Airport managers have asked Border Patrol officers to “downgrade” customs work, such as gun and drug searches, to stop frustrating passport queues.
Leaked emails show that Manchester Airport staff were told this month that customs clearance should only be carried out if “there is no likelihood of excessive waiting time in line”.
This meant customs officers would not carry out random checks on illegal firearms, offensive weapons or drugs, sources said. Searches can be initiated by intelligence activities, such as a Category A Order – a rare response triggered by intelligence from the National Center for Border Purposes.
The Guardian understands that staff have been under intense pressure from ministers to keep queues fast, particularly mid term in parts of the UK. Staff at Heathrow said they had also been told not to work “proactively” at customs during the February school holidays.
The disclosures came as Home Office sources said fears were growing within the government that there would be another Easter and summer of chaos in Britain’s ports and airports.
It follows a highly critical review of Border Force conducted last year by Alexander Downer, on behalf of former Home Secretary Priti Patel. The review said Border Patrol efforts to prevent the introduction of Class A firearms and drugs had been “weakened”.
The leaked e-mail was sent by Phil Boyle, deputy director of Border Force North, to staff on February 9, just days before the start of many school holidays.
“I want to confirm the steps we need to take to stabilize excessive PCP (primary checkpoint) waiting times and make the best use of available resources to secure the border,” the email reads.
“Effective immediately, I have asked AD (assistant directors) to implement the following:
At Heathrow, staff said they had also been referred for passport control. “The priority was to make sure that people leaving and returning from holidays – many were going skiing – did so without interruption.”
The Downer Report criticizes customs training for Border Patrol officers, saying it was completed on the job and demoted. He said customs checks had been dropped as Border Force personnel working in regional hubs were diverted to busier ports such as Heathrow.
“The Border Force is deploying personnel from across the UK to manage shortages at Heathrow and South East ports, taking personnel from their home ports, reducing resilience at these ports and the ability to do the discretionary but important work that the public has the Border Guard, such as customs checks in passenger channels at airports,” the report reads.
Last year, the Independent Chief Border Inspector advised the Home Office to review its practices to ensure they included customs checks after an inspection at Birmingham Airport found there were no Border Force personnel working at customs as they were directed to passport control to ease the queue.
David Neal, the Chief Inspector, recommended that the Home Office review its controls to maintain adequate coverage of both areas or risk leaving the borders vulnerable to organized crime.
“It was disturbing to discover that there were no Border Guard personnel in the customs channels during our inspection. Instead, officers were sent to passport control to prevent long lines from forming,” he said.
At the time, the Home Office partially accepted Neal’s recommendation and said in a statement that “Border Force manpower planners are working closely with frontline operations to model and review the number of personnel needed at each port to ensure sufficient coverage of all authorized activities including inspections.” immigration and customs.
Responding to the leaked email and claims from Heathrow, Home Office sources said the email was taken out of context and customs work continued as usual.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Border Force’s number one priority is to keep our borders safe for all passengers and we will never compromise on this.
“During peak periods, resources are constantly being assessed to offset all pressures. Assets are dynamically deployed through intelligence and data to intervene against potential threats.”