Enhancing UK coastal security: The need to look beyond vessel numbers.

Elmscott, Devon

Rocky Coastline near Elmsott, Devon © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence geograph

On Wednesday 3rd August, the House of Commons Home Affairs Select committee published its latest report, ‘Migration Crisis’ part of which examined coastal security in the United Kingdom (UK). The report is timely and comprehensive, albeit does not offer many fresh insights for those interested in maritime security issues. Within the report the committee argued that the UK has a “worryingly low” (p. 43) number of vessels to patrol the UK coast, with a fleet of just five UK Border Force (UKBF) vessels, of which only three are currently deployed. This figure, and associated committee description, unsurprisingly gained media attention, and I was asked to offer my views on both Wednesday’s BBC Radio Kent drivetime programme and the evening BBC Mark Forrest show. During the interview with Mark Forrest I explained that I disagreed with the use of the phrase ‘worryingly low’ to describe the current number of UKBF vessels. While I do believe that the UK and specifically UKBF would benefit from having more cutters at its disposal, I dislike short, relatively emotive phrases being pulled out and over-emphasised when describing complex security pictures. Such language use risks over-simplifying and squeezing the space for reasoned debate, subsequently making it more difficult for interested parties to analyse security needs and set-out the appropriate and proportionate policy and operational response.


Beyond a concern with language use, the focus on UKBF vessel numbers also represents a problematic approach to evaluating the status of UK coastal security efforts. First, there is the challenge of accessing accurate data. The Home Affairs Select Committee provide (p. 11) a table comparing the number of coastguard and other patrol vessels in European maritime countries. Clearly designed to drill home their argument that the UK is under-resourced in this area, the reader is informed that Italy can draw upon 600 vessels to patrol its 4,722 mile coast. A little disconcerting however is that the committee seem to have utilised Wikipedia as their sole source for a number of the figures in their table, including the Italy figure. A second challenge associated with the focus on vessel numbers is that it encapsulates a rather narrow focus on quantity over capabilities. As readers of this briefing are well aware, vessels vary quite considerably in their capacity, whilst raw fleet numbers do not necessarily correspond with readily deployable assets. A third challenge is that however many vessels you have their value rests quite considerably on the intelligence on which they are being deployed. This is particularly the case when you are policing long coastlines such as in the UK (over 7000 miles) and where no amount of vessels can guarantee the creation of an impenetrable maritime buffer.


It is this focus on intelligence gathering and sharing that is ultimately at the heart of effective coastal security. Put simply the security authorities must embrace a risk management approach to maritime security challenges, utilising assets appropriately; a situation made ever more necessary in an era of shrinking public expenditure as currently witnessed in the UK. Overall the UK has a mature approach to maritime security, clearly encapsulated in the National Strategy for Maritime Security and in the National Maritime Information Centre (NMIC), to name just two examples. Operationally, the UKBF can also draw upon information resources well beyond those captured by border force vessels at sea. There are of course areas to improve – as there always is – with the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Bolt, highlighting a series of operational weaknesses around the UK’s awareness of General Maritime activities in a recent report. One example of a weakness highlighted by the inspectorate was a failure by UKBF to circulate sufficiently widely Zonal Intelligence Assessments within the agency. (p. 36). Other operational challenges around intelligence gathering are highlighted as being largely outside the control of the UKBF with, for example, the report noting that only approximately 5% of pleasure craft had Automatic Identification System (AIS) fitted (p.31). Such a situation serves as a further reminder of the constraints facing the state as it seeks to gain a fuller picture of activity in the maritime domain. Here, as I will argue in a future briefing, the general public working and living in coastal areas have a valuable and crucial role to play.


Ultimately the Home Affairs Select Committee’s report should be commended for bringing in to the public domain consideration of UK coastal security. Set against the backdrop of national news coverage of two incidents of migrant smuggling by sea across the English Channel, it is unlikely such attention will diminish any time soon. But with this increased attention comes the necessity to ensure the evaluation of current UK provision in relation to coastal security explicitly recognises the complexity of the maritime domain and as such does not over-emphasise isolated statistics such as the number of Border Force vessels.


For those readers with BBC iplayer access, the interviews can be found here (from 1:05:30) and here (from 1:14:00).

Migrants in the English Channel: The need for a realistic and holistic approach to maritime border management.

There has been significant media coverage over the Bank Holiday weekend on the case of 18 Albanian migrants rescued off the coast of Kent as their vessel began sinking. Two men from Kent have since been charged under the Immigration Act, 1971 with conspiring to facilitate the entry of non-European Union (EU) nationals in to the United Kingdom (UK). Amidst the increasingly febrile atmosphere surrounding the United Kingdom’s EU referendum, there is a very real danger that efforts to attain a realistic and sustainable response to this challenge may be hindered.

The Kent case is by no means likely to be a one-off. With nearly 20,000 miles of coastline to police, the likelihood that other vessels with migrants* have landed in the past, and efforts to arrive will be made in the future, is high. Moreover with migrants desperate to embark upon a new life in the UK and very able to learn from means of travel deployed in southern Europe, combined with criminal entities willing to exploit this suffering, few should be surprised at the latest developments. However, it is important to place the challenge witnessed in perspective. We are not about to witness the scale of movement across the English Channel (of for that matter the North or Irish Seas) akin to that being witnessed in the Mediterranean or Aegean. The number of willing migrants is far lower, whilst both the UK and our European allies have far greater means available to respond to the situation from shoreside to shoreside. Hyperbole from politicians and the media will serve only to hinder efforts to respond and risks poisoning debate on the most effective way to manage the UK’s borders and handle migration.

When considering a response it is first worth recognising the most obvious of points – the UK is an island nation. Too often a form of ‘sea blindness’ seems to have taken hold amongst political leaders and the public as a whole whereby there is clear acknowledgement of the UK’s island-status but a failure to appreciate that while seas are both natural buffers and the medium which connects land, they need policing. Moreover, there is a requirement to acknowledge that it is impossible to prevent all vessels embarking upon illicit activities – be that the smuggling of people, drugs or arms – from reaching the UK’s shores. The UK’s major ports of entry are very well policed but if we are seeking coastal impregnability, then we are chasing a mirage. Any efforts to claim otherwise pose a real danger of undermining public trust in our political and security apparatus. With these starting premises acknowledged however it is possible to map out a holistic approach to maritime border management.

  • Underpinning any response needs to be the acknowledgement that prevention is better than cure. The links between development, security and good governance are widely accepted, but not always sufficiently elaborated upon, particularly in the maritime domain. The government must continue to highlight and put in place policies to manage the push and pull factors associated with migration to the UK. Alongside this we must acknowledge our very specific international and moral responsibilities with regards to refugees.
  • If migrants are found at sea or make it to the UK shore then this is likely to be the result of some form of weakness in policing elsewhere. Here then co-operation is crucial – particularly with our European allies – to ensure that information and available assets are shared and infrastructure and legal mechanisms are in place to prevent migrants embarking on these dangerous journeys from mainland Europe in the first place. While major ports of entry are the subject of considerable focus, monitoring general maritime activity (e.g. pleasure craft) is more difficult. The UK’s Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has inspected UK responses to general maritime and general aviation (as seen here).
  • Maritime Domain Awareness is critical to gaining a clearer picture of activity in the waters around the UK. While Coastguard and Royal Navy vessels contribute to this awareness we should not underestimate the information already at the authorities’ disposal. The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and for safety reasons at a minimum traffic is carefully monitored. The UK also has its own National Maritime Information Centre where information from multiple sources is shared to help enhance maritime security. While it is always possible to collect more information, the UK is already well disposed in this area.
  • Additional vessels (and aerial support) would clearly help in enhancing awareness, act as a deterrent, and provide the UK with greater search and rescue capacity. Concern over the number of vessels available to the respective authorities is long-standing, with a lack of maritime capacity noted to me over five years ago when conducting PhD research in and around the UK’s coastline. However purchasing and operating more vessels is no panacea. Even if funds were unlimited (and they are clearly not), it is simply impossible to maintain a ‘wall’ of vessels. Moreover, the challenges of operating at sea, the legal responsibilities to protect the lives of those in need, and the political ramifications of any maritime engagement undoubtedly complicates matters further.
  • A holistic response to maritime border management must also utilise the vast human assets available within the broader maritime community – those living, working, and visiting our long coastline. The UK has longstanding initiatives such as Project Kraken and Coast Watch Wales where coastal communities are asked to report suspicious activity. What is required now is a clearer understanding of the strengths, opportunities, and potential pitfalls of such initiatives in helping facilitate a holistic response to maritime border management going forwards. If we accept, as we must, that some vessels will reach land, then knowing what, where, when and how a vessel landed is of crucial importance.
  • Finally the UK must ensure its legal framework and broader infrastructure effectively and humanely manages those migrants who arrive in the UK and punishes those facilitating illicit activities.

The news stories over the Bank Holiday weekend remind us that the UK’s vast and beautiful coastline is an entry point in to the country for those conducting a whole host of illicit activities. Yet it is important to remember the UK’s response to these challenges is, in relative terms, well developed and mature. There remain grounds for improvement as there always is, but hyperbole will do little to aid efforts to attain a realistic and holistic approach to maritime border management.


*In this blog post I use the term ‘migrants’, as many media organisations including the BBC do, as a neutral term encapsulating economic migrants and refugees.

A flawed EU project, an internationalist worldview, and the desire for a UK democratic boost – Why I will be voting for the UK to leave the EU

As all United Kingdom (UK) nationals registered to vote have an equal say in the upcoming European Union (EU) membership referendum, and because of my long-standing interest in International Affairs, I wanted to lay out my personal views on one of the most significant votes in the recent history of my country.

EU referendum poll cardA little over two weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending two days in The Netherlands presenting at a Global Oceans Governance conference in The Hague. It was the latest overseas trip of the many I have been fortunate to participate in through my role as a Research Fellow in Maritime Security within a UK University. This is a job I love; affection that in large part stems from the ability to travel widely across Europe and beyond, engaging with people to build networks in order to tackle maritime security challenges. At this latest conference on oceans governance I was reminded of the way in which complex challenges around the protection of the environment and enhancing human security need multi-layered, multi-actor, co-operative approaches. I am a natural internationalist. I believe in dialogue, co-operating to achieve positive change. No one country is nor can be a political island isolated from all others, whatever backdrop history and geography bequeath it. What the conference also reminded me was that the world stretches well beyond the shores of the UK or indeed the continent of Europe.

I am also by nature a conservative. While I regularly have moments where I am gripped with grand plans as to how the very many injustices and insecurities people face can be tackled, and wish nothing more than to throw out of the door elements of existing laws and institutions and start afresh; I deliberately temper my enthusiasm. Not for want of bringing about positive change, but because I am wary of the often perfectly manicured lines of the grand plan and the occasional hubris of those selling them. I do believe in the conservative idea of the importance of seeing the world as it is, but I do not believe this should be an excuse not to – when witnessing deficiencies – act with the best of intentions, to make right those deficiencies. I also believe that change is difficult, it is often better to make it incrementally, and that we can never fully predict nor control its consequences. Yet again, I cannot and do not take that principle to one logical conclusion that change is therefore too troublesome to make at all, unless it is compelled. There are risks to more or less everything we do as individuals, families, communities, countries, indeed the international community. Risk must be a consideration when pursuing change, but cannot be a block to change.

With this background in mind I have come to the conclusion, after considerable thought and to be honest with some difficulty, that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. While no one can accuse me of rushing my decision; as those who know me can testify I like to think through issues of such importance in depth, considering different viewpoints and imagining the multiple consequences of any decision. This process of deliberation has both been helped and hindered by my family, friends and work colleagues. Helped because they have given me their insights, offered support and challenged my thinking with enthusiasm and good grace; hindered because I am acutely aware that for many of my colleagues, themselves citizens of other EU countries or related to such citizens, there is genuine concern about the implications of a UK vote to leave. I am not immune to these concerns or their passionate arguments as to why we should stay. On balance however I believe it is in the best interests of the UK to leave the EU.

My argument for departure is multi-faceted and rests on a belief that the UK must remain an open, welcoming, outward looking country outside the EU. More specifically my argument has three main components – (1) a belief that a vote to leave the EU will provide a democratic boost to the UK, strengthening the umbilical cord between the public and their political leaders that is at the heart of any functioning democracy, (2) recognition that the UK is at its best when it looks outwards and embraces a truly internationalist worldview, and (3) a loss of faith in the European Union, a project that is flawed in its current form. Let me take each, briefly, in turn.

A democratic boost:

In the House of Commons in 1947, Sir Winston Churchill quoted the words of an unknown predecessor:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”[1]

In just two sentences Churchill captured the potency, the beauty and yet the fragility of democracy. The ability for the people to select their representatives, individuals who subsequently make decisions on the people’s behalf, but who can, should the people decide, be kicked out of office. The EU today fails to give sufficient capacity to the peoples of Europe to influence its decision-making processes and hold its decision-makers to account. Indeed the EU as an entity has consistently failed to respect the democratic will of the people, rejecting referendum decisions in France, Ireland or Greece in pursuit of its political and economic vision for Europe. This situation has left the public disenchanted and disenfranchised and I see little prospect for positive change here in the current EU. To utilise the terminology of Tony Benn, the umbilical cord between people and representatives that is at the heart of democracy is, in the current EU, being stretched to breaking point.

Tony Benn was a strong champion of parliamentary democracy consistently challenging the democratic standing of the EU. In the House of Commons he once set out five democratic questions that remain of utmost relevant today: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” He subsequently concluded that, “If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”[2] Benn was and remains right. As such by leaving the EU the UK will receive a democratic boost as more decision-making comes back to the UK Parliament, closer to the people.

An internationalist worldview:

I also believe that the UK is at its best when it thinks international, engages with all parts of the globe, yet is not overly-reliant on any. In a number of ways the EU has become an insular entity, pursing protectionist economic policies, for example around agriculture that disadvantage both the European consumer and non-EU farmers; whilst maintaining a ‘Fortress Europe’ mentality that has contributed to the poisoned debate around migration we now witness. By leaving the EU, the UK will be required to broaden its horizons, further engaging with and embracing the emerging economies and rising powers of the 21st century. The UK is well-placed to serve as an anchor between the ‘old’ world order and ‘new’ and I believe can pursue this role more effectively outside the EU.

The flawed EU project:

In its current form I have also come to the conclusion that the EU is a flawed project. My view here is undoubtedly shaped by my political principles. I believe in devolving power to the lowest level possible; I am sceptical of large bureaucracies and the bureaucratic mindset; I seek a leaner, enabling state. The EU fails on all these points, too slow to enact its principle of subsidiarity; maintaining a bureaucracy that is cumbersome in the digital, knowledge economy; pursuing policies that stifle economic progress. Previously I have always sought reform from within. The argument that you work for change more effectively inside than outside an organisation appealed to me. I also readily accept that membership of a multi-member organisation requires compromise. Yet, the experience of the last couple of decades has left me deeply sceptical that the EU can sufficiently change in a way that I feel is beneficial for the UK.

David Cameron’s negotiation, while pursued with goodwill, showed the limited purchase amongst the political elites in the EU of the UK’s vision of a more limited, multi-directional EU. Proposed reforms were linked to potential EU treaty changes that may never happen, terminology over the EU’s vision was tweaked without fundamentally changing EU decision-making processes, a sop to the democratic will of member-states was encapsulated in a ‘red card’ mechanism for blocking EU policy designed in such a way as to be unlikely ever to be widely utilised. Despite British opt-outs and vetoes we cannot confuse the micro and macro pictures. Yes the UK scores periodic victories within the apparatus of the EU, but over the last 40 years the overall direction of travel has been towards ‘ever closer union’. We had Maastricht, Lisbon, the Euro. It is little surprise the British government rarely mentions its reform deal.

Ultimately I do not believe there is a European demos able to effectively sustain the vision for the EU dreamt up by those running the organisation. Moreover the more limited and flexible EU that I believe most Brits seek is not a vision sufficiently shared by the political elites of the EU to have any likelihood of implementation in the near future. I do not argue that the rest of the EU should simply bow to British requests; we can accept the visions for the EU between the UK and the EU elites (not necessarily the peoples of EU member-states mind) differ. Indeed there comes a point when the views and needs of one (or even two or three) states are pushed to one side for the views and needs of the remaining 20+ states. But in acknowledging this divergence of vision and needs it seems prudent to consider whether an amicable parting of the UK from the EU may not be beneficial for all parties?

At this current time and in thus current context I believe it will be. A British departure from the EU will allow us to forge a relationship of mutual respect and co-operation with the EU based on the best interests of both parties; it will offer an alternate vision for co-operation between the nation-states of the European continent to those countries that seek it; it will allow the EU to pursue the deeper integration that is going to be necessary to make the Euro have any chance of working sustainably and more fairly going forwards.

Towards the referendum:

I recognise that some will share my three principles but draw different conclusions on the viability, appropriateness and value of our EU membership. This is the joy of being free thinking individuals able to have our say in a referendum. I am extremely pleased and grateful that this current British government has given the people of the country a say on this vital relationship where many of its predecessors did not. There will also be many more people who regard my thinking on the EU as misguided. They may argue that the EU can be reformed and that you don’t leave the club lightly. They may argue that leaving would be a retrograde step for the British economy or national security. They may argue it is just too much of a risk, an unnecessary leap in to the unknown.

When it comes to the economic and wider national security considerations of leaving the EU, I would not deny that, in the short term at least, there will be some uncertainty. Yet as I have looked at the economic arguments laid out by supporters of each side and those who declare neutrality, the inherent difficulties of accurately predicting economic issues is very evident. I believe that the country will economically adapt to its place outside the EU and emerge better able to more effectively engage and trade with the rising economies of tomorrow, increasing our prosperity. I also note the tales of impending doom from political elites and big business that accompanied the UK’s decision not to join the Eurozone – now repeated over EU membership – and which were found to be near completely wrong. In terms of national security, the UK will not suddenly disappear from the European continent or its obligations to its neighbours. We will still be members of NATO, we will still have military partnership agreements with European states such as France, we will still be a member of the crucial intelligence-sharing ‘Five Eyes’ scheme, we will still be able to co-operate with our neighbours for the common good. The mechanism to achieve that co-operation will be the change.

Discussions about the economy and national security illustrate a key plank of the campaign to keep the UK in the EU, namely the need to avoid the risks associated with leaving. We should not be hamstrung by the fear of change. The risks being flagged up by the Remain campaign are less significant than they suggest, whilst we cannot forget there are risks and unknowns if we vote to remain. Very few people would have predicted five years ago the EU’s current position needing increased fiscal and political integration to sustain the Euro, an EU struggling to reverse mass unemployment, an EU witnessing the rise of extremist political parties. Ultimately uncertainty and risks surround us all and at all times. If we froze in the face of uncertainty and risk, refusing to change the status-quo when it is clearly failing, then very few of the major economic, political and socially progressive changes of our time would ever have taken place. To put it another way, we sometimes need risk and uncertainty to make necessary leaps forward. Very few people for example take on a mortgage on a new home without concerns about their investment, potential interest rate rises and so forth. Yet millions nevertheless take out a mortgage because the desire to gain a new asset, build something for yourself and your family is a risk worth taking.

Taken together these are the reasons why I will vote for the UK to leave the EU.

The referendum campaign ahead will undoubtedly be filled with selective information, carefully chosen case studies and even the odd half-truth by both sides in order to persuade the voters to vote one way or the other. In a referendum with just two options there is also a tendency for over-simplification. As voters however we are in a position of ultimate power that we must maximise. Our political leaders must come to us, they must persuade us and we can welcome them with a listening ear and a critical mindset. Then we must vote – whichever side of the argument we decide upon – we must exercise our democratic duty. Collectively we are writing the beginning of the next chapter of the United Kingdom’s history; what an absolute honour.



I have been asked elsewhere what my alternative to the EU is. I am of the view that departure from the EU will, of itself, be a positive for the UK because we will depart a flawed project, be required to look and act with greater internationalism as a country and we will gain a democratic boost. It stands to reason that for me, any alternative relationship with what remains of the EU should not diminish these gains. I am of the firm belief that a future UK-EU relationship will be a negotiated, specific relationship. Such a deal would have free trade at its heart. The only European states not in a free trade area with the EU are Russia and Belarus. I cannot envisage a realistic scenario where the UK does not share in a free trade area with the EU.



[1] https://richardlangworth.com/worst-form-of-government (First accessed: 18.04.16)

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/mar/15/10-of-the-best-tony-benn-quotes-as-picked-by-our-readers (First accessed 18.04.16)