Is the Border Force fit for purpose? At one point it became a model for reform with ministers arguing that its performance had improved significantly since it was split from UKBA in March 2012 into a separate law enforcement body. But today the Public Accounts Committee suggests the Border Force isn’t quite fighting fit: more puffing at the back of the line and a bit paunchy. The PAC’s report points to weakened security at the border as the Border Force is forced to prioritise passenger checks over checking freight for illicit goods or illegal immigrants, gaps in intelligence on those coming into the country, and ‘inadequate IT systems’. It has missed eight of its 19 targets for seizure and detection targets, and the committee demanded that the Force ‘set out how it will ensure that it delivers its full range of duties across all ports to provide the required level of security’.
Now, few people reading the report this morning will be spilling their breakfast cereal in surprise that our borders aren’t being manned as well as they should. But there’s one point worth considering from the report that has a wider political significance. The report points to ‘limited resources’, particularly increasingly limited resources at the Force’s disposal as a result of Spending Review cuts. This could be used by a Home Secretary, current or future, to argue that their budget has been sliced enough already – and don’t forget that last week George Osborne announced that he wants an additional £1bn of savings a year for the next three years. But just in case a minister is tempted to make this argument, it’s worth bearing in mind that the PAC seems to think that the Border Force still has scope to improve the way it works. The report says:
‘To balance its books the Border Force will be increasingly reliant on achieving greater workforce flexibility and little progress had been made in recent years, with 40% of staff at Heathrow still on inflexible work contracts. The Border Force will also need to make better use of technical advances, such as more and improved automatic clearance gates at the border.
‘The Border Force must demonstrate through effective, realistic planning that it can deliver its workload within the resources available.’