There are lots of signs at Gatwick about how it is unacceptable to be ‘rude or abusive’ to Border Force staff. One poster warns that losing your temper or gesticulating in a threatening manner could be a criminal offence. Keep a lid on it, is the-message.
My wife Joanna and I recently had plenty of time to study these missives and just about kept a lid on it after returning from a weekend in Spain. It was a Monday evening that became a Monday night at Gatwick’s north terminal as thousands of travellers snaked back and forth for nearly an hour at passport control in an atmosphere that swung from anger to sheer astonishment at the incompetence of the government agency that mans the UK border at British airports.
‘You do wonder why one bothers to go on holiday at all when you come back to this,’ said Joanna, which seemed a little extreme given the lovely few days we had just enjoyed in Andalucia. But that was tame compared with the hissed comments from passengers last month at Stansted — also on a Monday — where an estimated 5,000 people waited interminably to show their passports to a human being or stare blankly at a camera in the Orwellian e-gates area.
Children were crying, grown-ups were spitting with rage. Stansted officials — distancing themselves from the chaos — offered an apology and blamed Border Force, while Border Force’s apologists naturally blamed the agency’s lack of adequate resources.
A report by the National Audit Office confirms that spending on Border Force dropped from £616 million in 2012 to £525 million last year, at a time when record numbers — some 250 million people — pass through our airports annually. But surely it can’t require too much nous to make sure there are enough staff at any given time to cope with the numbers? It’s not as if a whole fleet of aircraft suddenly lands at an airport without warning. Monday evenings are notoriously busy because flights are cheaper than at weekends. In fact, as many as 40 flights land between 10 p.m. and midnight at Stansted (our fourth-busiest airport) every Monday.
Someone needs to sort it out — and that someone is now Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, who was quick to stress in Birmingham last month that she wants to reduce net migration, while keeping quiet about making sure tourists and those of us born and bred here don’t feel like the huddled masses when we land on these shores.
Mark Palmer despairs over airport queues on this week's podcast
The Home Secretary’s inbox might be bulging and for sure she won’t be joining any airport queues while in her new exalted position, but after Brexit we need all the friends we can muster, and going out of our way to annoy visitors when they come here with spending money in their wallets is not helpful.
You expect to hang around when arriving at Delhi or Rio airports, and there can be quite a wait at some Caribbean islands, where there are often more members of the welcoming steel band in straw hats than there are immigration officers in suits and ties, but we are meant to be more focused than that.
Adding insult is the government’s latest solution for dealing with the delays — which is not just cynical but downright devious. You want to jump the queues for which the Home Office is responsible? No problem. But it will cost you. Come up with as much as £17.50 and they’ll have you in the baggage reclaim hall long before your suitcase makes its first revolution of the carousel.
Ministers have confirmed that these ‘fast-track’ fees could be levied at airports across the country after a trial at Heathrow and Gatwick for first- and business-class passengers. The idea is that at least £5 of any charge would be passed from the airport to Border Force. This reward for failure comes on the back of a government consultation in 2013 which was designed to ‘help fund the immigration system, secure the border and invest in improving processes’.
But we all know that ‘improving processes’ is almost entirely limited to revenue-generating schemes. Whereas the duty-free shopping malls are all eyes and teeth, passport control is a grim holding pen for human cargo desperate to be anywhere but there.
We have got used to being treated like cattle — so perhaps it’s no surprise that the government wants us to become cash cows as well. But, frankly, I object to the idea of paying to come into my own country.