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Bag searches may have been illegal
Border officials at one of Britain's busiest airports could have conducted illegal searches of luggage without passengers' knowledge, inspectors have warned.
Border Force staff seized 1,147 pieces of luggage as a result of secret baggage searches at Birmingham Airport in the year to September. But there was no record of the instances in which these searches did not result in a successful seizure, said John Vine, Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.
As a result, there is no way of knowing the total number of covert searches conducted in the period and whether border staff were breaching passengers' rights.
Mr Vine said: "I found there was no central record to show occasions where covert baggage searches were carried out, but no seizures were made. 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."
The report follows a short-notice inspection of Birmingham Airport, which handles more than 8.5 million passengers and around 84,000 flights a year. Managers also admitted there had been no checks made to ensure correct procedures were being followed when bags were 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 Mr Vine said all guidance on covert searches was "contradictory and out of date" resulting in staff following different procedures.
Baggage searches were banned in 2007 for a year before staff were once again permitted to open luggage without passengers' permission. HM Revenue & Customs guidance in 2008 stated 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.
The report said: "Despite the fact that the current Border Force enforcement handbook guidance prohibited this activity, staff confirmed they were carrying out covert baggage searches."
Nick Pickles, director of privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: "Security on aircraft is clearly important, however, people shouldn't be afraid that their luggage will be searched on spurious grounds or at random. People can't challenge these searches if they don't even know they're going on.
"The glaring absence of any detail about how these powers have been used leaves open a number of troubling questions, particularly how many people's luggage was searched without anything being found."
A Border Force spokesman said: "Searching baggage, including when the owner is not present, is a legal and proportionate response to this issue. Any such searches must be authorised by a senior officer. We have already taken action on the recommendations the Chief Inspector made in his report."