EU referendum: former Border Force chief Tony Smith says Brexit would raise “significant” issues for the agency

Former Border Force head Tony Smith sets out scale of the challenge Brexit would pose to management of Britain's borders


By Civil Service World

22 Feb 2016

A vote to leave the European Union would pose “significant policy and operational issues” to a Border Force already under “huge pressure”, the former head of the organisation, Tony Smith, has said.

David Cameron announced on Saturday that the long-promised referendum on whether the UK remains in the EU  will take place on June 23, firing the starting gun on a campaign in which migration and control of Britain’s borders will be hotly debated.

Smith, who served as the interim head of the UK Border Force from 2012 until 2013, pointed out that border officials had not routinely examined European passport holders “for over 40 years”.


EU referendum, then and now: Former cabinet secretary Lord Butler remembers the last time Britain went to the polls over membership of Europe
EU referendum deal: David Cameron welcomes “substantial” reform package
Top Tech Trends for 2016: How will they affect Government?


And a vote to leave would, he said, likely result in staff having to roll out the same, more stringent checks currently facing non-EU citizens to Europeans as well.

“European passport holders now, many of them, use the e-gates,” he told the BBC’s Today programme. “The check is really an identity one, that you are a European. Of course, there’s a [terrorist] watch list check. But if we were to leave the EU and we’re going to restrict movement, then we’ve got to identify what people are coming for.”

He added: “If we’re going to start doing that — there are 34m EU passport holders entering the country… The Border Force budget has been cut year-on-year for many years now, there’s huge pressure on the Border Force budget.

“Their strategy is to automate more of this. So clearly the more people you can put through gates that you don’t need to interview, then the more efficient [that can be].”

Border Force staff were, he pointed out, already under “huge pressure” to clear European passport holders within 25 minutes.

He added: “That’s going to take longer if we’re going to have to stop and talk to them.”

Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith — who is one of six Cabinet ministers who will be campaigning for Britain to leave the EU — this weekend claimed that European borders policy made the UK more vulnerable to a Paris-style terrorist attack.

“I think the present status of the open border we have right now, many of us feel does actually leave that door open and we need to see that resolved,” the work and pensions secretary told the Andrew Marr show.

Smith, the former Border Force head, told the BBC he was “really not sure” whether the UK would  be more or less safe if voters chose to back Brexit. But he said EU member states currently “aren’t that good at” sharing intelligence, and called for a review of the existing systems whichever way the referendum went.

“If you look at the opportunities we have within [Europe], we have good opportunities with the European member states to share data and share information and share intelligence,” he said.

“We must do that to keep our country safe. The Home Secretary has said that we need to continue to maintain that opportunity, but in my experience the Europeans aren’t that good at that anyway. 

“There’s a phobia if you like in terms of sharing too much data across the Union. And that’s within the Union as it stands. 

“So I think we’d have to a complete re-look at how we share data intelligence and information for security and criminality purposes, whether we’re in or out, and decide what sort of access we can get to that system.”

Read the most recent articles written by Civil Service World - WATCH: Digital Services After Covid - Building on momentum from the pandemic

Share this page
Read next