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Source: The Guardian
Author: Alan Travis
Temporary border staff hired to shorten the passport queues at Heathrow and other south-east airports during the Olympics have no immigration background or experience, and have only received basic training, the official immigration watchdog has warned.
An extra 500 staff are to be drafted in to help ease congestion in immigration halls from this weekend, but John Vine, the chief inspector of borders and immigration, warned that temporary staff process passengers more slowly while asking fewer questions.
The chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, said he was “appalled” to discover people having to queue for an hour with only half the passport desks at Heathrow terminal 4 staffed during the morning peak on Monday. Other MPs have warned that passport delays at the world’s third busiest airport must not be allowed to become a “national embarrassment” during the Olympics, when Heathrow will have to cope with more than 100,000 passengers a day, a 20% increase on typical numbers.
Vine’s short-notice inspection report on border security checks at Heathrow’s terminals 3 and 4, published on Thursday ,says that many of those who are being drafted in are ex-UK Border Agency employees who are being rehired, or staff who have been working elsewhere in the Home Office but have only been given basic training to work on the airport passport desks.
The chief inspector says that, during his inspection in March and April, when backroom staff from the “secondary examination area” were being regularly drafted on to the passport desks to help with the lengthy queues at Heathrow, they appeared less confident in dealing with passengers.
“This meant they often took longer to process them and asked fewer probing questions. We felt that this affected how efficiently and effectively Border Force was able to progress passengers through the terminal,” says Vine.
“Border Force must ensure that staff are appropriately trained to carry out the functions required of them at the primary control point,” he says, adding that the passport checks have to be “resourced appropriately” to deliver an effective service.
The basic level of training being received by the extra staff has been conducted in the classroom and through mentoring, although experienced immigration officers are to “floor-walk immediately behind them to provide further support as necessary”.
The chief inspector welcomes measures to use border staff more flexibly at Heathrow, including setting up a control hub to ensure terminals under pressure get extra staff and a decision to release early some of the funds earmarked for the reopening of terminal 2 in 2014.
But Vine criticises the technique used by UK Border Force, which measures the length of queues in the arrivals halls every hour on the hour, saying this “did not always provide an accurate picture of passengers’ experiences.”
A Border Force spokeswoman said the report showed there had been real improvements at Heathrow: “John Vine acknowledges the positive addition of hundreds of extra staff deployed to meet demand, the creation of a central control room to manage resources and ongoing recruitment of more border officers,” she said.
“We are also working with [the airport operator] BAA on improving queue measurement, looking at securing staffing levels for the long-term and continued training and mentoring for contingency staff to ensure they carry out efficient and secure check on passengers.”