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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The clever ideological trick that could save the Labour party

The Co-operative party could suddenly get a lot more popular. 

It’s do or die for the party’s moderate MPs, who have lost the fight for the soul of Labour and must quickly move on. 

The 172 Labour MPs who backed a no-confidence vote in Jeremy Corbyn earlier this year may not like their newly elected party leader much, but they loathe John McDonnell. 

So it is little surprise that one of them, John Woodcock, reportedly looked “sick to the stomach” when the Shadow Chancellor tenderly invited him for a cuppa in his office following the leadership election result at conference. Reading the tea leaves tells me those talks aren’t going to go well.  

Yet moderate MPs would do well to revisit McDonnell’s off-the-cuff comments from a few years back: “I’m not in the Labour party because I’m a believer of the Labour party as some supreme body or something God-given or anything like that,” he told a small audience in 2012. “It’s a tactic. It’s as simple as that. If it’s no longer a useful vehicle, move on.” 

Two feather-spitting former frontbenchers called for McDonnell’s resignation when these comments emerged in March, saying they revealed his Trotskyist tendencies. "The context (a hard-left gathering) and the company (which included Gerry Downing, expelled from Labour for his comments on 9/11) didn’t make for great publicity, no," a Leader’s Office staffer privately confesses. 

But McDonnell is right: There is nothing necessary, natural or divinely ordained about Labour’s existence lest it can get things done. Which is why the parliamentary Labour party cannot botch its next attempt at power. 

In the wake of Corbyn’s re-election, Labour MPs face a fork-in-the-road: fight this civil war until its bitter end - play the long game, wait until Labour loses the next general election and challenge Corbyn again - or start afresh. 

It is a bleak, binary choice, akin to a doctor delivering test results and declaring the illness is terminal as feared: the patient can go down fighting and die a slow death, notwithstanding a medical miracle, or instead take part in a pioneering new drug trial. This carries the risk of dying immediately but promises the possibility of life as well. Both options are fraught with danger.

The problem with the first option is that moderates have all but lost the party already. A poll reveals Corbyn won 85 per cent - 15 per cent among members who joined after he became party leader and lost 37 per cent - 63 per cent among those who were members of the party before the last general election. The result: victory by 119,000 votes. 

Corbyn has already announced he wants to give these foot soldiers far greater firepower and told Andrew Marr he had asked the NEC to draft plans for increasing the membership and including it in “all aspects of party decision making”. Labour is transitioning apace into a social movement: free of formal hierarchy and ambivalent about parliamentary power. 

So why wait until 2020? There is every chance that MPs won’t any longer have the power to challenge to Corbyn within four years’ time. If Momentum has its way with reselection and shadow cabinet elections, leading rebels may not be around to begin with. 

Even if MPs mount another leadership challenge, few believe organisations like Saving Labour or Labour First could put together a sizeable enough electorate to outgun Corbyn at the ballot box. He would be voted back in by a landslide. 

The alternative is for MPs to create a new centre-left force. The main plan under consideration is to join the Cooperative party, Labour’s sister party, and sit as a bloc of “double hatted” MPs, with their own policy agenda on Brexit and the economy. This new bloc would apply to the Speaker to become the official opposition. 

Plenty of MPs and members recoil at the idea of a semi-split like this because of the mixed message it would send to voters on the doorstep. "So you don’t have faith in Corbyn, but you’re a Co-op MP campaigning on behalf of his Labour?" Many believe a full-split would be worse. They fear being pitted against Corbyn-backed Labour candidates in local constituencies and splitting the left vote, opening the door to Ukip or the Conservatives in marginal seats. 

But if moderate MPs mean what they say when they warn of total electoral wipeout in 2020, risking a new centre-left grouping is intuitively worth it.  What do they have to lose? And how many more times can Labour’s moderates cry wolf - Labour "risks extinction", Sadiq Khan said yesterday - until voters call their bluff and tell them to quit complaining and fall in line behind their leader? 

While Corbyn’s polling remains disastrous, a Co-op/Labour party would boast a mandate of 9.3m people, a policy agenda in line with Britain’s political centre of gravity and a chance of becoming the official opposition: a risk worth taking in the face of electoral oblivion. 

A handful of battle-bruised MPs are talking about coming together. "Time to unite," a deflated Hilary Benn tweeted this weekend. There is a precedent for this: first past the post means the party has always been composed of uneasy coalitions of different groups - take the trade unionists, liberal cosmopolites and ethnic minorities of the New Labour years - and it is arguably no different now.  

Yet this is not about a coalition of diverse interests. It is about two parties within a party, each of which believes Labour is their rightful inheritance. Of the two, moderates are least likely to gain anything by engaging in an all out war. It is time they took a leaf out of McDonnell’s book and accepted it is time, regrettably, "to move on". 

Gabriel Pogrund is a journalist at The Sunday Times and a Google News Fellow 2016.