Leading article: A dispute about more than 'he said, she said'

Cuts in Border Agency staff numbers are one issue. But management and lines of responsibility are another
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The Independent Online

It was more UK Border Farce than Force yesterday as no one came out very well from the Home Affairs Select Committee hearing into the revelations that passports were not checked properly at UK ports and airports over the summer. Those who think that the Home Secretary, Theresa May, should resign over the fiasco will only have had their judgement confirmed by the insistence of the erstwhile head of the force, Brodie Clark, that he did not enlarge, extend or redefine her pilot scheme to reduce some border checks. His evidence to MPs directly contradicted the Home Secretary's account; he all but called her a liar.

Mr Brodie's contention was that, although the terms of the pilot were not relaxed, other border checks had long been lifted from time to time under existing health and safety rules. There were times, he said, when queues at airports became so long that passengers were being kept on planes and aircraft kept circling in the sky because the passport control areas were dangerously overcrowded. Ms May knew of this practice of relaxing the rules, or should have known, he insisted.

MPs heard that these relaxations had been introduced under the last Labour government, which had set up the UK Border Agency to distance itself from actions on immigration which many Labour supporters condemned. But attempts by Ms May to bring border security back under the direct control of the Home Office in August appear to have increased rather than reduced the chaos.

With its staff reduced by 900 as a result of government spending cuts, the idea of a pilot to trial a more "outcome-focused" approach made sense. What Ms May appears not to have known is that, alongside the pilot she had approved, normal checks were being lifted routinely, as 2007 health and safety rules were invoked by airport operators anxious to reduce queues. Fingerprint checks at Heathrow were suspended far more frequently than even Mr Clark appears to have thought wise. That is a debacle that the Government now needs to address. Border controls should be enforced, with appropriate sensitivity.

At the heart of the political row is whether Ms May did not know because Mr Clark neglected to tell her – he had wanted a relaxation of fingerprint checks to form part of the pilot project, but Ms May had specifically refused – or because she did not ask the right questions. But the problems in the Home Office and the UK Border Agency clearly run much deeper than this dispute.

Home Office cuts in border staff numbers are one issue. But the management of the service and lines of responsibility are another, as are the role played by personal relationships. The contrast between Brodie Clark (the hyper-meticulous, old-style civil servant, as hair-splittingly precise as a Yes, Minister stereotype) and his new boss, Rob Whiteman (a smooth, modern manager straight out of central casting) was illuminating.

It was evident to Mr Clark that there was no place for him in the world of Mr Whiteman, who pointedly refused to describe Mr Clark's career as "distinguished", despite his 38 years of service and a CBE. The dangled offer of a retirement package, subsequently withdrawn, was a scandalous way to deal with anyone, let alone a senior public servant.

The Home Secretary is wounded. She avoided questions in the Commons yesterday. And the UK Statistics Authority yesterday accused her department of selectivity in its use of drugs seizure figures in order to show the UK Border Agency in a good light. But the wounds are not – yet – fatal. There is much confusion of a "he said, she said" kind, but no documentary proof that she has personally lied to Parliament. The argument is not over yet.