Wednesday, 2 May 2012
Immigration Controls Hampered By Weather
Yesterday David Cameron sent Damian Green, the immigration minister, to Heathrow to investigate the problem of lengthy delays at passport checks. Some mischievious journalists suggested the move was to divert attention from calls for Jeremy Hunt's resignation over his handling of the BSkyB deal and who am I to dispute that.
It seems new arrivals at Heathrow's Terminal 5 said they waited more than two hours to be allowed into the country amid warnings the airport was near to breaking point. Travellers have been confronted with empty border control desks and with the delays exacerbated by the failure of iris scanner brought in to speed up the processing of passports. The iris recognition system has cost just over £9m - but has only been used 4.7 million times, at a cost of £2 per passenger scanned. Earlier this year the Westminster government said the costly system was being scrapped after revealing that the software used was out of date. Another appalling waste of money.
But it wasn't the iris scanners to blame for the fiasco at Heathrow. According to the government it was the weather. 'The recent heavy rain across the south of England was the main cause of the chaotic scenes at Heathrow airport' reports the Independent. Surprisingly the government didn't attribute the problem to climate change. Then again, with evidence such as this filtering through into the public domain, perhaps the mention of climate change has been demoted on the list of No 10's fear-mongering excuses.
It's around 10 years since I travelled via Heathrow . Compared to Schiphol Heathrow was claustrophobic, the toilets dirty and the staff utterly disinterested. Upon returning to the UK I waited over half an hour to be cleared and that was late evening. The queue for non-EU arrivals extended out of sight.
Why can't Heathrow cope? Part of the answer is that it is poorly staffed. Damian Green's answer was to fly immigration officers from Manchester to Heathrow to staff desks in an attempt to alleviate the disruption, thereby leaving Manchester short of staff. Another reason is the system. It's obvious it is useless for the amount of people passing through each day. These numbers haven't increased overnight, they've been growing for the past 20 years.
Westminster has become a reactive rather than proactive government. Fifty years ago politicians would have ensured our immigration control system worked effectively. Today it's a mess and Keith Mills, the deputy chairman of Games organiser Locog, is panicking: 'The chaos plaguing the airport has already taken its toll on passengers arriving to do business connected to the London Olympics'. Awe, poor souls. Sponsors, business executives and major broadcasters are suffering the Heathrow hassle experience 'every day; he said.
Damian Green may have boosted the staffing temporarily in time for Olympic visitors but what about other visitors? It's six months since Theresa May was involved in the border checks scandal, the result being Brodie Clark quitting his job while accusing her of lying. The system is as chaotic as ever.
Since my last visit to Heathrow I decided it would be my last and now use Schiphol or Zurich. Both airports are highly efficient, clean and provide excellent customer facilities. I'm fortunate because I can choose to avoid London airports and Heathrow in particular. Others aren't so lucky and even if they possess an EU passport, being told they will queue for no longer than 90 minutes (Damian Green's guidelines), will be little consolation. Especially if it's raining when they step on UK tarmac.