Cameron tells ministers 'to grip' Heathrow queues problem

David Cameron
Image caption Prime Minister David Cameron met key ministers on Tuesday, to discuss the government's next move

David Cameron has told ministers they must admit there is a problem with long immigration queues at Heathrow Airport.

The PM told colleagues "we've got to grip this," BBC political editor Nick Robinson was told.

On a visit to Heathrow on Tuesday, Immigration Minister Damian Green announced 80 extra staff were being drafted in to cut queues.

Shadow home office minister Yvette Cooper said ministers were "showing a shocking level of complacency".

Mr Green visited Terminal 3 at the London airport during a quiet period, when queues were around five minutes and around 13 of the 30 border control desks were manned.

He said the issue was not just about staff numbers, but about how and when they were deployed, adding the Border Force needed to be more flexible.

'Significant steps'

Mr Green said: "Of course there is a problem - that is why I have spent some time explaining what we are doing about it."

He said airports were taking significant steps to ensure the right channels were open at the right time.

A new central control room is being established at Heathrow to mobilise teams of border staff at terminals where queues may be beginning to build up.

Image caption Damian Green said the UK Border Agency had to be more flexible at busy times

A new rota system would begin in May which will make the system more flexible, and he guaranteed that all border control desks would be fully manned during the London Olympic Games, which start on 27 July.

BBC home affairs correspondent Tom Symonds said he understood additional staff were brought in from Manchester on Monday, although the travelling involved meant they were only on duty for four hours.

Ms Cooper said: "It's time for the Home Office to publish their full figures on waiting times at every terminal at Heathrow and other airports, so they can be scrutinised by passengers and airlines to see if they match with public experience.

"If ministers won't even admit to the scale of the problem, how on earth can they solve it?"

Waiting times

Heathrow's owner BAA called on the Home Office to address "unacceptable" waiting times "as a matter of urgency".

"There isn't a trade-off between strong border security and a good passenger experience - the Home Office should be delivering both," a spokesman said.

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Media captionWillie Walsh and Immigration Minister Damian Green clash over border delays

Earlier, airline boss Willie Walsh accused the government of misleading the public over the length of the wait.

Mr Green claimed on Monday that non-EU nationals were waiting no longer than 90 minutes to enter the country.

Mr Walsh - the boss of British Airways' parent company IAG said a more-detailed analysis using data and CCTV footage from Heathrow's owners BAA showed some passengers queued for two hours and 31 minutes on 27 April.

"Anybody who has gone through an airport in recent times has experienced the unacceptable poor standards that the border force has provided," he said.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that "urgent action" was needed to solve an "ongoing crisis".

Between January and March, the average waiting time across all UK airports was six minutes for UK and EU citizens, and 25 minutes for non-EU passengers.

'National disgrace'

Mr Green has also denied that discussions had taken place between airports owner BAA, the airlines and the government, over whether higher landing fees should be introduced to fund extra border force staff.

The Financial Times claims that the PM would support such a move.

Mr Walsh stated that in the past, the airlines offered to pay for more people, but the move was rejected by the government.

Passengers have contacted the BBC with their experiences of immigration at Heathrow.

Stephen Barnett, from Kent, travels regularly and said he had often queued for two hours to get back into the country.

"This issue has been worsening for months. Last week it was utter bedlam... most UK travellers seemed to manage to keep calm and good tempered, but the non EU passengers were very unhappy.

"Reason for the delays? Three positions manned on the EU section out of 15. It is a national disgrace," he said.

But Helen Williams from Hampshire said she had never experienced any real delays: "When I came through last night... it took me longer to snake around the empty lanes than I spent waiting - I guess it was two minutes."

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