Long queues at the UK's busiest airport have been caused by a lack of effective planning amid job cuts, with border staff signing off at the start of busy periods, inspectors said today.
Limited resources are not being matched to the demand at London's Heathrow Airport, damaging the ability of border staff to maintain effective and efficient controls, the chief inspector of borders and immigration John Vine said.
The introduction of a series of significant changes "was simply far too much organisational change during the busiest time of the year", inspectors warned.
The critical report on the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and the Border Force comes as Heathrow faces another shake-up as Home Secretary Theresa May responds to the ongoing row over queues which have seen passengers from outside the EU having to wait up to three hours.
The introduction of new team structures, rosters and shift patterns came as border staff numbers at Terminal 3 fell by 15 per cent from 322 to 277 in the 12 months to last August, inspectors said.
The new team-based working, designed to ensure staff work in the same teams each day, brought a lack of flexibility, with low staffing numbers when passengers numbers were high and high staffing levels during quieter periods.
A snapshot of passenger flows and staffing numbers for the afternoon of October 9 last year showed that as passenger numbers fell between 5pm and 7pm, staffing levels increased and when the number of passengers began to increase again at 7pm, the number of staff started to fall.
On this occasion, airport operator BAA warned bosses of the potential problem 10 days earlier, but "due to the rigidity of the new system and the lengthy periods of notice required to change shifts, there was not enough time to change the staffing (plans)".
Mr Vine said: "I found that recent organisational changes such as the introduction of team-based working, a new shift working system and the amalgamation of immigration and customs roles had suffered from a lack of effective planning.
"Resources were not matched to demand, management oversight and assurance was lacking in many areas and staff were not always properly trained to undertake their duties.
"This was far too much organisational change during Heathrow's busiest time of the year.
"I remain concerned that this lack of planning has affected the agency's ability to maintain an effective and efficient border control."
The report found that queue targets for passengers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) were breached 62 times between September 18 and 30 last year, with the longest wait hitting two hours and 15 minutes.
On September 27, the queue target was breached for seven consecutive hours.
The inspectors raised serious concerns over the use of eGates, which use facial recognition technology, and called for the Border Force to investigate whether they provide adequate security.
Staff told inspectors they turned the tuning of the gates down as the automatic system refused too many passengers when turned up.
The report also found that the two officers who were needed to operate the gates could process more people manually at desks.
In one 15-minute period, two staff on desks processed 66 passengers while just 22 went through the two eGates.
"At all times when we carried out the comparison, the manual desks processed more passengers than the eGates," the inspectors said.
They also found that in two-thirds of cases, searches of passengers were "neither justified nor proportionate or in line with legislation and agency guidance".
There were "significant failings ... identical to the problems we identified during our inspection at Gatwick North", the inspectors said.
Both reports found that some passengers were arrested despite officers finding no illicit goods during searches.
Immigration Minister Damian Green said: "This report covers the period before the Border Force was split from the UK Border Agency and since then we have taken action to tackle these issues.
"We now have more staff at the border during peak times, greater flexibility to man immigration and customs controls, clearer guidance for staff on when vital checks are required and a national training programme with more emphasis on mentoring.
"A culture change is under way to make Border Force an organisation that effectively tackles illegal immigration, protects the UK from terrorism and detects crimes like drug trafficking and weapon smuggling."
In a separate report on Gatwick's North Terminal, Mr Vine said he was "very concerned" officers were using their own discretion when they had no power to do so.
"While some officers enforced the law in seizing the goods, others allowed passengers to retain excess amounts or even the total amounts carried," the report said.
"Use of this individual discretion resulted in very different passenger outcomes for similar transgressions.
"Officers acknowledged that such discretion was not 'officially allowed' and also that the demeanour of passengers could influence the outcome."
The critical report also found detection officers were missing from the green channel for significant periods of the day and arrests, which "clearly impacted the capacity to maintain detection activity".
One in seven decisions to allow entry were also not supported by evidence, a review of 103 cases showed.
These included cases with "clear attempted deception" and admitted breaches of immigration rules, the report said.
Other officers were stopping people as a result of negative stereotyping, the inspectors found.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "This is an extremely damning report on Government mis-management of our border security.
"It makes clear that the Home Secretary's decision to cut so many staff is having a serious impact, with for example a 15 per cent drop in border staff at desks at Terminal 3 even though passenger numbers have increased."
She went on: "Most damning of all is the fact that queuing targets as well as security checks were being so badly breached last autumn, yet ministers have just sat back and allowed it to get worse."
Mr Vine said today he had found "a lot of inefficiency".
"We found that a great deal of organisational change had been introduced to the airport at the busiest time of the year, in July last year, and there was no cohesive plan to deal with that, and it was affecting the ability of the agency to provide an efficient and effective border," he told BC Radio 4's Today programme.
He said resources "just weren't matched to demand in an efficient way".
"There was far too much organisational change embarked upon at once, and that has led to a whole range of other rather serious issues, around management oversight, and essentially people knowing exactly what they are empowered to do under the law."
Transport Secretary Justine Greening acknowledged that the queuing issue at passport control at Heathrow and other UK airports was "a problem that needs to be fixed".
Ms Greening was responding to questions after speaking at a conference in London arranged by travel organisation Abta.
Ms Greening said she believed extra resources introduced recently at Heathrow had led to improvements, though she declined to give details of these improvements.
Again ruling out a third runway at Heathrow, Ms Greening said extra airport capacity was "a nettle that needed to be grasped" but there was also a need for a more informed, less heated debate on the issue.
She also said capacity issues needed to be looked at throughout the country, not just in south-east England.