10 May 2012

Airports criticised for use of search powers

Following the row over lengthy immigration queues, terminals at Heathrow and Gatwick come under fire for their use of searches at borders, with practices at one branded “discriminatory”.

Passengers at Gatwick Airport

Gatwick Airport North Terminal has been criticised for how it carries out passenger searches and uses arrest powers in a report published following a routine inspection last year.

The airport, which handles more than 30 million passenger journeys per year, was criticised in a report by the independent chief inspector of borders for “discriminatory practice in the conduct of detection activity”.

An examination of search records showed that in 71 per cent of cases, the search was neither justified nor proportionate. Some passengers were arrested even though searches had not revealed any illicit goods.

The inspection also revealed that an analysis of searches conducted over the last two years had revealed persistent differences in the ethnicities of passengers subject to searches, with some officers using negative stereotypes to determine which passengers to stop when detecting illicit goods.

Equality duties

The chief inspector, Jon Vine, said: “The extent of any discriminatory practices [at Gatwick] should be investigated and action taken to ensure officers understand and comply with the Agency’s duties under the Equality Act 2010.”

Emma Norton, legal officer for the human rights organisation Liberty, said that indiscriminate stops are counterproductive and harmful:

“The UKBA has enough on its plate with the Olympics looming without wasting time and money on checks which are as unnecessary as they are discriminatory. Border officials have a difficult and demanding job but the Inspector’s finding that 71 per cent of searches were unjustified is deeply concerning. Searches should be based on what staff observe about a person’s behaviour – not their race or sexuality.”

‘Significant failing’ at Heathrow

A separate report on Heathrow Terminal 3 revealed concerns that search of person records showed that in 67 per cent of cases, the search was neither justified nor proportionate. Mr Vine called this “a significant failing”.

The use of search and arrest powers was not the only problem highlighted. The inspector also criticised the management at Terminal 3 for failing to match resources effectively to demand.

During the inspection period of August and November 2011, new working patterns were introduced, and Mr Vine concluded:

“management oversight and assurances was lacking in many areas and staff were not always properly trained to undertake their duties .. I remain concerned that this lack of planning has affected the Agency’s ability to maintain an effective and efficient border control.”

Political hot potato

The performance of the Border force has been in the spotlight since the row last summer between the then UK Border Force chief Brodie Clark and Theresa May over the relaxation of immigration checks in order to prevent long queues forming.

Mr Brodie resigned in November, accusing the Home Secretary Theresa May of making his position “untenable” for “political convenience”. A subsequent report by Mr Vine, published in February 2012, did heavily criticise the way the border agency was run. But in that report Mr Vine concluded:

“the Agency does now have a much firmer grip in respect of border security checks than was previously the case. A significant test will be whether this can be maintained during periods of greater passenger volume and for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

With the Games on the horizon, the length of the queues incoming passengers face to get through border controls remains a political hot potato, with Mr Cameron describing recent long queues at Heathrow as “unacceptable”. Both airline bosses and BAA, which owns many UK airports, have accused the government of double standards over the question of passenger queues – pointing out that while BAA is fined for missing targets at the departure gates, there is no fine for the Border Force if it misses its targets.

More staff

Home Office Minister Damian Green has announced extra staff to ease delays, but his assurances to the House of Commons that no queue was longer than 90 minutes has been disputed by figures released by BAA showing queues of up to 3 hours.

In these latest reports from the chief inspector, both Gatwick and Heathrow were also criticised for their failure to deal with absconders. But they added that at the time of inspection, a number of things were working well at the two airport including soundly-based decisions to refuse entry to the UK.

Since 1 March 2012 Border Force has been split from the UK Border Agency as part of a package of reforms announced by Home Secretary Theresa May.