The Home Office still hasn't cleared up its border issues

migration, transport, population and demographics

Author(s):  Matt Cavanagh
Published date:  19 Jan 2012
Source:  Spectator, Coffee House Blog

Remember Theresa May's border skirmish against Brodie Clark back in November? This morning the Home Affairs Select Committee published their report into the whole affair. Ideally it would have cleared up some of the confusions over who was responsible for waiving various security checks at our borders last summer, and whether they were right to do so — but it doesn't really manage it.

This is not really the fault of the committee: some of the crucial questions they put to the Home Office remain unanswered, and key documents have not been released to them. For example, Mr Clark claims he raised the issue of the ‘health and safety’ waivers in a presentation to the Border Agency strategy board in December 2010, but other senior officials claim he mentioned it only briefly in passing. This is vital in assessing whether he was a ‘rogue official’ or a scapegoat, and the Home Office could have cleared it up by simply releasing the relevant slide from the presentation, or the minutes — but they have declined to do so. Similarly, ministers (including the PM) have cited a number of statistics to show that the pilot was a ‘success’, but the Home Office has been unwilling or unable to give any detail explaining these statistics, which are being questioned again today by Labour. If the Home Office were truly confident of their position, then surely they could have released some of the relevant information to the Committee.

There are two possible arguments for not releasing the information: the first is that it could endanger security (by exposing too much detail about how we run our border controls); the second is that it is a subject of another inquiry, by the Agency’s inspector, John Vine. But neither reason is satisfactory, particularly when you consider the options the Home Office had, including releasing the information in partly redacted form, or for the committee’s eyes only. In my experience (including periods in both the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence), the security argument is routinely over-used, by officials more than ministers, to avoid scrutiny — a self-defeating approach that undermines government’s ability to insist on secrecy on the smaller number of occasions when it really matters. As for Mr Vine’s inquiry, this is surely not an argument for refusing to give information to a select committee, particularly after months have elapsed. We can only hope that the inquiry is published rapidly and in full, with an opportunity for parliamentary debate on its findings.

Beyond the blame game — which will rumble on at least until Mr Vine’s report is published and Mr Clark’s claim for constructive dismissal is decided — the committee is surely right in its overall conclusion that, although the crisis revealed genuine management failings in the Agency which need to be urgently addressed, it would be a mistake to react by abandoning the ‘risk-based’ approach to border security. This approach — which holds that, rather than spreading finite resources equally across all ports and borders and travellers, we should (in the committee’s words) ‘allow the Border Force to use intelligence reports and officers’ own judgement to target the passengers and luggage on flights that are considered to be high-risk’ — has rightly been adopted by both main parties for decades. If anything, it is even more necessary now, given the fiscal context.

As I argued here at the time, ministers need to lead a mature public debate about the trade-offs involved in immigration policy, such as spending (including staff levels), passenger convenience (including queue times), and security (including the level of checks). Mr Green pleaded for just this kind of debate at the height of the affair, but that of course was the worst time to do so. In opposition, and in the early years of government, he and his colleagues had chosen the easier option of surfing the media narrative that immigration was simply ‘out of control,’ and that a bit of common sense would bring it back under control. They are hardly the first politicians to choose that easier option, and won’t be the last. But the result is they have a lot of ground to make up, and they should start now — before the next scandal hits.