Magazine article The Spectator

Border Skirmish

Magazine article The Spectator

Border Skirmish

Article excerpt

No job in government has its path so strewn with banana skins as that of Home Secretary. A missing criminal, slippery detainee or foreign terrorist can end a ministerial career. And with tens of thousands of people going in and out of the country daily it can happen at any moment. The Home Office has become the department where political careers go to die. There is a reason for this. As John Reid famously said of the Home Office's immigration operation, it is quite simply 'not fit for purpose'. Five years on from that bleak assessment, the situation has not improved.

A case this summer highlighted the problem. In June the Home Secretary barred the Israeli-born Palestinian cleric Raed Salah from entering the UK, deeming his presence 'not conducive to the public good'. But the speaking tour that Salah intended to conduct began on schedule. He had landed at Heathrow and passed without a hitch through Customs and Immigration. The Home Secretary was understandably livid. If someone who the minister herself has banned can still enter the country, then clearly there are serious flaws in the system. Indeed a subsequent official inquiry found that UK border officials had missed no fewer than six separate opportunities to turn Salah away. The fact that the UK's borders are horribly porous was obvious long before this week.

Anyone who lands at a British airport can see the problem. The queues for passport control are massive. Theresa May was right to worry about them: for a country such as Britain, whose economic model depends on its status as a global hub, the system is an embarrassing and unnecessary deterrent to visiting businessmen. Posters blame the queues on tighter border restrictions. But it is obvious to everyone waiting that only about a third of the desks in border control are staffed. This is not, as our immigration bureaucrats keep saying, a matter of technology. It is a matter of basic competence.

Of course this week's revelations are worrying. Apparently, officials dealt with the queue problem by waving people through, rather than increasing the number of staff.

But to watch Yvette Cooper, May's opposite number on the Labour benches, was to observe political opportunism at its most hollow. And not just because it was under Cooper's party that immigration doubled and the existing problems in the Home Office metastasised. It is plain that the problem is bigger than one minister. The first step to fixing real, systemic failures is to admit to them.

In opposition Theresa May was criticised for being uninspiring: just a safe pair of hands;

the opposite of what was needed for her then job, reforming welfare. …

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