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Customs checks 'were overlooked'
Customs checks aimed at thwarting drug and gun smuggling have been overlooked since border security staff came under pressure to cut passenger queues during the London 2012 Olympics, the public spending watchdog has warned.
Border Force officers told the National Audit Office (NAO) staff shortages and the need to juggle full passport checks with keeping queue times down has often stopped them from key duties such as checking for illegal goods.
Nearly 100% of passengers at the border received full passport checks in 2012-13, the NAO said, while more than 99% of European arrivals cleared controls within the 25 minute target time.
But this success came at the expense of activities outside dealing with passengers, as the number of entry refusals at the border, forgery detections, and seizures of cigarettes and counterfeit goods all came in below targets.
Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said: "The Border Force did well to reduce queuing times both during and after the Olympics, but it is deeply worrying that this came at the expense of its other responsibilities, particularly customs. The Border Force must be able to check both goods and passengers at the same time - border security cannot be an either or choice."
She added: "The Border Force must be in a position to deliver world-class border controls at all times."
Border Force - formed in March last year as a law enforcement command within the Home Office - has officers at nearly 140 sea and air ports across the UK and overseas. With a budget of £604 million this year, it must deal with an expected 10% surge in the number of passengers arriving in the UK on flights between 2011 and 2017 - from 106 million to 117 million.
Immigration Minister Mark Harper said: "The UK operates one of the most secure borders in the world and I am pleased the National Audit Office recognises the success of Border Force in implementing full passenger checks while also reducing queue times.
"We inherited an organisation with significant challenges and, while some of these remain, I am confident that under the long term leadership of the new director general, Sir Charles Montgomery, Border Force will continue to build on its many areas of excellence.
"We have recruited more Border Force staff, established command centres to deploy those staff more flexibly and effectively and are reforming working practices."