Customs desks are reportedly being left unmanned at Heathrow Terminal 5 despite the arrival of “high-risk” flights from around the world.
Inspectors found no Border Force officers on duty when the flights arrived, with hundreds of passengers passing through customs unchecked, The Times reported.
The discovery was made during an inspection of Heathrow by staff working for the chief inspector of borders. They spent almost 25 hours watching 78 officers in the customs channel at Terminal 5 last year.
The findings, released by David Bolt, who took over as chief inspector in May, raise the prospect that passengers from hundreds of flights are passing through unchecked every year.
“On eight occasions during this period there were no officers in the customs channels at one or both of the two exits, despite the fact that a number of high-risk flights were arriving at the time,” the report said.
It said that during interviews, some staff said they felt that the focus on managing queues resulted in no customs activity even at times when high-risk flights had just landed.
Staff said that managers acted quickly in busy periods to manage queues at the terminal, but that officers were rarely asked to cover the customs channels when immigration desks were quiet.
The report said that Border Force officers were failing to meet internal targets for the seizure of illegal goods, apart from products of animal origin.
They had met only 46% of the target for the seizure of class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine, 32% for cash, 54% for tobacco and 89% for cigarettes.
Border Force officers blamed the government’s insistence that lengthy queues do not build up at passport control for the shortage of checks,
Managers at Terminal 5 defended their record, emphasising that they worked to meet all targets and balance operation priorities, the report said.
Philip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley and a member of the Commons justice select committee, told the newspaper: “This is completely unacceptable and makes our border controls a mockery. The home secretary needs to get a grip on this straight away. The public will rightly be appalled about this.”
Lucy Moreton, general secretary of the Immigration Service Union, said: “Pressure to examine every arriving passenger for immigration purposes and an aversion to adverse publicity on queuing times mean that there are simply not enough staff to perform the secondary [Customs] role, sometimes leaving the channels unstaffed.
“This comes down to a political decision: resource the border sufficiently or decide which elements the government no longer wish staff to perform.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “The chief inspector found that Heathrow Border Force is conducting all required security checks, performing effectively and efficiently and providing an improved customer service.
“A flexible, intelligence-led approach allows Border Force to direct its resources more effectively and ensure that effort is focused on areas which represent the highest risk.”
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