Shambolic Stansted: How you can grab duty free booze without leaving the country unchecked by short staffed customs and immigration
Just before Stansted was hit by a bus fire which wrecked people's Easter holiday flights Parliament received a damning report on the state of border controls at the airport by David Bolt, Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.
Rushed out with four other reports from the inspectorate at the close of Parliament it went unnoticed by mainstream media.
What it disclosed is that the airport has been at the centre of a duty free scam under the noses of the border force enabling UK residents to get cheap duty free fags, perfume and booze without leaving the country.
It worked like this. Buy the cheapest air ticket from say Ryanair or Jet 2.com, get through customs and immigration control, go to duty free. Once there stock up with booze, fags, perfume. designer goods and then walk out of another exit to the baggage hall pretending you are on an incoming flight. Then leave the airport.
The scam first discovered in an earlier report in 2013 has been claimed by Stansted Airport's management to have been stopped though inspectors are sceptical.
The report says: "Border Force and Manchester Airport Group (MAG) (owners of Stansted) told inspectors that they had addressed this issue, and the number of such incidents had been greatly reduced. Border Force reported that “the newly created Stansted Crime Team had prioritised working with Duty Free Retail Partners as part of its routine to combat fraud and engagement with partners in this area had had demonstrable results with a number of cigarette seizures that were illicitly obtained.”
However inspectors checking arrangements last year had a different view.
It says they didn't see any fraud but "they did witness individuals who had not travelled exiting the restricted zone via a channel marked “Returning Passengers”. A MAG employee was tasked with verifying that individuals using this channel
had not arrived from abroad (by asking to check their ticket) before allowing them to enter the baggage hall.
"There were no Border Force staff in the “Returning Passengers” channel, and the MAG employee did not appear to notify Border Force of individuals entering the baggage hall via this route. Inspectors did not observe any customs checking of these individuals as they exited."
The report also finds a whole series of discrepancies between the management of the airport and the staff views of what is really happening. Management say staff are content while staff say they have low morale.
For a start it has never had a full complement of borders force staff and over a third of its 199 full time equivalent staff is on stand by - so called seasonal workforce (SWF)- mainly retired ex policeman- called in during peak periods which now extended to most of the time who can only monitor e-gates and sit on the immigration desk.
"Inspectors were told that levels of experience at Stansted were “dwindling” with fewer and fewer staff with the skills required to carry out a range of duties. As a result, managers were finding rostering increasingly difficult and time-consuming. Inspectors were also told that rosters were dependent on the availability of SWF, because there were not enough permanent staff. "
"The main complaint from frontline staff was that they were not able to access skills training,especially the nationally-managed “Core Skills” training required for different Border Force roles.
"As well as impacting morale, particularly where staff believe that Border Force has failed to deliver on promises made to them about developing them as “multi-functional officers” and providing job variety, the failure to provide skills training has created inflexibilities in terms of how staff can be deployed.
"This is inefficient and damaging to Border Force’s operational effectiveness. It therefore needs to be dealt with as a priority."
The inspectors found safeguarding issues - particularly in checking whether 12 to 17 year olds who could use e-gates by themselves with hardly any monitoring.
And a disastrous re-organisation and centralisation of parcels checks meant that seizures of illegal drugs collapsed at one stage and only just recovering. "This function was centralised to the fast-parcel hub at East Midlands Airport, which now generates alerts and targets for itself and for Stansted. Staff at Stansted told inspectors that, initially, this change had resulted in a “collapse” in seizures."
Added to that :The customs teams working with freight and fast parcels told inspectors that they were hampered by a lack of suitable detection equipment, for example to test and identify controlled substances."
And inspectors suspect that border force people may miss people being trafficked into the UK due to shortages of skilled staff.
The report concluded that management has just " a tick box mentality" which did not correspond with the reality on the ground.
Stansted is the nation's fourth busiest airport. Half the people using it are British and all but 10 per cent are from the European Union. One wonders what will happen post Brexit and post a plan to double the size of the airport if it cannot cope at the moment. This is not a pretty picture of British competence.