Low pay at Border Force creates 'breeding ground' for corruption, watchdog says

Report also flags ‘confused’ leadership structures, unclear accountability and poor morale as concerns
David Neal Photo: GOV.UK

By Jim Dunton

08 Sep 2023

A probe into Border Force’s ability to identify and respond to corruption among its own staff has found work is hampered by “confused” civil service leadership structures, while poor pay and a lack of engagement are acting as a “breeding ground” for criminal behaviour.

Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration David Neal’s investigation into so-called “insider threat” focused on the risk that an “unscrupulous minority” of Border Force staff will abuse their access to data, property, and contraband to commit criminal acts.

The investigation was conducted between January and March and its findings were presented to home secretary Suella Braverman at the end of May, however Neal’s report was only published yesterday – and in redacted form.

Neal said recent high-profile criminal cases involving serving Metropolitan Police officers showed areas where lessons should be learned. He said missed opportunities for early-intervention at the Met had led to officers staying in post and carrying out serious crimes. He cautioned: “There is potential for the same to be true in Border Force.”

Neal said his inspection had found positive results in areas where Border Force was able to make decisions and execute projects to combat the risk of insider threat. But he said the organisation’s overall ability to implement further measures was “hindered by its position within the Home Office and civil service”.

“Leadership structures for addressing insider threat were found to be confused, with complex inter-relationships and unclear lines of accountability between numerous organisations and agencies,” Neal said. “Border Force also suffers from limitations on its ability to access data that would allow it to identify and reduce risks. As a result, no one has the full picture of the insider threat risk across the organisation.”

The report said that despite Border Force’s status as a law-enforcement command, the organisation’s director general – Phil Douglas – and its Insider Threat and Integrity Committee lacked the autonomy to make some decisions because of the impact on other Home Office staff.

It said the lack of a full picture on the insider threat faced by Border Force stemmed from “numerous avenues” for allegations, behaviours, or concerns to be investigated or dealt with, but limited ability to share data between teams.

Pay and engagement woes are a “breeding ground”

Neal added that the most recent Civil Service People Survey results for Border Force were an extra cause for concern, with pay levels a key consideration.

He said the survey data “signposts a dissatisfied workforce which is a breeding ground for insider risk to grow and become insider acts, enabled by privileged access”.

The report said staff-engagement and loyalty to Border Force were “consistently lower” than across the civil service as a whole, “indicating a lack of shared identity and cohesion within the organisation”.

It said that pay had been the most common answer given by Border Staff to the 2022 People Survey question asking respondents what “one thing” they would change about the organisation. The report also noted that some Border Force officials had taken strike action over pay at the time the inspection was conducted.

Border Force does have an enhanced screening programme for new recruits, over and above that used for Home Office staff. It was introduced in September 2000. The report said that as of mid-January this year a total of 581 applicants who could have posed a significant risk to Border Force had failed the checks and been denied jobs at the organisation.

Neal made eight recommendations to the Home Office in his report, one of which was redacted by the department. The Home Office response – also published yesterday – said that six would be implemented in full and two would be implemented in part. The majority of actions are due to be completed by the end of this year. One – a call for role-based risk assessments in key areas – has an end date of December 2024.

The Home Office said that structures introduced as a result of the Border Force Insider Threat and Integrity Programme meant the organisation was now in a “strong position” to ensure the integrity of its operations and people.

“We do recognise there is more to do, and access to data has been a key issue in relation to developing and informing the overall approach,” the department said. “Our plan of work over the next six to 12 months will be informed and updated as we get access to that data and are able to review the overall risk as recommended within the inspection report.”

Neal said the delay in publishing his findings and the extensive redactions to the report meant its impact was “nowhere near as powerful as it should be”. He said the situation “should be a matter of legitimate concern”.

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