The Revenge of Brodie Clark

This week witnessed further long delays at passport control for passengers entering the UK through Heathrow airport. One such passenger described his experience as ‘diabolical’, and politicians lined up to express their dismay at the image of the UK in the run-up to the Olympics, given these conditions. Last night even David Cameron had to intervene, telling ministers to take the necessary action to bring things under control.

These events echo those of summer 2011, when long queues at Heathrow led border officials to ‘suspend’ some checks on specific categories of passengers for what was argued to be ‘health and safety reasons’. The subsequent controversy between the UK Border Agency and Home Secretary Theresa May led to Brodie Clark, head of the UK Border Force’s resignation in November 2011. Clarke maintained that he had acted within the remit provided by Theresa May’s pilot whereby certain identity checks could be relaxed in favour of pursuing more “intelligence-led” or “risk-based” procedures.

The controversy has been reawakened by the latest row over the slow processing of passengers at Heathrow.

There is clear evidence that the Home Office sought to reduce costs by introducing technology and cutting back on staff. Dame Helen Gosh, in response to a question stated that there were plans to reduce Border Force staff over a period of 5 years to March 2015 by around 900 people. Yet, after a visit to Heathrow on Tuesday, Home Office Minister Damian Green announced that 80 extra staff would be drafted in to help ease delays at immigration, roughly redeploying the number of staff lost over the last two years.

The latest controversy makes clear that it is not just about numbers. The very system of checks that are being deployed needs to be reviewed. It is time the airport authorities and the Home Office take seriously the thought recently expressed by David Omand that in matter of security, the Government needs to take the public with it.

As Kip Hawley, the former head of the US Transportation Security Administration, similarly argues in the Wall Street Journal (April 15th2012) that the airport security system is ‘hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people whom it is meant to protect. Preventing terrorism requires flexibility, reassessment of threats and strong public support’.

Yet, public support is being undermined as a result, not only of underfunding, but of overly bureaucratic systems that are not designed to be sufficiently nuanced.

Passengers taking pictures of long queues are beginning to hit back. A long, queueing summer ahead?

Aletta Norval