Leading article: No excuse for Heathrow's queues


Click to follow
The Independent Online

According to the Government, it is now the weather which is to blame for the lengthening queues at Britain's airports. Before that, it was the airlines, which were, apparently, providing inaccurate passenger manifests. In fact, everyone and everything is to blame, it seems, apart from the Government's own policies and powers of administration.

Travellers tell of two-, three-, even four-hour waits at Heathrow passport control – hardly the welcome that potential business people and tourists merit. Indeed, the queues are so bad that the Tory Mayor of London has written to the Home Secretary to complain.

Neither is the problem a new one. As long ago as 2006, Britain's border authorities were branded "not fit for purpose" by a Home Secretary. How little has changed.

It is easy to point to the most immediate trouble spots. Paring back the number of staff just as ministers insisted that risk-based selective checks were dropped and full controls re-established was always going to be problematic. The Government cannot have it both ways. It cannot starve the Border Force of the resources to do the job properly – some 3,500 staff have gone just as Heathrow is coping with a 9 per cent rise in travellers – and demand that tighter border controls be implemented.

There are short-term remedies. The £2.5m being spent on extra staff to cope with the Olympics must be made permanent, funded by economies elsewhere in the agency's £2.3bn budget. The question of whether airlines might help pay for more staff should also be explored. And, given that the abandoned pilot of risk-based passport checks saw a 10 per cent increase in successful seizures even as staff numbers were being reduced, there is a strong argument for re-starting the programme.

But there is a deeper malaise here, and until that is addressed such efforts are but a sticking plaster. More than anything, the Border Agency is an organisation that is not clear of its purpose. It needs strong management, radical reform, and a degree of focus that successive governments have been unwilling to give . This one must. Heathrow's queues are a disgrace.