Report from Aruba: The boom tourist island off crisis hit Venezuela 

Just 18 miles off the coast of Venezuela lies the former Dutch colony of Aruba.The state of Aruba could not be more different from Venezuela.

While Venezuela is facing its worst economic crisis with hyper inflation and three million people have fled the country mainly to Colombia and Brazil, Aruba is in the middle of a tourist boom.

The distance from Aruba to Venezuela is less than that between Dover and Calais so it is not surprising, though it is unreported, that Venezuelans have also sought refuge here. Officially they are deported back to Venezuela if found but unofficially with the current labour shortages many may not be. And unlike the phobia by some in the UK of immigrants flooding the country this small island of 118000 people seems to welcome them.

Aruba is a curious mixture of American high rise resort hotels,holiday apartments and casinos and Dutch social welfarism shown by affordable state housing schemes and a national contributory health service.

Most Arubians are trilingual – they learn Dutch,English and Spanish in school – though Dutch is the official language. They are mainly Roman Catholic rather than Protestant due to the legacy of the original Spanish conquerors of Aruba and their local currency still is the guilder long abolished in favour of the Euro in Holland. Nearly all the supermarkets are owned by the Chinese.

Arubians who want to study medicine or engineering go to Dutch universities and Arubians are proud they have freedom of movement as EU as well Dutch citizens. From March 29 they will have more freedom of movement than the British.

The biggest deal for Arubians is tourism. An estimated 1.8 million people visit the island every year from cruise ships and direct flights from the US and South America.As a result most people are employed by the tourism industry.There is a also a flourishing aloe vera industry as it has a dry desert like climate – it doesn’t rain for 8 months a year.

Intriguingly the country used to refine Venezuela oil but the big refinery was closed. It still imports a lot of its fruit and vegetables from Venezuela – which given the shortages in Venezuela is remarkable.

The main tourist attraction are the beaches – the hinterland when not developed is mainly desert scrub and grazed by goats- goat is staple diet. Wild creatures include iguanas, rattlesnakes which are protected and boa constrictors which were irresponsibly released into the wild.

When the local pest control are called out it is often to remove a boa that has got into someone’s yard.

But what is the most extraordinary is the parallel universe between Aruba and Venezuela – so close together but so far apart.

Bermuda: How shipwrecks can save our dwindling coral reefs 

While global warming and pollution are threatening our coral reefs Bermuda is a rather unusual success story.

Unlike more famous coral reefs like the Australian Barrier Reef which are in decline the coral reef around Bermuda is healthy and expanding.

One reason is that Bermuda is hundreds of miles from the US and other Caribbean islands and has no industry to speak of to pollute the seas.This tiny island has a coral reef far larger than the island itself. The Atlantic Ocean north of the island is in some areas just between three and twelve feet deep.

As a result the area is dotted with shipwrecks. So many ships have ran aground there and many have not been discovered. But here is the interesting point. These shipwrecks are incredibly beneficial to coral reefs. Sunken boats create a structure for corals to grow and are magnets with for fish with plenty of hides holes. And it appears rather surprisingly that the rusting iron of the hulks acts as a fertiliser to help coral establish itself. One of the few cases of human made debris being beneficial.

According to the tour guides who took us there is now growing interest in sinking redundant ships on the edge of coral reefs once they have been decontaminated. They are colonised by the coral which expands the reef.

One example is HMS Vixen a former Royal Navy ship which ran aground a century ago whose hull as the picture shows still sticks out of the shallow water. Here it is a magnet for grey snapper, Chubb and various tropical fish.

Bermuda’s coral reefs are also refuges for turtles which are protected from predators and conservationists have brought back turtle eggs to hatch on the island’s beache to re-establish and expand the population.

Not all Bermuda’s Eco experiments have worked. Just off the coral reef there is an abandoned Eco village. The houses are built on stilts on the coast with canvas rooves and no air conditioning and sound proofing.As a result they are unlettable in the summer when there is high humidity and people’s conversations can be heard from house to house.At the moment the government is desperately trying to flog them off to anybody who might want to use them as a spare summerhouse.

Some facts on tax haven Bermuda which free market Tories might like and Socialists hate. Income tax minimal at just six per cent or nothing for 65000 inhabitants.As a result there is a 17.5 per cent tax on everything that is sold there which is already expensive because it has to be imported. Average house prices are $800000. Cheapest one bed flat $300000. Some affordable houses for $300000 – these are ex Royal Navy homes. Lucky to get a beer for £7 and to eat out for two could cost over £100.

Not much chance of Liam Fox negotiating an independent trade deal – unless he wants to expand its tax haven status with the City. Bermuda doesn’t make anything except rum cakes. So apart from flying them in on direct services between Gatwick and Hamilton don’t expect anything special.

Bermuda until 1960’s had a naval presence. Plans by Gavin Williamson the defence secretary to bring back Royal Navy bases in the Caribbean should make it the ideal centre. A few slight problems.The Royal Navy commissioner ‘s house is a museum, the deep water berths are now cruise ship terminals and the port buildings a shopping mall. Apart from that it should be plain sailing.

Danger on the Line: Damning safety findings that put passengers and train drivers at risk

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People had to step over this live rail to get off the train. It didn’t even have a protected board at the time Pic credit: Aviva Trains

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A  damning report was published this month by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch into an incident nearly a year ago which led to 450 passengers being urged to leave a stranded train and walk along the tracks within inches of a live high voltage electric rail.

The report is not only critical of this incident but raises the question whether there are systemic failures in our semi privatised railways which need urgently addressing. It reveals a string of other incidents that have happened in the last five years.including two cases where express train drivers had to lie under their trains to avoid being mowed down by trains coming in the opposite direction.

These include;

A Virgin Express train driver had to cower under his Inverness to London express just north of York to prevent being mowed down by a 105mph express in the opposite direction. The trainee signalman had failed to tell the driver of the stopped train that he had not halted other trains in the area.

Exactly the same thing happened again at Stafford six months ago when a Manchester to London Virgin express stopped because of a fault. The driver who was badly shaken had to hide under the train to avoid being run over by an express coming in the opposite direction.

Passengers getting out on to the tracks at Gospel Oak and waking to the station in 2013 – and a suburban train going forward without permission to take passengers off at Hackney Downs and almost overrunning a junction where it could have crashed into a train coming in the opposite direction.

 

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You can just see the driver nearly under the Virgin Train north of York from this CCTV picture. Pic Credit: Virgin Trains

This latest report  was about a passenger train that was halted outside Peckham Rye station in South London last November after a fault automatically stopped the train.

The driver , who did not have a guard, got the go ahead from the private operator Aviva’s control centre to get passengers off the train. As the report says:

“This involved passengers climbing down vertical steps to ground
level, very close to the live electric conductor rail (third rail) and walking along the side
of the line for about 30 metres to Peckham Rye station.

“Soon afterwards, an operations manager from Govia Thameslink Rail, which manages
Peckham Rye station, contacted the member of station staff and realised where they
were and what was happening. The operations manager immediately instructed
the driver to stop the evacuation, and requested that he contact the signaller and
his company’s controller for further instructions. ”

…”The train driver and the signaller did not reach a clear understanding
about the actions that were required to safely detrain the passengers. The delay
caused unrest among the passengers on the train and contributed to stress and task
overload of the driver, which affected his decision making. The driver’s experience
and skills did not enable him to cope with these demands, and Network Rail did
not effectively implement its own procedures for managing an incident involving a
stranded train.”

The scandal revealed here is the lack of communication between Aviva’s control centre, Network Rail, the signalman, which all put passenger safety at risk.

Of course both Network Rail and Aviva have said they have taken measures to deal with it. But the report reveals that in Aviva’s case very little has been done – particularly at its control centre. Inspectors returned after the incident and found:
l the environment within the control room was noisy and poor equipment was still
being used, both of which may cause distraction, and the floor plan was still too
small;
2 poor communications (verbal / IT systems and written notes) were observed
and still evident;
3 a lack of coordination and awareness of the different roles within the control
room was still evident”

Simon French,Chief Inspector of Rail Accidents concluded: “Following previous incidents, the railway industry has put in place policies for managing incidents in which trains become stranded. This incident has shown that when things go wrong, these policies may not be effective. …. We are recommending that, both locally and nationally, the incident management arrangements should be reviewed, and processes put in place to exercise them regularly. It’s not enough to have a plan – it must work when it is needed, and if it has never been practised the chances are it won’t work.”

The report on Peckham Rye can be read in full here  and the reports on the Virgin train incidents can be read here and here.

 

 

Premier Bin: Is the minimum wage hotel chain run by Whitbread millionaires and promoted by Lenny Henry going to the dump?

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The Premier Inn in Lauriston Place, Edinburgh or should I say Premier Bin

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I have stayed in a number of Premier Inns on holiday and the atmosphere has always been cheap and cheerful with an emphasis on a good night’s sleep and a good value breakfast.

That is until this year when my wife and I stayed at the Lauriston Place hotel in Edinburgh for the festival. Last year we stayed at its more centrally placed York Place hotel and found it efficient with obliging staff.

During the last 12 months what has changed? For a start there were fewer EU staff which suggests that the chain – in common with national figures released by the government – can no longer rely on people from Europe coming to work here.

Brexiteers- including Jacob Rees Mogg and Nigel Farage – say by halting low paid and unskilled immigration from the EU – British workers will benefit from higher wages and better conditions because firms will have to pay them more.

Well so far if the Premier Inn at Lauriston Place is any guide  this ain’t happening. From talking to some of the staff instead Whitbread are using recruitment problems to make staff double up and do the work of two people or give people huge work schedules which they can’t possibly do in time.

And if that fails they are starting to withdraw services to customers. For three out of five nights we were there Premier Inn stopped offering to serve anyone who wanted to dine in their hotel restuarant if you wanted  to walk in. Notices of apology – rather reminiscent of the privatised rail companies explaining poor services- were posted in lifts and at the front desk. One even included a reference to bad weather – it was raining outside.

And if you did dine there – by getting a rare booking – the menu appeared to be a wish list rather than  an accurate description of what you could eat. The restuarant had run out of rib eyed steak and chocolate puddings – rather basic fare that should not be subject to food shortages in Edinburgh.

And the cleaning was also under pressure. On one rainy day the room was not cleaned until after 4.0 pm. I found the cleaner, a middle aged woman in, I guess, her 50s, exhausted pushing a cleaning trolley in the hotel corridor.

She had five floors of bedrooms to clean and her shift which was supposed to end at 1.0 pm had taken three hours longer because of the large number of rooms (well over 100) that had to be cleaned. We took pity on her and decided our room did not need a thorough clean that day.

As for a pay rises they were out of the question. Instead the company seems to be relying on higher turnover of staff as people leave rather than paying higher wages.

And wages are low -basically the  national minimum wage of £7.83 an hour  rather than the national living wage . The figures are here on this website.

Those with higher responsibilities -like being a chief chef – get on average another 82p an hour.

Compare that with the top management of owners Whitbread. The latest remuneration report of the company shows a different picture -rather similar to the widening gap shown between bosses and workers published this month.

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Alison Brittain, millionaire chief executive of Whitbread, owners of Premier Inn. Pic credit Twitter

Alison Brittan, the  53 year old  ex banker chief executive of Whitbread, under an incentive package can get up to £3.4 million a year if she achieves her targets which include opening as many new Premier Inns as possible.

If she is a failure she still walks off with £1m a year – 20 per cent going into a pension so she’ll be able to retire in luxury  at 60 if she wants to not caring a bit that her staff will have to work until they are 67. I suspect if any of her lowly paid staff failed, they are promptly sacked.

Two years ago her minimum salary was £775,000 – so she has enjoyed a minimum of £225,000 pay rise while most of Britain’s workers have been lucky to get a one per cent increase.

She claims in an article in the Daily Mail  that she only ever stays in Premier Inns. If she does I bet her room is being cleaned while she has breakfast and if she dines there –  she has a  full choice.

I did put put questions to Premier Inn earlier this week about current wages, turnover of staff, and whether  Brexit was making  the recruitment of staff difficult but they could not be bothered to reply or acknowledge the request.

One thing is certain I won’t be staying in a Premier Inn when I go to the Lake District. Sorry Lenny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mobility on the marshes: Two cheers for Natural England and the Norfolk coast path

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The new wheelchair and mobility scooter friendly surfaced path from Blakeney towards Cley

Blakeney on the North Norfolk coast is home to one of Britain’s more unusual natural wildlife reserves – the salt marsh. These  vast muddy flat expanses are  regularly flooded by the sea- and are home to a large variety of sea birds, ducks and migratory geese and perfect places for many unusual plants and flowers.

To really appreciate these large areas  caught between the land and see you need to be able walk for miles between Norfolk coast towns and villages. For some years my wife, Margaret and I have  been able to do precisely that -walking four or five miles  often in a refreshing stiff breeze and ending up in a local hostelry eating  fresh crab sandwiches before returning back to Blakeney.

Since she had a stroke this is no longer possible and I thought the marshes would be largely out of bounds.

 

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The quay at Blakeney

However having just returned from Blakeney I discovered that Natural England who are responsible for England’s network of long distance footpaths and the local North Norfolk Area of Outstanding Beauty have started making the place far better accessible for the disabled.

They have started to convert part of the  Norfolk coast path going from Blakeney to Cley  and from Blakeney to Morston Quay to make it wheelchair and mobility scooter accessible – allowing disabled people to get out into the marshes which previously  only able bodied people could make the  trip.

Unfortunately the new surface does not go all the way to Cley- and the beginning of the Morston Quay route has been blocked off by builders renovating local cottages necessitating a diversion- hence only two cheers- but it is a good start.

There are also two good links on the web that disabled people will find helpful. The Norfolk Coast Partnership has an activity map here.

And there is a partially complete guide to wheelchair access to the path here on the national trail website.

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A typical creek on Blakeney Marshes

Given the present dire situation for disabled people with many losing benefits as a result of the government’s austerity programme – this is one good piece of welcome news for any disabled person contemplating a staycation this summer -once the temperatures have dropped from their present high level.

Revealed: Dishonest Eurostar’s disabled unfriendly direct service to Amsterdam

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The new Eurostar Amsterdam Service : Not fit for the disabled Pic Credit: Eurostar Jo on Twitter

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It should have been a synch. A brand new train service direct from London to Amsterdam to a hotel opposite the city’s Central Station. An ideal break for myself and my disabled wife with passenger assistance.

The technology works – the superfast new Eurostar trains make the journey there on time- a cool three hours 41 minutes door to door- and could probably do it quicker as the train slowed through Antwerp and leaving Brussels.

But the rest was the stuff of nightmares and the return direct journey is  a fake  forcing everyone to change at Brussels onto other trains – due to the British obsession of  ” taking control of our borders”. And this is before Brexit takes effect.

But the real scandal is the way Eurostar treat disabled people by making false promises and leaving people in the lurch – made worse by poor internal communications and different national systems.

I made sure we had disabled help by contacting Eurostar in mid March and was promised help in London, Amsterdam and Brussels. So it should have been no worries.

The help at London St Pancras worked both on the way there and the way back and the train left on time.

It was only on the journey that things started to go wrong. The service is packed to Brussels – which is the first stop – but then most people get off including the entire train crew. The service then  takes on Dutch crew and becomes a bit of ghost train with few passengers yet going on to Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

We were a bit puzzled by first the Belgian crew and then the Dutch crew asking what disabled assistance we wanted – which was some wheelchair assistance at Amsterdam from the platform to the exit. A few minutes before arrival we were told that there would no wheelchair assistance only someone to help get my wife off the train.

The person did arrive and was more concerned that my wife didn’t fall down the gap between the train and platform – as they wanted to lock the train up. We were then left entirely in the lurch by both the Eurostar staff and the station staff to find our own way out.

I tweeted my complaint to Eurostar and they responded with this:

Thank you for your details. We can see that the Eurostar Assistance Team sent a request to assist you on 14th March to our counterparts. We are sorry to hear this did not happen and have forwarded your feedback. For your return please go to the Information Desk in Amsterdam Centraal Station on arrival and they can arrange for your assistance to Thalys train. At Brussels Midi you need to go to Eurostar Assist Desk by ticket gates . Each terminal has been advised of request of assistance.

On the way back the real drama began. At Amsterdam Centraal yes they knew we had assistance but we were suddenly told they do not provide wheelchairs except for emergencies. If my wife had fallen over or fell off the train they would help. The information office is on Platform 1 and the train departs from Platform 15 and you only get 20 minutes notice of which platform.

Luckily the woman took pity on us – since no way could my wife get to the train on time – because she walks slowly and was suffering as well from an arthritic knee to add to our problems.

The member of staff  broke the rules and despite being reprimanded by another staff member en route took my wife on a wheelchair to the station platform allowing us to get the train.

Then there was Brussels. There was no one to meet us off the Thalys train and although it came into Brussels Midi at platform 3 and Eurostar is on platform 1 there is a long walk through a shopping mall to get there. So given Eurostar allowed less than 50 minutes for the change, it took us nearly 30 minutes to hobble along in pain. I did go ahead to Eurostar to get assistance but there was a huge queue which spilled  onto the concourse for the train. When I tried to reach the assistance office inside the entrance I was blocked by other passengers ( there were no staff at the entrance) for queue jumping and they wouldn’t let me pass.

When we did get there – Eurostar had to act fast and the wheelchair man was almost running to get the train. Only to be delayed by British immigration  who were quizzing two dark skinned people in front of us about their right to come to the UK. The woman immigration official  reading as though from the UKIP handbook told them ” We don’t just  allow anyone to come into our country” . I suspect she was personally recruited by Theresa May to create ” a hostile environment” for people of colour.

We got there just in time but the train left late because of ” boarding problems” caused I suspect by the immigration jam. I suspect all Eurostar trains will leave late after Brexit.

Back in England West Midlands trains provided an excellent service at Euston and on the train back to Berkhamsted with the guard personally making sure my wife could get off the train there. Ironically West Midlands trains is mainly owned by Dutch railways.

Frankly if you are disabled do NOT go by Eurostar to Amsterdam, fly instead. Their service is not fit for purpose and the Brussels interchange is likely to continue until the end of 2019 because there are no customs facilities at Amsterdam. I am doing a separate investigation into why this has happened and the news will not be good for British  people wanting to travel to Europe by rail.

Eurostar responded:

 “We can see that you and your wife did not receive the right support during your recent journey. As part of the booking process, our teams did not correctly request the assistance services at each point of the journey and for this we sincerely apologise. I would like to respond to your specific questions as follows:

 We offer assistance services (for wheelchair users and other passengers with reduced mobility) in Amsterdam which are provided by NS, the Dutch railway operator. These services are available for passengers booked in the dedicated wheelchair space, and also for other passengers traveling in standard seating. These assistance services are available by contacting Eurostar at least 48 hours in advance of travel. The special assistance service provided by NS at Amsterdam is an escort from the meeting point to the platform. Unfortunately, NS does not provide wheelchairs as part of this assistance service. ( my emphasis)

–          On arrival into Brussels on a Thalys service, the special assistance services are provided by SNCB, the Belgian railway operator.  SNCB will meet the passenger at platform level and escort the passenger to the Eurostar Assist welcome point at the Channel Tunnel Terminal. From this point, Eurostar team members will escort the passenger through Eurostar check-in and up to the platform to board the train bound for London.

–          At Eurostar stations the Eurostar Assist welcome points are located on the main concourse with all check-in facilities. There are Eurostar Assist welcome points when departing from London, Ashford, Ebbsfleet, Lille, Paris and Brussels.  In Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Marne-la-Vallee, Lyon, Avignon, Marseilles and ski destinations – there are Special Assistance points in these stations usually provided by, or on behalf of, the station manager. We will pass your feedback on regarding your experience and your inability to access the Eurostar Assist welcome point due to congestion.

 “We do strive to make Eurostar journeys as seamless as possible for all of our travellers, and will be sharing your comments with our partners. In addition, we will be updating our website with more information about the Special Assistance services, and specifically about the connecting return journey from Amsterdam, in direct response to your feedback. (my emphasis) We thank you for your feedback which has helped us to continue to improve our services to passengers with assistance needs.

Shambolic Stansted: How you can grab duty free booze without leaving the country unchecked by short staffed customs and immigration

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stansted airport pic credit:London Stansted Airport

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Just before Stansted  was  hit by a bus fire which wrecked people’s Easter holiday flights Parliament received a damning report on the state of border controls at the airport by David Bolt, Independent Chief Inspector of Borders  and Immigration.

Rushed out with four other reports from the inspectorate at the close of Parliament it went unnoticed by mainstream media.

What it disclosed is that the airport has been at the centre of a duty free scam  under the noses of the border force enabling  UK residents to get cheap duty free fags, perfume and booze without leaving the country.

It worked like this. Buy the cheapest  air ticket from say Ryanair or Jet 2.com, get through customs and immigration control, go to duty free. Once there stock up with booze, fags, perfume. designer goods and then walk out of another exit to the baggage hall pretending you are on an incoming flight. Then leave the airport.

The scam first discovered in an earlier report in 2013 has been claimed by Stansted Airport’s management to have been stopped though inspectors are sceptical.

The report says: “Border Force and Manchester Airport Group (MAG)  (owners of Stansted) told inspectors that they had addressed this issue, and the number of such incidents had been greatly reduced. Border Force reported that “the newly created Stansted Crime Team had prioritised working with Duty Free Retail Partners as part of its routine to combat fraud and engagement with partners in this area had had demonstrable results with a number of cigarette seizures that were illicitly obtained.”

However inspectors checking arrangements last year had a different view.

It says they didn’t see any fraud but “they did witness individuals who had not travelled exiting the restricted zone via a channel marked “Returning Passengers”. A MAG employee was tasked with verifying that individuals using this channel
had not arrived from abroad (by asking to check their ticket) before allowing them to enter the baggage hall.
“There were no Border Force staff in the “Returning Passengers” channel, and the MAG employee did not appear to notify Border Force of individuals entering the baggage hall via this route. Inspectors did not observe any customs checking of these individuals as they exited.”

The report also finds a whole series of discrepancies between the management of the airport and the staff views of what is really happening. Management say staff are content while staff say they have low morale.

For a start it has never had a full complement of borders force staff and over a  third of its 199 full time equivalent staff is on stand by – so called seasonal workforce (SWF)- mainly retired ex policeman- called in during peak periods which now extended to most of the time  who can only monitor e-gates and sit on the immigration desk.

“Inspectors were told that levels of experience at Stansted were “dwindling” with fewer and fewer staff with the skills required to carry out a range of duties. As a result, managers were finding rostering increasingly difficult and time-consuming. Inspectors were also told that rosters were dependent on the availability of SWF, because there were not enough permanent staff. ”
“The main complaint from frontline staff was that they were not able to access skills training,especially the nationally-managed “Core Skills” training required for different Border Force roles.

“As well as impacting morale, particularly where staff believe that Border Force has failed to deliver on promises made to them about developing them as “multi-functional officers” and providing job variety, the failure to provide skills training has created inflexibilities in terms of how staff can be deployed.

“This is inefficient and damaging to Border Force’s operational effectiveness. It therefore needs to be dealt with as a priority.”

The inspectors found safeguarding issues – particularly in checking whether 12 to 17 year olds who could use e-gates  by themselves with hardly any monitoring.

And a disastrous re-organisation and centralisation of parcels checks meant that seizures of illegal drugs  collapsed at one stage and only just recovering. “This function was centralised to the fast-parcel hub at East Midlands Airport, which now generates alerts and targets for itself and for Stansted. Staff at Stansted told inspectors that, initially, this change had resulted in a “collapse” in seizures.”

Added to that :The customs teams working with freight and fast parcels told inspectors that they were hampered by a lack of suitable detection equipment, for example to test and identify controlled substances.”

And inspectors suspect that border force people may miss people being trafficked into the UK due to shortages of skilled staff.

The report concluded that management has just ” a tick box mentality” which did not correspond with the reality on the ground.

Stansted is the nation’s fourth busiest airport. Half the people using it are British and all but 10 per cent are from the European Union. One wonders what will happen post Brexit and post a plan to double the size of the airport if it cannot cope at the moment. This is not a pretty picture of British competence.