Privatised passport controls on agenda

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The Independent Online
IMMIGRATION controls at ports and airports are among a multi-million pound package of Home Office duties which could soon be run by private companies, according to documents seen by the Independent.

About 15 per cent of the Home Office's 50,000 jobs could be affected as part of the Government's wide-ranging 'market-testing' programme - assessing whether the private sector can provide better value for money.

Among the more controversial areas identified for potential privatisation over the next two years are computerised police records, the police training college at Bramshill, Hampshire, and the fire service inspectorate.

But the suggestion causing most concern is that all port-of-entry control be put out to tender. Nearly 100 million people a year enter or leave the UK through its seaports and airports, currently staffed by nearly 2,000 immigration officers.

Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary, said: 'There is a serious doubt in . . . contracting out any branch of the immigration service because it affects the fundamental rights of those seeking to enter the country.'

Previously, Home Office ministers have rejected any market testing of immigration, believing the sensitivity of the area does not lend itself to privatisation.

The pounds 120m programme was drawn up from a study by the chartered accountants, Coopers and Lybrand, and an in-house privatisation survey, as part of the Government's 'competing for quality' initiative.

William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said last year: 'It is vital that public services are provided by the most competitive supplier, public or private, who offers the best quality of service and value for money . . . Wherever it is feasible and desirable, we will therefore continue to privatise services.'

The Home Office list, currently under consideration by senior civil servants, also includes the pounds 10m-a- year Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, in-house lawyers, health and safety and the Home Office's market-testing department itself.

The programme is known to be causing concern among civil servants. They say that because the Government has indicated that it is seeking 20 per cent savings and is also known to favour privatisation, the dice are stacked against in-house bids.

Ministers are known to share officials' worries that previous Home Office contracting-out and privatisation efforts - including its prison privatisation programme - have fallen foul of European employment law, which prevents companies altering employment conditions when they take over staff services.

Yesterday, civil service unions were adding their concerns, claiming that they had not been consulted. Harry Fletcher, representing the unions, said: 'Market testing is causing fear and despondency among staff.'

He said that, currently, about a quarter of Home Office staff were having to work on market-testing and drawing up in-house bids. 'This is at the expense of service delivery to the public and cannot be giving value for money.'

The Cabinet is expected to make its final decisions on the proposals by the end of this month.