UK & World News

  • 28 February 2013, 17:30

Secret Baggage Searches For Air Passengers

Air passengers are having their bags secretly searched for alcohol and cigarettes in a practice that is "prohibited", an inspector's report has found.

Customs staff routinely searched travellers and holidaymakers bags without the owners being present, according to the report.

However, it raised concerns that "there were no assurances that this power was being used in a lawful, proportionate and controlled manner".

The report, by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine, found that: "There had been an absence of any assurance being undertaken to ensure that the correct procedures were being followed to protect Human Rights obligations during these searches."

Covert searches of luggage are prohibited under the current Border Force Enforcement Handbook guidance.

According to the report into practices at Birmingham Airport, information from the Border Force indicated 1,147 seizures were made as a result of the secret searches between October 2011 and September 2012.

The searches were carried out to try to catch those bringing more than their allocated allowance of cigarettes and alcohol into the country.

However, despite the large number of successful seizures, there were no records to show occasions where bag searches were made and nothing was found.

Civil liberties campaigners say that the searches that could not be guaranteed to be either "lawful or proportionate" were an abuse of power.

Nick Pickles, director of privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: "Security on aircraft is clearly important, however people shouldn't be afraid that their luggage will be searched on spurious grounds or at random.

"People can't challenge these searches if they don't even know they're going on.

"The glaring absence of any detail about how these powers have been used leaves open a number of troubling questions, particularly how many people's luggage was searched without anything being found."

Senior managers at the airport had said that the searches were carried out in accordance with the 2008 HMRC consultation and the draft Code of Practice.

After the inspection, Mr Vine's team was told that the internet-based Border Force Enforcement Handbook had now been updated to reflect the HMRC consultation paper.

However, when the inspectors checked: "Our access to the web-based Border Force Enforcement Handbook established it had not been updated to include this guidance."

A Border Force spokesperson said: "Border Force protects the public and our economy by stopping the importation and exportation of illegal and restricted goods.

"Searching baggage, including when the owner is not present, is a legal and proportionate response to this issue. Any such searches must be authorised by a senior officer.

"We have already taken action on the recommendations the Chief Inspector made in his report."

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