Warehouses to store seized goods, such as cigarettes and alcohol, were operating good systems of stock control. However, poor record keeping and discrepancies between quantities of good seized and those arriving at warehouses created opportunities for goods to be stolen and had the potential to put at risk the prosecution of smugglers. These were the findings in the Chief Inspector’s report on Border Force’s Queen’s Warehouses.
Queen’s Warehouses (QWs) are used as secure storage locations for material that has been seized or detained by Border Force, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the National Crime Agency (NCA). Examples of such seizures include excise goods (cigarettes, tobacco and alcohol), firearms and prohibited drugs. These storage locations are known as Queen’s Warehouses because when goods are seized they become ‘forfeit to the Crown’.
The Chief Inspector was pleased to find that:
• each QW inspected operated a good system of stock control and undertook stock-taking audits that provided reassurance as to the quality of their systems;
• law enforcement partners were consistent in their praise for the service that QWs provided;
• new assurance procedures, designed to provide greater confidence in the actions and activities undertaken at each of these locations were beginning to be implemented;
However, the Chief Inspector also found that:
• the majority of bulk seized excise goods arriving at Queen’s Warehouses contained some sort of discrepancy, relating either to the seals that were used to secure loads or to the paperwork not matching the goods;
• the risks caused by such poor record-keeping:
• created opportunities for both Border Force and contractor staff to steal goods;
• adversely affected the important maintenance of an effective audit trail for evidential purposes; and
• had the potential to embarrass and/or damage the reputation of the Home Office.
• these risks had been compounded by Border Force, because historically it had failed to implement robust procedures and effective assurance practices. As a result, QW staff had failed to grasp the importance of their roles in the evidential chain;
• HMRC was not informed about the frequent errors being made by its staff when seizing excise goods. This was despite detailed statistics being available;
• there were significant delays in the timely disposal of seized goods, some of which had been stored for periods in excess of 12 years;
• Border Force classified seized drugs as having no commercial value when they were due for destruction, and notified the weight and type of goods to the driver of the contracted security company who transported the goods to incinerators. These consignments would have significant value to organised criminal groups, who might view them as an easy target.
Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine CBE QPM:
“The Home Office network of Queen’s Warehouses performs a vital function in protecting the border, by ensuring the security of seized material including drugs, firearms and excise goods. At any time a large volume of seized goods are stored. The risks associated with storing such high value goods in one place are significant.
I found that once goods were deposited at the warehouses they were stored safely and securely, with each Queen’s Warehouse operating an effective system of stock control.
However, I found a high number of discrepancies between the records of goods seized and goods received at Queen’s Warehouses. This is unacceptable in such a high-risk environment and has the potential to put at risk the prosecution of offenders.
The Home Office needs to ensure that the risks of seized goods being lost or stolen, including when they are transported for disposal, are mitigated in order to ensure that any consequential reputational damage is reduced to a minimum.”
The Chief Inspector made six recommendations for improvement. These included that the Home Office improves the accuracy of record-keeping to reduce the risks of theft and loss, ensures that QW staff understand and follow the principles of the Criminal Procedures and Investigations Act 1996 and improves management oversight of the Queen’s Warehouse operation.