The current e-gate estate was upgraded in 2021. Incidents impacting the availability of e-gates are proactively managed, and lessons are learned. They have certainly been learned from this most recent incident.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that more people would accept waiting rather better if everyone was polite? I have to say that border officials are very polite, but why is it that no notices say “please”? Could we please have notices that are polite instead of peremptory?

My Lords, this was a short-lived issue but there is a long-term issue for our airports, ports and Eurostar around longer times trying to get through passport control since Brexit. This week saw the final Eurostar Disneyland Paris train from London. The service is no longer viable because of longer check-in times, and Ebbsfleet and Ashford International have in effect been mothballed as Eurostar stopping points. Does the Minister agree that, instead of a declining network, the Government should be encouraging Eurostar to increase its network, because that is the most environmentally friendly way of travelling to and from Europe? What are the Government doing to renegotiate passport control arrangements to make travel easier in the future?

International rail infrastructure is a very valuable part of our international travel systems. I am afraid it is beyond the ken of the Home Office to require Eurostar to run any particular route, but Border Force does facilitate the clearance of passports, as I have already said, in Brussels and Paris, and this works very effectively. As a result of the agreement with our French friends, they run checks in London, and those are sometimes the subject of delays. That can impact the running of trains; I entirely accept that.

My Lords, I appreciate that the Minister probably does not want to use the word “cyberattack”, but I have a specific question. Will he go back and ask the department if it can open discussions with those producing and designing the technology to make it possible for those with little or no sight to use e-gates? At the moment, the design is so bad and the equipment so inadequate that it is not possible to use them.

My Lords, unfortunately we are going to experience, by all accounts, a summer of discontent which will come from the security staff at airports; notwithstanding that the airlines and airports—the entire industry—suffered terrible hardships throughout Covid, this is pretty bad news. It is therefore not acceptable that we then have a repetition of these technical failures at e-gates. It obviously concerns inbound passengers and some who are on transfer but, in large airports, the backlog causes damage to our reputation among tourists and people travelling into the UK. Will my noble friend please speak to the Home Office and give us some assurance that we can minimise any of these failures in the future?

I thank my noble friend for that question. The Home Office is not responsible for security facilities at the airports beyond those provided by Border Force. I reassure her that Border Force takes seriously maintaining the operation of the e-gates during peak periods. As I have said, we have certainly learned lessons from what happened last week.

My Lords, the noble Lord said that 95.9% of travellers go through the e-gate system within the published wait times. What is the position during half terms, when people are travelling with children and there are many more people travelling? Are extra staff put on during half terms?

I do not have those statistics to hand—I will of course find them and write to the noble Lord in respect of them—but, as your Lordships will recall, there was an SI approved by this House to lower the age at which children could use e-gates from 12 to 10. I am pleased to report that the pilot was incredibly effective and that it will now be rolled out across the e-gates by the end of July, so 10 year-olds across the country will be able to use them. This will increase the flow through airports, particularly during peak periods of half term and holidays.

Will my noble friend point out to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, that he was maligning King Canute? King Canute sat at the water’s edge to prove that he could not rebuke the waves, not that he could.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how he intends to control British borders in the case of people coming from Northern Ireland via the Republic?

As a consequence of our long-standing treaty agreements with the Republic of Ireland, the common travel area means that one can travel seamlessly from the Republic into Northern Ireland and from all the other parts of the common travel area, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. It is obviously part of that agreement that the external parts of the common travel area operate border security of their own. That seems to have worked very effectively for the last century.

My Lords, my interest in this is that I was at Heathrow at the time in question. My flight was cancelled and I found myself in the unusual position of entering the UK barely two hours after I had left it. When I re-entered, it was just before the incident that we are discussing and I could not get through the e-gates, so I had to queue up. I can tell the House that, as I am sure the Minister is aware, even on occasions when the system is allegedly working there are many e-gates not in use. As part of the review that the Minister says is being undertaken into this important incident—by the way, the place was full of schoolchildren on their half-term holiday—he might want to take into account the fact that even on a normal “good” day, many e-gates are not in operation.

The noble Viscount identifies a good point and is as perspicacious as ever. We are certainly looking into having more of the e-gates operational more of the time. The plan in due course, as I have already informed the House, is to dispense with the need to place the passport on the e-gate and that it will recognise people’s faces as they approach it. That should accelerate the speed with which they can go through the e-gate. I hope that might address in due course the problem raised by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, as well.