The Commons public accounts committee has announced that the Border Force – which oversees the security of British rail, sea and airports – has failed to meet eight of its nineteen key performance targets this year.
While the ministers on the committee acknowledged that great improvements were being made, the service was criticized for making a decision to prioritise checking passengers at points of arrival to the UK over other duties. This had had the effect of weakening the stringent security expected for the UK’s borders.
Problem areas that were particularly highlighted by the committee were:
- The failure to check lorries at sea ports for the presence of hidden illegal immigrants.
- The failure to examine freight for illicit goods.
- The failure to check passengers arriving in Britain by way of private planes or boats
The last of these was highlighted as potentially allowing rich criminals to simply walk into the country without challenge.
The committee described the current morale of staff at the Border Force as being at ‘rock bottom’, and acknowledged that this was already threatening the possibility of increasing productivity and of providing the flexibility needed to rise to the challenges facing it. Staffing levels in recent years have been highly variable in recent years, and Border Force’s management was criticized for the poor planning for this that came to light during the enquiry.
As an example, there was cut of five hundred staff between 2010 and 2012, followed by a hiring of an additional four hundred staff to cope with the policy of checking every single passenger at the main points of entry to the country. The waste of time and money involved in paying out for staff redundancy and then having to rehire vast numbers of them was singled out as an example of poor planning and bad value for money from the service.
Worries were also expressed over much needed IT systems updates to help officers process their work and assess appropriate intelligence data. This is particularly important given the expected increases in the number of passengers and freight being moved by air in the next few years. The Border Force’s spending plans are currently overcommitted by four percent, which is particularly concerning as it faces budget cuts over the next couple of years.
The challenge to senior management therefore is to be able to provide a stable and strong leadership and provide a sense of purpose in how the organisation performs. A plan of action has been asked for by the committee to demonstrate how they intend to do this. A focus on improving the flexibility of staff contracts to cover early morning shifts is expected, particularly at Heathrow Airport.