Concern over plan for military to fill in for striking Border Force staff

Exclusive: armed forces personnel to get less than a week’s training under plan approved by Suella Braverman

Hundreds of military personnel will be trained to work as Border Force guards so they can fill in for striking workers under plans signed off by Suella Braverman.

Members of the armed services could be asked to work on the frontline at ports and airports by the end of this month, Whitehall sources said. Defence sources said they had received a request for help from the Home Office, which was being evaluated.

It follows a vote on Thursday in favour of industrial action by the PCS union, which represents thousands of Border Force guards across the UK.

Under Home Office plans, personnel will be given training of less than a week so they can cover jobs at ports such as Dover and airports including Heathrow. Usual minimum training would be three weeks for a Border Force guard.

They could also be expected to process people coming across the Channel in small boats, amid an expected increase over the next few weeks.

The plan has angered Border Force guards, who say members of the armed forces will be given inadequate training. It could also concern military top brass who have previously questioned the use of the army and navy to fill in for civil servants.

John Spellar, the former armed forces minister and vice-chair of the Commons defence select committee, said the government was treating the armed forces like a temp agency.

“The government has previously used them as the fourth emergency service and are now using the military as a temporary employment agency. These are not jobs for which their skills are suited, particularly at a time of an international security emergency.

“Once again our overstretched armed forces are being asked to cover up for gross incompetence by Whitehall and government ministers,” he said.

Training will begin within weeks, Whitehall sources have confirmed, and will last for less than a week. Other training plans for Border Force officials will be suspended while military personnel are trained instead.

Border Force guards are usually given three weeks of training as a minimum before they interact with the public. After the three weeks, they are given a mentor to work alongside for up to a month to ensure they can work solo on a passport desk.

While in training, they learn how to process and interview passengers, identify victims of modern slavery, spot forged documents, identify suspected trafficked children, and learn how to question passengers.

Thousands of PCS members in the Home Office, including Border Force officers, have voted for industrial action after rejecting proposals for pay, jobs, redundancy terms and pensions.

The union said that unless “substantial proposals” were received from the government by next Friday, it would agree a “programme of sustained industrial action”.

The plan to train military personnel has prompted anger among union officials who say it is “irresponsible” to shorten training time.

One union official said: “This is a strike-busting move by a government that is supposed to be coming up with a new offer. It is frankly despicable. It also means that people will be given a few days’ training and then will be expected to deal directly with asylum seekers and members of the public. It is not fair on the military to rush them through training, and it is not fair on the public who expect better.”

Reports have claimed that Royal Navy officers have expressed concern at the way resources have been diverted towards coping with small boat arrivals in the Channel.

Ministers fear that as many as 10,000 more people seeking asylum could reach the UK by the end of the year. November has become the peak month because of migrant farm workers moving north to the French beaches after the autumn harvest.

The increase will put the asylum processing centre at Manston in Kent under new pressure after the Home Office dispersed more than 2,800 people to hotels and other accommodation from the “catastrophically overcrowded” site to reduce numbers to 1,147.

The Public and Commercial Services union balloted more than 150,000 government employees at 214 departments across the country over whether to strike.

Publishing the results of the ballot, the PCS union said 126 departments had passed the threshold for strikes, including the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions.

Strike action would reach “into every corner of public life”, the union said, with huge impact on jobcentres, passport offices and Border Force.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are disappointed that the union has voted in favour of industrial action. Our priority will always be to keep our citizens safe and borders secure, and we will not compromise on this. As the public would expect, we have plans in place to minimise potential disruption during possible strike action, while still carrying out essential checks.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “We have received a request from the Home Office and are considering it in line with military aid to the civil authorities (Maca) principles. No decisions have been made yet.”


Rajeev Syal and Dan Sabbagh

The GuardianTramp

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