Government written answer, January 2016

We need a visa waiver system post-Brexit

Leaving the European Union will mean a lot of change – nowhere more so than at our borders. The end of unchecked EU immigration will require a beefing up of our border controls. The rising threats of organised crime, trafficking and terror mean we must invest more in intelligence to keep our country safe. Yet at the same time we want to maintain the free flow of trade that is the economic lifeblood of our nation, and have smooth journeys for legitimate travellers too. All these changes can be expected to require costly investment.

How could we do it and be ready in two years’ time? My proposal is that we plan now to adopt a visa waiver system for EU visitors like the US ESTA system. This should raise some £250 million a year – enough to increase the UK’s Borders Budget by 50 per cent. With this extra money, we can boost our efforts to combat traffickers, terrorists and criminal gangs. In addition, the visa waiver system would provide a wealth of information we could use to strengthen our intelligence effort. If we also invest in tried and tested systems we will be able to automate much of the processing. This way, border officers can focus on the greatest risks, helping to make our borders as strong as they can be.

Post Brexit Border Strategy

Post-Brexit, the key challenges that our borders strategy will need to answer are:

  1. The end of Free Movement. Post Brexit, unchecked EU immigration will end. This means we will need to extend our full border control systems to another 24.2 million visitors to the United Kingdom. Until now, travellers from the EU have been subject to more or less the same border procedures as UK citizens. Post Brexit, this will change. EU citizens will become subject to the same checks as visitors from anywhere else in the world. Having procedures in place to manage this is something we must start preparing for now.
  1. Open gateway for trade. It is in the interest of the UK and European Nations that our borders remain open for business and international trade. With globalisation and integrated supply chains, to do otherwise would be economically damaging to the UK and Europe. It’s therefore important to put an effective system in place to cater for the UK leaving the Customs Union as well as the Single Market.
  1. Continued intelligence and security co-operation. We may be leaving the EU, yet we remain part of Europe. It is in the shared national and border security interest of the UK and European nations that we all work together. We must share intelligence and see that proper security checks are made at the borders as needed. This is because we all need to work together to combat organised crime, people trafficking, smuggling and terrorists.  This means we should not rule out staying in the Prüm information sharing system. Meanwhile, passports will need to be properly checked on departure. Therefore, systems like the Le Touquet Treaty’s juxtaposed controls at Dover and Calais should be maintained as they work in the interests of Britain and France.
  1. Countering trafficking, crime and terror threats. Britain faces a number of serious threats at the border. The number of migrants being smuggled in the backs of lorries has trebled. The Government’s Terror Czar warned of the terror threat to the UK in his final report released just before Christmas. Organised criminals are focussed on by the National Crime Agency. Add to this people traffickers and rising numbers of people turning up in small boats on the beaches and small ports of Southern England. They amount to a changing border security challenge that must be answered to prevent people breaking into Britain, and to stop those who would seek to do us harm.
  1. Investment in intelligence and border systems. The changing threat picture and the extra burdens that are going to be placed on our borders will require investment. Investment is needed in modern systems that will allow for faster checks to be made. Investment is also needed in making sure we have enough officers to carry out the checks needed at Dover and prevent queues from building up at Heathrow. Finally investment is needed in intelligence as it is through strong intelligence that organised crime, trafficking and terror will be defeated.

The post-Brexit Border Strategy will need to be funded. The Borders budget has been pretty flat for the last five years as the chart above shows.

The available efficiency savings have by now been made. The new challenges are going to need more money. This will be tough at a time when the public finances remain under great pressure.

Meeting the borders challenge

Nothing happens without money. So the first question is how we can raise the cash needed to make the necessary investment in our borders. Years ago, the USA hit on the idea of turning the border into an asset by making visitors pay for it. The USA’s ESTA system charges a fee of $14 – equivalent to around £10 – for a “visa waiver”. We could adopt that system and apply it to a visa waiver scheme for visitors from the EU. Introducing a “European Travel Authority” (ETA) visa waiver for £10 a time would raise a lot of cash. 24.2 million EU visitors a year paying £10 would provide £242m. Given that the Border Agency’s budget is currently some £500m, the ETA system could fund a 50 per cent increase in the Borders budget.

The ETA would not simply bring in cash. It would bring information too. EU visitors would be required to fill in an online form setting out who they are, where they live and where they intend to stay while in the UK. By building on the existing US and Canadian systems – so we can avoid another Government IT debacle – we could check people against watch lists, well before they leave for Britain.

If we get it right, we will be able to check across databases in real time to put a stop on known criminals seeking to visit our shores, before they start their journey. Border officers would be able to focus on persons of interest on arrival while allowing everyone else to speed through the arrivals halls. An effective border IT system will enable us to count people in and count them out precisely and immediately. This means we will know right away when a person has over-stayed their visa. And as they will provide the address they intend to stay at – Border officers will also know where to start looking for them as well.

The extra funds from the ETA system should enable greater investment in intelligence to counter trafficking and criminal networks. It should provide funds to invest not just in tried and tested systems – but also to counter emerging security threats like migrants landing on the south coast. The more we can invest in intelligence, the more successfully we will be able to co-operate with other European states. This will be at the heart of how well we are able to deal with the new and emerging threats to our national and border security.

The gain: enhanced security funded by new revenue

Leaving the EU is a huge national project. The situation with our borders will be one of the most complex parts of it. By adopting a US style visa waiver system we can fund the investment we will need to make in our border controls. And using the tried and tested systems already in operation around the world would enable our dedicated Border officers to focus on the people who are the greatest threat. By taking action now we can be ready to implement such a scheme immediately on Brexit. In doing so, we would enable trade and legitimate visitors to flow freely while benefitting from enhanced security at the border.