Transforming our border: Damian Green's speech to the Royal United Services Institute

This speech was delivered to the Royal United Services Institute on 14 March 2012. This speech has been checked against delivery.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Damian Green MP

Thank you for inviting me here to speak today. The topics for today’s discussion are always hot ones, and are also hugely topical.  Work carried out at the border, and sometimes not carried out when it should be, has recently been the subject of public, press and Parliamentary scrutiny.

The Border matters to this government - it is not only the point at which we can check people’s nationality and immigration status, it is also a critical point of intervention for crime and security purposes, for the protection of revenue and for safe and efficient international trade and travel.

A safe and secure border means not just better immigration control, but safer streets and more secure citizens. There can be no compromises on border security. In a dangerous world, our border is one of our main protections.

I want to cover three things today.  First, I want to set out the scale of the challenge we face in transforming the border.  Second, I want to  deal with the problems there have been - most notably those  uncovered by the independent chief inspector of the UK Border Agency, John Vine, which highlighted the failings of the previous Border Force.  It is only by understanding those problems can we fix them.  Third, I want to set out the radical changes this government is making to improve border security.  The  creation of a separate Border Force accountable to ministers; the establishment of the UK’s first Border Policing Command (within the UK’s first National Crime Agency); and real focus on progress on technology to prevent threats getting to the UK border in the first place.

The Scale of the Challenge

But first we should be clear on the nature of the challenge. Securing our border is a vital task, but it is not an easy or straightforward one. 

In 2011, 2.6 million visa applications were made to the UK and there were around 200 million passenger journeys across our borders - both those coming to and leaving the UK.  London remains one of the most important centres for international aviation in the world. In 2010, in excess of 500 million tonnes of freight passed through our seaports alone.  This is a huge volume of people and cargo passing through our ports and airports and it will continue to grow. But with growth in passenger and freight volumes comes the potential increase for abuse.

Add to that the physical challenge of securing our borders:  the UK is an island with over three and a half thousand airfields; we have thousands of miles of often remote coastline; and we share a land border with another country -Ireland - with which we have created a Common Travel Area. We have direct international rail services with the EU Schengen zone that are only going to increase in number and complexity.  We are a major hub for global trade, fast parcel services and for shipping.

Securing a border like this is a major challenge.  It requires fit-for-purpose organisations with a real focus upon law enforcement and security to watch over the border and provide assurance to the public that the checks they expect to be in place are being done. It needs better analysis and intelligence so we can target interventions properly. And it needs to harness technology to ensure that we know who and what is coming as early as possible and can enable low risk flows to cross the border quickly and securely. 

Problems of the past

Unfortunately, the legacy given to this government left a lot to be desired in this regard.  Perhaps the most high-profile problems were in the former Border Force, as John Vine has shown. We inherited a Border Force that failed to conduct all the checks it should have done - mothballing expensive new technologies and cutting corners to manage queues or other pressures.  A Border Force where communications between staff and managers were unclear; and where our policy towards key checks was ambiguous or non-existent. This was completely unacceptable. 

That’s why, when we discovered that there had been an unauthorised suspension of passenger checks at some ports last summer, action had to be taken. And action was taken.

The Home Secretary ordered an independent investigation in to exactly what happened, conducted by the Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency.  An investigation that uncovered serious, systemic problems in how the previous Border Force operated.  Much bigger problems than anyone could have imagined.  Problems kept hidden from ministers in successive Governments.

John Vine recommended a number of changes: making explicit the degree of operational autonomy the UK Border Agency has; developing a new framework of border security checks, with clarity about the minimum standard of checks and the circumstances where checks can be suspended;  developing a new operational policy for fingerprint verification of visa nationals;  overhauling record keeping and establishing a rigorous management assurance process for border checks. We’ve accepted all the recommendations resulting from that report. And we’re wasting no time in implementing those changes.

We must be clear about the scale of the change that will now take place. It is because of the action of this government  that this summer will be the first summer that the Border Force has ever carried out the full range of checks and used all the technology available.  As it always should have done, and as we all believed it was doing. This is a massive improvement in our security and in an Olympic year one that is more important than ever before.

The future

We have also looked at the structures that control and secure our border, and taken some tough but important decisions.

Firstly, on 1 March we reconstituted the Border Force as a separate operational command within the Home Office with direct ministerial oversight, separating border control functions from the wider immigration functions of the UKBA.

The new Border Force, led by Chief Constable Brian Moore, is responsible for entry controls and customs functions at the border, including our juxtaposed controls in France and Belgium.  Brian’s role is to bring a genuine law enforcement culture to the Border Force for the first time.  Making sure the organisation understands fully its role beyond just immigration control, vital though that is.

The first step in the process to ensuring the Border Force becomes a fully effective law enforcement organisation is to introduce a new operating mandate for the controls it operates at the border.

The mandate will make sure that we have more control over operations at the border by clearly setting out the correct level of checks for every type of passenger and all types of goods that cross the UK  border.  In both directions.  The mandate will also make clear that officers in the new Border Force have discretion - as law enforcement officers - to go further in checking higher risk cargoes and passengers

Splitting out the Border Force into its own operational command will also bring benefit to the UK Border Agency, and provide greater focus to support the transformation of a complex but critically important business.  It will allow the UK Border Agency to concentrate on other crucial areas: immigration casework and the removal of those who have no right to stay here, such as illegal migrants, Foreign National Offenders and failed asylum seekers. 

And critically, the UKBA will continue to be responsible for the visa and airline liaison operations overseas - playing a vital upstream role in securing our border. Last year the UK Border Agency refused over 330,000 visa applications. Using biometrics and intelligence our visa regime provides a first line of defence in protecting the UK from threats to national security from those individuals who seek to harm the UK by travelling here. We will continue to work with carriers to ensure that only correctly documented passengers are brought to the UK.

National Crime Agency

The Border Force will not operate in isolation.  Key to its success will be close and coordinated working with the National Crime Agency and its Border Policing Command, the second big change we are making to improve border security.

As you will know, the Home Secretary last year announced the establishment of the National Crime Agency.  I am excited by the plans that are being rapidly developed by Keith Bristow, the Director General of the NCA, to deliver the step change in the UK’s response to serious, organised and complex criminality in the UK and at our border. 

And so as an integral part of the NCA, and at the heart of the work we are doing to transform our border security, the Border Policing Command will have a unique ability to task out operations across the multiple chains of command that exist at the border, delivering key interventions against agreed priorities.

It will go further, developing intelligence and analysis to create a single picture of the threat to border security and help to deliver a seamless and appropriate operational response.

I am eager to see a change in the way we operate at the border and am confident that the forthcoming appointment of the Head of the Border Policing Command, will deliver early results prior to the establishment of the NCA in 2013.

Increasing Capability

Thirdly, we are changing our approach to border strategy. Maintaining a secure border is about detection, interruption, disruption and prevention as far upstream in the process as possible. It is about making sure that we are in the right place, at the right time, with the right information to stop the source of the threat before it even reaches our shores. That’s where e-Borders comes in.

We have re-vamped our e-Borders programme to enable us to move the collection of passenger data forward. This has allowed us to make progress on e-Borders coverage that had stalled under the previous government.  In fact, by April this year we will have advanced sight of details of every passenger on non-EEA flights travelling to the UK. This 100 per cent coverage puts us in a significantly better position than we were in we came to power.  Combined with our strict visa regime it means that all non-EEA passengers arriving from outside Europe will have been checked once, and many twice, while they are still thousands of miles from our passport controls. That means better protection than ever before and a stronger border.

Over the coming years we will work hard with European partners, carriers and trade groups to further extend e-Borders coverage to provide a genuinely secure, fluid and complete e-border for the United Kingdom.

When we combine the data gathered by e-Borders with other initiatives like automated entry gates and the more consistent use of biometrics, we can more effectively identify and target those individuals who seek to cause harm to the UK, before their arrival.  We will be able to more easily detect and identify those who have abused, or seek to abuse the immigration system.  We will strengthen the border’s role in disrupting serious crime and terrorism.  And we will use data and analysis to help us to manage the end to end border control process in a more focussed, intelligent and efficient way.

Finally, e-Borders will also help to enable this government to fulfil its commitment to reintroduce exit checks - ensuring that we can take action on those who are fleeing justice, or travelling to commit crimes.

At the same time we are investing in key relationships to secure our physical border. At the heart of this is our unique position with Ireland. The shared border resulting in the Common Travel Area requires a strong working relationship with our Irish counterparts, at both operational and government level. To cement this relationship, I recently signed a joint Ministerial statement with the Irish Justice Minister. The statement laid out our plans for further work together to strengthen the external CTA border. One example of this is the sharing of biometric and biographic data for overseas visa applicants in high risk locations.

Looking forward, the Government will work with our other international partners, carriers and law enforcement bodies to strengthen the use of data and technology to respond to future changes. Foremost in our minds will be securing the Channel Tunnel once new international rail operators arrive in 2015; and ensuring that data on both passengers and cargo is gathered and analysed coherently.


As we are only a few months away I should mention the Olympics - the first biometric games.  London 2012 - both the Olympic and Paralympic games - will be the biggest sporting event in our history.  It will provide a unique challenge given the numbers that will pass through our borders both to participate in, and observe, the games.  It is our job to make sure that they do so in safety.

In summary this government  understands the vulnerabilities and opportunities we face and is not afraid to take the tough and decisive action required to create - from an unsatisfactory legacy - the fit-for-purpose border the UK demands.  This is a government that understands the need to join together the right technology with the right policy, the right international framework with the right operations on the ground, the right data with the right analytical capability.  It is all these elements together that truly strengthenborder security.  We are a government that recognises the importance of border security to tackling crime, stopping illegal immigration and preventing terrorism.

We are transforming our border because for too long it was not secure enough. We now know the extent of the problems and have a clear strategy to fix them. We have new organisations focussing relentlessly on law enforcement, new technology to allow us to stop the wrong people before they arrive, and new clear instructions about how to run the border day-to-day. This basic essential duty of Government is now being carried more effectively than ever before. 


Published 14 March 2012