The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

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.