Maisie Borrows is a researcher at Reform. Their report, “The future of public services: digital borders”, is available at www.reform.uk.
If Phillip Hammond left his Mansion House audience with little doubt of the importance of a Brexit trade deal, he was no less clear that a frictionless border would help achieve this.
According to the Chancellor, “new technology” can improve border efficiency. Reform research published today argues that the Government would be right to put its faith in digital borders to facilitate trade, travel, and security during the Brexit negotiations and beyond. The UK cannot afford to miss the opportunity to upgrade our borders to ease trade and process visitors.
If Brexit mean leaving the customs union, then processing trade will be trickier: UK customs will need to process four times as many imports a year just from the EU – an increase from 90 to 390 million a year. This only adds to current pressure: UK trade, from baby products to tropical animals, is expected to double by 2025.
At the same time, the number of people entering the UK in 2015 was 123.3 million. This is also set to double, but by 2050. As Charlie Elphicke MP has argued on these pages, gridlock at ports could grind the UK economy to a halt.
Increased trade and tourism is a good thing: growing demand means more jobs, opportunities and income. Keeping up with demand requires a better use of data, and using new technology to collect and share it, as Hammond argued. Constant sharing of information from travellers and traders can improve security and border efficiency even as demand rises. Other countries are pioneering these approaches.
Handling increased trade, while ensuring the safety of the UK, requires government to move from a paper-based system to a digital border. A single digital portal can help traders share information on cargo before it arrives in the UK. This allows border forces to better identify goods, and reduce administrative cost for businesses as information would only need to be submitted once.
A digital portal would also accurately identify tax receipts to be collected from goods at the border. Between 2013 and 2016, UK ports failed to collect £1.7 billion in customs duties on Chinese textiles alone.
Passengers could also better share travelling information to improve the border experience. A mobile-phone app can be used to send data such as a ‘selfie’ to the UK Border Force before travel. Permitted passengers would be given ‘Trusted Traveller’ status and would be allowed automatic entry to the country.
A better use of technology, such as facial recognition or iris scanning, coupled with advanced data, would remove queues at passport control, making most interactions with staff unnecessary. The UK Border Force currently aims to process new arrivals within 45 minutes. E-gate technology in the Netherlands shows what is achievable: people can now pass through border control in 15 seconds.
Real-time data sharing would help border officials more accurately target inspections. Trials by Maersk, a logistic company, using sensors has reduced time taken to search containers from six hours to 12 minutes.
This also improves security. Concerns have been raised about ships travelling to the EU taking suspicious routes in ‘high-risk’ areas, off the coast of northern Africa, for example. The UK should use real-time data to understand whether vehicles have moved along declared routes and, if not, more accurately detect criminal activities.
Earlier information would allow border security to intercept those who pose a threat before they even travel to the country. Of the 17,516 people refused entry to the UK in 2015, just 5,000 were identified before travel.
An ‘offshore border’ approach, where customs officials collect data from airline companies and cross-reference this against relevant national databases, can instantly identify risk. Australia’s offshore border has resulted in 50 per cent fewer travellers undergoing additional checks at immigration. This approach can also mean savings. Every pre-arrival refusal made saved Australian taxpayers $60,000.
An Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) – a visa-waiver system – could be introduced to pay for an improved border. Non-British visitors would make a small contribution to invest in the UK border, following the lead of many other countries. The USA charges $14 per Electronic System for Travel Authorisation – Elphicke has argued that £10 would be a fair charge for passengers. Extending this charge to EU citizens after Brexit would raise £450 million a year – equivalent to 80 per cent of the border force budget.
Collecting information on travellers and traders would allow border forces to build ever clearer pictures of people and goods entering the country. Computer algorithms could analyse this data and develop human-like ‘hunches’ about information which is not how it should be, alerting security.
For those who don’t pose a threat, learning from data would speed up entry. As a passenger or trader uses the system more and more, the system would learn about them and identify them faster every time.
The Chancellor is right to look to new technology to upgrade the UK’s border. Not only could this better facilitate trade and tourism in an ultra-competitive world, but it would improve security too. Ministers should see Brexit as the perfect opportunity to do this – for the UK’s benefit both during the negotiations, and beyond.