Borders Left Wide Open With Posts Unmanned

The Times June 20, 2006

Borders left wide open with posts unmanned
By Richard Ford, Stewart Tendler and Fran Yeoman

MINISTERS were accused yesterday of leaving Britains borders wide open to drug smugglers, criminal gangs and terrorists because too few customs officers operate at ports and airports.

The Governments anti- terror watchdog criticised a new method of border control that has left some of the busiest airports unmanned in a switch to mobile patrols.

Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC, said that customs officers were too thinly spread and was supported by police chiefs voicing private concerns that ports of entry were left unprotected.

His comments were a further blow to the Governments law and order policies, following controversies over sentencing powers for dangerous offenders, the running of the immigration service and the failure to deport foreign criminals.

Lord Carlile said in his annual report on the operation of the Terrorism Act 2000 that Britains borders were inadequately policed, customs officers were spread too thinly and there was too little deterrent to terrorists and other criminal gangs plotting to enter the UK.

Many customs desks at large ports and airports are no longer permanently staffed by customs officers as they have been transferred to mobile teams that move around the country.

Lord Carlile said that providing a telephone with a notice to call customs officials when no officers were on duty was an inadequate defence against terrorists and organised criminals.

Special branch officers also expressed alarm at ports being left without cover.

A senior police officer told The Times: The service is unhappy about the approach of Customs. You can have a major port with no coverage because they are mounting operations up the coast. It leaves gaps and gateways completely open.

Since the Customs started deploying officers in mobile teams rather than permanently manning ports, criticism has mounted that at some ports a customs officer has become a only an occasional and prized sight, Lord Carlile said.

In some ports, including Swansea, Pembroke, Falmouth, and Plymouth, there is no permanent scrutiny of travellers entering the UK, according to a public service trade union.

Lord Carlile said: I am talking about bigger ports. The work done around the small ports is quite good.

He issued his warning after being astonished when he arrived at Heathrow from a trip to South Asia in March and found no customs officers when he tried to pay duty on presents for his family.

Lord Carlile told The Times: I was now in something of a moral dilemma at what to do. In the circumstances I decided I had given the authorities the chance, I was there to declare the goods and was on closed circuit television. I decided I was not going to be held up unnecessarily so I left.

Revenue & Customs defended the policy introduced in 2003 of creating mobile teams of officers who provide intelligence-led operations at ports instead of a permanent presence.

A spokeswoman said that customs officers are deployed on the basis of intelligence rather than a thin blue line at ports across the country.

The spokeswoman said that the number of operational staff had increased from 3,800 in 2002 to 4,500 this year.

John Reid, the Home Secretary, said that officers were deployed according to risk, with strike forces deployed to meet specific risks or where there were no permanent staff.

The time has long gone when small numbers of staff, carrying out the same and similar tasks each day in fixed locations, can provide either the detection or the deterrent capability needed, he said. This targeted, risk-based, approach is also the rationale behind the use of telephones in the red channels rather than have staff dealing with the occasional passenger with goods to declare.

However, a spokesman for the Public and Commercial Services Union said that the organisation agreed with Lord Carlile about the absence of officers at ports and airports.

The spokesman said: We believe there is a need for a permanent presence at a number of ports of entry.

He added that a permanent presence would act as a deterrent to smugglers.

Patrick Mercer, the Shadow Minister for Homeland Security, said: We have been warning the Government about a lack of security at our borders. It is for this reason that we have proposed the establishment of a UK border police force.

The job of Revenue & Customs is to prevent banned goods including firearms, drugs and child pornography from entering the country.

It has sniffer dogs trained to find drugs, large sums of money, tobacco, meat and meat products, firearms and ammunition hidden inside vehicles, containers, luggage and on people.

Lord Carlile also cautioned about the threat of terror attacks by hijackers renting executive jets.

He demanded that companies renting such aircraft should be under stricter regulation.