Border Agency 'cut too many staff' watchdog claims


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The Independent Online

The troubled UK Border Agency has cut too many staff too quickly and is now having to hire extra people and increase overtime to meet demands, Whitehall's spending watchdog said today.

Instead of slowing down staff cuts when it emerged an automated system designed to save money was both a year late and tens of millions of pounds over budget, the UKBA increased the speed of its planned changes, the National Audit Office (NAO) said.

More than 1,000 staff over and above the planned reductions were lost last year, performance dropped and there is little evidence of the strong leadership needed to resolve the problems, the report added.

Border Force staff working at Heathrow Airport, one of its most high-profile and oft-criticised operations, also appeared reluctant to take up more changes.

A voluntary system where staff work a set number of hours each year, rather than each week - so they can work longer hours when it is busier during the Olympics, summer or Christmas periods - was taken up by 62% of staff, saving almost a fifth (£613,000) of premium payments and overtime in the first six months of 2011/12.

But less than a third (32%) of staff at Heathrow joined the scheme, meaning payments there increased 8%.

Changes were also brought in cautiously, "partly through concern about industrial relations, but also piecemeal, without evaluating their potential impact", the report said.

A lack of integration, with some 120 separate targets and significant changes being made "independent of headcount reduction", affected both efficiency and performance, the watchdog said.

Some 22,580 staff were employed by the UKBA, including the Border Force, in April last year, but this had dropped to 20,469 by April this year, figures showed.

"In 2011-12, the agency's workforce reduced by over 1,000 more than planned, despite the fact that progress was slower than expected in the ICW programme and workforce modernisation at the border, and no agency-wide skills strategy was yet in place," the report said.

"The result of this disconnect was, in some places, a dip in performance and the need to hire new staff or increase overtime."

It added: "Agency performance has dipped in some specific areas, in part due to implementing staff reductions faster than originally planned.

"For example, performance in London and the South East has come under pressure due to staff shortages."

More people than expected wanted to leave the organisation, with early exit costs amounting to £60 million between 2010 and 2012, the watchdog added.

The £385 million immigration case work (ICW) computer system, which aimed to improve efficiency and cut costs, has "significant problems" and, despite early successes, "has slipped by a year and is over budget", the NAO said.

Despite less being delivered than expected, the system was £28 million (12%) over its £224 million budget by the end of March and overall expected savings had been revised down to £106 million.

Some 540 requirements, previously described as "must haves", have been removed or postponed in the latest version of the system, leading to limitations, including that customers will not be able to track their applications online.

Further staff reductions before systems such as the ICW programme are implemented "may impact negatively on performance", a risk the agency acknowledges but the impact of which it "is unable to quantify", the watchdog said.

The report added: "Loss of focus, poor governance and a tendency towards optimism bias in planning, delivery and reporting, have contributed to the current problems."

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: "The UK Border Agency and the Border Force deserve credit for taking on an ambitious programme of change, but both organisations face a steep climb to ensure this work delivers both value for money and a good service.

"The real leadership test will be whether the agency can transform casework processing without relying solely on new IT, and whether the Border Force can improve its workforce practices and raise productivity."

A Home Office spokesman said: "We're under no illusions about the scale of the challenge in transforming the UK Border Agency and Border Force and we have already saved huge sums of taxpayers' money, overhauled our business planning and improved performance in key areas of our work.

"Both organisations have now been reorganised into smaller, more focused agencies capable of delivering the further improvements that the public expects and deserves to see."

Shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant said: "This NAO report proves what we've been saying all along - that the Home Secretary's cuts to Border Force and Border Agency staff have gone too far, too fast and have seriously undermined their performance, with over 2,000 staff members being lost since April last year.

"As a result of this huge reduction and with cuts set to continue, relief staff are being drafted into airports such as Heathrow and Stansted, being paid overtime, being given travel and subsistence expenses and accommodation in local hotels, in some cases 4-star hotels, to shore up our borders."

He added: "The Home Secretary now has some very serious questions to answer: how can she justify this cost to the taxpayer?

"Why is she continuing to cut the number of staff at UKBA and Border Force when both agencies are at breaking point?

"And at what point will she put her hands up and admit her mistake?

"The Home Secretary must now, as a first priority, secure the UK border with full trained, experienced officers, not temps with only three days training.

"Then she must now guarantee that taxpayers' money won't continue to be wasted to mask the mistakes she has made by drastically cutting the number of UKBA and UKBF staff."