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?


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