COMMONS

Report published on the Border Force: securing the border

10 December 2013

The Public Accounts Committee publishes its 31st report on The Border Force: securing the border

The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

“The Border Force prioritised passenger checks on arrival at the expense of other duties and weakened the security of our borders. The Force neglected to examine freight for illicit goods, neglected to check lorries in Calais for concealed illegal entrants, and failed to check passengers coming into Britain on private planes or boats, potentially letting billionaire gangsters off the hook.

“The Border Force has admitted that it has missed 8 of its 19 seizure and detection targets. It must now set out how it is going to provide the necessary level of national security at the UK border.

“It has a big task ahead of it, given the limited resources it has and the significant growth in demand from forecast increases in passenger numbers and air freight.

“The planning of the Border Force’s workforce has been extremely poor. A cut in staff of 500 between 2010 and 2012 was immediately followed, when 100 per cent passenger checks were introduced, by spending to increase the number of frontline staff from 7,600 to 8,000. Paying out redundancy and then rehiring staff is bad value for money and demonstrates poor planning.

“The Force’s plans for 2013-14 involve spending of 4 per cent more than its budget. It then faces cuts in the following two years. Little progress has been made in recent years in introducing greater flexibility to its workforce, with 40 per cent of staff at Heathrow still on inflexible terms and conditions, making it difficult and expensive to cover the early morning shifts.

“There are worrying gaps in the intelligence data available to the Border Force and its IT systems are not up to the job. The Warnings Index, the system used to check all arriving passengers, is out of date and at risk of collapse but it is unclear how and when it will be replaced. Progress depends on development of the e-Borders programme but that is currently rated amber/red by the Major Projects Authority.

“The morale of staff is at rock bottom, threatening the prospect of achieving the increases in productivity and flexibility of workforce which the Border Force so sorely needs. Senior management must provide strong and stable leadership capable of providing a sense of purpose.”

Margaret Hodge was speaking as the Committee published its 31st Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Border Force and the Home Office, examined the progress and performance of the Border Force since its transfer to the Department in 2012.

The Border Force’s 7,600 staff operate immigration and customs controls at 138 air, sea and rail ports across the UK, and in France and Belgium, to prevent ‘harmful’ individuals and goods entering the UK. In March 2012, the Border Force was transferred from the then UK Border Agency to the Home Office to strengthen management oversight following criticism around relaxation of border controls. The Border Force had five different heads in the 18 months to March 2013, when the current Director General, Sir Charles Montgomery, was appointed. The Border Force has a budget of £604 million for 2013-14, but is facing cuts as part of wider reductions in the Home Office’s resources agreed in the Spending Review settlement for 2015-16.

The Border Force has had to prioritise passenger checks at the expense of its other duties thereby weakening security at the border. The Border Force’s prioritisation of full passenger checks has led it to neglect other duties, such as the examination of freight for illicit goods, and to suspend checks in Calais on lorries to detect concealed illegal entrants when staff had to be re-deployed to passport control. The Border Force also confirmed that it was not able to meet and check up to 90,000 private planes or private boats arriving in the UK each year, leaving the UK border vulnerable and raising issues about resourcing and how priorities are set. The Border Force acknowledged that it had missed 8 of its 19 seizure and detection targets.

Recommendations

Recommendation: The Border Force needs to set out how it will ensure that it delivers its full range of duties across all ports to provide the required level of national security.

It is not clear how the Border Force will cope with the growing demands placed on it to secure the border given the limited resourcing at its disposal. The Border Force has not delivered its full range of duties and it faces significant growth in demand from projected increases in passenger numbers and air freight. While investment has been secured to increase the number of frontline Border Force staff from 7,600 to 8,000 this is only remedying in part previous cuts of 500 staff made between 2010 and 2012. The issue of paying to reduce staff numbers and then increasing those numbers shortly afterwards demonstrates poor planning and a poor use of public resources. The Border Force’s plans for 2013-14 are based on it spending 4% more than its budget. It then faces real-term cuts in resources in both 2014-15 and 2015-16, partly as a result of the Home Office’s overall budget being cut by 6% in its Spending Review settlement for 2015-16. To balance its books the Border Force will be increasingly reliant on achieving greater workforce flexibility and little progress had been made in recent years, with 40% of staff at Heathrow still on inflexible work contracts. The Border Force will also need to make better use of technical advances, such as more and improved automatic clearance gates at the border.

Recommendation: The Border Force must demonstrate through effective, realistic planning that it can deliver its workload within the resources available.

It was frustrating to the Committee to only see the Independent Chief Inspector’s report on e-borders on the morning of our hearing. The report contains damning evidence of the nearly half a billion pounds of public money spent so far on the development of the e-borders programme. The evidence in the report was relevant to our hearing and should have been shared with the Committee in a timely fashion. Recommendation: The department must ensure that the Public Accounts Committee has proper and timely access to all reports which provide information relevant to the issues the Committee will consider during its hearing.

Good intelligence is required to control who and what enters the UK, yet there are worrying gaps in the data available to the Border Force to secure the border. The Border Force has been slow to secure improvements in Advanced Passenger Information (API) with only 63% of passengers covered in advance of their arrival in the UK. Even with increased numbers of airline carriers set to provide API, the Border Force will not receive advance data for more than one in ten of the passengers arriving in the UK for the foreseeable future. The information the Border Force receives on incoming private planes and boats is notably poor, and there is concern that those able to access private planes and boats can evade border checks. The intelligence alerts to frontline Border Force staff on potential threats are of limited utility as they are generated from cross-checking data on legacy systems not designed for this purpose.

Recommendation: The Border Force must address the gaps in the data it receives on people arriving in the UK, and the existing data needs to be cleansed to increase the quality, reliability and usefulness of the intelligence generated, to help the Border Force better align its resources to its priorities.

The Border Force’s IT systems are inadequate and its future development plans seem to be unrealistic. Frontline staff rely on an unstable data system—the Warnings Index—to carry out checks at the border. This system is at risk of collapse, but it is unclear when or how this system will be replaced. The Department’s aim to achieve 80% passenger exit checks by April 2015 will place more demands on IT, but plans are unrealistic given it has not yet issued tender documents for the new technology required. Progress on replacing the Warnings Index system and introducing exit checks relies heavily on the development of the e-Borders programme (now the Border Systems programme) which worryingly is currently rated amber/red by the Major Projects Authority.

Recommendation:The Border Force must set out how, and by when, it will have in place the functional IT systems it needs to underpin the security of the UK border.

The lack of flexibility available to deploy staff and poor morale threaten the productivity improvements required for the Border Force to meet all its duties. A fifth of Border Force staff are not on annualised hour contracts restricting management’s ability to deploy them flexibly to meet demand. Progress on moving existing staff onto new terms and conditions has been slow. The Border Force’s efforts to raise productivity are hindered further by: poor staff morale, which is amongst the lowest in the public sector; organisational change, including shedding then re-recruiting staff; and budget cuts.

Recommendation: Senior management in the Border Force must provide the strong and stable leadership needed to provide the organisation with a clear sense of purpose and tackle those barriers which inhibit the flexible and effective deployment of its staff.

Further information

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