Border Force Unattended Bag Searches Proportionate & Successful but National Assurance Procedures Lacking

Border Force’s use of the legislative power to examine a passenger’s bags without their knowledge was being exercised necessarily and proportionately, and the overall success rate was high. However, there was no national assurance procedure in place for this power and guidance on how to conduct the search was inconsistent across ports. These were the findings in the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration’s report on the use of Border Force customs examination powers to search baggage in the absence of passengers.

Section 159 of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 allows Border Force staff to examine passengers’ bags when the passenger is not in attendance. Use of this power protects the UK border, and requires authorisation from a member of staff in a management grade. This inspection examined the efficiency and quality of Border Force’s authorisation and record-keeping process.

The Chief Inspector was pleased to find:

• the overall success rate in the file sample (i.e. those occasions when prohibited or restricted goods were found during S.159 examinations) was high (33%);

• the use of the s.159 power was being exercised necessarily and proportionately;

staff were enthusiastic, capable, and committed to protecting the UK border;

• we found occasions where the quality and accuracy of notebook entries, was exceptional.

However, he was concerned that:

national assurance procedures did not include S.159 examinations. This was despite Border Force accepting a recommendation on record-keeping within our recent inspection of Birmingham Airport;

• Luton airport had been operating these baggage examinations without any authorisation procedures or assurance from managers. This error was not recognised, despite the Home Office re-issuing guidance in March 2013;

• the guidance available regarding the use of S.159 powers was not located in a single location, was inconsistently worded and was not comprehensive. Available guidance also made no mention of the steps that operational staff should consider when undertaking joint operations;

• Border Force staff employed to deliver national standards through training had differing opinions on some subjects and had delivered inconsistent messages to staff;

• the Code of Practice governing these powers needed to be re-worded to provide more clarity on how these powers were exercised.

The Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine CBE QPM, said:

“The power to examine passenger’s bags without their knowledge requires authorisation and justification. It is an intrusive power, but one that is necessary to protect UK border security.

I found it reassuring to see a high success level in an activity that, while intrusive, is clearly used proportionately to protect the UK border.

Staff were enthusiastic, capable, and committed to protecting the UK border, and I found occasions where the quality and accuracy of notebook entries, was exceptional.

However, I found that there needs to be more activity in the customs area, particularly in relation to activities that are not visible to the public.

The Home Office also needs to ensure that its staff are operating to consistent national standards: standards that are fully supported by current, easily-accessible and detailed guidance.”

The Chief Inspector made four recommendations for improvement. These included that the Home Office guidance on s159 searches is updated and communicated quickly and consistently, and managers follow nationally agreed standards when instructing staff on the performance of their duties.

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