HL Deb 13 April 1989 vol 506 cc383-4

3.12 p.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that the number of immigration officers at Heathrow is adequate to deal satisfactorily with outgoing and incoming passengers.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, in normal circumstances the answer is yes. In 1987 and 1988 a satisfactory level of staffing was maintained and very few complaints were received. Arrangements for the peak periods of 1989 are at present being determined.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, will the noble Earl care to comment on an incident which occurred on the morning of 22nd March? On that occasion there was only one immigration officer on duty at Heathrow for outgoing passengers, and there were between 100 and 150 passengers trying to get through to catch early morning planes. That caused total confusion, chaos and a good deal of complaint. Is he further aware that I was informed that this was not an isolated incident in recent times? If the Government intend to go ahead with a Customs and immigration hall at Waterloo in connection with the Channel Tunnel, can he indicate whether such delays could also occur? That would frustrate the whole endeavour of having a Channel Tunnel.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, was kind enough to refer this incident to my noble friend Lord Ferrers on 22nd March. Records indicate that there was some congestion at the embarkation point at Terminal 1 between 06.35 and 07.35 hours on 22nd March. At that time there was the routine allocation of two immigration officers on duty; although one officer was dedicated to the clearance of a high risk security flight. A third officer was deployed to the embarkation control at 07.15 hours to help clear the congestion. I apologise to any passenger—I naturally include the noble Lord, Lord Ezra—who may have been delayed at that hour. Regarding his second point about the Channel Tunnel, I understand that discussions are already taking place upon that.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, will the Minister inform me whether there is a possibility of greater flexibility in the use of immigration officers for incoming passengers? I speak as one who only recently has become entitled to come through the United Kingdom channel. On Saturday mornings in particular there is often two or three hours' delay while waiting to pass through the "All other passports" channel, because too many immigration officers are unoccupied at the UK channel. Is there a possibility of the Government being able to use their influence to see that there is a more fair distribution of officers on duty?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I can inform my noble friend that at all times there is considerable flexibility. Staffing levels are reviewed regularly in the light of volume and the type of passenger traffic. Regard must always be had to the need to restrain public expenditure and the size of the Civil Service. We aim to provide an adequate but not an extravagant level of service.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does the noble Earl not agree that perhaps for security reasons alone there could be improved liaison in training between immigration officers and Customs officers?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the increased level of security checks at Heathrow can lead to queues forming as passengers await baggage checks at embarkation. But that should not affect the rate of clearance at passport controls.

The Earl of Kimberley

My Lords, I apologise for asking my noble friend about an incident of which he is unaware. However, the other day at Customs control everybody went through the green channel bar 10 people. There were 20 Customs officers on duty in the green channel and one in the red channel. The reason was that most people waiting in the red channel line lived in the West Indies. After I had stood there for half an hour, I asked whether somebody else could come from the green channel to the red. But by then all 20 Customs officers had gone. The reply was "Oh, we hadn't thought of it". Can my noble friend say who is in charge of the staff there, and whether the service could be improved?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am not aware of the personal circumstances which my unfortunate noble friend had to pass through on that day. If he would be good enough to write to me, I shall see that he receives an answer in writing.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that all the questions so far have related to United Kingdom citizens— —

Noble Lords

Not all!

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that most of the questions that have been asked so far have related to United Kingdom citizens? Is he aware that to visitors to our country the ports of entry and exit are the mirrors of our courtesy and consideration? Is it not therefore important that we should at all times ensure that there are sufficient numbers of immigration officers who can give that impression?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, is quite right that first impressions count when entering any country, particularly the United Kingdom. Experience has indicated that delays at embarkation points are most unusual, and that the routine staffing arrangements normally cope very efficiently.