London - Have you ever picked up your suitcase from the airport carousel and had the feeling that someone’s had a sneaky peek inside?
According to an official report, you could be right.
It seems that British airport officials are rummaging through passengers’ luggage without telling them.
Under little-known powers designed to stop drugs, weapons and other contraband entering the country, customs staff can search bags at ports and airports without informing the owner.
But border staff have been discovered carrying out the searches without proper authorisation.
Some officials said they would read confidential legal and medical documents if they found them in luggage – despite it being against the law.
Officials can require passengers to open their luggage if they are stopped while walking through the customs channel. These searches take place in front of the passenger, who can see when items are being opened.
But covert luggage searches are carried out on inbound flights after items are taken off planes but before they are placed on the carousel for passengers to collect.
Details of the searches emerged in a report published yesterday by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine.
From April to September last year hundreds of searches were carried out at regional airports across Britain. It means that every year thousands such searches will take place in our airports.
In around one in three cases officials found suspect items, but in the remainder the luggage was simply repacked and returned to the passenger, who remained unaware it had ever been inspected.
Mr Vine found a worrying lack of consistent rules on how such searches should be conducted across airports.
His inspection found covert searches took place at Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Luton and Manchester airports. Figures for searches at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted were not included.
At Luton staff were conducting searches without seeking approval from managers, who were required by law to sign off on all searches.
Record keeping was so sloppy at Edinburgh, Luton and Manchester that in half the notebooks Mr Vine examined there was no record of who authorised the search.
Staff were also found not to be recording why searches were needed.
The report said: “Staff at Edinburgh told us they would be content to examine material they considered to be confidential during a... baggage examination. Examples of confidential material discussed during staff focus groups included passengers’ personal medical records and legally privileged correspondence.”
Home Office rules state that any searches of confidential personal material need approval by a senior manager and the Surveillance Commissioner.
Mr Vine said it was a “cause for concern” that there was no staff guidance on what to do when sensitive personal material was discovered. He called for urgent updated guidance for staff on how the powers should be used.
“The power to examine passenger’s bags without their knowledge requires authorisation and justification. It is an intrusive power, but one that is necessary to protect UK border security,” he said.
“The Home Office also needs to ensure that its staff are operating to consistent national standards: Standards that are fully supported by current, easily accessible and detailed guidance.”
Emma Carr, of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, said: “It is not acceptable for luggage to be searched without a proper process being followed and records being kept.
‘”he Border Force has totally failed to protect people’s privacy and if they are incapable of putting adequate safeguards in place then the Home Office should step in and do it for them.”
The Border Force said it accepted the report’s recommendations.
A spokesman added: “The searching of baggage, including when the owner is not present, is a legal and proportionate response to ensuring that illegal goods are prevented from entering the UK and to protect revenue.
“The independent chief inspector recognises that border staff are using these powers proportionately and with high levels of success and identified occasions where their standard of work was ‘exceptional’. This report shows that we are making the right changes and significantly improving performance.” - Daily Mail