The Home Office is flying blind in the Ukrainian refugee crisis, pretending as usual that there is no real problem

10 Mar

What is wrong with the Home Office? Its treatment of Ukrainian refugees seeking entry to this country has so far been shamefully incompetent.

Before answering the question, it is worth reporting what a minister in another department this week told ConHome. He questioned why Ukrainian refugees have to have visas at all, and defended the Home Office vigorously on that point.

The main cause of the blockage is, he implied, higher up, in Downing Street, where the unduly restrictive and complicated policy on Ukrainian refugees was decided.

Certainly the Home Office is not a department which can be relied on to do anything complicated in a hurry. When ConHome remarked yesterday afternoon to a former Home Office insider, “It must be a bit of a nightmare being a Home Office minister at the moment,” he replied:

“It’s normally a nightmare and that’s why it’s so interesting.”

On the failure to get on top of the refugee crisis he said:

“The Home Office sets up systems to perform tasks and unless ministers grip it, it leaves those systems in place and tweaks them. But in this crisis you need to do something completely different.

“Women and children are fleeing in fear of their lives. We should assume innocence and not guilt. We should bring them here and do the biometrics once they’re here.”

There is a culture within the department of not telling ministers when things are going wrong. This makes it impossible to take corrective action until some failure becomes headline news.

A former Treasury official told ConHome:

“The Home Office bears the imprint of a history of administrative failures.  All too often Home Secretaries have carried the can for bureaucratic errors they could not possibly have been aware of.  As a result, it is defensive, insular and resistant to change.” 

The appointment on Tuesday of Richard Harrington as Minister for Refugees, working for the Department for Levelling Up as well as the Home Office, suggests a well-founded lack of confidence in the latter department, and indeed is humiliating for the ministers already there.

On Wednesday morning, Harrington was seen having breakfast with Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up.

An adviser who until recently worked in the Home Office agreed that its ministers are at present quite unable to exercise proper oversight of the department’s multifarious responsibilities. There is almost no oversight of the security services, while the police are expert lobbyists who run rings round civil servants in their mid to late twenties.

This adviser said the department is so overtaxed by its present responsibilities that it ought to be split in two. One department would deal with national security and policing, while the other would concentrate on borders and immigration.

That proposal was discussed by policy advisers in Downing Street before the last general election, but came nowhere near being included in the manifesto.

Sir Oliver Letwin, who from 2010-16 was deputed by David Cameron to sort out some of the most intractable problems facing the Government, has written in his book Hearts and Minds about the extraordinary difficulty for ministers of finding out what was actually going on:

“The dreadful truth was that the government machine as a whole had remarkably little accurate real-time information about its own activities…

“You could find out what had gone right or wrong a couple of years ago; but you couldn’t find out what was happening now.”

This meant that when things went wrong, ministers and officials “were all too often flying blind”. He gives as an instance the Passport Agency, where after a long period of running pretty smoothly, some applicants found themselves waiting a long time for their passports, so complained to their MPs.

The Passport Agency denied anything was wrong. They said they were very close to meeting their target for processing passports, and had the figures to prove it.

An investigation by the Implementation Unit from the Cabinet Office found that each day, a few passports were put in a “to do later” pile, which grew and grew, while the rest of the passports were processed within the target time, so it seemed the Agency was doing pretty well – except to the owners of the passports which were stuck in the “to do later” pile, who complained bitterly.

Until the problem was admitted, it was insoluble. Once it was admitted, it could be solved pretty easily, by hiring extra staff with the skills and the computer terminals needed to clear the backlog.

It seems clear that in the present refugee crisis, neither the Prime Minister nor the Home Secretary has been put in full possession of the facts, which means they have uttered assurances in the Commons which are impossible to reconcile with a large volume of anecdotal evidence about the difficulties faced by Ukrainian refugees who are trying to reach Britain.

The adviser quoted above said a “pure Yes Minister” cycle of claim and counter-claim often occurs in the Home Office:

News reports appear about something which has gone wrong.

Officials deny that anything has gone wrong.

The Home Secretary and her special advisers get angry.

Officials at length concede that something has gone wrong, but insist nothing can be done about it.

The Home Secretary and her special advisers get even angrier.

Officials say nothing can be done for legal reasons.

This is plainly not an efficient way to run things. Nor does it encourage gifted officials to want to work in the Home Office.

As in other parts of Whitehall, promotion is more likely to proceed from pretending things are all right, than from telling your superiors about problems which need to be solved.

And as in other parts of Whitehall, there is a shortage of people who have studied STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and are actually capable of supervising the introduction of, for example, the Digital Services at the Border programme, of which various versions have existed since 2003. Here are a few extracts from the National Audit Office report into this project published in December 2020:

The programme board received reports of resourcing shortages, particularly of technical staff, eight times in 35 months between July 2015 and May 2018, with the Department categorising programme resourcing risk at the highest possible level in July 2019. It struggled with technical delivery…

Until 2019, the Department lacked appropriate oversight, leadership and governance to ensure progress was made and to manage programme risks effectively. Between 2014 and 2019, external reviews and governance boards for the programme identified delivery issues which the Department did not resolve…

The decision to extend the programme’s duration by 36 months to the end of March 2022 added £191 million to the cost of delivering the systems, and the need to keep legacy systems running over this period added a further £145 million, which means that the total cost increase resulting from delayed delivery is £336 million (2019-20 to 2021-22).

The Public Accounts Committee report into the project, published in March 2021, is rather harsher in tone:

The Home Office (the Department) has presided over a litany of failure in nearly 20 years of non-delivery of digital border programmes, with significant delays introducing additional costs to taxpayers, continued dependency on contractors to maintain legacy programmes, and delayed delivery of benefits to Border Force officers, other users and passengers.

The Digital Services at the Border (DSAB) programme is crucial to delivering the Department’s overall objectives for national security at the border to protect the public from terrorism, crime, illegal immigration and trafficking, and is vital for facilitating the legitimate movement of people across the border.

Following the 2011 abandonment of the e-borders programme which it began in 2003 and despite assurances from numerous senior Departmental officials over the years, the Department has now delayed delivery of its original objective of improved information at the border by a further three years, with little demonstrable lesson learning.

The Department failed to respond to or address risks and problems flagged to the programme board earlier in the DSAB programme and false assurances about progress left the Department unable to act on accurate information.

Exactly the problem identified by Letwin: it is easy enough to find out what went wrong in the past, but virtually impossible to find out what is going wrong now.

The Ukrainian refugee problem has come about because the Home Office is flying blind. Instead of deploying substantial numbers of staff at once to the Polish border, to Warsaw, Calais or wherever else they are needed, it pretends even to itself, indeed especially to itself, that the existing meagre capacity, and restricted opening hours, in Warsaw, Paris and Brussels are sufficient, or require only modest reinforcement.

Whenever anything is done, it is too little and too late. This is plainly unfair on traumatised refugees, and on front-line staff who find themselves overwhelmed by the magnitude of their task.

Will the bright light now being shone on departmental incompetence make the slightest difference to the Home Office’s entrenched habit of insisting that problems do not exist, or that if they do exist, nothing much can be done to solve them?

James Frayne: The Conservatives’ next challenge? Persuading voters they know how to cut Government waste.

26 Oct

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

The Conservatives retain buoyancy in the polls largely because of provincial English working class loyalty towards the PM. Long used to being let down by politicians, the PM has delivered Brexit and tighter border controls and he’s making the right noises on “levelling up”. They respect him for it; Starmer is irrelevant.

Budgets are written with the national picture in mind, particularly during times of crisis. An ongoing pandemic and rapidly rising living costs put this week’s Budget squarely in the crisis category. But on these pages we explore politics – and the reality is, politically speaking, the most important audience for the Budget is this big group of working class voters. So how can the Government best appeal to them?

I’ve devoted many columns here to answering this question. From the advance coverage – like the suggestion they’ll be putting money into sport and culture to encourage civic pride – it looks like the Government is planning many of the right things. But today, I want to consider something extremely limited in scope and entirely defensive which I think could be very important in the coming months to working class voters: cutting Government waste.

Waste is an issue usually written off by political consultants as irrelevant or eccentric; the idea being no one believes politicians when they say they’re going to cut waste (and therefore only the politically naive take an interest in it). I have some sympathy with the presumption of public scepticism; wherever you get big Government, you get waste and it’s hard to think of a Government that successfully persuaded people they’ve been successful in reducing waste.

So why look at Government waste now? Fundamentally, because it’s vital – in the context of a high tax economy and squeezed living standards – that voters see the Government go through a process of actively considering and cutting unnecessary spending wherever they can before retaining high taxes or considering new ones.

While the Government isn’t expected to announce significant new taxes this week, we await the introduction of higher NICs and we seem to be a couple of years off meaningful tax cuts (from a high base). Waste retains an immediate relevance, therefore.

The opinion research I’ve conducted in recent times suggests waste has been growing as an issue for voters for some time, even before the recent NICs announcement. After the big injection of cash into the NHS pre-pandemic, while the public supported the move, in focus groups you’d regularly hear moans about NHS inefficiency and poor procurement practices (stories about over-payment for basic drugs, for example, regardless of the merits of the argument).

It’s a feature of the polls too: in a recent poll for the TaxPayers’ Alliance – centred around the cost of living – the poll showed people have a base level of scepticism in Governments’ ability to spend sensibly. Asked how much money the Government wastes, 50 per cent said “some of it, and more than enough of It to be a problem”, while 17 per cent said most of it.

By 40 per cent to 30 per cent (with the rest saying neither agree nor disagree or don’t know), people agreed with the statement that much of the money put into the NHS is wasted – although they said they thought the most wasteful departments were FCDO and DCMS.

Of course, this doesn’t meant voters necessarily believe the Government can cut waste. Nor does it imply that the Government can somehow win on waste by moving the polls on the issue; this would be very difficult. This is not my point; rather, it suggests the Government needs to focus on waste in the short-term so that it doesn’t lose on tax in the medium-term. Simply put: the Government needs to “prove” it has cut to the bone to justify existing or higher taxes.

How much of an issue is this really for the Conservatives? After all, surely no one will believe the Conservatives are more wasteful than the high-spending and ever-eccentric Labour Party? Worryingly for the Conservatives, in our poll for the TPA, more people said they would trust the Labour Party than the Conservatives on cutting waste. (By the way people also said they’d trust Labour more on tax). The truth is, the Conservatives self-image is a long way from the image of it held by the public.

Consider this: as a Conservative, would you sooner justify high taxes having done a review into Government waste or not? A review into waste wouldn’t drastically improve Conservative fortunes, but would help them soothe some very irritated and stressed out taxpayers.

Paul Mercer: As a frequent flyer, I’ve seen the issues with the red list for travel – which may even increase Covid transmission

4 Jun

Paul Mercer is the director of an international consultancy firm, and is a Charnwood Borough councillor.

The Government’s latest attempt to control people entering the UK from the countries on the “red list” involves directing flights from those countries to Terminal 3 at Heathrow Airport and then transporting them directly to quarantine hotels. Although this plan makes some sense, it is difficult to see how it will achieve much and may even increase the risk of transmission.

Over the past six months I have (legitimately) visited four countries, two of which are now on the red list, and I have seen the way in which the system has evolved at Heathrow. Most recently, having returned from Uganda, border force officers were dealing with arriving passengers far more effectively. In fact, arriving mid-morning the wait was less than it had been in pre-Covid days.

There are essentially three difficulties which this “red list terminal” plan fails to address.

The first is that of the 43 countries the majority do not fly directly into the UK. Passengers travelling from most of the red list countries are likely to transit through major European hubs and then fly into Heathrow on a European airline. Heathrow should have taken account of this and the present system, whereby red list passengers are weeded out of the queue, but those who have passed through “green” and “amber” hubs – from a red zone – will not have been identified.

Thus the problem that this queue system seeks to address – stopping red list passengers from mixing with those coming in from green and amber countries – is not fixed and could even worsen because it will give passengers a false sense of security.

The second problem is that regulations theoretically permit passengers transiting through red list countries to avoid going into quarantine hotels. Government guidance states that rules “could” apply but only if you “mix”, but it fails to specify what this means in practice. If, for instance, one is sitting at the front of the plane and does not come into contact with passengers from the red list country, one could credibly argue that no mixing has occurred and therefore not be sent to quarantine hotel.

Last week, while at Heathrow, I took the opportunity to ask two senior border force officers what this meant in practice. The first, a senior officer (the one with two pips), said that he had never seen this rule and complained that they were being “sent changes in the regulations virtually every day”; the second, a higher officer (one pip), likewise did not know and suggested that, perhaps, I should ask my MP for clarification.

The third problem is that dedicated terminal makes it possible to segregate some passengers from red list countries, but it may become easier for those who have transited through a non-red list country to deliberately avoid being identified. In my case, I was only asked by a congenial border force officer which countries I had visited without even looking at the entries in my passport. With some passengers having more than one passport there appears to be no obvious way to ascertain whether they had been in a red list country in the past 10 days if they have used two or more airlines.

The principal risk appears to be a concern that passengers from red list countries are mixing as they walk from the aircraft to the checking area. Unfortunately walk from many of the gates can often be more than 20 minutes, meaning that many passengers are often out of breath by the time they arrive – especially if they are concerned about long queues ahead. In the confined corridors this will only increase the chances of the virus spreading.

There is no easy solution to these issues but what is clear is that different countries are applying different standards and, in some cases, more rigorous than the UK. In Uganda, for instance, passengers can only enter the airport if their Covid test has been checked electronically, whereas for passengers leaving Britain the PCR test receives only a cursory glance at check-in. This offers the possibility of fast-tracking passengers coming in from countries which are known to have these more thorough checks.

Another change which would help identify anyone who was attempting to evade the quarantine hotel by using another passport would simply be to include a legal requirement on the “passenger locator form” to include all passports held.

The Government is never going to find the perfect solution to the challenge of preventing passengers carrying new variants of the virus arriving but the present system, and the latest changes, still do not properly help matters.

Graham Brady: The UK must not squander its vaccine success through an excess of caution on air travel

24 Mar

Sir Graham Brady is Chairman of the 1922 Committee and is MP for Altrincham and Sale West.

This week the UK passed an important milestone for its vaccination programme, with more than 30 million people, over 50 per cent of the UK adult population, now having been vaccinated. As the country begins the irreversible process of rolling back its Covid-19 restrictions, this enviable position affords the UK with opportunities to lead the world and open up international travel, reconnecting businesses, communities and families as we approach the summer.

On April 12, the Global Travel Taskforce will report to the Prime Minister with recommendations on how safely to resume international air travel. The anticipated re-opening of the skies on May 17 is still nearly ten weeks away, a lifetime in the age of Covid.

That the UK could consider throwing away a major advantage of the world-leading vaccine rollout through an excess of caution on air travel, particularly prompted by a theoretical risk from imported variants, is almost unthinkable. It has to be data, not dogma, that wins through. Keeping our borders closed and our skies shut while the domestic economy fully opens up would be a mistake. It confuses a genuine public desire for robust and secure health measures at the border with an impression that this requires global isolation and ignores the pleas of millions desperate for a return to something nearer to normality.

And “normality” does not just mean summer holidays. Air travel plays a critical but underplayed wider role in our economy – it’s the lifeblood of thousands of businesses which rely upon the UK’s world class levels of international connectivity to trade, and for inward investment. Being shut off from the US alone, for example, costs the UK economy over £30 million a day, and hundreds of thousands of retail and tourism jobs in our cities are in peril if we are not able to bring visitors to our shores once again this summer.

But besides economics, it is also the right thing to do. Where it is safe to travel, with appropriate measures in place, people should be permitted to see friends and family (not forgetting that one in seven people living in the UK was born overseas), or to take a much-deserved break. It would be perverse if in June you can go to a nightclub but cannot travel to a country with either low rates of Covid, or whose relative risk is mitigated by the fact that the UK’s most vulnerable are protected.

I am not proposing an immediate return to restriction-free travel. Instead, we should aim for a proportionate system of red, amber and green countries where health measures are applied based on relative risk, including variants of demonstrable concern. This would mean we could still see arrivals from some countries banned, with the expanded use of rapid testing to provide surveillance and assurance when dealing with travellers from elsewhere.

All this would be based on the growing levels of understanding about the effectiveness of the real-world impact of variants of concern, for which the evidence suggests existing vaccines should protect against serious illness. The Prime Minister has acknowledged there is “no credible route” to eliminating Covid-19 from the world, and so lockdown restrictions should be removed cautiously given that they cannot be maintained for ever. The same logic should also apply to aviation, which is a critical enabler for the UK’s economic recovery.

Against this backdrop, there will be those who suggest that shutting down travel for the summer is a price worth paying, to avoid any risk of importing Covid-19 into the UK. This could take several forms – even if not an actual ban, you could envisage the imposition of multiple testing or quarantine requirements on arrivals even from lower risk countries that place such a cost and time penalty on journeys as to render travel practically impossible. Undoubtedly, any precaution will be well intentioned, but we owe it to the hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods depend on aviation, and the many more who harbour a desperate desire to return to something like normality, to take a genuinely balanced approach to risk.

The focus for the next few weeks must be on the Taskforce delivering a framework for travel that is risk-based, workable and durable. And it should be underpinned by the well-founded assumption that as the vaccine rollout accelerates both here and abroad, a phased easing of restrictions is as achievable as it is necessary.

Tony Smith: Covid and border control. As a former Head of the UK Border Force, here are my urgent recommendations.

9 Feb

Tony Smith CBE is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

A day rarely goes by without me receiving a call from UK broadcast media asking me for my thoughts on Covid and the UK Border. Why didn’t we close the border last year? Why are we doing it now? How will the Border Force manage it? Can hotel quarantine stop new strains getting in? Do we need vaccination certificates to travel? What about our summer holidays?

The three primary functions of border control are the protection of national security, public policy, and public health.

On security, we conduct thorough multi-agency checks on everybody entering the UK both at point of booking and at point of entry. We are rather good at that.

On policy, the ending of free movement has given us a new Border Operating Model, a new points-based immigration system, and a new UK Border 2025 Strategy – all published in the course of the past year. It will take us time to implement the new systems and processes at the border. We aren’t so good at that yet – but we will get there.

But bottom of our report card is the protection of our national health. On that, we must try harder.

Once upon a time, we had a Port Medical Inspector (PMI) in every port of entry. Immigration Officers (as we were then) could refer any passenger to the PMI if they were perceived to be a health threat. PMIs were empowered to issue us with a form “Port 30” which gave us grounds to refuse leave to enter on medical grounds. New migrants coming to settle in the UK were routinely checked for communicable diseases before a visa was issued.

As passenger numbers grew, PMIs were gradually removed from our ports of entry on grounds of “efficiency”. We stopped checking health credentials as a condition of entry. The greater threat was not the importation of disease; it was of importation of dangerous, harmful, or non-compliant people and goods. Health checks fell off our radar.

Between January and April 2020 Singapore, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand all systematically introduced strict border controls to mitigate the importation of Covid at their borders. Travel to those countries is now restricted to their own nationals and family members only; and 14-day quarantine at a designated location is mandatory on arrival. These countries have managed to control the spread of the virus much more effectively that has been the case in other countries, including the UK, Europe, and the US.

Although we introduced strict quarantine measures for passengers returning on evacuation flights from Wuhan in January 2020, no measures were introduced for flights or arrivals from other destinations, increasing the risk that the virus would be imported from other countries.

In June we started to ask inbound passengers to complete an on-line passenger locator form (PLF) to “self-certify” quarantine; but enforcement was “light touch” and there was no requirement to undergo a test, either before travel or upon arrival.

My previous recommendation to require airlines, ferry companies and rail companies to check health credentials for all passengers boarding flights, ferries, and trains to the UK (as they do with passports and visas) was finally implemented in January 2021, a year after Covid was first detected in Wuhan.

This new requirement requires the production of a completed PLF, and evidence that a negative Covid test had been taken within 72 hours of travel. Boarding should be denied to anybody unable to meet this requirement – but as yet no compliance framework has been set up between to establish whether or not this has been done. Meanwhile we are seeing all kinds of “test certificates” turning up at our ports in various languages and scripts, some of which are clearly fake.

The new requirements have put an additional strain on the Border Force. Officers must now check PLF and negative test forms as well as passports; interview all passengers to determine travel history and purpose of travel to the UK; and now – where they identify a case of a UK citizen or resident arriving from a “red list” location who must self-isolate – liaise with local authorities and health agencies to enforce mandatory quarantine in nearby hotels.

Although the UK government published its UK Border 2025 Strategy on December 17 2020, this did not focus specifically upon the pandemic. Many of the transformations therein are relevant (for example shifting to upstream intervention) – but it does not specify how this would be done with regard to health checks.

The Government must now develop a Counter Pandemic Border Strategy (CPBS) to manage the second and subsequent waves of Covid-19, drawing upon lessons learned in other countries, as a matter of urgency.

This should include the following factors:

  1. The protection of Public Health is a key requirement of the UK Border, alongside the protection of National Security and Public Policy.
  2. Departments should establish clear lines of effort between them to implement the CPBS.
  3. PMIs and facilities should be reinstalled at UK ports of entry, to work in tandem with the UK Border Force in implementing the strategy.
  4. “In country” pandemic threat levels should be translated into similar response levels at the Border, as they are for national security.
  5. The Government should work with international carriers and organisations to develop a new form of health pass which would meet internationally approved standards and would certify the health status of all international travellers at point of booking and check-in, in the same way as it does for passport and visa data.
  6. The Home Office should conduct an urgent review on pre boarding / pre-clearance capabilities with international carriers to ensure they comply with requirements to check health credentials prior to boarding, building upon the existing international liaison officer (ILO) network at key source and transit airports.
  7. The Government should establish a cross Departmental Project Team to implement mandatory quarantine requirements for passengers arriving at UK ports of entry including tests for symptoms, safe and secure transport to designated locations, and in-country enforcement.
  8. The Government should conduct an urgent review of exit checks to ensure a co-ordinated response between UK Border Force, local police and carrying companies on requirements to check outbound travellers for permission to travel, and how this will be enforced in practice.
  9. The Home Office should establish a national critical incident command and control infrastructure which can be stood up at short notice to respond to current and emerging health threat levels at the UK Border. This should include regular tests and exercises.

The UK Border Force is the envy of many countries around the world. And we will get through Brexit, in the end.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic raises significant new challenges for the UK Border. As we begin to turn the tide on this virus, it will be important for us to learn lessons on how to make better use of border controls to protect public health. On this, we must try harder.

Gary Sambrook: The Government is delivering on its promises to reform Britain’s broken immigration system

22 Oct

Gary Sambrook is the Conservative MP for Birmingham Northfield.

For many years, members of the public have repeatedly asked politicians to reform our broken immigration system and introduce an Australian-style points based one. In constituencies like mine people were tired of MPs talking tough, and delivering little change. But from January 1 we will have that new points-based system, which will be firm but fair. Today the Home Secretary has set out new measures which will introduce new tougher rules for EU citizens at the border, in line with existing rules for non-EU citizens.

This parity will send a clear message to British people that this Home Secretary means business.

When I talk to people in my constituency, which returned a Conservative MP last year for the first time in 27 years, they are concerned about crime and safety in their communities. That’s why replacing these softer EU rules with stronger border controls will make the UK a safer place and fulfil our pledge to deliver on the people’s priorities.

EU rules currently require the Home Office to demonstrate that EU criminals present a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat affecting one of the fundamental interests of society (these include social harm, maintaining public order, and extremism) in order to restrict their free movement rights. This decision cannot be based solely on the criminal conviction, even if it was for murder or rape.

These new rules will mean:

  • Foreign criminals sentenced to at least a year in jail will be banned from entering the UK.
  • Foreign criminals sentenced to less than a year in jail could still be banned, with the Home Office considering on a case-by-case basis their full criminal history and whether they have ties to the UK such as family members.
  • Foreign criminals who haven’t received a prison sentence could also be banned from entering the UK if they have committed persistent sexual offences, or committed a crime and want to enter the UK for the first time

It is absolutely right that we take these tough measures to help keep our streets safe, reduce crime and bring trust back into the immigration system.

EU rules have forced us to allow dangerous foreign criminals, who abuse our values and threaten our way of life, onto our streets for far too long, and people have had enough.

Regardless of nationality these rules will mean the UK is safer thanks to firmer and fairer border controls where foreign criminals will be treated the same, no matter what country they originate from.

An example of where these tough new rules will help keep the UK safe. Person A is a non-resident EU citizen with a conviction for rape in 2010 where they were sentenced to eight years in prison. Today, they could be admitted to the UK because they have not offended since and it can’t be demonstrated that they currently pose a present and sufficiently serious threat to society as required under EU law. However, next year, they can be refused entry to the UK because they have had a custodial sentence of at least a year.

Or another example: Person B is a non-EU citizen with numerous convictions for low-level offending over a period of years. Under the current rules, discretion can be exercised to grant them entry, but under the new rules, as a persistent offender, they would be refused entry to from the UK.

Not only is the Government making the UK border safer and more secure, it is providing the police with more powers to protect the public in new powers granted by the Extradition Act. It gives them the power to detain international criminals without having to apply for a UK arrest warrant first.

As Parliament nears the end of its scrutiny of the Immigration Bill, it is crucial that we remember why we are introducing this new system. Last year the people of the United Kingdom gave us a clear, and substantial, mandate for change. Leaving the European Union, as many of us have made the case before, will give us an opportunity to do things differently and there is no clearer example than immigration.

The British public can be assured that this Prime Minister, and Home Secretary, get it. And are delivering on those promises.

Channel crossings are undermining the Government’s narrative about ‘taking back control’ of immigration

4 Sep

When Vote Leave promised to ‘take back control’, one of the issues at the top of the list was immigration. Leaving the EU meant ending freedom of movement and gaining the freedom to implement a points-based system which better reflected Britain’s national priorities.

This did not necessarily mean a draconian system – evidence suggested voters’ attitudes towards immigration actually got more liberal after the referendum – but that would be up to Parliament.

Yet only months after the electoral triumph of what has been called a ‘Vote Leave’ government, this narrative of control is being undermined by the toxic drip-feed of stories about migrant boats crossing the Channel.

Priti Patel clearly grasps that this is a problem, which is why we’re getting tough-sounding stories about calls to institute Royal Navy patrols and thwarting bids by ‘activist lawyers’ to prevent deportations. This morning she hit out at social media companies for allegedly failing to take action against people smugglers publicising their businesses online.

But it is less obvious what can actually be done. Patrolling the Channel invites the same problem as we see in the Mediterranean, wherein refugees located by the Italian Navy often put themselves into the water knowing the Italians won’t leave them there. Likewise footage of dingies arriving on the beach and their occupants disappearing inland may spark outrage, but the Home Office can’t really prevent that without erecting some sort of Atlantic Wall on the Kent coast.

Theresa May’s strategy was a more ‘defence in depth’ approach, with the Home Office drafting landlords and employers to help locate illegal entrants once they were in the UK – the ‘hostile environment’. The problem with this, setting aside the political challenges posed by the fallout from Windrush, is that without an effective detention and deportation system it risks just forcing people into the black economy.

This is all without getting into the possible difficulties posed by the above-mentioned ‘activist lawyers’, the courts, our membership of the ECHR, and so on, which Natalie Elphicke MP touched on in her article on the subject.

Usually Australia, which has been running ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ since 2013, is held up as the example to follow. But it enjoys some advantages Britain does not: it is outside some of the aforementioned legal structures; would-be ‘boat people’ face a much longer journey; and it has in Nauru a very handy offshore detention option unavailable to the Home Office (unless Sealand were interested).

Some of these problems are soluble. It should be fairly straightforward to legislate on the issue of traffickers exploiting social media, and Tim Loughton’s suggestion of using cruise ships as offshore detention facilities could be very timely given that the industry is facing a billion-dollar question about what to do with its mothballed vessels. Smoothing the legal pathway to deportation could also be including in whatever replaces the Government’s now-abandoned Constitution, Democracy, and Human Rights Commission.

But ultimately the Home Secretary is in a difficult position because the real keys to a lasting solution – new agreements with France and the other countries to which illegal entrants ultimately need to be deported – are not her department. But managing the day-to-day fallout is.

Tony Smith: Expanding the UK refugee resettlement scheme is one way we can improve our border security

12 Aug

Tony Smith is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

On July 3 I wrote in these pages that in order to turn the tide on migrant boats entering UK waters illegally we would need a new agreement with France, which would enable us to return the migrants safely and securely immediately whence they came.

This week immigration minister Chris Philp is seeking precisely that with his French counterpart. Meanwhile numbers have continued to rise with over 4,000 now having made the journey this year, and new intake records being broken almost every week.

As a former practitioner with over 45 years’ experience in the immigration and borders business I have been inundated with requests for media interviews. Why do they come? How do they come? How can we stop them? Why don’t we let them in? Why don’t we let more in?

In my time in the Immigration Service (and the UK Border Force, which it later became) I was criticised from both ends of the political spectrum for working in the field of immigration and border control.

Many a taxi driver said to me (hopefully in jest) that it was “all my fault” that we were overwhelmed by immigrants. Others (less so in jest) saw me as having some kind of character flaw for being so nasty to innocent people, by denying them entry or by making it hard for them to enter and stay illegally in the UK.

In my many media appearances on this topic over the past few weeks I have appeared with several commentators from across the political spectrum – some wanting complete border closures: others wanting the complete abolition of borders.

I was Director of Ports of Entry in the Blair years. In 2002 we saw a record intake of over 80,000 asylum seekers. The vast majority were coming across the English Channel on ferries, trains, or concealed in vehicles. Since then we have concluded several bilateral agreements with France to enhance immigration controls on those routes. This was a top priority for that government, just as it is for this one.

By 2005 we had reduced asylum intake to 25,000. It went lower still before creeping up again in recent years, to around 35,000 last year. Even then the Home Office never really recovered from the 2002 crisis. The Department was criticised year on year for “failing to get a grip” of the asylum backlog, despite a three-fold increase in resources and a massive spend on asylum accommodation and infrastructure across the country.

Asylum applications are notoriously difficult to assess; the easy option is to grant asylum (or at least exceptional leave to remain). Even when refused, the route to removal is a tortuous one riddled with endless appeals, judicial interventions and – even then – non-compliance with the documentation and reporting processes.

According to UNHCR there are now 79.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world at the end of 2019. 26 million are outside their country of origin in places like Turkey (1.6m) Pakistan (1.5m) Lebanon (1.15m). Hundreds of thousands are in other countries close to unstable states, such as Iran and Ethiopia.

Meanwhile despite pleas from UNHCR, the Western World has consistently reduced its contribution to refugee resettlement schemes. In 2019 countries previously renowned for a more generous approach to refugee resettlement reduced the numbers to a trickle – 21,000 in the USA, 9,000 in Canada, 3,000 in Australia. In the EU the UK took 5,774 refugees through resettlement routes – more than any other EU country.

Yet we hear of far more “generous” approaches to asylum in other countries. The fact is the number of asylum applications in mainland EU countries far exceeds their political will to accept refugees. They have no choice, because the external EU border is porous and a great many irregular migrants have managed to penetrate it. Once there, many want to choose which EU country they would like to live in. Encouraged by the borderless Schengen zone, many will drift North and lodge asylum applications in those countries they see as more attractive (eg Germany, Scandinavia, France).

Because the UK is not (and never was) in the Schengen zone the final hurdle is the English Channel, and how to penetrate that. Given enforcement measures by successive governments of all colours they have found it evermore difficult to do so – at least until they discovered this latest loophole of getting out onto the waters and getting “rescued” by a British vessel.

I have heard many commentators argue that it is lawful for asylum seekers to cross borders without papers or permission, to make their claims. In fact, the correct terminology is “irregular” rather than “illegal” migration; but it cannot be right that International Conventions can effectively trump border controls altogether as people seek new lives in other countries. Not least because this fuels international organised crime and human smuggling chains who will continue to prey on vulnerable people by exploiting “irregular” routes.

Many of those in Calais have already been refused permission to stay in an EU country; but as far as they are concerned that is only the start of the process, not the end of it. Those who argue for major UK resettlement offices in France miss the point.

First, if there is hope that by getting into France you have a greater chance of getting into the UK, then more will come to France. Hardly desirable from their point of view, given their own asylum backlogs. Second, we already know that many won’t take no for an answer; and while they remain in France, they will continue to try to penetrate the UK Border by irregular means including this one.

There is certainly a global debate to be had about legal resettlement routes. The frustration of the UNHCR and refugee lobby is palpable. By refusing to open legitimate resettlement programmes for those displaced in source and transit countries, the Western world is simply encouraging irregular migration across multiple borders.

As the transition period comes to an end and we depart the Dublin Convention, we must firstly negotiate safe third country agreements with our neighbours to stop irregular migration and asylum shopping. Anything less is clear evidence that we have lost control of our borders; something we know is unacceptable to most people living here already.

Assuming we are able to do so, the UK could then show the way for the rest of the world to encourage the proper resettlement of some of the 26 million refugees who are already displaced around the world by expanding the UK refugee resettlement scheme.

However, it would be impossible for any government to do so without first demonstrating very clearly to the public that this is “controlled” migration to people who are genuinely deserving of protection; and not “uncontrolled” or “irregular” migration to the UK, over which we have no control.

First and foremost, we must stop the boats and “take back control”. Anything less will continue to undermine public confidence in our border controls and play directly into the hands of the smugglers.

Tony Smith: In over 40 years of Home Office experience, I can’t recall a time when our borders have been under so much pressure

17 Jul

Tony Smith is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

In 2017, Charlie Elphicke, then MP for Dover and Deal, posted in these pages about how Britain needed to be Ready on Day One to meet the Brexit borders challenge.

At that time, he expected Day One to fall in March 2019 – allowing us around 18 months to commence work on the biggest border transformation programme ever seen in this country. He advocated a range of measures, particularly in the port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel, which account for 40 per cent of our trade with the EU.

Many of Elphicke’s proposals for new investment in roads, lorry parks, port infrastructure and IT upgrades in Kent were foreseeable from the day Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016. I worked closely with him and others to develop a workable border transformation proposal at that time, which we submitted to Ministers and presented to an APPG in Parliament.

Yet four years have elapsed – and only now are we seeing any real commitment from government to invest to upgrade our ports and borders to cope with the huge challenges ahead. This week, Michael Gove announced a £705 million spending package to help manage Britain’s borders to prepare for Brexit as the transition period (and free movement) ends on 31 December this year.

It has been criticised by Labour as being “too little too late”. In response to industry concerns and COVID-19 delays, the Government has also announced that “full import controls” will be “phased in”, and not fully implemented until July 2021; prompting claims from Liz Truss that the UK could be left open to legal challenge and smuggling.

Meanwhile, we have seen a record daily total of irregular migrants crossing the channel from France, and Priti Patel has announced a new “points based” immigration system, which is set to commence on 1 January next year, requiring EU citizens to get permission to enter and remain in the UK for the first time in 40 years.

In over 40 years’ experience in the Home Office, I cannot recall a time when the UK Border has been under this degree of pressure on all fronts at the same time – immigration policy, customs infrastructure, and border security.

The only saving grace for the Border Force is the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced traffic at our ports to a trickle, at a time when we would simultaneously be facing up to new record volumes and the usual criticisms from ports and airports about queues and delays at the UK Border.

Even so, the hasty implementation of a quarantine measure at the UK Border – and the rapid relaxation of it to cater for the holiday season – has not inspired confidence, either from the transportation industry or from the Border Force officers themselves.

Brexit and the ending of free movement provides the Government with unparalleled opportunities to build the “world class” border that it aspires to. But border transformation programmes take time and require careful handling. We do not have a great track record of delivering major IT and infrastructure changes at the UK border.

Key factors identified in the past that have led to programme failures include a lack of clear vision and direction, inconsistent leadership, ineffective public/private sector engagement, and governance. It is vital that we learn these lessons now.

Of course, this commitment to fund new infrastructure at our major ports of entry is welcome; and better late than never. The opportunities available for turning our major ports into global trading hubs, building freeports, implementing “drive through” and “walk through” borders based on advanced data analytics and risk assessments are all within reach. But it would be wrong to underestimate the enormity of the challenge ahead.

Setting out a vision is one thing; turning it into an operational reality is another thing entirely. Having been Senior Responsible Owner for the UK Border Agency’s London 2012 Programme for over three years, I know that this will only work if the government can build a cross Whitehall Programme that actively engages with the myriad of Departments and Agencies with a stake in the UK Border, ranging from the Home Office and HMRC through to Transport, Health, DEFRA and the like.

Of course, there will be the familiar tensions between facilitation and control; people and goods; compliance and regulation. These were always there. But taking a narrow view that HMRC “does goods” and Home Office “does people” no longer works, especially in the UK where we have a joint Border Force doing both.

There are some encouraging signs that the Cabinet Office is taking greater control over border-related projects, rather than simply acting as a co-ordinator between departments. But the fact that HMRC has issued a “Border Operating Model” claiming to cover “all of the processes and systems, across all government departments, that will be used at the border”, without any cross reference to an announcement from the Home Office on the same day setting out the “Border of the Future” “with new processes, biometrics and technology” as part of the new points- based immigration system is a case in point.

If we are to retain a single UK Border Force to operate the new rules, then we need to consolidate the strategic, policy and programme arms behind them.

To succeed, Whitehall will need to galvanise the very best people, systems, and processes into a fully functional Border Transformation Programme. This means bringing the key contributors to economic revival including the ports, transportation companies, traders and the world class technology suppliers to the table; and uniting them behind a common purpose to end free movement and implement to build the world class border we all want.

And to expect to deliver all this against a specific “Day One” deadline set by politicians – be it in January or June 2021 – is prone to failure, as history has shown us.