If they do, the strike won't improve the ghastly economic situation the UK finds itself in and it won't improve UKBA's reputation with the public. All the strike will achieve is to provide opportunities for hollow laughter at jokes along the lines of how can you tell that UKBA are on strike, what difference does it make if they're working ...
At some point, hours or days after the strike has started, it will stop. And the public impression will be that there is an industrial relations problem at UKBA.
Which there may well be.
But there is also a more fundamental problem at UKBA, a problem that won't be solved by arbitration and which will persist even when the strike is over – the senior Whitehall management of UKBA appears to be irremediably incompetent.
A strike would be welcomed by Theresa May, Damian Green, Helen Ghosh and Rob Whiteman. The greatest present the unions could give them, an unexpected relief, they would think that Christmas had come early.
By focusing the public's attention on pay and pensions, the strike will divert attention from the impression that the management is hopelessly out of its depth and it will thereby to some extent let them off the hook. The unions are making a mistake. The strike, if it happens, will delay the solution to the problem of management failure at UKBA and make that solution harder to achieve.
The political leadership (Theresa May and Damian Green)
Incompetent? Out of their depth? Failure?
Yes. Just cast your mind back 10 days or so.
Heathrow at 'breaking' point as Border Force struggles to cope, leaked memos warn, said the Telegraph on Sunday 29 April 2012. Cue pictures of the huddled masses trying to get through passport control. "We are in control at Heathrow", said Damian Green the Immigration Minister, only to be corrected by Willie Walsh: ‘Minister lying over Heathrow queues,’ says BA chief. It's a mess.
A predictable mess. The Times had already told us on 23 April 2012 that:
No longer in the job, Brodie Clark still seems to be better informed than his successor, Brian Moore. According to a 5 April 2012 article in Public Service magazine:
"Theresa May will have to abandon full passport checks at Britain’s airports, the former head of the UK Border Force warns today. Brodie Clark says that the Home Secretary’s policy is causing lengthy delays for passengers at Heathrow and Gatwick and undermining security"
Mr Moore got Mr Clark's job because Mr Clark allegedly over-stepped the mark while undertaking a trial of "risk-based" or "intelligence-led" border policing. Before his suspension on 2 November 2011, the trial had been declared a success. When Mr Clark was suspended, so was the trial. Why? If it was successful, why not pursue it?
The UK Border Force head Brian Moore said he was surprised by talk of chaos, saying that there is – as every year – a "very solid plan" in place and disruption will be kept to a minimum. Also, there would be extra staff brought in over Easter and for the Olympics. "We will not compromise border security," the UK Border Force said.
When the Home Affairs Committee reported on the Brodie Clark affair, they said that they hadn't been given enough information by UKBA to assess the trial. When John Vine, the Independent Chief Inspector of UKBA, reported on the same matter, he suggested that the trial had not been undertaken professionally, and that the successes claimed for it could not obviously be attributed to risk-based border control.
Now that the public have a good reason to doubt the success of the trial we read that the Home Secretary may re-introduce risk-based policing of the border after all, Theresa May to ease airport passport controls.
What was Brodie Clark suspended for? Relaxing passport checks and relaxing fingerprint checks on visa nationals.
What did Damian Green do in Calais in January? He relaxed fingerprint checks on visa nationals:
What's Theresa May going to do? Relax passport checks:
Damian Green, the immigration minister, has defended the abandonment of the “lengthy” process of taking fingerprints, saying UKBA staff were better served searching vehicles instead ...
How long before she tries to re-appoint Brodie Clark?
Mrs May said she was ready to consider introducing “risk-based” controls as part of a long-term solution to delays at airports, despite having forced Brodie Clark, the former head of the UK Border Force, out of his job in November after she claimed he had relaxed immigration checks without her authorisation.
Go on strike, and the unions will help to hide this worryingly erratic behaviour of UKBA's senior political leadership.
In reality, the public doesn't genuinely expect ministers like Theresa May and Damian Green to know what's going on. That's up to officials. Whitehall is expected to be a Rolls-Royce civil service. In the event, the public is going to be seriously disappointed if they ever listen to the Home Affairs Committee and find out the truth.
The Whitehall leadership (Helen Ghosh, Rob Whiteman and the Board of UKBA)
UK Border Agency News, the "bi-monthly update for partners" – what we used to call the "staff magazine" – is published by Rob Whiteman, the man who replaced Lin Homer as Chief Executive of UKBA. Page 7 of the March 2012 issue is all about IABS, the new Immigration and Asylum Biometric System, and tells us that:
We're all safe, then. Add biometrics and the recipe for salvation is complete.
Since go-live [of IABS] feedback has been very positive; the transition has been seen as ‘seamless’ and the IABS was described as ‘a significant improvement’. Users of handheld mobile biometric checking equipment are also reporting improved network reception and speedier results.
At the end of March, the IABS will deliver a mobile version of this solution for the capture of biometrics of Games Family Members at the Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012.
Safe, that is, apart from the "technology glitches" that the Telegraph will keep carping about, just because Heathrow is "at breaking point":
Not that the expensive technology failure of IABS is what makes Rob Whiteman unpopular with the Home Affairs Committee. They haven't even looked at the reliability of mass consumer biometrics yet – Jackie Keane's day will come. And Alex Lahood's. And Marek Rejman-Greene's.
The difficulties were exacerbated by a series of technology glitches including the failure of a finger print machine, used to check passengers who require a visa to enter Britain.
On other occasions both the Iris recognition and new automatic passport scanning gates failed, adding to the frustration of new arrivals.
"I am unsure but I do not believe our staff are trained to use these machines," one manager said. "If they were I could have deployed the kit much faster."
Ms Keane is the senior civil servant in charge of IABS. She promised in the March 2011 issue of the staff magazine (p.5) to install it by December 2011. The date slipped by a couple of months. Which must be why the Telegraph's informant isn't sure whether UK Border Force staff know how to use the system yet.
No, what the Committee don't like is that Mr Whiteman promised to co-operate with them when he was first appointed and now he's being obstructive:
That's what the Committee say in their 21st report of this Parliament (para.79).
It is therefore deeply disappointing that on two occasions since our last report, the Committee has been denied access to information. The "Agency" refused to provide us with the outcome of cases of people who arrived at St Pancras via the 'Lille loophole'. The "Agency" also refused to provide us with data regarding inspections of Tier 4 sponsors on the basis that it was 'not fit for wider dissemination'.
It's not just his stonewalling that antagonises them.
There's also UKBA's use of a peculiar version of English which impedes communication with them and which may account for their inability to prepare consistent statistics. What's more, the Agency seems to be incapable of understanding natural English. Everyone else knows what "bogus college" means but the Agency claims not to recognise the term.
Then there's UKBA's failure to consider consistently whether foreign national prisoners should be deported, their failure to deport these people even if the Agency has whimsically decided to try, their failure to win more than two-thirds of their appeals against asylum and their failure to win much more than half of their immigration appeals, a record not improved by the Agency's failure to attend nearly 20% of these appeals.
UKBA's Glasgow office only manages to attend 45% of its immigration appeals. How come, the Committee would like to know, following the discovery by John Vine, that figure was recorded at Head Office as 95%?
What can possibly explain the Agency's lack of the gumption to get on and solve problems like the "Lille loophole" until someone embarrasses them into action?
There is a slim possibility that eBorders might cover 100% of travellers coming into the country by air but no possibility whatever of it covering people arriving by boat or train. If eBorders doesn't have 100% coverage it can't work, it can't do its job of securing the border, the Committee say, so what's the point of it?
What's the point of all these eGates at UK airports? (Electronic gates, sometimes known as "smart gates".) Do they work or don't they? No-one knows (para.61):
The Home Office under Sir David Normington, Dame Helen's predecessor, repeatedly claimed that eGates are being deployed at UK airports because the trials at Manchester Airport proved so successful. John Vine begs to differ in his report on the inspection of Manchester. He could find no evidence whatever of the Home Office trying to assess the trial.
The “Agency” needs to provide convincing evidence, for its own staff as well as the general public, that the e-Gates system is no less reliable than passport checks carried out by a person.
And why is the system to identify air travellers by their irises being terminated? It cost millions. Was all that money wasted?
And what's happening with the visa application system? It's not working and the Committee considers it imperative to go back to "face to face interviews with entry clearance officers" (para.71-2). Now. Right now.
Apart from the other matter – financial mismanagement (para.74) – that's all the Committee have to say about UKBA. For the moment.
The problems go all the way to the top. The word "agency" appears in inverted commas throughout the Committee's report. Because UKBA isn't really an agency. It's just another bit of the Home Office. Mr Whiteman's failures, and those of his predecessors, are Dame Helen Ghosh's failures, and those of her predecessors.
Dame Helen is the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office. When she gave evidence to the Committee she said:
Simon Hoggart in the Guardian had fun writing about Dame Helen's appearance in front of the Home Affairs Committee on 22 November 2011. It was a great fun duel, he suggested, marvellous television, a heavyweight bout between Keith Vaz the Committee chairman and Dame Helen.
... there are plans, over the SR10 period [2010-15], to reduce the staff of the Border Force by around 900 people, from almost 8,000 people at the start of the period. But that is driven as much by technological introductions like e-gates, as well as a risk-based approach. Border Force will be getting smaller ...
As the Committee make clear in their report, this is a Constitutional matter. Parliament is meant to be supreme. Not the Executive. And Parliament is being flouted by the Home Office's refusal to disclose information to the Committee (p.32):
The Committee takes our scrutiny of the UK Border “Agency” very seriously and will not be deterred by the “Agency’s” attempt to circumvent our requests for information. It is in the public interest that this “Agency”, charged with implementing the Government’s immigration policy, is held to account by Parliament. When Mr Whiteman first appeared before us, he pledged to be to be transparent and work with us on the basis of trust. We welcome those pledges and look forward to them being fulfilled.
There must be about a dozen serious problems there, identified by the Home Affairs Committee and by John Vine. Problems which affect border security and the safety of the Olympics. Political problems. Public administration problems. Constitutional problems. Technology problems.
And the unions choose this moment to call a hopeless strike and thereby divert attention from them all?
There's still time to call it off. Call it off and engage public sympathy.
Call it off and demand in the public interest that Whitehall get a grip. Demand that Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the home civil service, sort out the mess left behind by Sir Gus now Lord O'Donnell and Sir David Normington.
Demand that the Home Office stop wasting hundreds of millions of pounds of public money on technology that doesn't work and concentrate instead on border security and the safety of the Olympics. Which means adequate staffing and rational procedures. Make John Vine's job easier, not harder.
Work with the Home Affairs Committee, don't hinder them. Demand that the Home Office recognise that they operate in a democracy where they owe their duty to Parliament.
Cribsheet – money:
According to the March 2012 issue of the staff magazine, the contractors involved with IABS are IBM, Morpho, Fujitsu, Atos Origin and Software AG.
Overseas visa application checks – the work the Home Affairs Committee think should be done by UKBA "entry clearance officers" face to face – are carried out by VF Worldwide and CSC. What we are paying VF Worldwide and CSC for is to all intents and purposes stamp-collecting.
CSC also have a contract with the Identity & Passport Service, another "agency" of the Home Office, to produce ePassports, a product on which passport-holders are over-charged to the tune of about £300 million p.a.
Heathrow to raise landing fees to pay for more border staff, we read in the Guardian. A brilliant idea.
Amount paid by the Home Office to contractors in respect of the given contracts
between 10 May 2010 and 29 February 2012
Contract: IABS IBM 186,080,338.56 Morpho 965,497.45 Fujitsu 16,370,966.15 Atos Origin 44,184,946.31 Software AG 170,126.02 Contract: eBorders VF Worldwide 78,303,369.55 CSC 45,753,757.18 Contract: ePassports CSC 112,273,070.86 Total: £484,102,072.08
That way the Whitehall officials can carry on working on useless biometrics projects, we can carry on paying the contractors to provide useless biometrics products, Dame Helen can carry on laying off Border Force staff and replacing them with useless technology, and everyone's happy – with the possible exception of the fare-paying public, onto whom the additional landing fees will be passed in the form of increased ticket prices. But who cares about them?
Alternatively, we could just cancel the useless biometrics bits of IABS, eBorders and ePassports, use the money saved to pay for the additional Border Force staff needed, if any, and let the public keep the balance, on the principle that we know how we want to spend our money better than Whitehall.