Weekend of scandal for the UK Border Agency

The Home Secretary and her officials tripped over no less than three ‘banana skin’ issues last weekend. But are lessons being learned on immigration in Britain?
Don Flynn
8 November 2011

First it was the discovery that officials at Heathrow had, on a few occasions, suspended some of the checks they are required to perform on non-EU nationals arriving in the UK.  Then there was the news that UKBA teams are illegally targeting bus passengers travelling between UK cities for immigration checks. 

Then, to cap off a really bad week, we get the news that an Agency official working at its national headquarters in Croydon is to be prosecuted for taking bribes to issue visas. Under the Labour government blunders of this sort came singularly and only once every several months, so perhaps we should at least commend the coalition government for increasing UKBA’s productivity rate.

For close observers of the UK’s immigration policies (and in MRN we have people who've been doing that for 30+ years) this sort of stuff comes as no surprise. Controlling the movement of people in the conditions of our modern world is an inherently difficult task. Around 100 million people enter the UK every year and UKBA is required to check the travel documents of each and every one of these. True, in any one year only around one-fifth of these will actually be subject to the full measure of immigration control measures, but those who are still have to be sorted out from all the rest.

Governments like to think that they can stay ahead of the game by bringing all sorts of high-tech kit into border control procedures and it looks forward to reporting continuous improvements to a public which so often seems rattled by stories of systems failure. The problem is that much of this stuff is very expensive and doesn’t work properly in any case, as the National Audit Office report on IT procurement and governance in immigration controls recently reminded us. Paying for it also means even greater pressure to reduce expenditure on the engagement of staff than is felt in the rest of the public sector, with personnel reductions having already dropped by 10% since 2010, and expected to fall by another 20% over the next few years.

Meanwhile UK ports of entry seethe with passengers frustrated with long delays at the passport checking desks, with every minute spent in queues doing damage to the county’s image as a pleasant and enjoyable place to visit.

Torn by the conflicting pressures of controlling immigration and facilitating the efficient movement of people across borders it is not surprising to discover that officials will be tempted on occasion to cut back on some of the checks which are laborious and unproductive in identifying significant levels of risk to the integrity of the overall system. This appears to be what the now suspended border chief Brodie Clark did when he permitted staff at Heathrow to relax some of the checking procedures on some passengers who entered the UK during the summer. 

The Home Secretary has asked the Independent Chief Inspector of the UKBA, John Vine to investigate the matter and more detail will emerge from that process.  Some of the more lurid speculations, which have included those of the Home Affairs Select Committee chairman, Keith Vaz MP, have suggested that ‘hundreds of thousands’ of people were admitted during this period without being checked. 

This seems unlikely. Our suspicion is that immigration officers dealing with relatively small numbers of people travelling on what are considered to be low-risk routes from places like North America or Japan were permitted to forego the necessity of double-checking identity papers. All of these passengers will, we expect, prove to have had their paper documents examined, with only scanning of embedded microchips forgone for the sake of greater speed.

If this is the case, the salient question which the Chief Inspector, should be invited to address, is not how many cases avoided such double-checking procedures, but what was the extent of the risk that people who would otherwise have been refused entry managed to get into the country? Never mind talk of hundreds of thousands, is the really important number likely to crawl as high as the double-digit tens?

But all the flapping about Mr Brodie Clark’s difficulties has saved the more extreme control freaks who occupy senior positions in the coalition government from the real scandal of the UKBA clearly exceeding its authority by imposing immigration control checks on people travelling on intercity bus services in the UK.  The case in question involved buses arriving at Liverpool’s Norton Street coach station, which are apparently regularly boarded by a UKBA officers acting in pairs who require passengers to produce passports as evidence of identity.

According to a report in the Observer, a Mr Pete Clark described how he and others were physically blocked from leaving a National Express coach travelling to the city from Leeds until the passengers revealed identification "deemed suitable." The Observer quotes him as saying:

"None of the persons involved gave an explanation of who they were, what they were doing and on which authority." In his view, "Their attempt to prevent passengers from going about their lawful business amounts to harassment."

The UKBA claims that these are ‘intelligence-led’ operations.  In the context of raids carried out on residential or business premises, this term is taken to mean that the teams involved have reasonable grounds to believe that named individuals known to be in breach of immigration regulations are present.  A recent report by the Independent Chief Inspector on the work of UKBA Arrest Teamsoperating in the London Boroughs of Bexley, Greenwich and Lambeth makes it clear that a transparent audit trail of intelligence is required in the case of each operation which details of the suspected offenders who are the object of such activity.

The Border Agency needs to be pressed as to whether such an audit trail exists in the case of the checks on bus passengers. They are needed to prevent the abuse and oppressive use of immigration control powers and to safeguard the rights of people who are likely to be intimidated by such demands for documentation. It would be helpful if the Chief Inspector could use his office to establish the position in relation to these bus checks.

How does the story about corrupt officials in the UKBA headquarter offices fit into this picture? The answer is that this type of opportunistic criminality gains a foothold in administrative systems which are overstretched by demands being placed on them by the higher authorities and the scarcity of the resources needed to do the job. At the soft end of the spectrum, officials will calculate the risk involved in suspending aspects of the operation they are required to carry out in order to present a generally pleasing picture of the work they are doing to their political bosses. The problem Mr Brodie Clark and his suspended colleagues now face is not that any clear evidence of harm will arise from their actions, but merely that the whistle was blown on them and their minister was embarrassed by it all.

In our view the passport checks imposed on inter-city bus passengers involves a more insidious and damaging level of harm. It is likely the UKBA has no legal authority to conduct such checks. This action involves oppressive activities directed against members of the public who, even when their status is legal, still often feel insecure because of the high chance that their circumstances will be misinterpreted by unsympathetic officials.

This all leads to the gross danger of outright corruption at the heart of the system. When public policy is as poorly designed as the UK’s immigration procedures, and when high ranking officials can only make the system work by banging it into shape with blunt instruments, then the spaces and the gaps for fraud and bribery will be opened up and widened. That is exactly the position we are in today and it perfectly links the stories of the suspended checks at Heathrow, the illegal checks on inter-city buses, and the dodgy shenanigans at UKBA’s Lunar House.

It’s much bigger than poor Mr Clark, Mrs May.  For heaven’s sake, sort it out!    

This piece was originally published on

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