Today brought closure of a kind to last year’s border fiasco (which I covered for Coffee House here and here), with the publication of the report by the Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency, John Vine.
On first reading, there is no ‘smoking gun’ which would trigger a ministerial resignation. The report does find that, in early 2011, the immigration minister Damian Green had authorised the relaxation of one of the checks at the centre of the controversy: ‘Secure ID’, which verifies the fingerprints of foreign travellers with visas. But the report also finds that Green’s authorisation should have been superseded by later instructions from the Home Secretary Theresa May. To the extent that this check continued to be relaxed during the summer, the responsibility does lie with officials not ministers.
Nevertheless, May has responded by announcing that UKBA will be split into two, with the Border Force becoming a separate law-enforcement body headed by a Chief Constable. Announcing a big structural reorganisation is a favoured tactic of ministers trying to get through a crisis. And, what's more, it may not be the right answer: May argues that a more narrowly focused border force will have a tougher and more determined ‘ethos’, but the main failings coming out of Vine’s report are of co-ordination and communication around policy and operations — and splitting up UKBA could make this worse. It is also a risk to attempt yet another structural change at a time when border staff will be preparing for the significant operational challenge of the Olympics.
Whoever is in charge will need to address a long list of failings identified by the report. There was no clarity, or shared understanding, about the conditions under which different kinds of checks could be suspended, and with what authority. Instructions from senior officials and ministers' offices were vague, management weak, reporting flawed and record-keeping poor. Ministers will argue they inherited these failings from their predecessors, but in at least some cases — including Secure ID — this argument does not stand up. (The implementation programme for Secure ID ran up to the general election, with the final report being completed in July 2010. It included some recommended policy changes, which were accepted, but the unit responsible was disbanded and the recommendations were never followed up.)
More broadly, the report clearly shows that ministers were guilty of an ‘ask no questions’ approach to what was going on at the border. In opposition, the Conservatives had consistently argued that the immigration system was out of control, and that they would bring it to heel. Given this, their evident lack of interest in operational matters until the crisis hit is remarkable.
Overall, the report is likely to increase calls for all checks at the border to be tightened — especially since it casts doubt on some of the claims ministers made at the height of the scandal about the ‘risk-based’ pilot having been a success. This was not entirely their fault: the reporting they received was incomplete — indeed, appears to have been deliberately selective. It did not include, for example, how many people were being refused entry or held for questioning (in both cases numbers were down). But ignorance is only a limited excuse: these should have been obvious gaps.
It would however be unfortunate if a flawed pilot, and the scandal surrounding it, led to the abandonment of the broader approach to risk-based checks which, whatever the rhetoric, both Labour and Conservative governments have accepted for decades. Border security is an emotive issue, but we need a mature and honest debate, accepting the inherent tradeoffs between security, passenger convenience and cost.