Heathrow Queues

In Uncategorized on May 7, 2012 by grahamharrowell

I’ve been asked to say something about the Heathrow queue debacle. I thought I’d left border control behind me but I might as well say something. First off, what about the French elections? Martine Aubry looks set to get a job (at the time of writing not yet decided) maybe even PM. What’s that to do with border control? Well, let’s not forget that it was Martine who, as a minister in a previous socialist government, opened the Sangatte Red Cross centre. Might she do the same again? Who knows? Presumably, when Dave Cameron declined to meet Hollande when he visited London that was something he could have sorted out.
Anyhow, back to Heathrow – and now Stansted. In short the government is to blame and it doesn’t know what it’s doing. That’s the executive summary. Only read the rambling whole of this if you’re really interested.
The basic issues go back a long way. In the sixties far fewer people travelled and the UK only controlled those foreign nationals from outside the Commonwealth. If a traveller was deemed not fit to enter the country s/he would be sent packing after the briefest of exchanges. The Commonwealth Immigrants Acts meant a greatly increased workload just letting people in. Then came the immigration appeals system. Everyone getting an adverse decision had a right of appeal, some before they could be sent back to where they began their journey. This was an informal process where the traveller could explain to a lay adjudicator why he thought he should be allowed in and the immigration officer could explain why he thought differently. (“He” is appropriate because at that time there were not yet any female immigration officers.) The informal system quickly developed all the panoply and majesty of a court with lawyers representing the passenger. Even so it was only very recently that the adjudicators were elevated to the status of judges. In the beginning the appeal took place on the day following the passenger’s refusal but as the system developed this process became protracted. The need to defend the decision against the onslaught of lawyers meant that before being refused passengers were interviewed in greater depth and officers spent more time away from the queue doing this and writing statements. On top of this decisions handed down at these appeals and related challenges in the higher courts developed immigration law more and more.
With the arrival of the 1971 Immigration Act the number of staff at the border increased dramatically to meet the demands of the ever increasing traffic and complexity of the basic job. There was still, however, a marked seasonal effect and in the winter months staff not only took their leave (time off being tightly restricted in the summer months) but those who were identified as having language skills were sent off to learn “difficult” languages to increase the effectiveness and speed of the control. This no longer happens. Legal challenges have led to the use of interpreters in all cases which might result in an adverse decision, even when the officer is bilingual in the languages being used. So it’s slower and much more expensive. At that time the part of the Home Office dealing with people already in the UK and seeking to stay longer had seen its workload rising too. In fact it was no longer possible to keep pace with the work and every year “arrears” (as what is now called “the backlog” was then known) built up. These were cleared every winter by staff not needed at Heathrow and other ports, so that the system functioned quite nicely.
You’ll remember that one answer to protests about the growing numbers of airports and the increase in traffic was the building of ever larger aircraft. Instead of more and more 707s we’ll just have a couple of Jumbos a day and there’ll be fewer flights, not more. We all know that that wasn’t true. Aircraft get bigger, flights more frequent and international services operate from more and more UK airports. Inevitably, this trend together with more and more people seeking to enter the UK posing as students or visitors when ultimately hoping to improve their lot by moving here, led to ever more immigration staff being recruited at ever greater cost. We’ll forget the great wave of asylum seekers and the extraordinary difficulties which arise when the authorities try to remove anyone whose application to stay in UK has failed. What we will remember is that faced with all these problems and recognising the onward march of progress the immigration department decided that it was time to computerise the whole business and get on top of it. Again let’s leave aside the way that the systems were developed. All we need to say is that Margaret Thatcher was leading a Conservative government at the time and she approved the plans only on condition that they were paid for by savings made by cutting staff. The Home Office’s answer to this was to declare Year Zero. They started from scratch on the IT with the new applications as they came in and put all the old work in a shed. Files only emerged from that shed when the disgruntled applicant called to find out what had happened to his passport or when some poor soul fell foul of the authorities.
You’ll see I’m developing a theme here. Whilst they talk a tough game on immigration it’s the Tories who are always the slackest. After the Second World War the trades unions and Labour wanted to protect the bargaining power of the British worker with strong border controls. The Tories, backed by the bosses, wanted none of that and imported cheap labour from the Commonwealth. After the fiasco with the introduction of IT and the slimming of the workforce coupled with the explosion of asylum claims the backlog grew until Tony Blair came to power when there was a rapid expansion of resources to deal with the problem. Over the years the UK has also sought to reduce problems at airports by “exporting the border” – that is, only allowing those with the correct documents to board flights to the UK and training airline staff to spot forgeries so as to offload any potentially awkward passengers.
Everyone had already recognised that it was all costing too much and that, at the border in particular, vast amounts of resources were being used to check traffic that was of no risk to the UK whatever. (It was at this time that checks on those leaving the country were withdrawn so that staff were freed up to check passengers arriving.) Indeed it was recognised that nationals of many countries that were considered to represent a risk to the immigration policy were now required to obtain prior clearance by obtaining a visa before travelling to the UK. Those looking for savings spotted the fact that these people were again seen on arrival and saw this as unnecessary duplication. Hence along with all the other pieces of immigration legislation we’ve seen over the past 50 years there was another one which allowed visa holders to enter the country without being stamped in by an immigration officer. Plans were drawn up and experiments conducted to find ways to direct passengers securely around the immigration controls and straight to baggage reclaim. There were a number of flaws in the proposal but it was an unforeseen problem that put an end to it.
9/11. The attacks on the American mainland brought an immediate end to any plans to allow anyone arriving in the UK to enter without having first been checked. This placed a great deal of strain on staff at the border. But worse was to come. The July bombings in the UK persuaded the government that everyone entering must be checked against databases. To put this in context you need to know that in the past border staff checked all non UK passengers against a list of names which used to be in a book which was updated every day. You also need to appreciate that this was list of almost exclusively immigration related persons of interest. You will also need to consider that British passengers, who made up by far the largest numbers of travellers coming into the UK, were rarely checked against the list.
By the time of the terrorist attacks the database had passed into an electronic format and the person’s details did not need to be keyed into the terminal but could normally be read, like the old credit cards, by swiping the passport through the machine. Further progress now means that the passport is placed face down on a platen and an electronic chip contained in the document is opened and interrogated. Previously, the officer had taken the British passport, looked inside, compared the photo with the passenger’s face and handed it back. Maximum 5 seconds. Now the process takes much longer. Not only that, but the passenger’s whole family, including babes in arms, are also processed in the same way. The result is that there is not only a massively extended transaction time but also a massive increase in the number of people being checked. You don’t need a pencil and paper to work out that at a busy place like Heathrow that will mean people waiting longer and that waiting is done in queues. (Don’t get excited about the automated solutions. They take longer than the human solution but passengers think it’s quicker and choose to wait there voluntarily.) As well as this, far from considering that visa holders don’t need to be seen they all now have their fingerprints checked to ensure that an imposter hasn’t switched places with the visa holder. Some people who hold refugee travel documents issued by other countries have to have their fingerprints taken when they arrive. Every time the system triggers an alert the officer has to stop dealing with passengers and file a report. If it’s not done quickly enough, severe disciplinary sanctions are taken. In addition the system no longer only holds data on immigration cases. Since those on the Sex Offenders Register have to report some absences from their place of residence to the police, their passage through the borders is tracked by Border Force. This is again more and more work which takes staff away from their principal task of speeding genuine passengers through the airport. But most passengers would be happier if they knew that this was one of the reasons that they were queuing.
It has to be said that the airport operating companies don’t come out of this bathed in glory either. For many years the immigration department insisted that they provide an arrivals hall capable of holding the number of passengers who arrived in the busiest half hour of the year and which allocated each passenger 4.5 square feet of space. The operators hated this. Not only does square footage cost money but having it less than full most of the time and having no “retail opportunities” in it drove them to distraction. They lobbied hard and in some new builds succeeded in having the corridors leading from the aircraft including in the calculation. So, when some passengers complained last week that they had to queue from the aircraft to the immigration desk they shouldn’t moan at the border officials, they should complain to the airport. It was the airport authorities who insisted that this was an acceptable situation.
I also hear that there is justifiable outrage that some people are able to pay to get to the front of the queue. It’s a bit like the toll section of the M6 or the much vaunted toll lane on the M4. I’m surprised that the current government isn’t promoting the system. I seem to recall that British Airways had a special facility for Concorde passengers. The law was changed to allow for charging for the service but the fact was that the airline then, just as is the case now, didn’t really meet the full cost of providing an exclusive service and as always staff were taken from dealing with the ordinary folk.
Why has all this come up now? There could be a number of explanations. Over the last few weeks the Home Office has announced that they were changing shift patterns to deal with the unacceptable queuing times. Odd that, because it’s only in the last twelve months or so that the Border Force shift patterns and terms and conditions were changed against the advice of staff and their unions so that the government (that’s Labour and then the Conservatives) could achieve staff reductions and economies. One thing that was got rid of was overtime. Staff now work until they drop at peak periods and are then supposed to take the time off when things are quiet. Staff were also rostered on an individual basis so that there were more available at busy times than in the middle of the night. The government now has them working in fixed teams . So, little flexibility in the numbers available.
I also heard that one solution is to have a team which will respond quickly to peak demand across Heathrow. What will they do for the rest of the time? Surely, not sit about doing nothing waiting for the call? Why not just increase (or do I mean restore) staffing (to previous levels) everywhere. Someone said that staff had been deployed to Heathrow from Manchester. Did they have nothing to do there? If so how did the government allow that to happen? If they did have a job to do there, who’s doing it now? Or was it something that didn’t need doing.
On Question Time the other night a barrow boy in a spiv’s suit was having a cheap laugh about the situation. He said that he managed to have enough staff in his shops to serve customers even with peaks and troughs in demand. He couldn’t understand why at Heathrow with scheduled arrivals it was not possible to do the same. The answer lies partly in the fact that the mixture of passengers on each flight is not predictable. It also lies in the fact that they have to be dealt with. Unlike Theo the officials at the border can’t just say they have no stock and send the customer away. More likely is the fact that many transatlantic flights arrive first thing in the morning. There is no justification in having lots of staff on duty all night when there are no flights scheduled to arrive. Staff are scheduled in sufficient numbers to be on duty before the first flights arrive. However meteorological phenomena called jet-streams high over the Atlantic Ocean can cause flights to arrive an hour or more ahead of schedule. There’s nothing to be done. I would remind Theo that if I turn up at his shop two hours before it is due to open there is no chance of someone turning up to sell me a stapler.
As I said it’s always the Conservatives who talk tough on immigration controls and yet it’s always the Conservatives who relax them. The departure of Sarkozy may have shut the door on reform of the Schengen Zone which is interesting because had the external frontiers been toughened and the possibility of some checks at internal frontiers been opened up, I think the Tories might have joined so as to save lots of money on border controls.
I don’t think that the Conservatives have deliberately created this problem for some spurious reason. I believe that they have spent years in opposition criticising the management of the borders, repeating the mantras of some of their backwoodsmen that it’s an easy job. They don’t really understand the problem or that for the kind of restrictive regime they would like to see it inevitably costs a lot of money. You may have noticed too that we don’t see in the press since Labour was ousted the daily stories of a handful of illegal immigrants exiting a truck on the M25 and the subsequent fulminations of the local Tory MP. I have no doubt that it still happens, but oddly we don’t seem to hear about it. I wonder why. Bear in mind that with little or no traffic, multiple checks, all the time necessary, dogs and death strips the East Germans still failed to prevent people getting to the West hidden in cars and trucks. Having rid herself of Brodie Clark, the Home Secretary has appointed a former Chief Constable to run the Border Force (he joins a bloke who used to run a local council) and who (like his mate) knows nothing about border control. Whilst perhaps not the best choice from the point of view of the business, it plays beautifully to her admiring crowd – so who cares?
Now can I get back to my retirement?


Domestic Bliss

In Uncategorized on December 16, 2011 by grahamharrowell

The empathy must have been palpable. Nick Clegg and François Fillon on the ‘phone commiserating with one another. Last Friday Clegg was happy enough with Cameron’s performance in Brussels but by Sunday morning he was criticising his boss. The reason for the change must have been arriving home to find Mrs Clegg brandishing the rolling pin. No doubt she’d had a call from her folks back in Spain asking her what her husband was up to, not helping out the Eurozone. (Incidentally, the reason Clegg was not on the front bench on Monday was because Cameron locked him in the gents just before the session, to keep him quiet.)

Obviously Clegg called Fillon today to have a word about what Baroin had been saying. (Baroin incidentally is employed to do menial tasks for Sarkozy. When Nico stepped down to run for President it was Baroin who (briefly) took over the Interior Ministry, but was soon replaced by bigger fish. He gets jobs when they can’t find anyone else.) Fillon (who no doubt likes his boss as much as Cameron likes Clegg) was able to come to an arrangement with Clegg because Penelope had been giving him an ear-bashing too. Like Maria’s Spanish relatives, Mrs Fillon’s family in Wales had no doubt texted her to complain about Baroin.


Sunday Morning Rant

In Uncategorized on December 11, 2011 by grahamharrowell

In my last post I predicted that Cameron’s Eurohaters would no doubt be celebrating his performance in Brussels by buying some Euros and heading for a French ski resort. How prescient!

Aidan Burley the Cameron hugging MP for Cannock has been pictured at Val Thorens glugging down the Eurobooze but maintaining his Eurosceptic credentials by insulting the locals and, in the company of a chum in Nazi uniform, insulting the Germans too. (Also, by extension, all their victims such as Jews, Gays, the disabled and Roma people.) But then that’s the kind of conduct you’d expect. None of these folk seem to think that it’s in Britain’s interest to favour either good behaviour or spending money in the Scottish ski resorts.

Burley works for Justine Greening at the Transport Ministry. The soaraway Daily Mail tells us that Greening has found it necessary to issue several pages of instructions to her civil servants on the use of the English language and draws a number of inaccurate assumptions from this.
Civil servants in all departments receive a note regarding their ministers “preferences” with tedious regularity every time they get a change of masters. The wishes of the minister are often different from their junior ministers in the same department and staff have to bear this in mind when they produce submissions or draft letters for the minister’s approval. Often it relates to spacing, font and the use (or not) of bullet points or annexes. Like many people ministers think that there are hard and fast rules about English and they impose these on others whenever they get the chance. I seem to remember one immigration minister who banned the word “embarkation” in connection with aircraft because, in her opinion, it was clearly a word which related only to ships. The Mail finds it interesting that ministers should need to issue guidance to civil servants. So do I. I still have my copy (printed in 1954) of Sir Ernest Gowers’ The Complete Plain Words. This book was published by HMSO and sets out how the language should be used for official purposes. Greening, we are told, dislikes the use of the word “however” other than at the start of a sentence. Gowers does not agree. I think he knew more about English than she ever will. His only concern is that there appeared to be some convention that “however” was always followed by a comma. He felt that this was unnecessary and that a comma should be used in these circumstances to clarify the meaning of the sentence. A colleague of mine used to say that the strength of English lay in the fact that it is the “Legolanguage”. You can put it together anyway you like in order to get your meaning across. He scorned proscriptive and prescriptive grammarians alike, but readily admitted that he himself had certain personal idiosyncrasies which he clung to, however unreasonable that was.
Changes in civil service recruitment rules some years ago caused the old rule that required applicants for executive grade to have a minimum of 5 O-levels, including maths and English to be swept aside. Not only did this rule prevent those who had obtained their qualifications elsewhere in the EU from becoming UK civil servants but it also excluded those who had migrated to the UK from the Commonwealth, after they had taken their school exams. Of course the law of unintended consequences kicked in and some staff were found to be in need of remedial English courses not only to do their job, but also to enable them to progress on the career ladder.

Departments also signed up to a Plain English policy. All staff were required to attend courses. Although this meant that even the most senior staff were obliged to attend it was clear that those at the top rarely did, or if they attended they just put their heads round the door and were then called away on some pressing matter. Hence whilst everyone else was trying to put out comprehensible communications, the bosses were still churning stuff out in Sir Humphrey speak.

Greening should get her copy of Plain Words of the shelf and draft a letter to Aidan Burley telling him to clear his desk.


The 27 who’ve cut themselves off

In Uncategorized on December 10, 2011 by grahamharrowell

Before Australia became PC there was a joke about knowing when the flight from London had arrived because the whining went on after the engines had been switched off. I imagine that there is much the same sort of feeling in Brussels (at the EU) every time the Brits turn up. One commentator yesterday likened Cameron to someone who had taken his ball home before the game started. I liked that analogy because it fitted nicely with his petulant schoolboy behaviour when he realised he been out-manoeuvred by Sarko. He told the meeting that the 26 (now 27) who had agreed to work together to resolve the financial crisis that they couldn’t use EU facilities for their meetings. Yah, boo and ner, nerny, ner,ner! I don’t see why the EU can’t rent out its buildings to suitable functions when they are not needed for Community business. In fact it seems right and proper that they should generate some income in these straitened times even if the charge is a token one.
I suggest that the new group should meet in Strasbourg. This would be a symbolic and practical venue and please the French to bits. There is a full set of EU buildings there used for occasional transhumance/migration of all and sundry in Brussels. Why not hire these? Strasbourg is practical and convenient for EU members and symbolic for the new Franco-German orientation of the organisation. It’s also nicer and much cleaner than Brussels. The real advantage, of course, is that unlike Brussels it has no direct high speed train link with London and those trying to save the European economy can get on with the job safe in the knowledge that Cameron, Clegg and Osborne aren’t going to turn up unannounced and piss in their tent.
By the by. The British press is making much of Sarko not shaking Cameron’s hand. (The French press by contrast led with this weekend’s timetable changes on the railway, an assault on a ticket collector in Marseille and then went to the accession of Croatia before mentioning that the EU was working on the Euro but, unsurprisingly Cameron had stalked out.) Hand shaking and kissing are deeply entrenched in the French psyche. They know instinctively when to shake and when to kiss. One golden rule is that you greet everyone the first time you meet them every day. Not only is it bad manners not to greet someone on the first daily meeting, it is equally bad manners to greet them a second time as this implies you have forgotten the first encounter and is in itself something of a snub. So if Cameron was trying to shake Sarko’s hand he was in breach of the etiquette as they had done so already that day, and Sarko was quite right to ignore him.


That’s telling them, Dave

In Uncategorized on December 9, 2011 by grahamharrowell

At least Chamberlain came back with a piece of paper. Macho Dave came back having isolated Europe. It seems that they’ve cut themselves adrift from the British bulwark of solidarity. After years of threatening to use the “veto”, Big Dave pressed the button and fired the damp squib. Nobody really noticed. Instead of scuppering Europe’s plans, giving his mates a referendum and looking clever all that happened was that the vast majority of Europe just found a way round him. For God’s sake somebody take the nuclear deterrent key away from him before he tries that out.

So what powers exactly did he manage to repatriate? The list is empty. How much sympathy has he generated for our cause? Less than none. Jubilant Tory backwoodsmen (just 90 of over 600 MPs) now hold sway and will no doubt tell us that we can trade with the Empire (which they still think exists) and so on.

In the City (where all the problems began) they will (despite their hatred of all things European) be popping the champagne corks and changing their pounds for Euros ahead of their departure in their Ferraris and Porsches for the ski slopes in Meribel.

As far as I can make out nobody in Europe really cares that the UK has again adopted a dog in the manger attitude. They expected little else.

So another success for Cameron and well done Clegg for being so supportive.



Now’s your chance, Dave!

In Uncategorized on December 8, 2011 by grahamharrowell

By some happy coincidence on the day following Tory backbenchers exhorting Cameron to give the Europeans what-for, the BBC makes the startling discovery of the “Lille Loophole”. This is the situation whereby passengers travelling on Eurostar services from Brussels to London can board using a ticket for Lille and avoid the UKBA checks at the start of the journey which have been so succesful in vastly reducing the numbers of irregular migrants reaching the UK (and generally then becoming unremovable). It should be known that in general the Belgians in Brussels and the French in Lille have been very supportive of UKBA to stop this traffic but there are a few who either can’t be bothered or who just enjoy paying out the Brits.

Anyone listening to Sarkozy’s hour long speech last week (just in time for the BBC 6 O’Clock News but unreported – unlike the similar speech made by Merkel the following morning containing much the same material and widely covered) will recall that as well as announcing this week’s meetings to sort out the European currency crisis with a possible Treaty change, he also said that there was a need to change the Schengen rules. This might be seen as a signal that the UK might bea ble to get a little something in return for supporting changes.

Whilst the UK is not involved in the Eurozone, it is a signatory to Schengen despite opting out of the parts relating to the removal of routine border controls. It can therefore come to that table. All that is really needed is a minor amendment to an Annexe to the agreement which relates to measures which allow high speed trains which cross an internal frontier on their way to and from countries outside Schengen to continue their journeys without stopping at the external frontier for checks to take place. This threatens to become an even greater problem with the advent of Deutsche Bahn and other services such as Channel Metro in the fixed link.

It should not be forgotten that a similar problem existed with Eurostar trains from Paris to London which stopped at Calais. The big difference was that these trains didn’t cross an internal Euro frontier. Our much maligned French friends passed a law which required everyone (yes even French people in their own country) to produce passports or identity cards to UKBA officials if they chose to board those trains. If they didin’t want to do so they could always travel by a different route and tant pis! This created the bizarre situation that some third country nationals were refused permission to travel to Calais by British officials because they had no visa for the UK. There are no longer any trains from Paris that stop at Calais as it was a commercially unviable service.

So, it seems Dave has the opportunity on Friday to pacify the baying backbenchers and achive something without bringing the European (including British) economy to its knees. Support the rescue package in return for British officials being allowed to examine passengers on through trains and if necessary refuse to let them travel. I wonder if Dave is aware of this negotiating ploy?


Cool Hand Luke

In Uncategorized on December 5, 2011 by grahamharrowell

Our first snowfall today. When things brightened up we set off for the supermarket. But what’s that I hear drifiting on the breeze? Is it the blues? No, more likely it’s a work-song. Up on the moor road we come across the chain gang. Well, this being UK there’s no chain but there is a gang of orange-clad offenders purging their Community Service Orders. What better job than shifting the snow (what lttle there is) from a path that nobody uses and which will clear by itself in an hour once the sun gets to work. Not for these guys the mirror sunglasses of the shotgun toting deputy from the deep south watching their every move but a shivering supervisor from the Probation Service in the frozen north wondering why he ever chose a career in social work and the public sector.