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Illegal airport bags search probe

Airport luggage carousel28/02/13

By Daniel Machin

We all put trust in airports to handle our luggage with the utmost care, hoping they will keep our items safe as we jet off around the world.

But inspectors have warned that border officials at one of Britain's busiest airports could have conducted illegal searches of our property without us knowing.

In the year to September, a report revealed that Border Force staff seized 1,147 pieces of luggage as a result of secret baggage searches at Birmingham Airport.

However, there was no record of instances in which these searches did not result in a successful seizure - meaning there is no way of knowing the total number of covert searches conducted during the period and whether border staff were breaching passengers' rights.

"The absence of these records meant that no assurance could be provided to demonstrate that this power was being used in a lawful, proportionate and controlled manner," said chief inspector of borders and immigration John Vine.

Birmingham Airport handles more than 8.5 million passengers and around 84,000 flights a year - so there is the potential that a large number of people could have had their bags searched.

The report follows a short-notice inspection of at the airport, with managers also admitting there had been no checks made to ensure correct procedures were being followed when luggage was being searched to protect human rights.

Mr Vine said all guidance on covert searches was "contradictory and out of date" resulting in staff following different procedures.

A ban was placed on baggage searches back in 2007, although this was lifted a year later allowing officials to once again open luggage without the need to seek permission from passengers.

Guidance released by HM Revenue and Customs in 2008 declared that the power to carry out covert baggage searches must be used "proportionately" and only to combat smuggling.

But Border Force guidelines state that it is prohibited unless written permission has been provided in advance from a relevant authority.

Despite this fact, the report into activity at Birmingham Airport found that staff were still carrying out covert baggage searches.

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