Matt Cavanagh

The Tories may have left it too late for that realistic debate about border security

The Tories may have left it too late for that realistic debate about border security
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Another day of bad headlines about border security is, in the end, a bad day for the Home Secretary, whoever ends up getting the blame. Yesterday morning brought further revelations in the newspapers; and then at lunchtime, Brodie Clark, the senior official who was first suspended and then resigned over the affair, made his much anticipated appearance before the Home Affairs Select Committee. Meanwhile, over in the House of Commons, the immigration minister Damian Green had been summoned to answer an urgent question about further alleged border lapses. By the evening, the story was once again leading the national news. Nevertheless, as the dust settles, Theresa May is still there — and, if anything, slightly less vulnerable than before.

Many observers were impressed with Clark’s composure and gravitas under questioning which divided, depressingly, along party lines. On the substance, however, he scored a draw at best against the witness after him, the newly-installed Chief Executive of the Border Agency, Rob Whiteman.

Clark’s evidence boiled down to two points. First, he repeatedly insisted on the difference between the 2011 pilot, which allowed the relaxing of certain checks on EU nationals, and which Theresa May had authorised; and pre-existing health and safety guidance dating from 2007, which allowed the relaxing of checks on all nationals, which she had neither authorised nor stopped. Second, he argued that the lapses for which he had been suspended and publicly criticised were not an unauthorised extension of the pilot, but had been done under the authority of the health and safety guidance, which he was entitled to assume was still in force.

Whiteman saw things very differently. He agreed that it was a matter of interpretation, but thought the correct interpretation of ministers’ wishes was to take their instructions on the pilot to supersede their lack of instructions on the health and safety guidance — which they might not even know about. So anything that was ruled out in relation to the pilot should have been ruled out everywhere, even if this hadn’t been formally instructed. Whiteman also felt that the pilot and the health and safety guidance had become confused on the ground, and that the health and safety guidance had been ‘stretched’ to allow checks to be routinely relaxed — presumably to manage excessive queues. His judgement about how ministers’ wishes should have been interpreted was made after the issue was brought to his attention by John Vine, the Border Agency’s inspector. It was a judgement made, necessarily, with hindsight, since he had not been in post at the time. But he clearly regarded the whole situation as a bit of a mess, which justified his decision to suspend Clark while it was sorted out.

This is a dispute which it is hard to adjudicate without more evidence, either from the official paperwork or a more comprehensive (and impartial) account of events on the ground. But if this the crux of the matter, the advantage for the Home Secretary is that it gives her another chance to rise above what now looks more like a dispute between two of her officials.

There are two ways in which she could still be dragged back into it. First, if the claims that she, or someone acting on her behalf, ‘strong-armed’ Whiteman into suspending Clark are substantiated (his account of how he made this decision was one of the less convincing parts of his testimony). Second, and even more seriously, if one of the various investigations — by the Committee, by John Vine, and of course by the media or the opposition — unearths hard evidence that May was given information, orally or in writing, about what was actually going on at the borders beyond what she has so far admitted.

If neither of these happens, she will escape — but she will be permanently damaged, in two ways. First, Whiteman’s willingness to take full responsibility for Clark’s suspension merely reinforces how unwise it was of May to allow herself to be dragged into this part of the story in the first place, through how she handled events during that first weekend. The most emotive part of Clark’s measured testimony was when he accused the Home Secretary of destroying in two days a reputation he had built over forty years. Her special advisers had already been reported to the Cabinet Secretary for briefing against Clark. Whatever else happens, her officials and staff at the Border Agency will be less inclined to protect her from future crises; some may even be motivated to hasten her demise.

Second, as the Committee’s questioning reminded us, May cannot escape the age-old dilemma facing ministers in a crisis like this: either you knew what was happening, in which case you are compromised, or you didn’t, in which case you are incompetent. It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect that even if May is telling the whole truth, there is no suggestion that anyone misled her about what was going on: she simply never asked. Such a lack of interest in the operational affairs of her department — in so central an area, of obvious importance and sensitivity — is remarkable, even if it is not regarded as a resigning matter.

While Clark and Whiteman were giving evidence, and May herself was taking refuge at a meeting of the National Security Council, her deputy Green was in the Commons, pleading for a more serious debate — about precisely these operational issues, and the trade-offs they involve. Yvette Cooper won their encounter on points, but Green was right when he urged cross-party support for a ‘risk-based’ approach to border security. To put it another way, rather than spreading finite resources evenly over every single traveller, we should focus them where we believe the problems are concentrated: both geographically, and in terms of different categories of traveller.

This has to be the right approach overall, even if it does raise genuinely difficult issues around the acceptable limits of ‘profiling’; and Green is right that this is, in practice, the approach both parties have taken for decades. It is why during the 1990s both parties abandoned paper-based records of who entered and left the country, the Conservatives starting the process by scrapping them for EU nationals, Labour then scrapping the rest. The effort and cost of maintaining these records for every single traveller was excessive, given the infrequency with which the records were ever used. (Try devising an effective and efficient filing system for tens of millions of bits of paper each year. Even our best companies might struggle, let alone the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, as it then was.)

There are, however, two problems for the Conservatives in trying to portray Labour as opportunistic for attacking the ‘gaps’ which are in some ways the natural or inevitable result of a risk-based approach. The first is hypocrisy: they took exactly the same approach when they were in opposition. As I argued here when the present scandal broke, it would have been more strategic of the Conservatives to invest a little political capital in promoting the more rational debate Green is now calling for. That would have meant taking on those like the Daily Mail, who fill their summer papers alternately with stories about border lapses and about excessive airport queues. But, as the Conservatives now realise, that was a battle they merely deferred rather than avoided.

The second problem for the Conservatives is that you cannot have this more serious debate without also discussing resource constraints, which are at the heart of the present case even if they were mostly ignored by the Committee and the Commons yesterday. For years it has been accepted inside the Border Agency and its predecessors that there is a fairly straightforward set of trade-offs involving spending (including staff levels), passenger convenience (including queue times), and security (including the level of checks). In opposition, the Conservatives preferred not to acknowledge these trade-offs, choosing instead to imply that Labour’s problems at the borders were entirely down to incompetence or lack of political will.

If we were being super-charitable, we might say that the Conservatives did accept, implicitly, that there was some kind of trade-off involved in border policy — but that, under their leadership, the Home Office would start from a radically more favourable position in making that trade-off, first through better management, and second, through better technology. There are, however, a number of problems with that.

For starters, if this was the strategy, then they should have let the new technology bed in, and only then, as it began to deliver the benefits, decide how to take the dividend: either in terms of reduced staffing, or freeing up staff to improve security or customer service. Instead, driven by the government-wide timetable for budget cuts, that sequence broke down — with the staff cuts beginning at the same time as the technology programme was mired in delay (some of which delay, it should be acknowledged, was due to the decision to scrap an unsatisfactory contract inherited from the previous government). This decision to prioritise the government-wide timetable is understandable given the bigger picture, but it has consequences.

What's more, it is not a simple trade-off between technology and staffing. The more relevant trade-off is often between resources as a whole (staffing plus technology) and either security or passenger service. For example, the Iris-scanning system is a technology programme which has delivered both improved security and greater convenience for its users, but those benefits are now under threat due to staffing issues. Similarly, the current scandal seems to revolve around the way UKBA handled a trade-off between using expensive new technology (the capability to read a biometric chip) to increase security, or opting not to use that technology in order to maintain acceptable levels of customer service (in terms of length of queues). Again, the question that has so far gone unanswered is: to what extent did staffing constraints exacerbate this trade-off, and to what extent, therefore, are ministers ultimately responsible?

Finally, as for managerial competence, this is the kind of boast which should be gradually earned, rather than hubristically pre-announced. Even assuming May survives, the events of the last fortnight will not strengthen the public’s confidence that she is worth her previous label as a ‘safe pair of hands’, never mind the kind of gifted leader who would be required to get an institution as complex and troubled as the Home Office to shake off the old constraints and ways of thinking and break through into a new world of lower costs, shorter queues, and safer borders.

May is, of course, not the only one in her party to blame for their current predicament. She was not rated highly enough to be given the Home Affairs brief in Opposition, when the Conservatives enjoyed surfing the media narrative that immigration was simply ‘out of control’ and that a bit of common sense would bring it back under control. But she is responsible for choosing to continue with that narrative in office, and for failing to start the serious conversation which her deputy is now calling for, about costs and benefits and the balance of risks. The danger for her and her party now is that they have left it too late. Their lead on the issue is down to five per cent, and more important, they are no longer in control of the narrative. Unless they start working much harder and smarter, their new immigration slogan for the next election might as well be, ‘Sorry — but at least we’re a bit better than the last lot, aren’t we?’

Matt Cavanagh is associate director at IPPR.