Mary Dejevsky: The official face of Britain can be scruffy, rude or just too mechanical

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The Independent Online

If you were among the millions who spurned this year's fashion for British holidays, how satisfied were you – sorry to sound like another pesky canvasser – with the UK border experience, from obtaining a passport to returning through Immigration? I only ask because Manchester airport is experimenting with "face-scanners" – machines that replace real live passport control officers. In future, our borders could be virtual.

I know that frequent travellers can already register their data and proceed, usually more quickly than the rest of us, through a special iris control point. But I am uncomfortable with the complete banishment of the human element from our frontier checks.

It is not only that humans can sometimes pick up signals that machines cannot. It is that frontier controls are the face of a country, the first face many visitors encounter; it should be a human face. And for those of us returning home, it should present a national face to be proud of. Officers should be smartly dressed, formal and efficient in manner, while confident enough to exercise discretion.

They do not need to be as severe and detached as their US counterparts, nor as military in their approach as in some other countries. But those arriving in the UK should feel they are entering a country whose institutions inspire confidence. This is not something that can, or should, be replaced by machines.

In my recent experience, an airport arrivals hall (and I am not talking about the early days of Heathrow Terminal Five here) can resemble several circles of hell, with no one obviously in charge – those American agents may be bossy, but they do at least marshal the queues. Here, the people manning passport control disclaim all responsibility for the state of the hall, while invariably sloppily dressed and liable to greet the most tentative inquiry with gratuitous rudeness. This is the official face of Britain.

Which is where passports come in. I recently found the service reasonably efficient (at a price), if somewhat gruff and unwilling. But is the issuing of passports, or for that matter, frontier control, something that should be at arm's length from government? It may surprise you to know – it certainly surprised me – that the passport service, the Identity and Passport Service to be precise, is designated "an executive agency" of the Home Office, and has been since 2006. Indeed, if you consult the IPS website, you could be forgiven for thinking that passports were a sideline. The IPS seems much more excited about the threat of identity theft and the introduction of ID cards.

A similar fate has befallen border control, which comes under the UK Border Agency. Yet if anything is the direct responsibility of the state, it is surely issuing passports and controlling the national borders. To my mind there is only one more stage more degrading to the national image than spinning off crucial operations to agencies. It is commercial sponsorship for such functions. Returning through Dover a couple of years ago, I feared even this barrier had been breached, as a huge, illuminated sign above pass control flashed: "Welcome home to the taste of Cadbury!" I haven't noticed it recently. Perhaps the bulbs weren't the long-life, eco-friendly kind.

* As Britain's political class reassembles for our pale and disordered imitation of the French rentrée, I already know how the mostly male chairmen are going to open their first meetings, because I have already been to a few and had to restrain my hollow laughter. They will say how very much they enjoyed the all too brief break they have spent en famille, and what a pleasure and a privilege it was to get to know their children better. I very much doubt I will hear any such self-serving sentimentality from a chairwoman, who will hope that everyone had a good break and get briskly down to business. You see, she has to hold the family fort the rest of the year, when those who fancy themselves "new men" are otherwise engaged.

It's chilly out on the margins

Bad luck, perhaps, that the first British film featuring Polish migrants – Shane Meadows' Somers Town – should be released just as the tide of hard-grafting Poles starts to recede. A dearth of jobs in our ailing building trade, a booming economy in Poland, and higher pay in the eurozone are all part of the explanation.

Somers Town suggests reasons we might find less palatable. Reviewed as optimistic, heart-warming and generating warm and fuzzy feelings in a new British realism sort of way, it tells the story of a Midlands runaway and a Polish teenager who while away their summer together around a raw London estate.

Comic rather than tragic the tale may be, but the impression I was left with was of exclusion: the extent to which even the best-intentioned new arrivals are consigned to the margins, where they have little choice but to consort with other outsiders. A Polish lad, cooped up in a bedsit with his father; a teenage truant from up north; a French girl waitressing for the summer, and a basement wheeler-dealer – they all inhabit a nether world in which mainstream certainties do not apply. Is this something to warm the cockles of our hearts?

Bad timing again and again – and again

* Time I: Why, I wonder, is it that the clock tower of the gorgeously restored St Martin's in the Fields, beside Trafalgar Square, is still showing the wrong time weeks after the scaffolding came down? A different wrong time, as it happens, on each of its four gleaming new faces. Why don't they just put the advertising cladding back until they get them right?

* Time II: Equally perplexing to me, as a reasonably regular member of the radio audience for the BBC Proms, is why some concerts start at 7pm, even when there isn't a late-night Prom, and some at what used to be the normal time of 7.30. All right, I should check the programme beforehand. But BBC television seems almost as confused as I am. The last two concerts began live and on the radio at 7pm and half an hour later on television. That lag deprives the audience at home of what used to be the best of both worlds: listening on a good stereo while watching TV.

Time III: Why is it that Wales and Scotland can arrange a victory parade for their returning Olympians within a couple of days of their return, and the rest of us are not only locked out of the triumphal Heathrow return, but also have to wait until October for the procession through the capital? I know that rerouting London traffic and arranging security and crowd control are complicated. And I appreciate that exhausted athletes need a rest. But it seemed to me that Nation GB was in the mood to celebrate with a lavishly rip-roaring party just as soon after the team's return as feasible. That extraordinary mixture of surprise and joy will be hard to re-create in seven weeks' time.

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