Figure compares with 189 during same three days of 2021, but detentions at Manchester airport rose slightly
The number of passengers detained for further checks at the UK’s busiest airport plummeted in the run-up to Christmas after the armed services were asked to cover for striking Border Force staff, leaked figures show.
Just nine people were stopped at passport control and held at Heathrow over three strike days from 23 to 25 December, compared with 189 people over the same three days in 2021 – a 95% drop.
The data covers people initially stopped using IS81 forms and then detained for further checks. The figures include people seeking asylum.
In contrast, at Manchester airport, 27 passengers were stopped using the same powers over the same three-day period this year, a slight increase on the 21 stopped over the same days last year. Nearly all of the 27 stopped this year were asylum seekers, sources said.
The figures have been leaked to the Guardian amid a growing row over the role of members of the armed services policing UK borders as members of the PCS union strike over pay and conditions.
Ministers have denied claims that the UK’s borders were less secure when staffed by members of the armed forces, after the Guardian disclosed that substitute staff received just five days of training and do not have the powers to detain those they suspect of criminal activity.
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said on a visit to Manchester airport on Thursday: “The claim is just pure propaganda put out by the unions. That’s not the case. I witnessed it today. And I am the former security minister, so I know exactly how the borders work.”
But the PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, said on Friday that the figures showed otherwise.
“Ben Wallace yesterday accused us of propaganda when we warned passengers were being waved through passport control because the military wasn’t stopping them. These figures prove we were telling the truth,” he said.
“For a government that obsesses about security, that just 5% of the usual stops were carried out raises serious concerns about our borders. The military is no substitute for highly trained, experienced Border Force professionals who are trained to spot victims of people trafficking and those who are barred from entering the country.”
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The latest strike by more than 1,000 border staff at six airports – Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester and Glasgow – is due to end at 7am on Saturday.
There have been few delays for passengers as hundreds of military personnel and civil servants were brought in to cover striking workers. Many passengers cleared passport control in less than five minutes.
The new figures apply to people who have been stopped, even for a few minutes, using IS81 forms and then detained for further checks.
An IS81 form gives immigration officers the authority to detain people while they undertake further inquiries, according to Home Office documents. Many asylum seekers hand themselves in to border guards on arrival.
Soldiers, sailors and civil servants filling in for Border force guards are not allowed to issue IS81 forms because they have not received sufficient training. A Border Force guard who continues to work through the strike must instead authorise the form.
The PCS has threatened to seek legal action if evidence is found that new arrivals in the UK are being waved through without proper checks.
Suella Braverman, the home secretary, has repeatedly said her first responsibility is the security of the nation.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Border Force’s number one priority is to maintain a secure border and we have not compromised on this. The Guardian’s own figures show more people have been detained further at Manchester airport this year compared to last year.
“Non-striking Border Force staff, with the full range of appropriate powers, are continuing to complete their vital roles, including stopping and detaining passengers where appropriate, supported by military personnel and civil servant volunteers.”