Soldiers standing in for striking Border Force staff ‘lack power to detain suspected criminals’

Soldiers unable to detain suspected people smugglers for questioning without help from Border Force worker

Andy Gregory
Saturday 24 December 2022 20:26 GMT
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Border Force staff are striking at six airports across the UK
Border Force staff are striking at six airports across the UK (Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)

The military personnel drafted in to plug the gaps left at British airports by striking Border Force staff are unable to detain travellers they suspect of criminal activity, leaked emails suggest.

Around 1,000 passport booth operators with the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are staging eight days of strikes at airports across the UK over the Christmas period, joining workers across the public and private sector taking widescale industrial action in the face of rampant inflation.

The government, which has offered Border Force staff a 2 per cent pay rise, has sought to minimise disruption – and effectively undermine the strikers’ bargaining power – by taking the unusual step of drafting in members of the military at ports and airports.

But as the PCS threatens that the strikes could last six months, with a “huge escalation” in January, leaked correspondence seen by The Guardian between Royal Navy and Home Office officials reveal that the government’s chosen stand-ins lack the necessary training to perform essential duties.

The newspaper quotes the emails as saying members of the armed forces currently stationed at passport booths do not have the training required to detain people suspected of crimes such as carrying a false passport, drug smuggling or people trafficking, so long as they hold valid travel documents.

Instead, they are forced to ask a non-striking member of the Border Force to perform such an action.

The Guardian reports one email sent on Thursday by a Royal Navy sub-lieutenant to civil servants at the Home Office and Border Force said: “RN personnel currently deployed at Manchester airport are currently prevented from completion and issue of IS81 and must not be involved in detention activity, referring to a BF officer.

“This may impact op [operational] capability during industrial action.”

According to government documents, an IS81 form is needed for an immigration officer to detain people for further questioning for up to four hours, “to determine whether they qualify for entry, or if they already hold leave, whether they still meet the requirements, or for other operational reasons”.

Apparently flagging the email with Home Office colleagues, a Border Force official reportedly wrote: “Received email below following my discussion with C2 Navy lead at Manchester. They have said that they cannot issue an IS81 and this has to be done by a Border Force officer as there was only training up to IS81. Can this be clarified as a matter of urgency.”

To which a Home Office official replied: “This is correct. I have communicated this previously. At the point at which any military personnel need [sic] are not able to land a passenger a permanent member of staff will need to issue an IS81 on their behalf.”

Approached by The Independent, the Home Office said it would not comment on leaked material but stressed that remaining Border Force staff had been positioned so as to be able to effectively assist military personnel with such matters.

But sources claimed to The Guardian that there had been “very few” fully trained Border Force guards on hand at Manchester Airport. Border Force employs around 10,000 people in total, and 1,000 passport booth operators are believed to be striking, across just six airports and one port.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka told the paper: “The government has boasted there are no queues at passport control, but of course there are no queues if no one’s being stopped.

“And no one’s being stopped because the government has adopted a sticking plaster approach to this problem. We warned before the strikes started that military personnel with five days’ training wouldn’t be able to do the jobs of experienced, professional Border Force officers.

“We’ve made it abundantly clear the government can stop this dispute tomorrow by putting some money on the table.”

Strikes: Passengers rush for last trains as services stop early

It is not the only area in which there have been limitations on the extent to which military personnel can perform the key duties of striking workers.

Earlier this week, it emerged that the troops drafted in to assist as thousands of paramedics took industrial action would not be allowed to break the speed limit, run traffic lights or turn on their vehicle’s blue lights when driving.

Meanwhile, the head of the British Armed Forces has warned that the military must not be treated as “spare capacity”.

Admiral Sir Tony Radakin told the Sunday Telegraph last week that the armed forces need to focus on their “primary role”, and it would be “slightly perilous” to treat them as the “ultimate backstop” for incidents such as major industrial action.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Border Force has developed robust contingency plans which prioritise keeping our citizens safe and our borders secure.

“Non-striking Border Force staff, with the full range of appropriate powers, are continuing to complete their vital roles and we have spread our resources flexibly to ensure there is sufficient cover to fulfil our key priorities.

“Military personnel, civil servants and volunteers are supporting a range of services and all deployed contingency staff are sufficiently trained for the activities they are required to undertake.”

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