As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union, the role, purpose, and health of the country’s borders have been called into question. In an effort to address these concerns, and move towards charting a technologically feasible path for the future, Leidos and the New Statesman gathered a group of policymakers, industry experts and researchers to discuss the pressing matters of technology, trade and migration policy in a post-Brexit UK.
In her opening remarks, the Member of Parliament for Don Valley, sitting member of the Public Accounts Committee and former Home Office minister Caroline Flint marvelled at the impressive technology being applied by the likes of Amazon to their operations. She said: “I am convinced that technology well applied is a huge ally in the effort to secure fair trade and fair movement of people.”
Research fellow in national security and resilience at the Royal United Services Institute, Alexander Babuta, noted that it was important “to make a clear distinction between trade and migration”. Although methods being used to track suspicious packages were making strides, it was not simply a case of applying a similar type of technology to monitoring people, due to data protection and GDPR concerns. “[Monitoring of goods] is a very different type of technology that doesn’t rely on things like biometrics in the way that passenger technology does … legally and from an ethical perspective it wouldn’t necessarily come up against the same concerns around civil liberties.”
Vice-president of business development and strategy at Leidos ,Tim Crofts, raised the possibility that “if you start forcing people to [opt in or out of certain sharing of data when you fill in your advanced passenger information] actually perhaps you might start to build a little bit of trust back into the system.”
In his opening remarks, Leidos chief executive Matt Wiles called for a more unified and targeted approach to be developed to border policy, and this was a theme that kept being returned to again and again, as more round table participants highlighted problems with the government’s current approach. He said: “We see lots of departments struggling to get their message across and get a clear single focus on this work. A body equipped and empowered to implement the government’s will [is needed] … it doesn’t have to be the department for borders, but it needs to be a lead department that is empowered to deliver this.”
Simon Daykin, chief technology officer at Leidos, explained how there is a huge amount of useful information “stuck in these different silos”. He said: “I think some of the real opportunity is actually architecting the border as a joined-up operation, and then looking at the information that different agencies require and use, and how that can be shared with each other to actually provide a richer set of information to aid and inform policy, but also in order to enact policy.”
Joe Owen, associate director of the Institute for Government, added: “You have two competing priorities which are the facilitation of trade, and then security. And at the moment that kind of competition is institutionalised in Whitehall. How you take these decisions about flow at the border and how much information you collect is that trade-off. Having different ministers and departments responsible for each creates a bit more friction than there is in other countries.”
Turning to Brexit, Babuta noted that if the UK left the EU without a deal, it would lose out on many border safeguards, including Passenger Name Record (PNR) information sharing. “We would lose access to those PNR capabilities and we would have to renegotiate a new agreement as a third country in the same way as the US and Canada has with the EU.”
Reflecting on the referendum, however, Wiles concluded that people “have lost confidence in our ability to manage our borders; they want their borders back.” Caroline Flint criticised the “elitist attitude of the establishment” which she said had failed to address people’s concerns over immigration. She shared some of those concerns, arguing that improvements definitely needed to be made. “Look at the Windrush situation; for different reasons people are undocumented, but they have absolutely legitimate rights to be in this country … we have no facility to actually measure when people come in and when they go out.” Despite any issues with the UK border, Flint did admit that “the fact we’re an island nation has helped us immeasurably over decades”.
Shadow Immigration Minister Afzal Khan, meanwhile, acknowledged the scale of challenge. “The movement in the world is not going to slow down. More than a billion people are flying every year now, and that is going to be increasing by four, five per cent every year.” However, he struck a slightly different tone when discussing the correct approach to the migration challenge. “Britain doesn’t accept its fair share of people … many countries are not carrying their fair share, and piling more pressure on a smaller number of countries.”
Chair of the Science and Technology Committee Norman Lamb reiterated the “absolute need to have an immigration policy post-Brexit that enables us to recruit the best people, and that sometimes involves bringing people in from overseas”.
Although the table was united in excitement over the potential of technology to radically improve border control, many participants highlighted the need for a clear strategy before that improvement could be fully realised. When asked if it could play a role in the Irish border question, Simon Daykin responded that “technology can bring a huge amount of benefit,” but this would be lost “until we actually get a clear idea as to what question we’re asking of the technology; until we get that operational view of exactly what we’re trying to achieve”.
Robert McNeil, deputy director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, concurred. “Technology is always essentially the servant of policymaking and we therefore need to think about what the rationale is for the things that we’re looking at.” He argued that there was some confusion over the best measures to analyse – “what are we measuring, and why are we measuring that?” – and that some important signifiers were being overlooked. “For a start we should we looking at short-term migration as well as long-term migration. Net migration is a useful metric but immigration is also a useful metric.”
Senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) Marley Morris said a positive role that technology is already playing is in the Settled Scheme. “The scheme to ensure that EU nationals currently resident in the UK will have their rights protected is being developed through a new form of technology. There’s a much simpler process of online application – it’s a new system for the Home Office.”
Alexander Babuta warned that better use of technology “will only be effective if it’s accompanied by sufficient, substantial investment in the workforce” as Wiles said that an “open business framework” was required to allow new and evolving technologies to be incorporated into the border approach along the way.
Ultimately, the round table underlined a number of crucial challenges to developing a coherent borders and migration policy; however, it also exposed the exciting developments and leaps being made in technological solutions. “Leidos”, Tim Crofts said, “is committed to supporting the government and other bodies to keeping the UK safe and prosperous, with a progressive and vigilant border that benefits everyone.”
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