Are 'snooping' customs officials secretly searching through your luggage?Stock photo, customs official: Getty


Ever get that niggling feeling your luggage isn't quite how you packed it? You might be right.

A new report has found that customs officials are secretly searching through thousands of passengers' bags looking for excess alcohol and cigarettes.

The report, carried out by Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine, reveals that searches are carried out on inbound flights after suitcases are taken off planes, but before they are placed at the luggage carousel for passengers to collect.

The practice appears to be rife, despite the fact that it goes against current guidelines.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Mr Vine said: "We found that covert bag checks were being undertaken by the [Border] Agency, but they weren't recording all the checks that were being made. They were only recording the ones where they found contraband in the case."

"What I'm saying in the report is that this should be recorded on every occasion."

Contradictory rules have made it impossible to check whether the searches are "lawful, proportionate and controlled", says the report.

The Daily Mail says that the Border Force Enforcement Handbook states that such searches are banned unless they take place as part of a specific operation. And even then, when the passenger is "not in attendance", officials need written authorisation from a senior manager in advance, apart from in exceptional circumstances.

But this is contradicted by a rule in draft guidance from 2008, which permits covert searches without written authorisation when used "proportionately".

The practice was uncovered after an inspection at Birmingham Airport, where 1,147 pieces of luggage were seized following secret searches in the year leading up to September 2012.

According to the Daily Mail, Mr Vine said: "I found there was no central record to show occasions where covert baggage searches were carried out. 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."

Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, which campaigns to defend civil liberties, said: "The fact the figures are not being properly collected begs the question if staff think they can get away with snooping in people's luggage in search of a quick laugh or cheap thrill."

A Border Force spokesman told the Daily Mail: "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."



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