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Regional Airports (Security)

4.30 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), will respond to this debate. I watched him on his first outing at Home Office Questions, and he behaved with considerable panache. He surprised me, because I asked him an unscheduled question about identity fraud, which he could not have expected. He not only answered the question, which is laudable in a Minister and a little surprising, but he knew that I had asked previous questions on the subject. I formed the impression there and then that this is a Minister who means to do business and who does his homework.

We all accept that the Minister has taken on a challenging role. I should like him today in so far as it is possible to help to solve a problem that relates to his role and that confronts me. I want him to provide an assurance that is fundamental to the debate about security and immigration. I recognise that it is not too easy for him to provide that particular assurance, but it is needed. It is especially important to those who want a balanced approach to such topics, and who are not, as some politicians appear to be, paranoid, xenophobic, in some cases racist, and alarmist.

I want the Minister to provide an assurance that gives real credibility to the Government's approach to such issues as immigration and security. It is the assurance that the rules about entering the country are kept and kept properly. We are all aware from our constituency work that people who want to abide by the rules and who have legitimate cause to be in the country or to enter the country often find it difficult to do so. It is therefore particularly annoying when some people appear to abuse or to get around the rules.

I suspect that it is less easy for the Minister to provide such an assurance when regional airports are considered. That belief has grown as a result of information that has reached me about my own regional airport, Liverpool John Lennon airport. It is my local airport, and I wish to see it prosper and thrive. It is typical of a new generation of regional airports. They are expanding, and there are more and more flights. Recent figures show how much some carriers flying to those airports are growing their business. The airport is typical of such regional airports, as it attracts largely the budget carriers, the no-frills airlines, rather than many scheduled flights. Owing to its dealing largely with non-scheduled flights, it is typical also because it does not have to pay the high levies paid by airports such as Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham for security, policing and all the other ramifications of being a major international airport. That is possibly where the problem starts.

I knew that people had come in through Liverpool airport, had been detained and had subsequently absconded, and I knew broadly what the causes were. The problem was caused by inadequate numbers of immigration staff to cope with the flow of business. Business can be quite hectic and often at quite problematic times such as the middle of night, when some of the no-frills airlines are happy to use airspace, and some of the scheduled airlines are not.
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I knew that the problem stemmed in part from a lack of proper secure accommodation, and I knew also that there were poor arrangements for detaining people for reasons of immigration or security. I knew that the arrangements for removal were the subject of a private contract, which was itself the subject of certain negotiations, and that at times the contract or immigration activities had to be supplemented by special branch, which was not contracted to do so but had stepped into the breach.

I accepted that there were problems for the airport. There were problems for the police, who had to deal with people in the community who had no right to be there. There were problems for airline security, which in some cases would not know who such people properly were. There were also problems for the airport owners, who would prefer everyone to enter and leave the airport properly identified and registered, and for the carriers, who of course were providing the business. There were a number of people in play, and several reasons why sorting out such matters would be problematic.

Knowing that, I tabled some simple, straightforward questions to the Home Secretary, asking how many entrants to the country had arrived at John Lennon airport who had subsequently absconded. I asked some time ago, and I said that I wished to examine the figures for the past three years. I received the answer that information on the number of entrants at individual ports who had absconded or not reported back was available only by examining individual case files at a disproportionate cost. That led me to form the impression that the Home Office simply did not know.

I did not believe the Home Office—it was probably safer not to do so—but had I done so, I would have been disappointed that it could not provide information that I already had, at least in part. I knew that there were absconders from Liverpool airport; I knew that they included people from a range of nationalities, including people of Asian, Chinese and Nigerian extraction; and I knew that some of them had subsequently attracted the attention of special branch—not, I am glad to say, in connection with terrorist offences, which would have been critical, but in connection with people trafficking and the like.

By that stage, I was in possession of an e-mail from the chief immigration officer at Liverpool, which stated:

this went on for some time, it being a critical problem—

So, I already knew that. I also knew that there was good evidence of what one could call recurrent scams. One was of tourists from Brazil on magical mystery tours. Each group arrived at Liverpool JLA with the same travel agency. They were regarded with some
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suspicion, but owing to the prevailing circumstances at the airport, they had to be discharged. They normally stayed for one night in a hotel—one of the cheapest but not the cheapest—and the following day most of the tour party had gone, presumably to tour elsewhere, and the only person remaining was the courier or the travel operator's representative. That scam was repeated on more than one occasion. I have every expectation that some of those people are abroad in this country, no doubt clutching plausible-looking Portuguese identity documents.

Since raising the issue—I did not do so to be difficult, but in order to have the problem solved—I have been to the Home Office and spoken to those in charge of the airports, and I have been given assurances that new, more secure procedures will be put in place and that there will be a northern command. The airport people tell me that new systems will be developed that will make such problems a thing of the past. I am grateful for those assurances; I am pleased to see that new rigour.

The point is made—I accept that it is valid—that much of the security that we need and require is fairly covert. People are tracked on flights by others not wearing uniforms who work for the Home Office or an agency, with a view to ensuring that we all travel safely and that there are no highly undesirable customers on our flights. I accept that not all security is up front, but the problem has not gone entirely. Since I made all those points, there has been an industrial dispute at Liverpool, this time involving the airport security—those who control the airport grounds. People working for Securicor—I believe that that is the firm and apologise if it is not—have complained about the low rate of wages that they are paid for doing a critical job.

More embarrassingly, in the run-up to the general election, I was contacted by Mercury Press, which told me that the car park firm covering the vicinity of the airport was employing illegal immigrants. I did not discover that story myself. In other words, there were people walking around the airport car park of whose identity nobody could be truly certain. I accept the explanation that the airport gave me—some of those people should have been checked, and that the firm was checked and that its tender was by no means the lowest—but I remain to be convinced that we are entirely on top of the problem.

As a result of my interest in the area, I have received reports from other airports; I do not think that Liverpool is the only airport at which circumstances may be less than ideal. I have been told anecdotally of people wandering through places in Coventry airport where they ought not to be. I am reliably assured that in the past few weeks a Chinese woman arrived at John Lennon airport, refused to talk to anybody and presented no documents. She is now simply gone; we do not know where she is. I suspect that she is somewhere in the country, but she is not known by or identified to us. One can consider that case as a specific. One Chinese woman is not Osama bin Laden, but my point is that if the fact that that can happen is no secret to me it is certainly no secret to far more cunning people who run human trafficking or drugs into the country and have malevolent intentions.

I require an assurance that the problem is recognised and that there is an intention to address it seriously. Most informed opinion would say that people who wish
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to get into the country for no good reason would not go through the fearsome apparatus that we have set up in places such as Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester or Birmingham. They will use no-frills carriers and expanding airports. When things tighten up at Liverpool, they will move to other expanding airports. Blackpool is one airport that wishes to expand.

Immigration and security need to expand just as fast or the regional airport will become the Achilles heel of the system. That means that a number of things should happen, which most of those airports would recognise, as would most of the staff working at them. It means a review of funding for the security arrangements and immigration facilities. It means a review of staffing—basically, more people are required. One of the great problems in Liverpool was the shift pattern, which meant that an employee would have to leave somebody whom they had detained in order to deal with another flight coming in. I believe that that situation has been rectified; I sincerely hope that it has.

The situation at Liverpool could just as easily be replicated at Blackpool or at any other regional airport that wishes to expand three, four or five years down the line. We need better integration of security. One of the problems at Liverpool, where a number of organisations were involved with security in one way or another—car park security, airport security, immigration security, special branch, local police and a range of other people—and one of the anomalies of the immigration episode relating to the car park was that some of the people one expected to be informed and know about such situations were not informed by the local police. Sometimes one hand does not know what the other hand is doing.

Fundamentally, we need the problem to be taken seriously. One element requires significant resource commitment. When somebody is picked up as problematic, difficult and not having proper documentation—in other words, under suspicion—then, given that the person has committed an offence, there needs to be a capacity to progress rapidly to prosecution where possible. We need prosecution services to back up detention arrangements—if I may put it like that—so that the reputation of the airport and of England internationally is one of dealing forcefully with people who deliberately intend to breach arrangements.

I am talking not about asylum seekers, but about people who seek illegal entry into the country knowing that they are doing so. In Liverpool only a few weeks ago, there was a case of a Nigerian who arrived with a Belgian passport. We would all agree that Belgian passports are among those most commonly used by people who arrive with fraudulent intent. The said person was sent out of Liverpool and back to France, from where they had come. They were not prosecuted there and then in Liverpool, although perhaps they could not have been; I do not know the circumstances as precisely as I might. However, I do know that after they were sent back they reappeared a few days later with the same document at Stansted airport, and that there was the same outcome. Had that person been more forcefully addressed at one port of call, they would not have appeared at the other.
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The last thing that I want to do is discourage the expansion of regional airports, which are huge economic drivers in many regions and can do a great deal for regeneration. I hope that John Lennon, Coventry and Blackpool airports do the business in their areas and become a basis for increased prosperity. However, it takes only one major incident to destroy all the good work and public relations of a good, thriving local airport. At any airport, the under-resourcing of the    immigration—or any other—department, and inadequate contracts with private firms that are supposed to provide security, will ultimately undermine sound immigration policy and sound security.

I do not come here in a spirit of aggression or of trying to find difficulties, but with a problem that has, as it were, arrived on my desk and that I have endeavoured to solve. We ought not to mask that problem, but to address it. I look forward to the Minister's reply and hope that he will accept that we have a problem, although he may describe it differently. I hope that we can all join together in considering how it can be addressed and in believing, as I am sure we all do, that it ought to be addressed, and addressed fairly rapidly.

4.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Andy Burnham) : I thank the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) for his kind words at the beginning of the debate and for his assiduous work on this issue, particularly with respect to John Lennon airport. As he knows, I am a Greater Manchester Member of Parliament but, as a native of Liverpool and with a constituency that borders Merseyside, I find that John Lennon airport is local to me too. It is probably almost as close to the hon. Gentleman's constituency as it is to mine, and I use it regularly. As long as I am the Minister in this job, I can assure him that it will receive regular unannounced visits from me.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have been in this job for only a few weeks, but we have already exchanged words about identity fraud and theft across the Floor of the House, and today we are discussing improving even further our immigration controls. He shares many of my concerns about such issues. I see him as a Liberal Democrat who is perhaps ready to support identity cards. I hope that I am right in that assumption; we shall find out in a few weeks.

The hon. Gentleman asked for assurances on a number of issues and was right to do so. He said that the rules set are kept, and that reflects the integrity of the immigration system. Adequate levels of control at regional airports should be maintained, in which respect staffing and resources are appropriate. I shall come on to each of those issues.

I shall set out some background. There are 41 permanently staffed air and seaports of entry in the UK, approximately 350 smaller ports that receive fewer than 100,000 arrivals a year and a number of registered and unregistered airfields. At the smaller ports, immigration service resources are deployed from the permanently staffed ports to meet arriving traffic. In addition, powers provided under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 are used to clear passengers—for example, with written notification to the carrier—when that is appropriate. Passengers subject to control are examined to determine
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whether they qualify for entry. That examination includes checks against the UK immigration service database.

The hon. Gentleman specifically referred to regional airports. The debate taps into the issue of regional airports in this country, which are flourishing, particularly given the growth of low-cost airlines. He will know that roughly 100 million people pass through UK ports each year. That figure is increasing rapidly, particularly at airports, because of the growth in low-cost carriers. Those services are focused on some of the smaller regional airports. That has been an extremely welcome development in boosting not only the regional but the sub-regional economy, particularly of Merseyside, as I think he recognised at the end of his remarks.

The success of John Lennon airport is playing a significant role in the wider revival and regeneration of Liverpool and Merseyside. The airport has seen a 29 per cent. increase in traffic levels, to 331,000 passengers in April 2005, compared with 256,000 during the same period of 2004—an increase of 75,000. The hon. Gentleman is therefore right to say that the airport's importance is increasing, and what I have described is also true of other airports.

The increase in traffic presents challenges. It means that the operation of the immigration service must be flexible to ensure robust, effective and efficient control, and I think I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have that. I assure him and the Chamber that the immigration service has kept traffic flows under careful review across the regional airports of this country. We have responded with practical steps at regional airports to ensure the integrity of our immigration system. Indeed, complaints are reaching Ministers that the processes are too rigorous. I have already received a few letters from MPs saying that processes are too rigorous at some regional airports. People are perhaps not used to having to queue to have their passport swiped.

That process, introduced last year, is one way in which the Government are enhancing the security of the process at regional airports. There are other ways. The immigration service operates an intelligence-led approach to border control. All flights are risk-assessed in advance of arrival, and resources are deployed accordingly. Enhanced document checks were introduced on the EU control on 31 March 2004. That means that all documents are seen and handled and, if a risk is sufficiently high, checks are carried out against the immigration database by swiping all European economic area documents. That was not the case until recently. Those enhanced measures have had an impact on processing times, and some passengers now need to queue for a little longer at ports of entry, but we believe that that is a proportionate response in terms of securing our borders.

The immigration service is in the final stages of an internal restructuring process, also begun on 31 March 2004, which has separated border control and enforcement activities into discrete national directorates. As I think the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, those matters were previously handled together under a regional structure; now, the functions have been separated and there is a focused border directorate. That allows the two
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directorates to engage more effectively with their stakeholders and to target resources more efficiently, and it enables both border and enforcement staff to have a clearer focus on delivery throughout the country.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned staffing. About 500 new front-line staff are being recruited this year, some of whom will help to bring regional airports up to their staffing complement. Increases in passenger numbers are taken into account when determining a port's staffing complement and the associated financial bids to fund any additional posts. An external recruitment campaign is being conducted for Heathrow, with internal trawls for immigration officers at Birmingham, Bristol, Gatwick, Glasgow, Luton and Manchester completed, under way or due to commence.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, to reflect the increase in passenger traffic, Liverpool John Lennon airport has recently increased its staffing to 10 permanent immigration officers and one chief immigration officer. That is up from seven and no presence at CIO grade. In addition, 15 immigration officers are to be posted to Manchester to provide a more flexible capability to respond to the needs of other airports in the area, such as Liverpool. Similarly, 12 additional immigration officers are to be posted to Birmingham to provide additional cover at Coventry airport, which, like Liverpool, is seeing an increase in traffic. I think that the hon. Gentleman referred to that.

Within each command, the deputy director can flexibly deploy staff resources as priorities and risk assessments dictate. A ports modernisation project has been initiated to establish a template for a model office and to identify gaps and deficiencies in resources, facilities, equipment and accommodation at individual regional ports, although the hon. Gentleman has, on this issue, focused on Liverpool.

Much has already been done to improve the facilities at regional airports. The POISE IT system used in the Home Office is being introduced to regional airports that do not have that facility. I hope that that, in part, answers the hon. Gentleman's legitimate concerns about the quality of data being held and processed.

Dr. Pugh : I am relieved to hear that, as one of the issues raised by staff in Liverpool was the inadequacy of IT provision. Such provision is obviously critical in tracking people from country to country. I would be grateful to the Minister if he could expand further on that point.

Andy Burnham : I can a little. The system will provide much better management of information on passenger flows through Liverpool, and it will be rolled out to the airport before the end of this year. It is a staged process, which is happening with other airports—Bristol, Coventry, Humberside, Leeds, Bradford, Prestwick and Newcastle—being the priorities. All other permanently staffed non-POISE enabled airports will have the system by 1 October 2005.

The duty to provide port facilities for the operation of immigration control is in section 25 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. That provision commenced in April 2003 and obliges the manager of a control port—a port where a control area has been designated under the Immigration Act 1971—to provide free of charge to the Secretary of State such facilities at the port as he may direct as being necessary.
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Each port is unique, and a dialogue is maintained between the immigration managers and port control managers to provide, refurbish or extend facilities in line with the volume and nature of passenger traffic arriving at the location. Solutions may be devised and implemented during the project, which is targeted to complete work on 31 December 2005. Some work has already been undertaken, and more is ongoing, to improve the provision of services and service delivery at regional airports. For example, as the hon. Gentleman may know, the immigration service moved to new accommodation at Liverpool John Lennon airport in April, and that provided a larger immigration hall and new office facilities.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned absconders. A great deal of work is being done on that and is being put into detention capability at airports across the UK. The new escort and holding room contract, which came into effect on 1 May, provides both an enhanced response time to escorting requests and additional support for regional airports. Holding room cover has been extended to include provision for 24-hour cover at both Manchester and Ramsgate, and in addition arrangements are now being effected to extend contractual coverage to Liverpool, with a new temporary holding facility becoming operational from 1 July, which is in about three weeks.

To conclude, all these steps are contributing to significant progress in securing the UK's borders. Asylum applications fell from 8,770 in October 2002 to 4,225 in September 2003, a drop of 52 per cent. That
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success has continued; monthly applications have fallen a further 22 per cent. in the first quarter of 2005, compared with the first quarter of 2004, and are now down to the lowest monthly levels since March 1997. That has been achieved by deploying a wide range of measures, some of which I have outlined today, to strengthen our border controls both in the UK and abroad.

Having said that, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not complacent. I think that he wanted an assurance that we will continue to keep the problem under review and deploy resources where necessary. The Government have a significant number of steps under way to improve further the security of our borders, such as the e-borders scheme, which will further develop the technology used to monitor passenger flows into the country. Other procedures under way include a MATRA—a multi-agency and risk assessment group—at each airport. I assure him that Liverpool has such a team, bringing together all the diverse players in the airport environment to put security at the very heart of what is done. Liverpool now has such a team in operation, and we believe that it will continue to enhance the security there; issues raised can be addressed through that group.

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with more detail. I congratulate him on securing this debate; it is an important subject and he has raised it assiduously. He and I, as north-west MPs, are as one in wanting the highest standards of security at our regional airports.

Question put and agreed to.

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