Approach to small boats crisis may have been counter-productive, review says

Border Force reform planned as report finds ‘suboptimal performance’.

20 July 2022

The agency in charge of UK border security may have been “counter-productive” in dealing with the small boats crisis in the Channel, an independent review has found.

The review by former Australian immigration minister Alexander Downer was commissioned by Home Secretary Priti Patel to see how well the Border Force may respond to future challenges.

It found the organisation is performing at a “suboptimal level” and stretching its resources in an “unsustainable and highly inefficient way”.

Alexander Downer
Alexander Downer (Aaron Chown/PA)

With regard to the small boats migration threat,  the review states: “The overall approach to this problem over the past few years has been ineffective and possibly counter-productive in preventing these journeys.

“The Border Force Maritime command has been drawn into a challenge that it is ill-equipped to deal with and yet all consuming.”

It adds that the current resources needed are “not sustainable” and its boats were not designed for conducting search and rescue operations.

The review states  “the problem of illegal entry by small boats is not solvable in the Channel by Border Force” and “a whole-system approach is needed”.

The review suggests the New Plan for Immigration could help tackle the issue “albeit with some challenges and risks remaining”.

Long queues at Heathrow, which has seen passengers at passport control wait for three hours, was identified as a “significant” problem.

The review says these queues “undermine any customer service efforts” and are “the visible manifestation of more systemic issues, many of which apply to Border Force as a whole”.

Mr Downer’s review states: “Overall, my impression of Border Force is an organisation which is performing at a suboptimal level.

“It appears to be struggling to get out of a cycle of crisis management, reacting to the last challenge and bracing itself for the next, regardless of how predictable the next challenge may be.

“Although Border Force is largely delivering what is required of it on a day-to-day basis, it does so by stretching its resources in an unsustainable and highly inefficient way.”

Heathrow queues
Passengers queue for flights at Heathrow Airport (Ben Smith/PA)

The review comes as Border Force is contending with “exceptional challenges”, including people coming to the UK illegally in small boats, immigration abuse, illegal drugs, firearms and organised crime, along with the need to protect national security.

It added: “There is little capacity for strategic planning or workforce development.

“The inability of Border Force to plan effectively is further impacted by the delivery failures of enabling functions such as recruitment and procurement.

“Steps should be taken to address the administrative issues that are continuing to distract the organisation so that it can focus on its core mission.”

Improvements are needed to help make it an attractive employer, the review said, including a clear identity so it is a single unified workforce reinforced by a training academy and career path to professionalise the role of a Border Force officer.

There is also a call for better system leadership from the Home Office and other parts of Government for which the agency delivers, to give the organisation a clear mandate, priorities and targets, and there should be a stronger voice for Border Force within the Home Office, along with increased accountability.

Other recommendations include better workforce planning and a proper understanding of the needs of the organisation, including consistent standards and operating procedures across different ports.

This would allow better planning for procurement so the right number of people are in the correct locations with the equipment they need.

A stronger sense of purpose, professionalism, team skills and planning is needed to allow Border Force to face challenges on the front foot, such as Heathrow passenger queues and small boats, according to the recommendations.

Border Force reform planned
Plans have been announced to overhaul Border Force as an independent review found it is performing at a ‘suboptimal level’ (Steve Parsons/PA)

Forging greater levels of trust within the sector could enable joint working on border policy development and the implementation of technology at a strategic level. It could also mean better information sharing, the review said.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper described the review as “incredibly damning” as it shows the organisation is “stuck in a cycle of crisis management, and is failing to deliver the basics”.

She said: “It shows how Priti Patel has totally failed to get any grip of Britain’s borders or make sure that there are proper systems in place.”

The Home Office also announced plans to revolutionise how immigration checks are carried out with a pilot of a “contactless” digital border within two years.

Testing is to begin on technology that would allow some passengers to enter the UK and undergo automated border screening without going through an eGate or speaking to a Border Force officer.

The passengers would be pre-screened and identified at the border in an effort the department hopes will speed up legitimate journeys to the UK.

Ms Patel says the aim is to ensure the border is “fit for the 21st century” and enables travellers to get a visa and pass through it easily while maintaining national security.

She said: “I am also committed to ensuring our fantastic Border Force are given access to the most up-to-date automation technologies so they can use their specialised skills on protecting our border from those who seek to harm the UK.”

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