THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE: I know why our border controls are so ineffective

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The Independent Online
Charles Clarke's latest immigration reform plans are, at least in part, a response to Michael Howard's pledge to tighten up a system that he would like us to believe has spiralled out of control under Labour. But while Tony Blair rightly observed two weeks ago that Tory proposals are unworkable, his own party's plans share the same fundamental flaws.

Although both of these political leaders are well versed in the moral and economic concerns surrounding the issue of immigration and asylum, they are safe in the knowledge that the public is blissfully ignorant of the logistical nightmare that is the reality of the service; thus they need never explain exactly how their promises will be put into practice. But having worked as an immigration officer for five years under both parties, it is my abiding belief that immigration control will continue to be ineffective, regardless of who is in power.

It is clear to me that both Mr Clarke's and Mr Howard's plans are unfeasible. The Tory leader spoke of cutting the numbers of frontline staff in favour of processing more applications overseas. But Heathrow Terminal 3, where I was based, was - and still is - seriously short-staffed. Pressure to process passengers and ease the massive queues was often so great, we had little choice but to grant admission on the basis of a few cursory questions.

At the moment, Terminal 3 is almost 20 per cent below its full complement of immigration officers and 40 per cent under its quota of chief immigration officers. Budgetary constraints dictate that there can be no replacements. This has been the case for at least the past 12 years. If the numbers were cut further, travellers would even be more likely to slip through the net, as effective decisions cannot be taken by immigration officers who are overworked and under pressure. Mr Clarke made no mention yesterday of addressing these crippling staff shortages.

Mr Howard claims that the solution is to process applications overseas, but the service spends around pounds 100,000 a year to keep an officer abroad, most of the money going on accommodation, expenses and travel costs. Meanwhile, the salary of the same officer who remains in the country is pounds 30,000. Where does he think this money will come from, if in the same breath he is proposing cuts in public spending?

Likewise, Mr Clarke has suggested that all visa applicants be fingerprinted. Whether this is carried out at overseas posts or on arrival, the cost of installing the necessary equipment and hiring extra staff to deal with the hundreds of thousands of hopeful immigrants each year would be huge, a detail he conveniently left out in his speech.

Both parties say they want more asylum-seekers to be detained. But aside from the legal and moral implications of locking up persons who are not proven criminals, the fact remains that enough detention space simply does not exist. During my time in the service, we had little choice but to let claimants loose onto the streets - known in official-speak as giving "temporary admission" - because there was nowhere to hold them. And unless Mr Howard and Mr Clarke are planning to dig deep into the Treasury coffers, I cannot foresee any massive increase in detention capacity.

As for Mr Howard's plans to return undocumented travellers, where can they be returned to if they do not admit their nationality or if we have no flight records? My experience taught me that no country will ever accept an undocumented passenger as its own. And the current Government has even more to answer for. It did away with embarkation control, by way of exit stamps in passports, giving rise to accusations that more people are overstaying than ever before.

Some months back, Mr Blair paid a visit to Terminal 3. Before his arrival, his entourage made a quick tour of the offices to ensure all would be to the Prime Minister's liking. When Mr Blair arrived, they steered him around areas that did not "speak" to them (ie, they hadn't liked the look of). Anyone who did not look busy was removed, and a hijab-wearing officer was placed within his line of vision, lest the service be deemed anything less than PC.

For his part, Mr Blair sauntered up to the control, waved at a few American tourists, gulped down a cup of tea made from the new kettle bought especially in his honour, and then left. His visit lasted half an hour.

The fact is, neither Labour nor the Tories are remotely concerned about the daily grind involved in manning the points of entry. Nor are they bothered about addressing the real reasons behind the importance placed on immigration by certain sections of the British public - that is, the ever-prevalent, xenophobic fear that the fabric of British society will be undermined by too many dark-skinned immigrants.

If the perennial lack of efficiency in the immigration service is an indicator, the concerns of our politicians extend only to headlines and ballot boxes.

The writer worked as an immigration officer at Heathrow Airport Terminal 3 from 1993 to 1998