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Border protections at UK airports ‘neither effective nor efficient’

Border protections at UK airports are neither “effective nor efficient” as ePassport gates are left unmanned, a report has said.

Sacked borders and immigration watchdog David Neal said the basics were “not being done well” at arrival halls.

Inspectors observed ePassport gates at three London airports in May 2023 – Heathrow Terminal 4, Luton and Stansted.

They saw operations “hampered” by inconsistent deployment of resources, a lack of basic communication equipment meaning border posts were unmanned while officers signalled managers, badly arranged arrival halls and poor data, the report set out.

Border Force managers at Stansted told inspectors that the amount of casework they undertook had increased 400% since the UK’s departure from the EU.

Mr Neal wrote: “It is clear to me there are enthusiastic and well-motivated staff whose effectiveness can be improved by better training, improved rostering, improved equipment, and better data. This all needs to be underpinned by more effective supervision.

“These are the basic building blocks of a service that is fundamental to the protection of our border. On the basis of this inspection, I believe the protection of the border is neither effective nor efficient.”

He added: “This is basic stuff that is not being done well. The Home Secretary should address these issues urgently.”

The Home Office said: “We acknowledge that airport environments are complicated and sometimes factors beyond our immediate control can impact our processes, but our aim is to provide a professional and adaptable service which protects the public by providing a secure border, whilst facilitating legitimate travel and trade.”

In another report, one of 13 released by the Home Office on Thursday, Mr Neal also criticised controls of fast parcels – which are packages brought in by companies like FedEx, UPS.

It said the eight-year-old system “fails to reflect recent changes that have affected the border”, such as Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and the growing delivery sector.

The report set out that at East Midlands Airport, which receives the largest number of fast parcels in the UK, accounting for 90% of all movements, customs channels were left unstaffed due to an apparent focus on immigration.

David Neal, the former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration
Former borders watchdog David Neal said there needed to be ‘more effective supervision’ of ePassport gates (ICIBI Corporate Services/PA)

It said: “With the exception of some intelligence-led targeting and checks to identify radiological and nuclear substances, mandated immigration checks on all arriving passengers means that checks for prohibited and restricted commodities in fast parcels, in effect, become a lower priority.”

A lack of anti-smuggling capability at airports should be a “major concern” and raises questions as to whether the border is secure from a goods perspective, the report also said.

The Home Office said it acknowledged the fast parcel operation was “complex and strong”.

Elsewhere, inspectors found “nothing fundamentally broken” with the interception of illegal firearms in another report.

But it did say that not all recruits were trained in firearms awareness and that untrained staff were involved in searches.

A spot-check inspection of Border Force operations at Portsmouth International Port for another report found “committed, enthusiastic and actively engaged” staff working in facilities which were a “mixed bag”.

One port representative told inspectors that the Home Office “does not properly consider the local impact of national directives nor communicates these in a timely manner”.

There were also instances where X-ray technology failed to locate illegal migrants who were later found in lorries, the report said.

The Home Office said: “We are pleased that the inspection found a culture of strong management and leadership, that staff were committed and enthusiastic in conducting their duties to strive towards keeping the UK border secure, and the strong working relationship with stakeholders at the port.

“We accept that the facilities at Portsmouth are not at the required standard and will continue to work with the port operator to address the issues raised.”

The Government had said in 2022 that it planned to overhaul Border Force after an independent review found it was performing at a “suboptimal level” and stretching its resources in an “unsustainable and highly inefficient way”.