By CSW staff

01 Jun 2023

Border Force DG Phil Douglas shares some of the service's recent achievements and challenges

It’s been two years since the launch of the 2025 Border Force strategy. Can you give us a progress update?     

Just like ports, the border must continually evolve to meet the changing requirements of its customers and commercial partners. Border Force serves five different systems – immigration and safeguarding; security; customs; health and environment; and prosperity – creating one of the most complex sets of stakeholder relationships in the civil service. To help us navigate these challenges, we launched our first organisational strategy, Border Force 2025, in May 2021. 

Since then, we have made significant progress building a more intelligent border that will provide an enhanced digital end-to-end customer journey, improving both security and the clearance of legitimate travellers and goods. For passengers, this means that the physical border is just one of a series of intervention points which start the moment they decide to come to the UK. We will introduce a “universal permission to travel” requirement, which will require everyone (except British and Irish citizens) to seek authorisation before travelling, and give us 100% coverage on who is coming to the border. This means Border Force officers can focus on dealing with high-harm activity to keep the UK safe.

This summer we are also introducing a new reporting tool to share performance data with industry and government partners, increasing transparency and supporting collaboration to improve performance at the border, helping to articulate the return on investment to industry partners. 

To further maintain the safety and security of the border, we will introduce an Electronic Travel Authorisation scheme for visitors who do not currently need a visa for short stays. This will make travel for legitimate visitors smooth and efficient and ensure we have intelligence on those seeking to come to the UK, helping to prevent dangerous individuals entering the country.   
With the simultaneously alarming and reassuring news that Border Force intercepted uranium at the start of the year, what more is being done to ensure we can continue to protect and secure our border?

Radiological and nuclear detection at the border is business as usual for Border Force – the capability exists across the UK through a combination of fixed equipment and specialist vehicles. We continue to explore better technology, AI and intelligence capabilities, working closely with our strategic partner countries.

"Threats at the border are wide ranging, substantial and sustained. New threats continue to emerge, and existing threats evolve"

Threats at the border are wide ranging, substantial and sustained. New threats continue to emerge, and existing threats evolve. We have to be ready to pivot to new challenges quickly and repeatedly. Recently, this has included responding to the Purfleet tragedy, small boats, and organised crime groups seeking to exploit the Covid-19 pandemic. Increasingly sophisticated criminal methodologies seek to exploit the border and bring social and economic disruption to the UK. That’s why the work of Border Force has never been more important, and the public expect that those on the front line have the resources, training and support they need.

What are some of Border Force’s recent achievements?

Since 2021, we have dismantled 55 organised-crime groups and made over 500 arrests supported by the work of the UK-France Joint Intelligence Cell, where UK and French officials collate and analyse operational intelligence to prevent crossings from taking place and to dismantle the gangs behind them.

There were 22,297 refusals at port by Border Force in the year to September, who subsequently departed the UK – 34% more than the year before. And in 2022, Border Force seized 266 lethal firearms, 1,105 non-lethal firearms and 6,374 knives and other offensive weapons.

What are your ambitions for this year?

Our strategic missions are to “protect, facilitate and adapt”. Every day, my staff deliver outstanding work – protecting the UK from harm, facilitating legitimate travel and trade and adapting to new technologies in an ever-changing world.  

Equipping Border Force officers with the skills, tools and techniques to continue keeping our border secure is a priority of mine. We’re working with the College of Policing to equip our officers with the skills required for the Border Force of the future and responding to intelligence-led, specialist and customs work.  

I’ll be further investing in our learning and development function, to modernise training provision and increase its accessibility through more delivery methods. It needs to be brought in line with other more modern delivery techniques, based on need. Developing career pathways and associated accreditation where possible will meanwhile ensure that we retain and attract the best.  

What is Border Force doing to tackle illegal migration and the small boats issue ahead of good weather this summer?

Border Force is playing a central role in the prime minister’s five-point plan to tackle illegal migration. Stopping Channel crossings is a key priority for the government, and Border Force is working with other teams within the Home Office and other departments to deliver on that promise. 

The Small Boats Operations Command has recently been set up in Border Force to bring our Channel and processing operation under a single structure. SBOC will recruit 730 dedicated staff, to bolster our response to curb migrant crossings and ensure Border Force can sustain its other responsibilities.  
 SBOC also brings with it new air and maritime capabilities, including new drones, land-based radar and piloted aircraft. Border Force supports the MCA-directed Safety of Life at Sea response to these crossings.

"This isn’t a new fight and there is no single solution"

Our Border Force Maritime Command crews have rescued tens of thousands of people from the dangerous waters of the Channel over the past five years. Border Force continues to work closely with the French and other near-borders partners to reduce these illegal and unnecessary crossings, as well as other forms of dangerous irregular migration such as clandestine entrants concealed within freight vehicles. This isn’t a new fight and there is no single solution. However, through our existing measures and future work, we will make determined progress to reduce the incidence of irregular migration and the risks to life that it entails.
What are the most challenging parts of your role as director general and what has helped you tackle those challenges?

My role is incredibly challenging but equally rewarding. The variety of the work and the impact I know we are having to the safety and security of the UK is what gets me out of bed every morning. My biggest challenge is dealing with the variety of pressing issues day to day. But knowing I have such a professional and experienced team, who are passionate about their jobs and the crucial role they play in keeping the UK safe and secure, means I have full confidence in our work and the impact we make.

What is your guilty pleasure? 

When lockdown was lifted, I got to know London even better and joined friends on long walks across the city. I enjoyed taking in the old and the new, the culture and art, from tourist areas to centres of business. I could combine my love of ’60s architecture and long walks by taking in places such as the Barbican, home to the London Symphony Orchestra and a prime example of Brutalism; and the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre, where you can enjoy everything from outdoor entertainment to street food.

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