The Home Secretary and airport officials seem hell-bent on turning immigration delays into the greatest travel story of the summer.
The passport queues at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 broke official time limits on 107 occasions during the first 15 days of April, leaked immigration data tables show.
Labour claimed the figures showed that UK Border Force staff were struggling to cope with passport queues across Heathrow and not just at the high-profile Terminal 5.
The disclosure came as the Home Office flew in immigration officers from Manchester in an emergency move to help out at Heathrow amid mounting criticism, including from London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, that the persistent queues are damaging Britain’s international reputation.
Facing an emergency Commons question on the passport crisis, the immigration minister Damian Green insisted steps were being taken to improve the situation at Heathrow and gave a clear pledge that all immigration desks would be fully staffed at peak periods during the Olympics. He was forced to defend a decision to spend £2.5m on new uniforms for UK Border Force workers while squeezing staff numbers.
The minister blamed some of the Heathrow problems on severe weather, which led to diverted flights and the “bunching” in arrivals, but conspicuously left open the option of returning to a “risk-based approach” to passport checks. “They are an option any government should consider,” he told MPs.
The Commons statement followed the emergence of an open row between Heathrow authorities and the UK Border Force, who blocked the distribution of leaflets to passengers apologising for the lengthy delays and advising them to complain to the Home Office.
The leaked document detailing queue times for Terminal 3 from April 1-15 show that the 45-minute maximum wait service standard for passengers from outside Europe was breached 82 times. The time limits were not met on 13 of the 15 days. The longest wait faced by non-European passengers was 91 minutes.
For European passport holders, including those from the UK, for whom the service standard is a 25-minute maximum wait, the time limit was breached five times. Even the new fast-track “e-gates” were hit by delays, with the leaked queue times summary showing the standards were breached 20 times during the first two weeks of April.
The leaked data covers the Easter period when the UK Border Force made a special effort to meet the expected peak in passenger numbers.
Labour’s immigration spokesman, Chris Bryant, said the figures showed the government was displaying “utter incompetence” in not giving the force enough resources to do the job properly.
“They can’t blame it on the weather when there were 107 breaches of their target in the first 15 days of April,” he said.
But Green said the leaked data was unreliable and did not accord with the force’s official figures. He said the target was met for European passengers on all 15 days, and on 11 out of 15 days for non-European passengers.
“Our information shows that queueing times bore no resemblance to some of the more wild suggestions. Border Force data shows the longest queuing time for immigration control was one and a half hours on Friday night at Terminal 5 for non-EU nationals. And times for UK and EU nationals were significantly lower,” he told MPs.
The steps being taken to cope with the crisis include a new central control office to co-ordinate how staff are allocated across Heathrow’s five terminals, and mobile rapid deployment units to respond to surges in passenger numbers. New shift patterns had been agreed with staff, Green said.
“The important factor is to have staff that are flexibly deployed in the right numbers, at the right times,” he said. “Border security is Britain’s first line of defence and it will not be compromised.”
Lucy Moreton, of the Immigration Service Union, spelled out exactly what this policy meant: “A number of staff at Manchester turned up to work today and were herded on to a plane and flown to Heathrow. They got four hours’ work out of them.”
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