The biggest civil service union has accused the Home Office of “risking this country’s security on the cheap” after it emerged that the department is considering a plan to deploy volunteer border guards on Britain’s coastlines.
The government said it was considering a scheme to deploy the equivalent of police special constables at the UK Border Force, which carries out immigration and customs controls for people and goods at UK airports and seaports.
But critics including PCS trade union have raised concerns about the plan, claiming that cuts to permanent staffing levels in recent years have already led to a “casualisation of the workforce”.
The proposal came to light following a parliamentary question from Labour MP Mary Glindon, who asked the Home Office about its plans to use “Border Force Specials” – volunteer staff – to carry out aviation and maritime duties on the UK’s east coast.
In response, immigration minister Brandon Lewis said that Border Force deploys permanent employees as “mobile resources” across the UK to carry out a range of border security work in the aviation and maritime sectors.
“However, Border Force is considering the use of ‘special’ volunteers to supplement the work of permanently employed staff in mobile teams and at ports,” he added. “To that end Border Force is seeking to learn from various police forces’ use of special constables.”
The Home Office has confirmed it is considering the proposal, but insisted that volunteers will not be used by Immigration Enforcement, the division responsible for enforcing immigration law.
A department spokesperson said in a statement: “Border Force is currently considering the potential benefits of a Special Volunteer Force and is in discussion with other law enforcement agencies such as local police to understand how they use volunteers in addition to their existing workforce.”
PCS has written to the head of UK Border Force to raise its opposition to the plan and called on the government to properly resource security at UK borders with permanent professional staff.
Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, said that over the past year the Home Office has increased its use of agency staff and spent “a staggering £25m” with agency firms, up £5m on the previous year. He said the government was "making our borders weaker with the use of casual labour and they are risking this country's security on the cheap".
“Border Force are already using poorly trained seasonal workers at most ports and airports, not just at peak periods but throughout the year because of permanent staff cuts. The plans to use volunteer Border Force Specials is a further move towards casualisation of the workforce."
The Mail on Sunday broke the story last week and spoke to the Conservative MP for Dover, Charlie Elphicke, who also raised concerns about the plan. He said there was a need to step up security at Britain’s small ports and airfields, but added that border security is a skilled job, which takes many years of training.
“I would urge great caution before seeking to adopt a model like that used by the police, with special constables. We can’t have a Dad’s Army-type of set-up,” he told the paper.
An Institute for Government report last year highlighted the implications of Brexit to the work of Border Force, stating that if EU citizens face the same screening process as non-EU citizens that will result in around 50 million visitors a year passing through a system designed for 15 million.
In October, the Home Office announced a drive to recruit 300 new Border Force staff by September this year.