19 September 2016

The UK Border Force is ill-equipped to take back control


In the coverage for our new report on the UK Border Force, “The Border After Brexit”, it’s understandable that most newspapers focused on its security failings. It’s obviously worrying and noteworthy that potentially thousands of high-risk flights are being missed, and no note of this is being made.

But this is best understood as one symptom of a very troubled institution, not as an isolated case. Queuing times and wasted government spending are less thrilling than ISIS supporters leaving or entering the UK without the Border Force’s knowledge, but they still matter.

All of this is important because as we leave the European Union, many of the pressures and problems facing the force will grow. And the longer we ignore other problems, the greater the risk of something truly catastrophic happening on the Border Force’s watch.

The force has been under immense pressure this summer at Heathrow, by far the UK’s busiest point of entry and departure for international travel. At least 95% of passengers from the EU must be kept queueing for passport control for no more than 25 minutes; passengers from outside the EU for no more than 45 minutes. I suspect that most people kept queueing for 45 minutes after a transatlantic flight wouldn’t be very happy about that, but those are the targets.

Even these rather generous targets have not been met by the Border Force this summer, particularly for travellers to or from outside the EU. Between May and August, inclusive, an average of three out of four terminals have failed to meet these queuing time targets. Some terminals were off by over twenty percentage points. This was not a particularly exceptional summer in terms of travel – we did not have any special event that drew extra tourists in, as in 2012 when the Border Force’s difficulties were much more understandable. This was a standard busy time of the year, and it simply couldn’t cope.

The root cause of this, my co-author Ed West and I believe, is that the Border Force is reliant on very poor equipment that does not allow it to carry out rapid collection of high-quality biometric data from passengers, and does not integrate that data in a way that is useable for the many roles the Border Force has.

Passenger numbers have risen, and are rising, and the Border Force’s budget has been cut in line with other Home Office agencies. Perhaps this would be manageable under other circumstances, but a lot of the Border Force’s resources are badly outdated. The Warning Index, the anti-terror watch list the force uses, was set up in 1995 and only intended to last for seven years, making it 14 years past its use-by date. The anti-smuggling Centaur database appears to be riddled with bad data, with gigantic bulk deletions having been made in an attempt to clean it up.

These databases seemingly are not integrated in any way into the UK’s security and immigration apparatuses that you might expect. We might use exit checks to automatically spot visa overstayers, for instance – if we don’t record you leaving the country by a certain date after entry, we’ll want to know why. We might use the data to generate high-quality, real-time immigration statistics, including perhaps asking immigrants where they intended to settle to better direct government resources. But we don’t.

The reason for this equipment failure is, I suspect, because nobody at the Home Office wants to risk being responsible for another big IT project mess-up. The e-Borders programme that was carried out in the 2000s was intended to give the Border Force all of the tech it needed to do quick biometric scanning of passengers but, despite the roll-out of some of the e-Gates to airports like Heathrow, the project ended in failure. The Home Office seems to have taken far too active a role in the project, contracting in and trying to build the technology in-house, rather than paying on delivery. This is a little bit like trying to design its own operating system for its computers instead of using Linux or Windows.

The Home Office needs to get its act together and find a provider of the biometric technology it needs to equip the Border Force properly – and to pay for successful results, not try to do the project itself. So far we’ve kicked the can down the road in a way that’s been costly but not catastrophic. But we can’t expect to be lucky forever.

Sam Bowman is executive director of the Adam Smith Institute.