It’s come to light that Customs officers regularly, and illegally, search through passengers’ luggage without their knowledge. Sometimes the searches – usually made in the arrivals hall – produce results: last year, Borders and Immigration made 1,000 seizures of contraband cigarettes and alcohol. But for every fruitful search, many fruitless ones were made, and we’ll never know why they were carried out because no records were kept.
Nobody can say if a search was carried out in a “lawful, proportionate and controlled way”. Customs officers can, in theory, do what they damn well like with your stuff; they could open Louis Vuitton luggage just because they fancy a rummage through the Myla smalls of its fruity owner.
But do we seriously mind? Do we just accept that heightened surveillance is a necessity in a dangerous world, and that the price of safety is to allow the authorities a free hand with our possessions?
Well no, actually, we don’t accept it. We think it’s a bloody cheek for officials to rifle through our suitcases when they feel like it. It may be a marvellous thing for the Customs people to find illegal contraband (I assume the explosives and bomb-making equipment would have been spotted at the X-ray stage) but let’s not be too supine about the assumed right of our guardians to fiddle unchecked with our belongings.
We are so inured to having our privacy invaded – by cameras, cyber-marketing, the data banks that know our every move on public transport – that we don’t seem to know how to respond when faced with ever-more-personal invasions. This month, the Lib Dem conference will debate a document which threatens to extend the “mansion tax” to cover a family’s possessions: jewellery, pictures, heirloom furniture, grandad’s wine cellar, grandma’s piano. They won’t be taxing the sale of these things; they’ll be taxing the fact that you own them. HMRC inspectors will be granted new powers to walk in and rootle through your possessions in order to evaluate them. And you risk being fined if you tell them to eff off.
A few years ago, posh restaurants started asking for my credit card details when taking a booking. They said they needed to be able to extract money from my account if I and my guests didn’t show up. The first time this happened, I did what they asked – I could see the logic of their case – but felt angry with myself for allowing it to happen. I felt invaded. I felt like I did the day in Havana when a bare-faced pickpocket put his hand in my trouser pocket to reach the wristwatch he knew would be hidden in there.
If we’re not careful, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will soon be rummaging in our possessions, unstoppably, just as they’ve been doing, unchecked, in our suitcases. How long are we going to simply let them do it, content to think that, in both cases, it’s probably for the best?