The questions Theresa May still has to answer

The Home Secretary is struggling to contain the row over relaxed border controls.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, is under pressure after she admitted that she had personally authorised UK Border Agency (UKBA) staff to not carry out full passport checks on hundreds of thousands of people arriving in Britain.

In the Commons, she conceded she had decided in July to sign off a four-month pilot scheme allowing reduced passport checks for European Union passport holders, as a way of dealing with crowds and long airport queues over the summer. However, she claims that she only authorised the relaxation of rules for certain categories of passengers -- those which did not pose a credible security risks. What actually happened is that people were not checked against the warning index at Calais. She claims that UKBA officials acted without her knowledge, a leaked document suggests she gave border agency officials the discretion to relax the rules further.

This morning, many questions remain.

What about ministerial responsibility?

May is adamant that the current debacle was not her fault. Three senior officials from the UKBA -- including its chief, Brodie Clark -- were suspended last week. Several newspapers this morning have commented that there is something unedifying about ministers blaming their officials when things go wrong; when it comes down to it, a minister is responsible for creating the culture in their department.

Certainly, the heat is not off May yet. While the government talked tough on immigration ("Together we will reclaim our borders and send illegal immigrants home," said David Cameron one month ago), she authorised a relaxation of border controls, apparently without consulting the Prime Minister. An internal investigation is now under way; this will prove what she did or did not authorise.

What was the impact of spending cuts?

In a climate of reduced staff and cut budgets, it is perhaps inevitable that people will cut corners. Faced with the pressure of increased summer traffic, staff shortages, and intense over-crowding, it's perfectly possible that officials did decide to abandon the proper checks -- or that they thought this was acceptable, given the pressure they were under. Strategies for effective, efficient border controls must be found -- at present, the pull between dwindling resources and rising demand appears impossible.

Why does a culture of chaos prevail at the UKBA?

It was five years ago that John Reid (then Home Secretary) said that Britain's immigration system was "not fit for purpose". The UKBA was formed in 2008 to fix this, but it remains plagued by disaster. Last week, it was reported that the number of "lost" asylum-seekers had tripled between March and September. While stories such as this are perfect headline fodder, what is generally ignored is that this is frequently caused by a culture of denial at the Home Office. Many asylum-seekers with a valid case to remain are denied, even if they cannot be returned to their home country, and end up dropping out of the system entirely. In this case, humane treatment of those who need refuge would not be incompatible wtih limiting the number of those who settle permanently in the UK -- granting temporary status would allow the Home Office to keep track of who is here.

Clearly, the UKBA is still in chaos. May did not create it, but as Home Secretary, it is her responsibility to sort it out.

Was it worth introducing biometric passports?

One of the relaxed measures included lifting checks at busy times on biometric passport holders from outside Europe. Biometric passports were introduced five years ago in the UK, at great expense. One must question whether this was worth it, if officials essentially treat them the same as their paper predecessors. One of the relaxed measures included lifting checks at busy times on biometric passport holders from outside Europe.

High tech checks are pointless if they cannot be carried out efficiently; the cost increases pressure on staffing expenditure, while long queues into Britain are unhelpful and unpleasant for the vast majority of passengers, who are here lawfully.

What about nuance?

The reality is that an effective system can operate with varying degrees of thoroughness. It's not necessarily a disaster if every single person is not subjected to rigorous checks -- such as the low-risk passengers for whom May claims she authorised reduced checks. This is presumably why she decided to go ahead with the plan. What is an error is relaxing checks at predictable, busy times (such as the summer months), and officials failing to use methods at their disposal to identify higher-risk passengers, such as the warning index.

Labour has clearly seen an opportunity to attack May and not letting go -- once again, the debate around immigration descends to a knee-jerk reaction designed to win points with voters. What would be more productive would be an intelligent discussion about when and how it would be acceptable to relax border checks. Such a huge system can only function effectively if it operates with varying degrees of stringency. Proper risk assessments would be a good place to start.

You might want to talk tough -- but can't you tone down the anti-foreigner rhetoric?

The vast majority of people arriving in the UK are either tourists or business people, both of whom are contributing money to an economy that badly needs it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the tone of previous addresses by both May and other government ministers (including David Cameron), the Home Secretary's statement to the Commons yesterday struck an unpleasant note of suspicion of anyone who dares to come into the country. May appeared to lump together all foreigners as potential terrorists, criminals, or "economic tourists". Sadly (but again, unsurprisingly), this was unquestioned by the opposition.

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition