Drug smuggling fears grow: Travellers 'can escape spot checks at three airports'

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The Independent Online
FEARS are mounting that the war against drug smuggling will suffer a major setback following reports that some British airports are customs-free zones.

Reports in a Sunday newspaper claim that travellers at three airports can enter without spot checks on luggage while customs officers concentrate on collecting intelligence on the smuggling of drugs, guns and pornography.

But one MP claims the system is a 'smugglers charter' and unions say customs controls have been abandoned in parts of the country.

Barry Sheerman, a Labour MP and a former spokesman on home affairs, said he was disturbed by the policy. 'I am very worried that this is a charter for smugglers because they will soon learn which are the vulnerable airports.'

One senior customs officer said: 'More people may be encouraged to bring in prohibited goods because they think there are no checks.'

According to the reports, three British airports have customs offices sited miles away from terminal buildings. They include Cardiff, where flights arrive from Amsterdam, Bulgaria and Florida. Customs officers are based 10 miles away at Cardiff docks.

At Bristol airport an intelligence team attempts to identify known smugglers and is helped by staff from an office 13 miles away. At Leeds/Bradford airport there is no full-time customs presence.

'Effectively, whole areas of the country have been abandoned from customs controls,' David Morris of the National Union of Civil and Public Servants, said.

It is believed the number of flights which are not subject to customs control will rise in the wake of the Treasury's desire for public-spending cuts. Officials argue that the shift away from permanent checkpoints is a more effective use of resources.