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Airports: Border Force

Volume 792: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take to (1) improve the performance of the Border Force at United Kingdom airports, and (2) reduce delays in clearing EEA and non-EEA passengers through immigration.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I draw attention to my declaration of interests.

My Lords, visitor numbers to the UK are increasing and we expect record levels this year. Despite the increase, the latest data shows that we are meeting published service standards while maintaining the security of the UK border. We are continually seeking to improve our performance. The Border Force is taking steps to ensure that passengers are dealt with as quickly as possible by investing in technology and increasing the availability of staff at the busiest times of the day.

My Lords, so far this year, non-EEA passengers at Heathrow border control have waited up to two hours 45 minutes, and EEA nationals up to 55 minutes. Yesterday, targets were missed for almost eight hours between 1 pm and 8.45 pm. For those who believe, as I think we all do, that we will have to be even more of a global trading nation, and for those who want to welcome both tourists and visitors, this is surely a disaster. Does the Minister agree with me that, tragically, this is a stark example of a hostile environment?

My Lords, last year, 97.5% of passengers were cleared within the service level agreement, which is 25 minutes for EEA passengers and 45 minutes for non-EEA passengers. Far from being a hostile environment, the border should be a compliant environment, and everyone passing through it should comply with immigration standards. However, we anticipate increases in travel and are making preparations for that.

My Lords, many of the e-gates, which are meant to make things quicker and stop these delays, are often out of action at London airports. Why is that, and when will they all be back in action?

There are 254 e-gates operating across the country, including the juxtaposed controls. E-gates respond to the patterns of people-flow across the border. Although some of the e-gates are sometimes closed, one finds that when demand increases, they re-open. That is a wise way of managing traffic across the border.

My Lords, further to what the Minister has just said, is it not true that there needs to be a certain number of immigration officers per e-gate and that, in fact, the e-gates are not all open when they should be because of a lack of staff? What discussions have the Government had with Heathrow Airport Ltd about increasing the number of Border Force staff at the airport, bearing in mind that the Border Force is struggling with two runways, let alone three?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that there are immigration officers at e-gates and that e-gates are sometimes closed but, as I explained, this is in relation to the projected flow of passengers across the border, and sometimes if a plane has been delayed, it can create congestion at the border. We have 250 e-gates, but we are investing in staff at the border in the coming year.

The Minister said, “We are making preparations for that”. Is that what she meant by her last statement, or is there more to report to the House?

My Lords, I anticipated that Brexit might come into this, as it has into every debate we have had for the last few months, so I said that in anticipation of projected increases in demand across the border, and to announce that we will be having a nationwide recruitment campaign of up to 1,000 further officers.

My Lords, it has been drawn to my attention that diplomats from the Caribbean, such as governors-general, are not allowed to pass through the diplomatic channels at airports. Can the Minister explain why that is, and what directive needs to be given to immigration staff at airports to change this unwelcome behaviour?

I can certainly take that back, because I do not know the direct answer. That comment was made to me some weeks ago, but I shall take it back to the department and get a suitable reply for the noble Baroness.

My Lords, the lengthening and continuing delays at Heathrow for arriving passengers to clear immigration and passport control are at the very least causing reputational damage to the airport and the airlines affected. This has financial consequences for them as well as for our economy. Since the Government have not met—and are apparently still not meeting—all their service level targets on waiting times for passengers arriving at Heathrow, what level of compensation will be provided by the Government to the operator of Heathrow and the airlines involved? If no compensation is going to be provided by the Government, why not, bearing in mind that in other areas of activity, firms providing services for the Government would be liable to penalties for failing to deliver on their service level targets?

My Lords, I am not sure. I do not know the answer to whether there are actual financial penalties in terms of compensation from the Government for failing to meet service level standards. What I can say is that over 95% of passengers arriving at Heathrow are, in fact, dealt with through those service level agreements.