Government has given up catching illegal migrants - Labour

A group of people in shadow at a fence in Calais Thousands of illegal immigrants try to reach the UK from France each year

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The government has stopped trying to catch illegal immigrants at Britain's borders, Labour claims.

It comes as a National Audit Office report found officers were ordered to cut back on searches to deal with passport queues.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper claimed minister had effectively given up on tackling illegal migration.

But immigration minister Mark Harper said standards were being improved.

He said the NAO report also stressed that the Border Force was "doing very well" at meeting its targets for seizing drugs and firearms and for intercepting illegal immigrants, although more work was needed to tackle tobacco smuggling.

'More staff'

And he said the UK had one of the most secure borders in the world.

"I am pleased the National Audit Office recognises the success of Border Force in implementing full passenger checks while also reducing queue times," he said.

"We inherited an organisation with significant challenges and, while some of these remain, I am confident that under the long-term leadership of the new director general, Sir Charles Montgomery, Border Force will continue to build on its many areas of excellence.

"We have recruited more Border Force staff, established command centres to deploy those staff more flexibly and effectively and are reforming working practices."

But Yvette Cooper accused Home Secretary Theresa May of "complacency" and of "just shunting the problem round in circles", always looking to blame "someone else" rather than tackling fundamental problems of under-staffing and lack of resources.

"No wonder they have stopped trying to fingerprint stowaways. It seems they have stopped trying to catch them at all. And it seems that the home secretary's only answer to illegal immigration is to get a man in a van to drive round in circles with a poster asking if they'd mind going home."

According to the NAO report, officers were ordered to switch from searching for contraband and illegal stowaways to checking passports to prevent big queues building up at Heathrow and other entry points, ahead of last year's Olympic games.

Asked if the UK had become less safe as a result, NAO director Louise Bladen said: "I think the Border Force may find it hard to say what may be coming into the country as a result of not being able to fully do the duties that they need to do on secondary controls."

'Clandestine entrants'

Theresa May ordered Border Force staff to give her a weekly update on the length of queues at Heathrow and other major points of entry ahead of the 2012 Olympics, although this has since been relaxed to a monthly report.

But Ms Bladen said this led to a "culture of fear" among immigration officials.

"Staff were very fearful of any queues being breached and this being reported directly to the home secretary and they told us that often influenced the way they went about their job," said told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Start Quote

This report is shocking and shows the chaotic and cavalier approach David Cameron and Theresa May have taken to border security and illegal immigration”

End Quote Yvette Cooper Shadow home secretary

The Border Force could improve its use of technology and intelligence, said Ms Bladen, but it was also underfunded - and needed more than its £640m annual budget "to do all the duties that it is required to do".

The report said full-time staff had fallen by 6% from 8,023 to 7,527 between April 2010 and March 2012, but since separating from the Border Agency its budget had increased and funding was in place to increase staff numbers to 8,477 by next year.

When the NAO interviewed staff at nine sites, the watchdog was told they had not been able to spend an "appropriate" amount of time on customs checks as they would have liked, particularly last summer, and had to "compromise" on the number of questions they could ask passengers thought likely to abuse their visa conditions.

'Trade-offs'

"In Calais, we observed officers being taken off controls to detect clandestine illegal entrants to the UK concealed in lorries in order to deal with passenger queues," the watchdog said.

Freight searches were also suspended due to understaffing and to allow staff to have meal breaks, although vehicles continued to be searched by French officials and sub-contractors employed by the Border Force.

"The department is aware that such trade-offs are regularly being made," it added.

Morale among staff was "exceptionally low", the watchdog found, with a "culture of fear" prevailing in certain areas and many front-line staff concerned that they were not able to exercise their own judgement and that their specialist skills were not being used.

The report also identified problems with the database used to check passports against a watch list of potential threats. Much of the information on the Warnings Index was out of date and the system was "at risk of collapsing".

But it praises the Border Force for implementing full passport checks for nearly all new arrivals and for meeting waiting time targets: 99% of sampled passengers from outside Europe cleared passport control within 45 minutes between May 2012 and April 2013 compared with 81% in April 2012.

The Border Force was brought under the direct control of the Home Office in 2011, when the UK Border Agency was abolished following a row over the relaxation of passport checks at Heathrow without the authorisation of ministers.

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