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Customs checks overlooked by staff

Passengers rushing in the airport04/09/13

By Daniel Machin

Short airport queues and fast check-in times have come at a cost, after the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that checks aimed at thwarting drug and gun smuggling have been overlooked.

Nearly 100% of passengers at the border received full passport checks in 2012-13, while more than 99% of European arrivals cleared controls within the 25 minute target time.

Yet with security staff focussing their efforts on getting passengers through customs quicker, Border Force officers have often stopped performing key duties such as checking for illegal goods. Staff shortages also have not helped.

"The Border Force did well to reduce queuing times both during and after the Olympics, but it is deeply worrying that this came at the expense of its other responsibilities, particularly customs," said Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts.

"It must be able to check both goods and passengers at the same time - border security cannot be an either or choice."

Formed in March 2012, the Border Force has a budget of £604 million this year and officers stationed at nearly 140 sea and air ports on home soil and overseas.

It is a law enforcement command within the Home Office, set up to help deal with an expected 10 per cent surge in the number of passengers arriving in the UK on flights between 2011 and 2017 - from 106 million to 117 million.

Home Office internal auditors have confirmed that the 2012 Olympics and wider resourcing issues have had an effect on the Border Force's ability to support customs controls.

"The Border Force must be in a position to deliver world-class border controls at all times," added Ms Hodge.

"It needs to focus on developing and implementing its workforce plan to ensure it has the right number of staff in the right places, and make better use of intelligence and technology."

Elsewhere, the NAO, which is tasked with ensuring public services are delivering good value for money, claims staff working at the border lack "organisational identity".

The force is made up of officers who previously worked in separate customs and immigration agencies, who typically still identify themselves as "ex-customs" or "ex-immigration".

Five director-generals have been in post over the course of just 18 months, the auditor added, but despite a recruitment drive, there continues to be a shortage of staff to carry out all the necessary tasks expected of them.

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