Uniformed soldiers to cover for striking UK Border Force staff

Servicemen and women to wear combat attire when standing in for union members taking industrial action

Soldiers standing in for striking Border Force staff will wear their uniforms while checking passports at ports and airports, the Guardian can reveal.

About 600 servicemen and women will wear combat attire as they provide cover for members of the PCS union who have voted for industrial action.

The soldiers are receiving five days of training at venues in Folkestone and Heathrow before taking up jobs including checking passports and identifying trafficked children. Border Force guards usually receive a minimum of three weeks’ training.

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

Union sources indicated that strike action could be pursued over the festive period in a dispute over demands for a 10% pay rise, job security and redundancy terms.

It raises the prospect of hours-long queues at airports and ports over Christmas, when millions of people will be travelling cross-country and abroad to see their families and friends.

The disclosures come after the government was warned by senior MoD officials that the army’s resources could be left “extremely thin” by also asking members of the armed forces to cover for striking workers this winter.

The Home Office has also drawn up plans to use the military to cover for firefighters who will be balloted next week over strike action. Health and defence officials are drawing up a contingency strategy as ambulance drivers and paramedics consider joining nurses on the picket lines.

The government is able to utilise the military aid to the civil authorities protocol (Maca) to keep key services running during major strikes.

Troops turn up at the Home office in Folkestone to be trained as border police before the strike
Troops turn up at the Home Office in Folkestone for training. As well as the army, RAF staff are also being trained to work at UK borders. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Reacting to the development, John Spellar, the vice-chair of the Commons defence select committee, said uniformed officers should not be working at UK borders.

“We should not be using our overstretched armed forces, let alone whilst wearing the king’s uniform, as a temporary labour agency for departments that cannot run their own affairs.

“The primary role of our armed forces is to defend the security of ourselves and our allies and those who are fighting to defend our freedoms,” he said.

Mark Serwotka, the PCS general secretary, said it was an “outrage” that the government was drafting in uniformed military personnel with a few days’ training to break a legitimate strike.

“This cosmetic exercise to cover the government’s failure to adequately pay its own workers will also have a knock-on effect on post-strike staffing levels because courses for new recruits are being cancelled so trainers can train members of the armed forces instead,” he said.

Suella Braverman, the home secretary, applied for army help in mid-November, days after the PCS had successfully balloted members over strike action. Army personnel began training on 21 November.

Border Force guards are usually given three weeks of training as a minimum before they interact with the public. While 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.

On Tuesday morning, soldiers were seen walking into Home Office training facilities in Folkestone, Kent. As well as the army, RAF staff are also being trained to work at UK borders.

More than 42,600 migrants have arrived in the UK so far this year. The Ministry of Defence said 426 migrants made the journey on Monday in seven boats – an average of about 61 people per boat. The overall average for 2022 is about 40, according to officials.

It is understood the MoD considers personnel levels before agreeing to allow the military to help government departments.

A Home Office spokesperson confirmed that soldiers would be in uniform.

“We are working closely with all UK ports and airports to ensure we have robust plans in place to minimise any delays if strike action goes ahead. However, passengers should be prepared for potential disruption. We will deploy suitable resource to meet critical demand and support the flow of passengers and goods through our border.

“We always recommend that passengers check the latest advice from their operators before travelling,” they said.


Rajeev Syal Home affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Army to begin training to cover striking Border Force staff
Exclusive: request to train more than 500 personnel raises tensions between Home Office and MoD

Rajeev Syal and Dan Sabbagh

12, Nov, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Cobra meeting to discuss plans for military staff to cover striking workers
Labour and former army head warn repeated use of armed forces may lead to burnout and soldiers quitting

Peter Walker and Dan Sabbagh

11, Dec, 2022 @10:30 PM

Article image
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

Rajeev Syal and Dan Sabbagh

10, Nov, 2022 @8:00 PM

Article image
Border Force strike: cover staff report getting just two days’ training
Exclusive: Some NCA staff in Calais say they had little official training before being put to work at passport control

Rajeev Syal Home affairs editor

01, Feb, 2023 @6:01 PM

Article image
Inquiry launched into claims SAS soldiers killed Afghan civilians
MoD concedes to longstanding demands for statutory inquiry into allegations dating back to 2010

Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

15, Dec, 2022 @1:33 PM

Article image
Military in thankless task as soldiers drafted in to replace striking workers
Army’s role risks being politicised as personnel called on to cover for Border Force and ambulance workers

Dan Sabbagh

11, Dec, 2022 @10:30 PM

Article image
Nearly a third of UK military homes need repair as maintenance backlog grows
MoD has apologised for delays by outsourced firms awarded repair contracts worth £650m six months ago

Daniel Boffey Chief reporter

06, Nov, 2022 @10:30 PM

Article image
MoD apologises over ‘unacceptable’ standard of army homes
Families sent letter admitting to failures amid claims of squalid and even dangerous accommodation

Daniel Boffey Chief reporter

03, Oct, 2022 @2:51 PM

Article image
Commonwealth veterans launch legal action in immigration row
Eight Fijian-born soldiers went public five months ago and have yet to receive positive response

Dan Sabbagh

17, Aug, 2020 @11:54 AM

Article image
'A grave injustice': Fijian British army veteran on UK immigration misery
MT, 37, tells how he had to leave Network Rail job as he was unable to afford visa fees

Amelia Gentleman

08, Mar, 2020 @2:30 PM