UK Border Security: Growing Concerns over the Relaxation of Controls

The current controversy over the supposed relaxation of security checks at UK borders highlights the complex nature of border security. The issue goes far beyond personality clashes and Ministerial accountability. It may prove to provide the impetus for root-and-branch border security reform.

By Matt Ince,

The pilot border control scheme that has attracted controversy in recent weeks was intended to allow the UK Border Force, an operational division of the UK Border Agency (UKBA), to undertake targeted intelligence-led checks on travellers falling within higher-risk categories. Yet, as it emerges that routine security measures were being relaxed at twenty-eight of the UK's major ports and airports, fears over growing chaos and cost-cutting have again illustrated the scale of the challenge currently faced by those working to secure the UK's borders. Aside from the controversy over Ministerial accountability, urgent questions are raised as to whether UK border security is ready for the Olympics and the demands placed in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

Heightening Existing Concerns

The recent row between the Government and Senior UKBA officials over the relaxation of border control measures represents the latest in a series of incidents to have heightened existing fears over UK border security. These include the announcement that there are around 98,000 asylum seekers within the UK who cannot be found; reports about the quantity of Class A drugs that criminals are attempting to smuggle across the UK's border; and the news that radical Islamist Sheikh Raed Salah was able to enter the UK at Heathrow this summer, despite being on a Home Office banned entry list. These revelations have served to undermine confidence (in some quarters at least) in the ability of senior UK border officials to be able to effectively deal with the many threats posed at the UK's border.

The Home Secretary has now stated that 10 million people entered the UK in August when the pilot scheme was operating,[1] this comes after the news that adults were frequently not checked against the Warnings Index at Calais and  fingerprint verification of non-EEA nationals from countries that require a visa had also in some instances been completely stopped. The significance of such disclosures is that we will never know how many people entered the country that should have been prevented from doing so. This is made worse by the fact that the pilot also enabled Border Force officials to use their professional judgment in deciding whether or not to check the biometric chips on every passport belonging to UK nationals and other citizens from inside the European Economic Area (EEA). The notion that the pilot encouraged border officials to drop a number of routine checks on children from the EEA, travelling with their families or in a school group,  has similarly fuelled trepidations about the risk of cross-border child trafficking  taking place undetected within the UK.

It is understandable that there are existing concerns within the UK over border security, given that the UK has, for a number of years, identified that it faces a serious and sustained threat from violent extremism and the many challenges associated with trans-national organised crime.[2] Combatting terrorism in particular has remained a high priority for the Coalition Government and was therefore identified as a top tier threat within the 2010 National Security Strategy.[3] Nevertheless, as the UK prepares to host the single largest sporting event of the decade, a competition that will draw over half a million extra visitors to the UK, this latest controversy at the UK's border could undermine broader efforts being made to implement adequate security measures  ahead of the London  Olympic and Paralympic Games. This is a situation that has also been exasperated over the summer, as the world's media bore witness to the mass riots taking place across the UK's major cities, and has been made worse in recent weeks by scepticism expressed by US officials who are now preparing to send up to 1,000 of its own agents - including 500 from the FBI - to provide protection for America's athletes and diplomats.[4]

The Question of Accountability

Throughout the recent dispute there has been a distinct lack of clarity over where responsibility ultimately rests for the weakening of border control measures. To summarise: Brodie Clarke, the former head of the UK Border Force acknowledges that the pilot scheme relaxed border controls, but was done so in accordance with existing policy,[5] and was delivered exactly as the Home Secretary had wanted.[6] Of course this is disputed by John Vine, the independent chief inspector of UKBA, who cut short the pilot scheme on 4 November after raising concerns with Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of UKBA, that security checks were not being implemented properly by the Border Force. Whiteman then made a statement in which he claimed that the then head of Border Force, Brodie Clark, had admitted to him that on a number of occasions this year, he had authorised his staff to go further than Ministerial instruction.[7]

Moreover, while the Home Secretary has openly admitted that the decision to implement the pilot scheme was taken by herself and the Minister for Immigration, Damian Green MP, she has stated that she did not give consent or authorise any decision for the pilot to go further than had been agreed.[8] The refusal by the Home Secretary to let this become a resigning issue, has therefore meant that senior UKBA officials have taken the fall for the relaxation of border checks under the pilot scheme. Defending the pilot, the Home Secretary told MPs that UKBA statistics show that, compared with the same period last year, the number of illegal immigrants detected trying to enter the UK increased by nearly 10 per cent under the pilot scheme, along with a 48 per cent increase in the identification of forged documents.[9]

In response to criticism, Mrs May has also repeatedly blamed the weakening of the UK's border control regime on the failures of the previous government; saying that they were responsible for leaving the country with a total net migration of more than 2.2 million people, a points-based system that had failed to reduce immigration, widespread abuse of student visas, a 450,000 asylum backlog, the botched e-Borders contract, and no transitional controls for Eastern Europeans.

This latest loss of confidence over the security procedures being undertaken at the UK's border has therefore raised broader questions about Ministerial accountability in the British political decision making process and begs the question of whether or not responsibility for this recent debacle should fall, as it has, with those who are charged with implementing policy or those senior Government officials who are responsible for creating it.

Policy Constraints

The suggestion that the relaxation of border security measures were undertaken in an attempt to allow for better queue management at major UK ports and airports,[10] has also served to illustrate the challenge currently faced by the public sector in trying to meet targets whilst adhering to the requirements of what is an increasingly constrained financial climate. The SDSR, released the day before the October 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review, made substantial reference to the projected increase in cross-border passenger journeys - to rise by 70 per cent by 2030 -  freight volumes and the use of ever-more sophisticated technologies by those with malicious intent. It therefore identified border security as an important national security concern and highlighted a number of changes the Government planned to make to ensure the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of border security activities.[11] These included reducing operating costs and duplication of effort at the border. Other policy decisions included a commitment to strengthening the UK's visa process by widening the checks carried out on visa applicants, and plans to create an EU Passenger Name Record Directive.

Nevertheless, the UKBA are faced with having to deliver on these objectives with a workforce that is set to be cut by up to 6,500 by 2015, of which 1,500 will be Border Force staff. Given the extent to which border security has been compromised in recent months, this latest controversy is therefore perhaps testament to the fact that the introduction of greater risk-based targeting at the UK's borders must compliment, rather than replace, existing routine physical checks which continue to represent the base-line level of security controls that need to be undertaken by border officials - even if it means longer waiting times for passengers traveling to or returning from abroad.

The Case for Reform?

This latest incident makes the case for a more coordinated approach to national security and sets the scene for future debate over border security policy reform in the UK. The first opportunity for action might come in the findings of the three independent investigations being held into the pilot scheme and its operational implementation. The first will be carried out by Dave Wood, the head of the UKBA enforcement and crime group, who will examine how, where and when the suspension of checks might have taken place. The second, by Mike Anderson, the director general of immigration, will look more specifically at the actions of the Border Force. And finally, the chief inspector of UKBA, John Vine, will review exactly what happened with the checks across the UKBA and how the chain of command in the Border Force operates.

A further opportunity for reform will also rest with the Government's plans to establish a border policing command inside the National Crime Agency. This is expected to be ready by 2013 and will aim to develop and execute a single, coherent strategy for border security and coordinate multi-agency tasking to strengthen border policing arrangements; improving immigration controls and helping to combat organised crime.[12] Other Government efforts also include the continued rolling out of the e-Borders initiative - a system which electronically collects and checks individual passenger details against UK police, security and immigration watch lists - and plans to continue introducing tighter regulations over student visas by raising the standards education providers must meet before they can bring international students to the UK.

However, given the culture of complacency that, according to the Chairman of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz MP, exists at the highest levels of the UKBA,[13] this recent crisis of confidence could also be used as a chance for Government to justify wider root-and-branch reform to border security.  Nevertheless, success in this endeavour will rest in the ability to adopt a comprehensive and holistic approach to border security that places a greater emphasis on the use of technology to counter staff reductions, interoperability between all those working to secure the UK's borders; underpinned by greater Ministerial accountability, and the introduction of more intelligence-led border checks that compliment, rather than replace, existing routine practices. If such a review were to take place, the UK may then be better placed to address the complex and evolving range of challenges that will continue to present varying degrees of threats to UK national interests in the period ahead.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI. 



[1] BBC News 'UK border checks were relaxed at 28 ports and airports', 15 November 2011 

[2] Cabinet Office, The National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom: Security in an Independent World (London: The Stationery Office, cm7291, 2008), pp.10-12.

[3] HM Government, A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy (London: The Stationery Office ,cm 7953, October 2010), p.27.

[4] Nick Hopkins and Richard Norton-Taylor, 'US officials worried about security at London 2012 Olympics',, Sunday 13 November 2011  

[5] See: 'Brodie Clark resignation statement in full',, 9 November 2011

[6] Brodie Clark, Statement to the Home Affairs Select Committee, 15 November, full transcript available online:

[7] Statement from Rob Whiteman, UK Border Agency chief executive, 8 November 2011

[8] Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Statement made by the Home Secretary to the House of Commons on UK Border Force, House of Commons, 7 Nov, Column 45

[9] Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Statement made by the Home Secretary to the House of Commons Opposition Day Debate on Border Checks Summer 2011, House of Commons, 9 Nov, Column 318

[10] Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP, Statement made to the Home Secretary in the House of Commons during a discussion on UK Border Force, House of Commons, 7 Nov, Column 46

[11] HM Government, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review (London: The Stationery Office, cm7942, October 2010, p.53.

[12] ibid

[13] Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP, Statement made to the Home Secretary in the House of Commons on UK Border Force, House of Commons, 7 Nov, Column 51


Matt Ince

Associate Fellow

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