“I am not trying to hide behind averages. I said that the longest queuing time was one and a half hours, and that that was unacceptable and we would seek to do better.”
Damian Green, Immigration minister, Statement to the House of Commons, 30 April 2012
Playing down the meltdown at Heathrow’s border control earlier this week, Damian Green told MPs: “I stress to the House that our information shows that queuing times bore no resemblance to some of the wilder suggestions.”
But with these “wilder suggestions” coming from the airlines and passengers themselves, it’s little wonder that British Airways’ chief executive Willie Walsh accused the minister of “misleading” the public over the extent of waiting times at passport control.
Mr Walsh told Channel 4 News: “I think he was certainly misleading when he told people that the maximum queue was 90 minutes when we know it went well beyond that – and not just on one occasion.”
Who’s right? FactCheck jets in.
Passport control at Heathrow is manned by the Home Office’s Border Force which has a target of clearing 95 per cent of all European Economic Area (EEA) passengers within 25 minutes and all non-EEA passengers within 45 minutes. They run a check on the queues “where possible to do so” every hour.
The Home Office only publishes quarterly tables showing the clearance of passengers across ports and airports.
Mr Green insisted on Monday that the Border Force hadn’t failed its target, and indeed the government’s figures show the Border Agency exceeding the target – managing to clear 98 per cent of passengers within the time frame at the last count (Q3 2011).
But Heathrow’s operator BAA – which checks every queue, every 15 minutes, compiles its own figures – of which it made April’s stats public today.
So while pitting BAA’s April figures against the government’s quarterly statistics isn’t checking like-for-like; this much we can tell you – according to BAA’s figures for April, on the very day that Mr Green stood in the House of Commons and reassured his fellow MPs of the Border Force’s performance, there was actually the longest wait of the month – three hours at Terminal 4 was recorded for non-EEA passengers.
Meanwhile, the longest queue times at Terminals 3 and 5 also exceeded Mr Green’s “hour and half” (which remember was already double the target-time).
Two hours and 20 minutes was recorded at Terminal 3, and two hours 35 minutes was recorded at Terminal 5 for non-EEA passengers. Terminal 1’s maximum misery came in at 1 hour 15 minutes.
For those with EEA passports the failures were just as acute. The maximum wait time recorded across all terminals during April exceeded the 25 minute target, ranging from 30 minutes to just over an hour.
It’s a small mercy for Mr Green that BAA’s figures show that Heathrow just about scraped through on its 95 per cent EEA target however – managing to get 95.25 per cent of passengers across the borders within the target time.
Though the Border Force reiterated that the target for EEA and UK passengers wasn’t breached in April, a spokesman admitted: “We know at times queues have been too long. That is why we have announced an extra 80 staff for peak times at Heathrow. And it’s why we’ve also engaged an extra 480 people to cover the Olympic period. In the longer term our management and rostering changes will address the issue of queues.”
European visitors do account for the vast majority of people crossing our borders – with 22.3m coming to see us last year. Though FactCheck notes that number rose by just 1 per cent in 2011.
BAA’s figures show that Mr Green was wrong about the longest queue being an hour and a half.
And it turns out that on the very day he was telling MPs to ignore “wild” reports, a three hour queue was recorded.
Worse still, BAA’s figures reveal that contrary to Mr Green’s statement to the House, the Border Force missed its target of clearing 95 per cent of non-EEA passengers within 45 minutes during April.
In fact, all Heathrow terminals together cleared just 35 per cent of non-EEA passengers within the target time.
Yet unlike BAA, which is fined if it misses its targets at the departure gates, there’s no fine for the Border Force if it misses its target. It is, as Willie Walsh pointed out, both the regulator and the operator.
Worryingly, it’s the non-EEA visitors that account for the biggest growth in tourism. Americans make up a third of them – and last year US visitors were up 5 per cent to 3.6m. Visitors from the rest of the globe, led by the Australians, Indians, Canadians and Japanese, showed even stronger growth – up nine per cent to 4.7m according to Home Office figures.
But with Border Force staff numbers down by almost 1,000 since 2010, will bringing in 480 people to help out over the Olympics make enough of a difference?
April was a normal, off-peak month. During August, Heathrow is expecting the busiest day its history as the Games close. The airport has even built a temporary terminal to deal with the 10,000 athletes expected to leave on when the games close.
By Emma Thelwell