Airport check chaos - a predictable own goal from a government obsessed with control at the borders

It is time we stopped kidding ourselves – the mess at our borders is a fantastic own goal scored by a government which has made too big a promise to ‘regain control over borders.’ If we want order to come back into the way we admit visitors to our country we should be aiming for lighter, rather than tougher, checks.
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The much-hyped battle to ‘secure the borders of the UK’ against all the threats which foreigners are capable of posing is producing ample evidence of collateral damage to innocent bystanders. 

Over the past few days the newspapers have been filled with reports of travellers coming from outside the EU having to wait for two hours or longer to clear immigration control desks at Heathrow Airport.  During the May bank Holiday weekend the chaos spread to Stansted Airport with waiting times stretching to two hours at the normally very efficient Essex airfield.   

Airport - plane leaving

In the face of massive criticism from the civil air transport industry the government’s response has to promise squads of mobile immigration officers descending on waiting hotspots in an attempt to ease passenger anger and frustration. 

This approach seems unlikely to appease many of the Home Office’s harshest critics.  The squads will be recruited from other areas of the UK Border Agency, many of whom will be taken from duties more pressing than immigration control, diluting customs checks aimed at dealing with smuggling and firearms. 

Staff cut-backs

The civil service trade unions have been angered by the suggestion that temporary immigration staff will also be recruited from amongst the 1500 UKBA workers laid off during the past year under the government’s austerity programme.

Meanwhile Parliamentary scrutiny over the developing situation seems to be descending into its own depths of confusion as the ubiquitous chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz MP, follows up criticism he made of the Border Agency for dropping some levels of controls on passengers considered low risk, with a new position which places damage to the UK’s reputation as a place to enjoy visiting as the core of the matter. Yet back in November 2011 he was telling the Daily Mail that “ We must ensure our border checks are not compromised and that the UKBA has the resources it needs to thoroughly check every individual coming into Britain.’ 

Only a matter of weeks away from the giant celebrations planned for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee followed swiftly by the Olympic Games the situation at the UK borders looks like a boiling crisis caused by a government propaganda strategy intended to whip up anxieties over immigration in the belief that a hard-line approach to checks and controls would produce the sort of good news that would stand ministers in good stead.

Unrealistic promises

What we are witnessing instead is a classic example of a government making unrealistic promises which it has never had any real capacity to deliver on.

The fact is that policing the movement of people crossing frontiers in this modern age is not a simple matter at all.  If politicians think they look good when they are reported as ‘regaining control over our borders’ they are quickly finding that this is a very difficult job when operations have to be managed that will permit anything up to 70 million people a year pass through a port facility.  Every ten minutes worth of extra delay and obstruction on passengers passing swiftly through passport checks damages the country’s standing in the eyes of people who come to purchase good and services here, or who bring their skills as workers and their investments as business people.

Neither is it just ‘the foreigners’ who are made into victims by ineptitude at the country’s borders. Tens of thousands of British businesses depend on the UK having a reputation as being an open and pleasant place to visit and do deals in.  According to the Deloitte, the visitor economy is expected to grow from its current value of £115 billion a year to provide jobs for three million UK residents by 2020,  a prospect which could easily be wrecked by a bad performance during the showcase year of 2012, when more and more people will for the first time be experiencing a ‘welcome’ at UK ports of entry.

A modest proposal

To help the government out in its obvious hour of need, MRN has a modest proposal which we would like to out on the table as a way of bringing about a vast improvement in the visitor experience of UK air and sea ports:  we should adopt the same approach to admission used by the majority of our continental neighbours who apply the rules of the Schengen Agreement.

Under these provisions the government could drop altogether the task of checking any travel documents for people arriving from other countries within the EU.  This would immediately free up the resources currently being used to flick through the passport and ID cards of around 2 million people each year, placing the country’s entry procedures on a par with other Schengen members like France, Germany, Italy and Spain. 

The claim that this would pose an unacceptable security risk to the UK is bogus.  No evidence of exposure to greater threats and dangers as a result of ending identity checks for intra-EU travel has ever been demonstrated in the case of our near-neighbours in the rest of Europe.

Yes, we know that this is not a proposal that either the Conservative part of the coalition, or the Labour opposition is likely to consider with any favour at this point in time, and will prefer to maintain the pretence that somehow, with the exercise of just a bit more willpower, a way to manage borders will be possible.

It won’t.  Staff will be overstrained and computer systems prone to chronic failure forever into the future and we need to stop fooling ourselves that things will be otherwise.  At some point we can be sure that something like our ‘modest proposal’ will come onto the agenda of a progressive, reforming government in the future: the only question is when.

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