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Report condemns Heathrow planning

Long queues at the UK's busiest airport have been caused by a lack of effective planning amid job cuts, with border staff signing off at the start of busy periods, inspectors have said.

Limited resources are not being matched to the demand at London's Heathrow Airport, damaging the ability of border staff to maintain effective and efficient controls, the chief inspector of borders and immigration John Vine said.

The introduction of a series of significant changes "was simply far too much organisational change during the busiest time of the year", inspectors warned.

The critical report on the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and the Border Force comes as Heathrow faces another shake-up as Home Secretary Theresa May responds to the ongoing row over queues which have seen passengers from outside the EU having to wait up to three hours.

The introduction of new team structures, rosters and shift patterns came as border staff numbers at Terminal 3 fell by 15% from 322 to 277 in the 12 months to last August, inspectors said. The new team-based working, designed to ensure staff work in the same teams each day, brought a lack of flexibility, with low staffing numbers when passengers numbers were high and high staffing levels during quieter periods.

A snapshot of passenger flows and staffing numbers for the afternoon of October 9 last year showed that as passenger numbers fell between 5pm and 7pm, staffing levels increased and when the number of passengers began to increase again at 7pm, the number of staff started to fall. On this occasion, airport operator BAA warned bosses of the potential problem 10 days earlier, but "due to the rigidity of the new system and the lengthy periods of notice required to change shifts, there was not enough time to change the staffing (plans)".

Mr Vine said: "I found that recent organisational changes such as the introduction of team-based working, a new shift working system and the amalgamation of immigration and customs roles had suffered from a lack of effective planning. Resources were not matched to demand, management oversight and assurance was lacking in many areas and staff were not always properly trained to undertake their duties.

"This was far too much organisational change during Heathrow's busiest time of the year. I remain concerned that this lack of planning has affected the agency's ability to maintain an effective and efficient border control."

The report found that queue targets for passengers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) were breached 62 times between September 18 and 30 last year, with the longest wait hitting two hours and 15 minutes. On September 27, the queue target was breached for seven consecutive hours.

Immigration Minister Damian Green said: "This report covers the period before the Border Force was split from the UK Border Agency and since then we have taken action to tackle these issues... A culture change is under way to make Border Force an organisation that effectively tackles illegal immigration, protects the UK from terrorism and detects crimes like drug trafficking and weapon smuggling."