Border Force 'neglecting duties', say MPs

Margaret Hodge "Billionaire gangsters" might be dodging border checks by using private planes, committee chair Margaret Hodge said

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Poor planning and outdated IT systems mean the Border Force is failing to fulfil all of its duties, the Commons public accounts committee has said.

The MPs said the body tasked with securing Britain's air, sea and rail ports admitted it had not met eight of its 19 performance targets.

Freight and lorries were going unchecked for contraband and illegal immigrants, they warned.

But ministers said the force was "making significant improvements".

Start Quote

It will take time to transform Border Force and fix all the problems we inherited ”

End Quote Mark Harper Immigration Minister

Labour MP and committee chair Margaret Hodge 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 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."

The committee called on the Border Force to set out plans for how it would meet all of its obligations in future.

Taxidermy of endangered species The UK Border Force has recently cracked down on the trade in goods made from endangered species

It also said that in recent years planning for Border Force's staffing levels had been "extremely poor".

Ms Hodge explained: "A cut in staff of 500 between 2010 and 2012 was immediately followed, when 100% 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."

Excessive queues 'gone'

A clear timescale should also be laid out for improvements to the IT systems assisting the work of officers, the MPs concluded, with "worrying gaps in the intelligence data available" needing to be addressed.

The Border Force had "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", Mrs Hodge added.

"The force's plans for 2013-14 involve spending of 4% 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% of staff at Heathrow still on inflexible terms and conditions, making it difficult and expensive to cover the early-morning shifts."

Immigration Minister Mark Harper said: "Border Force was split from the UK Border Agency last year to create a separate command with a clear security and law enforcement ethos.

"It is making significant improvements in its performance - excessive queues at airports are gone and security strengthened. This extends to both passengers and goods and is underpinned, for the first time, by a clear operating mandate set by ministers.

"It will take time to transform Border Force and fix all the problems we inherited but I am confident that we are making the right changes. None of the issues raised in this report come as a surprise and they are already being actively addressed."

According to a National Audit Office report published in September, officers were ordered on three successive days ahead of last year's Olympic games to switch from searching for contraband and illegal stowaways to checking passports, to prevent big queues building up at Calais and other entry points.

UK Border Force director general Sir Charles Montgomery defended the move, telling MPs that a queue of vehicles was itself a security threat as it was vulnerable to use by "clandestine" migrants trying to get across the border.

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