Airport managers have asked Border Force officers to “drop” customs operations such as gun and drug searches in a bid to stop passport queues frustrating travellers.
Leaked emails show staff at Manchester Airport were told this month that customs work should only be carried out if “there is no likelihood of excessive waiting time”.
This meant there would be no spot checks for illegal firearms, assault weapons or drugs by customs officers, sources said. Searches could be initiated by intelligence-driven operations, such as a Class A warrant — a rare response prompted by information from the National Border Targeting Center.
The Guardian understands that staff have come under intense pressure from ministers to keep queues moving quickly, particularly during half term in parts of the UK. Heathrow staff said they had also been told not to work at customs during the February school holidays “as a precaution”.
The revelations came as Home Office sources said there was growing concern within the government that there would be another Easter and summer of chaos at UK ports and airports.
It follows a highly critical review last year into the Border Force by Alexander Downer, commissioned by former Home Secretary Priti Patel. The review concluded that Border Force’s work to prevent Class A firearms and drugs from entering had been “watered down”.
The leaked email was sent by Phil Boyle, the assistant director of Border Force North, on February 9 to staff, days before several school holidays began.
“I want to confirm the steps we need to take to stabilize the PCP [primary control point] excessive wait times and to make the best use of our border security resources,” the email said.
“With immediate effect I have asked the ADs [assistant directors] for the implementation of the following:
At Heathrow, staff said they were also directed to passport controls. “The priority was to ensure that people leaving and returning from their holidays – many were going skiing – did so without interruption.”
Downer’s report criticized the training of Border Patrol officers, saying it was done on the spot and was substandard. Customs checks were being abandoned as Border Force staff working at regional hubs were being diverted to busier ports such as Heathrow, he said.
“Border Force is sending staff from across the UK to manage shortages at Heathrow and ports in the south east of the country, taking staff away from their home ports, reducing resilience in those ports and the ability to carry out discreet but important work that the public expects from Border Force, such as customs checks in passenger channels at airports,” the report says.
Last year, the independent chief border inspector recommended the Home Office review its practices to ensure it covers customs checks after an inspection at Birmingham Airport revealed no Border Force staff working at customs because they had been diverted at checks passports to facilitate queues.
David Neill, the chief inspector, has recommended that the Home Office review checks to maintain adequate coverage of both areas or risk leaving the border vulnerable to organized crime.
“It was concerning to discover that no Border Force personnel were present at the customs channels during our inspection. Instead, officers were deployed at passport control to avoid long queues,” he said.
At the time, the Home Office partially accepted Neal’s recommendation and said in a statement that “Border Force workforce planners are working closely with frontline operations to model and review the number of personnel required at each port for to provide adequate cover for all authorized activities including immigration and customs controls’.
Responding to the leaked email and Heathrow’s claims, Home Office sources said the email had been removed from context and customs work was continuing as usual.
A Home Office spokesman said: “Border Force’s number one priority is to keep our borders safe and secure for all passengers and we will never compromise on that.
“During peak periods, resources are constantly assessed to balance all the pressures. Resources are deployed dynamically through intelligence and data to intervene against any potential threats.”