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Tony Smith is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

In 2017, Charlie Elphicke, then MP for Dover and Deal, posted in these pages about how Britain needed to be Ready on Day One to meet the Brexit borders challenge.

At that time, he expected Day One to fall in March 2019 – allowing us around 18 months to commence work on the biggest border transformation programme ever seen in this country. He advocated a range of measures, particularly in the port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel, which account for 40 per cent of our trade with the EU.

Many of Elphicke’s proposals for new investment in roads, lorry parks, port infrastructure and IT upgrades in Kent were foreseeable from the day Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016. I worked closely with him and others to develop a workable border transformation proposal at that time, which we submitted to Ministers and presented to an APPG in Parliament.

Yet four years have elapsed – and only now are we seeing any real commitment from government to invest to upgrade our ports and borders to cope with the huge challenges ahead. This week, Michael Gove announced a £705 million spending package to help manage Britain’s borders to prepare for Brexit as the transition period (and free movement) ends on 31 December this year.

It has been criticised by Labour as being “too little too late”. In response to industry concerns and COVID-19 delays, the Government has also announced that “full import controls” will be “phased in”, and not fully implemented until July 2021; prompting claims from Liz Truss that the UK could be left open to legal challenge and smuggling.

Meanwhile, we have seen a record daily total of irregular migrants crossing the channel from France, and Priti Patel has announced a new “points based” immigration system, which is set to commence on 1 January next year, requiring EU citizens to get permission to enter and remain in the UK for the first time in 40 years.

In over 40 years’ experience in the Home Office, I cannot recall a time when the UK Border has been under this degree of pressure on all fronts at the same time – immigration policy, customs infrastructure, and border security.

The only saving grace for the Border Force is the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced traffic at our ports to a trickle, at a time when we would simultaneously be facing up to new record volumes and the usual criticisms from ports and airports about queues and delays at the UK Border.

Even so, the hasty implementation of a quarantine measure at the UK Border – and the rapid relaxation of it to cater for the holiday season – has not inspired confidence, either from the transportation industry or from the Border Force officers themselves.

Brexit and the ending of free movement provides the Government with unparalleled opportunities to build the “world class” border that it aspires to. But border transformation programmes take time and require careful handling. We do not have a great track record of delivering major IT and infrastructure changes at the UK border.

Key factors identified in the past that have led to programme failures include a lack of clear vision and direction, inconsistent leadership, ineffective public/private sector engagement, and governance. It is vital that we learn these lessons now.

Of course, this commitment to fund new infrastructure at our major ports of entry is welcome; and better late than never. The opportunities available for turning our major ports into global trading hubs, building freeports, implementing “drive through” and “walk through” borders based on advanced data analytics and risk assessments are all within reach. But it would be wrong to underestimate the enormity of the challenge ahead.

Setting out a vision is one thing; turning it into an operational reality is another thing entirely. Having been Senior Responsible Owner for the UK Border Agency’s London 2012 Programme for over three years, I know that this will only work if the government can build a cross Whitehall Programme that actively engages with the myriad of Departments and Agencies with a stake in the UK Border, ranging from the Home Office and HMRC through to Transport, Health, DEFRA and the like.

Of course, there will be the familiar tensions between facilitation and control; people and goods; compliance and regulation. These were always there. But taking a narrow view that HMRC “does goods” and Home Office “does people” no longer works, especially in the UK where we have a joint Border Force doing both.

There are some encouraging signs that the Cabinet Office is taking greater control over border-related projects, rather than simply acting as a co-ordinator between departments. But the fact that HMRC has issued a “Border Operating Model” claiming to cover “all of the processes and systems, across all government departments, that will be used at the border”, without any cross reference to an announcement from the Home Office on the same day setting out the “Border of the Future” “with new processes, biometrics and technology” as part of the new points- based immigration system is a case in point.

If we are to retain a single UK Border Force to operate the new rules, then we need to consolidate the strategic, policy and programme arms behind them.

To succeed, Whitehall will need to galvanise the very best people, systems, and processes into a fully functional Border Transformation Programme. This means bringing the key contributors to economic revival including the ports, transportation companies, traders and the world class technology suppliers to the table; and uniting them behind a common purpose to end free movement and implement to build the world class border we all want.

And to expect to deliver all this against a specific “Day One” deadline set by politicians – be it in January or June 2021 – is prone to failure, as history has shown us.

24 comments for: Tony Smith: In over 40 years of Home Office experience, I can’t recall a time when our borders have been under so much pressure

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