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The home secretary has agreed to an urgent meeting with the UK’s airlines over their fears that airports face gridlock because inadequate Border Force staffing is creating long queues at passport control.
Theresa May is due to hold talks with the British Air Transport Association, the airlines’ representative body, because of its concerns that depleted staffing could lead to chaos at airports during peak travel times such as the Olympic Games, when 500,000 overseas visitors are due to come to Britain.
Ms May is expected to be questioned by MPs on Tuesday about long immigration queues this month at London’s Heathrow airport, including some lasting more than two hours at its flagship Terminal 5, which is home to British Airways.
Simon Buck, chief executive of the BATA, requested a meeting with Ms May in a letter to the home secretary last month that made the case for increased Border Force staffing.
He told the Financial Times: “Britain will be on show to the rest of the world this summer during … the Olympic Games. We want to see the Border Force properly resourced so it can provide robust border security – but also make sure passengers are not unduly delayed on arrival at airports.”
Mr Buck declined to comment on the planned meeting with Ms May, but the airlines’ concerns are focused primarily on Heathrow, the world’s fourth busiest airport by passenger numbers.
Three Heathrow insiders said the Border Force was demonstrating that it could bring in extra staff to minimise immigration queues during high profile events – such as during last November’s public sector strike and the Easter bank holiday weekend.
New figures revealed on Monday show that 10 iris retinal scanners in place across eight UK airports were reported faulty or broken more than 570 times in just one year. This means that non-EU passport holders who have signed up for the iris-scanning scheme often have no choice but to queue for manual checks. The new electronic gates system is currently open only to EU travellers.
One insider said the Border Force had provided assurances that all the desks inside Heathrow’s immigration halls would be staffed during the Olympics.
However, BA and BAA, Heathrow’s owner, are concerned the Border Force is struggling with day to day operations outside of these one-off events. Another Heathrow insider said it took almost two and a half hours for some passengers to clear passport control on April 16.
The long queues are primarily due to two factors. First, the toughening of passport checks after a damaging row last November in which ministers accused Brodie Clark, the former head of the Border Force, of relaxing procedures beyond agreed limits.
The Home Office abandoned all risk-based checks late last year. Even if the Home Office did want to experiment with relaxed checks on some passengers, it is almost certainly too difficult to do so politically and practically before the Olympics.
Theresa May, home secretary, suspended all “risk-based” border controls after a row last autumn over officials relaxing security checks during the busy holiday period without her approval. As a result, all passengers now have to undergo full checks and there are no authorised short cuts for low-risk travellers.
The second factor behind the long queues is reductions in the Border Force’s manpower. The Home Office is cutting about 1,500 jobs at the Border Force between 2010 and 2015 – equivalent to 18 per cent of staff.
However, BAA and BA are also concerned the Border Force is not managing its depleted staff numbers well.
At Terminal 5, BA’s flights arrive in three waves focused on the early morning, lunchtime and late afternoon, but the three Heathrow insiders accused the Border Force of not deploying staff appropriately so as to cope with peak passenger influxes.
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons home affairs committee, which will question Ms May on Tuesday, said: “These [queues] are a very serious issue. This isn’t just about the Olympics, it’s a wider problem.”
John Dickie, director of strategy at London First, the capital’s business lobby group, said the problem of queues at passport control was causing its members serious concern.
One of his main gripes is the Border Force’s refusal to provide details of how long it takes for passengers to clear passport control at particular airports.
However, Gatwick, owned by a consortium led by Global Infrastructure Partners, is is planning to issue Border Force performance statistics, and other airports may follow.