Customs gives green light to voluntary controls: Since May, Southampton docks has been experimenting with the 'light touch' checks that come into force under EC rules next year. Terry Kirby reports

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The Independent Online
THE LINE of cars, mostly British but with a sprinkling of other European plates, streamed off the evening ferry from Cherbourg on to Southampton dockside. Each was crammed with holidaymakers, their luggage racks groaning under the strain.

Once an agonising decision would have confronted those with a few extra bottles of wine among the beach towels: the Red Channel to declare their purchases or the Green Channel and the risk of discovery. But for these travellers, the abolition of European borders due next year has arrived in 1992: there are no Green and Red channels, just the huge shed into which cars are guided and a 'Customs information point' where they can declare goods 'if they wish'.

Surveying the dockside scene, Hugh Burnard, a deputy head of Customs for the Southampton region, said: 'It is as much like crossing the Severn Bridge or Gretna Green as we can make it.'

Well, up to a point. Mr Burnard indicated a Special Branch officer lurking in the shadows, while travellers still have to submit to immigration and passport controls, who are not involved in the experiment. Despite an apparent victory for Britain in retaining these border controls, precisely how they will operate after 1 January is heatedly debated in Whitehall and Europe. Immigration officers insist they should maintain a fixed point to examine, at least symbolically, whatever means of identification is shown them.

The difference with the Severn Bridge crossing is what customs officers refer to as a 'pinch point' allowing them to examine cars which have been slowed down inside the shed and channelled into single file. Although the Green Channel and the deterrent of the casual check no longer exist, one customs officer, nicknamed 'the puller', watches the cars as they crawl past. They may have instructions to stop a particular car or type of car - perhaps as a result of information from Special Branch or customs' intelligence - or will stop cars according to their own judgement if they fit the 'profile' of a smuggler or terrorist.

Those chosen are directed into a special area for searching for 'prohibited goods' - drugs, guns, pornography, animals - but not 'revenue' goods like tobacco and alcohol. Only one customs officer is visible and the searching area is screened off.

In the past perhaps several dozen cars out of the 250-plus on the ferry would have been stopped and the process could have taken two hours to complete. Now less than half a dozen are stopped in about 20 minutes. Foot passengers are directed along a sealed passageway into a tiny hall and past another 'puller' and screened area.

Predictably, seizures of both prohibited and revenue goods have dropped. Greater intelligence, Mr Burnard said, will be the weapon in the future and officers moved from front-line work to these areas. In theory, this means that they should know who their suspects are before they get on the ferry.

But after 1 January, ferry companies operating within the EC are no longer obliged to submit to customs their manifest of names or car numbers of passengers. Customs will then rely upon the goodwill of the companies to allow access to such passenger records as they chose to keep. Customs officers will also be making trips across the water to watch the ferry passengers board and will also be conducting discreet 'forward surveillance' at disembarkation.

Customs argues that these post-1993 arrangements are within the letter of EC agreements. But there is also the realisation that they may be open to legal challenge. 'It is possible that after 1 January, someone could insist they have a legal right not to pass through the 'pinch points' and argue that the controls that are there should not exist,' one official said.

Mr Burnard maintained that the experiment was also about changing the psychology of customs officers in support of the 'light touch'. But critics might argue that it is also about creating a job where one no longer, officially, should exist.