There was a Private Notice Question in the House of Lords this afternoon from LibDem Peer, Lord Dholakia:
“To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they propose to take to ensure that the security of the United Kingdom is not compromised on 30 November.”
This produced the following response from the Home Office Minister, Lord Henley:
“My Lords, the security of the UK border remains our top priority. Contingency plans are in place and we are satisfied that security will be maintained. We started training additional staff for contingency arrangements in April and adequate resources are now available. Any staff deployed to the front line will have received the training required to operate effectively. Arriving passengers will remain subject to checks at the border by appropriately trained staff.”
There then followed a series of increasingly bad-tempered exchanges between the Minister and Labour Peers with the Minister demanding that Labour Peers condemn the strike, whilst admitting that the Government had been planning for a strike since April. Here are the exchanges with Labour Peers (one of whom was me):
“Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the Government have sponsored speculation about what they will, may or might do to maintain UK security, especially at the borders, on 30 November—everything from bringing in the Army to the idea of staff from the Prime Minister’s Office manning passport control points. However, people need and deserve stability. If they have booked a holiday that day, they need to know whether they can get away. If businesses have important customers coming to the UK, they need to know that their businesses will not be damaged. I should therefore be grateful if the Government would publish, clearly and fully, for the benefit of the country as a whole, what in detail they intend to do on Wednesday in relation to border security.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I am very sorry that the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition did not take the opportunity to condemn the strikes that are taking place on Wednesday, which would have been helpful. If all parties agreed that those strikes should not happen we would not have this problem. We shall be operating the appropriate checks with the appropriate people, appropriately trained to make sure that visitors—whether they are coming here as tourists, whether they are coming here for business or whether they are returning UK citizens—can get in without any disruption or with disruption minimised as much as possible. The noble Baroness will also be aware that this is an operational matter and for security reasons it would not be appropriate to comment in detail, as she wishes, on the arrangements.
Lord Tomlinson: Will the Minister comment on reports in today’s press that part of the police force is being drafted in to take over the role of the UK Border Agency at our borders and that their training is alleged to be merely 90 minutes? Is that adequate?
Lord Henley: My Lords, I would not believe—and I would recommend that the noble Lord should not believe—everything I read in the press. I can assure him and the House that everyone assisting on this matter will have the appropriate training necessary to do the job. Yes, some police will be involved but they will have the appropriate training to do the job that they need to do.
Lord Henley: My Lords, any sensible organisation, knowing there was a risk of such things happening—something which has still not been condemned by noble Lords opposite and I am waiting for that condemnation to occur—would make the appropriate arrangements. The border agency started that last April.
Lord Grocott: Given that the Minister has repeated asked people on this side of the House to talk in terms of condemnation, can we take it as read that the Government condemn the cleaners, the dinner ladies, the low-paid workers and those threatened with a weakening of their pension entitlements and an increase in their contributions? Is the Government’s position that they condemn these people for trying in any way to defend their position?
Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, the Minister has repeatedly referred to this side of the House not condemning the strike. What I want to ask him is this—can he give a categorical assurance that the motivation of the coalition Government is security and not strike breaking?
Lord Henley: My Lords, as I made clear in my original answer, our first priority, our highest priority, our top priority is the security of the United Kingdom. If the noble Lord thinks that we are involved in strike breaking he should think again. We want to make sure that our borders are kept secure. We think that the unions are endangering that security by the actions they are taking. The offer is still open to talk to the Government and others and we wish they would take that up.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, of course our borders should be kept secure, but are the Government doing enough to negotiate with the unions on this point? Are the Government in fact making every effort to try to resolve this dispute rather than, as the Minister has told us, having been preparing since April for just this eventuality? Is it not that they actually wanted to provoke a strike, for whatever political reasons they may have?
Lord Henley: Come on, my Lords. The noble Lord knows perfectly well that the Government’s doors remain open and that the Government are prepared to negotiate. It is the unions who are being intransigent and it is the party opposite which is refusing to condemn an action that will possibly endanger our security. Because of the actions we have taken, and have been taking since April of this year, we think that we will be able to keep security at the appropriate level at the borders on Wednesday.
Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, given that the Minister is so fixated on the possibility of getting the kind of statement that he would like to hear from these Benches, does he imagine that the people out there who are contemplating going on strike are mostly or even to a small extent members of the party I support? I submit that not only are they not, they are members of all parties and none, and what is preoccupying them is not the question of whether the Labour Party supports them but their concern for their future pension rights.
Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Baroness accuses me of being fixated on this issue and perhaps I am somewhat naive to be so fixated on this issue. I do not know in which way the members of the unions involved happen to vote. I happen to know that those unions support the party opposite. That is why we are still waiting for that condemnation from the party opposite.