Whatever form Brexit might take, the Government has been clear about its intentions to take the country global: the Prime Minister has promised that post-Brexit Britain will be an outward-looking country, trading and engaging with countries from across the world.
But if Britain is to copy with the increase in trade and visitors (both of which are expected to double within the next thirty years), it will be necessary to revisit and revitalise the country’s border and customs infrastructure. The Home Office’s failure to meet its existing targets for clearing visitors (within 25 minutes for EEA passports, and 45 minutes for non-EEA visitors have been well-publicised) – how can the UK cope with higher traffic?
Then there are the additional challenges posed by Brexit: the realities of running an independent trade policy will mean additional procedures and administration for trade and customs. How can the country develop a comprehensive customs and border strategy which deal with this increased volume and in a way which is quicker, smarter and safer than existing systems?
With the support of Leidos, The Spectator hosted a roundtable lunch of experts and practitioners with knowledge of the UK border, to discuss how new technologies might play a role in delivering this vision – and the political practicalities of making this happen
Tony Smith, managing director of Fortinus Global and former head of UK Border Force, kicked off the discussion by explaining the context. ‘A successful border strategy should allow for the quickest possible facilitation of the 99.99% of people and goods which are perfectly safe, whilst helping to identify – as precisely as possible – the 0.01% of traffic which needs our attention’, he said.
Tony went on to outline what he described as the ‘multiple borders strategy’ – this essentially redefines the border as a series of transactions, rather than a physical entity (a queue in an airport, for example). The aim is to push the border (that is, the clearance) out as far as possible – most traffic between Canada and US, for example, is cleared before it leaves the destination country, meaning that visitors can arrive as if departing from a domestic flight.
This can be combined with frequent traveler programs allow segregation of low-risk travelers from higher-risk travelers, facilitating passenger flow while allowing border officials to concentrate more on higher-risk travellers.
As Simon Daykin, CTO from Leidos commented, ‘We are at a unique junction with both policy and the enabling technology to reimagine our border. We can gain ever more detailed information faster than before, particularly by securely sharing up front passenger and customs information, fusing it with live biometrics, scanned imagery, and behavioural information to improve intelligence, flow management and early decision making’.
These technologies can be used to manage customs processes too and facilitate inter-country trade. Attendees cited examples from countries such as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates where technology has been deployed to facilitate the pre-clearance of trusted traders and the automation of everyday processes (paying of customs fees, for example). In some cases, these countries – as well as the US and Canada – have used similar technologies to identify those travellers or goods which might pose a risk.
On a more advanced level, non-instructive inspection can facilitate the flow of commerce whilst detecting potential safety risks. Such technology is in use at the U.S./Mexican border, and is heavily used in maritime shipping container inspections. Automated border crossings (which could potentially be used to facilitate trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland) can be used to fast-track regular traders.
Upgrading the UK’s borders will come at a cost, but several attendees highlighted the potential for using the border itself to raise revenue – in the same way the US has done with its ESTA scheme. Charlie Elphicke MP – who has published a series of papers on preparing for Brexit – estimated that a similar scheme (which would use visitors’ address and personal details to allow for pre-vetting) could raise as much as £250m per annum. The MPs were clear, though, that such an approach would require a rethink of how border policy has traditionally been developed in the UK (with an increased role for the Treasury).
Another concern was how increased automation might affect the 10,000 people currently employed as border agents, as well as many others working elsewhere in the customs and immigration sector. Attendees felt that – far from the dramatic fears often expressed about ‘job-killing’ technologies – the mainstreaming of automation would allow for border staff to be deployed on more rewarding tasks, which make better use of this investigatory skills.
Lucy Moreton, General Secretary of the Union for Borders, Customs and Immigration (ISU), mentioned the example of e-passport gates at Heathrow. With one border official currently allocated to every ten gates (usually to review errors and discrepancies), these e-gates allow for a much greater volume of routine traffic whilst allowing officials to focus on more skilled tasks.
Either way, with the UK due to leave the EU in just under five months, it was felt that it was time for the Government to think seriously about the modernisation of its borders. Matt Wiles, Chief Executive, Leidos UK commented, ‘At the operational level, agencies and departments now have the platform to debate and set out what investments need to be made and with what priority to support a safe, secure and better border’.
As John Vine, former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration put it: ‘Brexit is a great opportunity to look at an overarching whole government plan to border control.’ The challenge, now, is to make that happen.