The new Treasury Secretary, Rishi Sunak, was quizzed about the government’s plans for a no-deal Brexit this week.
Ministers announced that UK Border Force would be hiring 500 more people to cope with the possible fall-out of leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement.
Mr Sunak told BBC News: “That actually builds on an existing plan that we’ve already put in place. So there are already – because of previous funding – 900 more border staff in place already.”
This was news to FactCheck, because we thought the government had missed an earlier target to hire 900 new Border Force staff, but the Home Office insists Mr Sunak is right. Let’s check it out.
The Home Office has made a number of promises to hire more Border Force workers ahead of Brexit.
In July 2018 the then-Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes gave this answer to a parliamentary question: “As part of our preparations Border Force is recruiting 300 frontline officers to allow existing staff to be trained in new requirements ahead of EU Exit.
“This is separate from the recruitment of up to 1,000 Border Force officers, which is to meet a range of business needs, including meeting the normal staff turnover associated with a large operational business such as Border Force….”
This sounds like the original aspiration was to recruit an extra 1,300 Border Force officers in total (since the 300 were “separate from” the 1,000).
But there was uncertainty about what the final staff total would be, since Ms Nokes said some of the 1,000 would replace people lost in “normal staff turnover”.
In November 2018 she gave a different answer to parliament about plans for border security:
“Border Force is currently recruiting c.600 Border Force officers during 2018/19 to respond to the new requirements at the UK border as a result of EU Exit…
“In addition, Border Force has recruited a Readiness Task Force of c.300 to provide operational resilience to the front line and allow existing staff to undertake EU exit-related training.
“By March 2019, Border Force expects to have increased its workforce by approximately 900 officers, against our March 2018 baseline.”
So it looked like the target had slipped from a possible 1,300 officers to 900 (the Home Office dispute this, saying we are making a false comparison between two different figures, one for general recruitment and one for purely Brexit-related staff).
The minister put a deadline on the recruitment drive – the extra 900 would be in place by March 2019.
It looks very much like this deadline was missed, because the Home Office publishes annual average staff numbers for its various departments at the end of every financial year.
Over 2018/19 Border Force had an average workforce of 8,197 people (full-time equivalent) compared to 7,734 for the year ending March 2018.
That implies that staff went up by 463, about half of the 900 extra that were promised.
To put that number in context, the average workforce in 2018/19 was still lower than in 2014/15:
But the Home Office insists that it did meet the target on time. A spokesman told FactCheck: “At the end of March 2019, Border Force had increased headcount by 900 full-time employees as part of these preparations.”
This suggests that there was a large increase in staff towards the end of 2018/19, and the Home Office is now using a high-water mark end-of-year figure rather than the annual average numbers it publishes in its annual accounts.
How many now?
An increase of 900 already in place would suggest that Border Force must have a current strength of more than 8,600 people.
If the announcement of 500 more staff is in addition to that 900, we would expect strength to rise to at least 9,100.
It’s far from clear that it’s possible to recruit and vet that many people by the day Britain is due to leave the EU – 31 October this year.
Mr Sunak said in the BBC interview: “We’ve also streamlined all the processes for recruiting, training and vetting border staff officials. That’s something the Home Office has already been working on so that over the course of this year we will be able to get an addition 500 in place as well.”
Let’s assume we do get to more than 9,100 staff this year. That would be a higher level than 2014/15 but would fall short of the 2,000 officers Border Force said they needed in a no-deal scenario when questioned by the National Audit Office last year:
We’ve asked the Home Office what the baseline is for the additional staff.
Or to put it the other way around: how many border staff will Britain have when this recruitment drive is over? They haven’t answered these questions.
A Home Office spokesman said: “Border Force preparations for leaving the EU on 31 October, whatever the circumstances, are well advanced.
“At the end of March 2019, Border Force had increased headcount by 900 full-time employees as part of these preparations.
“We are now recruiting up to 1,000 new staff to help maintain security and support flows at the border.”
[UPDATE: A sentence describing the Home Office “trumping” other government figures by promising up to 1,000 extra Border Forces staff was inaccurate and has been deleted. In fact, a Treasury Press Notice also made a reference to the 1,000 figure. We are happy to clarify this.]
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