Flagship border force 'puts security at risk'
Insufficient staff training is undermining customs checks, claims union
Jamie Doward, home affairs editor
Sunday October 28, 2007
The government's flagship programme to protect Britain's borders is threatening to weaken national security, according to key staff in the immigration system.
Members of the new Unified Border Force, unveiled by Gordon Brown this summer as a major new counter-terrorism initiative, claim they are being asked to perform key roles such as passenger profiling with less than three hours' training. And customs staff at the port of Purfleet in the Thames Gateway, who have been ordered to carry out vehicle searches previously done by immigration officers, say checks are down by 50 per cent because of insufficient preparation.
The new force is to be formed by merging thousands of staff drawn from Revenue and Customs, the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, and UK Visas, the passport agency. But staff at the three departments, who will sometimes be expected to perform each others' roles, are already reporting a litany of problems with its pilot schemes.
David Davis, the Tory shadow Home Secretary, described the problems as 'dangerous' and accused the government of introducing the force in an 'ill-thought-out, back-of-the-envelope style.'
The Home Office has said staff in the new force will be expected to perform their 'non-core' tasks only on limited occasions. But the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which represents immigration staff, is so concerned at the way the new force is being rolled out it has written to the Cabinet Office and Home Office minister, Liam Byrne, to warn Britain's borders will be weakened as a result.
'In the areas where it is being trialled we are seeing immigration officers expected to exercise customs officers' powers and do customs work with less than three hours' awareness training, when it typically takes six months to train a customs officer,' said Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary. 'National security requires proper resourcing at appropriate skill levels, not short-cuts.'
In letters to John Fiennes, a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, obtained by The Observer, the union states the merger will prove costly and time-consuming. 'We are concerned that any resulting dilution of skills would weaken the protection for UK borders rather than strengthen it,' it writes.
The problems are starting to affect travellers passing through the pilot ports. In one letter the PCS warns: 'There have been well-documented instances of delays at ports and airports and we believe that these are directly attributable to insufficient staffing.'
The claims are potentially embarrassing for Brown. His decision in the summer to back the idea of a unified force – floated by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – represented a U-turn on the part of the government, which had consistently opposed the idea until Brown became Prime Minister.
Last night the Conservatives said problems involving the trials raised serious questions about the motives behind the creation of the new force which will not benefit from increased resources. 'This shows the extent to which Gordon Brown is interested in grabbing headlines not solving problems,' Davis said. 'The creation of a new border force is simply too important not to be taken seriously. The consequences of its failure would have a significant impact on security, immigration, drugs policy, crime on our streets and public safety.'
Trials involving the new force are being carried out at six locations – Aberdeen and Gatwick airports, the ports of Immingham and Purfleet and the ferry terminals at Coquelles in France and Portsmouth. The results are supposed to feed into a Cabinet Office review. But delays in implementing the trials mean the review will report to the Prime Minister without extensive testing of the pilot projects, according to the PCS.
'The Border Review is not yet complete and we await publication of the review's findings before making any detailed comment,' a Home Office spokesman said last night.