Shambolic Stansted: How you can grab duty free booze without leaving the country unchecked by short staffed customs and immigration

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stansted airport pic credit:London Stansted Airport

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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.

How government cuts led to blunders in complex criminal compensation awards

carole oatway chief executive of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority

Carole Oatway, chief executive of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority

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The government’s obsession with cutting Whitehall  staff is always portrayed by ministers as getting more ” value for money” and greater efficiency. No doubt it will be said again when the remorseless reduction continues over the next two years.

Yet this year’s  crop of annual reports has produced  a vignette from one Whitehall body that nobody knows much about which rather disproves this case.

The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority is not well known but for those who suffer serious injury it is vital to ensure they receive some compensation for an injury that is no fault of their own. They include British victims of terrorist attacks including recently those injured in Paris and Tunisia and the families of those killed.

Most of its payouts are routine based on a tariff which was already reduced to save public money by Chris Grayling when he was justice secretary.

But for 10 per cent of claimants their cases are complex and they need a detailed assessment by Whitehall staff. It is these that have gone wrong.

As I wrote in Tribune this month the situation through staff cuts and people quitting the agency because of stress caused by their workload. The agency admits it itself.

It’s annual report for the last financial year says: “This issue … is the consequence of an exceptional level of staff turnover in 2015-16, that has resulted in a reduced level of resources  across increasing workloads. This situation is now being rectified with a major recruitment exercise underway.”
The errors were originally found when the National Audit Office, Parlia­ment’s financial watchdog, ran a spot check on payments made to victims in complex cases.
The worst case involved a significant overpayment of £69,023 on an award of £356,964 due to a maths mistake by a caseworker.
Another case revealed a potential underpayment of £15,118 on an award of £69,976 on a case involving two linked claims for dependency.
Other mistakes included under­pay­ments of £80 on a £395,727 award, £1,463 on a £113,071 award, and over­payment of £42 on a £445,355 award.
The NAO investigation triggered an internal inquiry by the agency which found even more errors. The CICA has now ordered a review into its practices.

The report says : “CICA tested a further 98 complex cases, based on a random sample selected by the NAO, and found 17 errors; 8 overpayments and 9 underpayments. These included three errors over £10,000 and four errors of under £80 on sample of cases with a combined value of over £5 million.”

The CICA took its time to reply to me and had to be pressed to admit that while it was refunding those who had been shortchanged it had no power to claim back money it had overpaid. Good news for those who got more cash but hardly an efficient way to run a service.It also stressed that it was only a relatively small number of people and not a huge part of its budget.

But this is not the point. For the individual suffering some damaging injury an underpayment of £15,000 is not a sum of money they won’t miss.

There is also a much wider point. Civil service cuts have also led to people being underpaid benefits, short changed on taxes and the bad handling of cases by public bodies. Cuts being imposed next include the Equality and Human Rights Commission losing lower paid case workers – meaning it will either cut the number of cases it handles or open the risk of stressed staff making mistakes. None of this seems to affect the higher paid.

The government should realise that it can’t magic savings in public services without any consequences for the general public. Something I suspect they won’t want to know as it damages their belief  that austerity doesn’t matter.