Seizures 'not referred to HMRC'
Thousands of smugglers could be escaping punishment as border officials at Britain's ports are failing to refer three quarters of seizures to the taxman.
A communication breakdown between Border Force and HM Revenues and Customs (HMRC) has resulted in fines and prosecutions not being pursued to deter criminals, chief inspector of borders and immigration John Vine said in another critical report.
Border Force only referred one in four seizures - 2,971 out of 11,839 - to HMRC in the year to April 2013 for consideration for a financial penalty, the inspection of freight operations found.
And fewer than half of seizures involving commercial quantities of taxable goods - such as cigarettes and alcohol - were followed up for potential criminal prosecution.
Mr Vine said: "Financial penalties and prosecutions are powerful weapons in the war against smugglers.
"However, a breakdown in communication between Border Force and HMRC at an operational level meant Border Force was not referring suitable cases to HMRC for financial penalties to be issued to potential smugglers.
"I also found that large seizures of cigarettes and alcohol were not being investigated or prosecuted."
"Contact between Border Force officers and HMRC was informal, often via a telephone call," Mr Vine added in his report. "This meant that not enough was being done to deter those attempting to smuggle goods into the UK."
Elsewhere, Mr Vine and his team discovered Border Force staff were wasting valuable time and resources on searching low-risk goods, known as category C.
Just 1% - or 505 - of 43,000 category C cargoes resulted in a positive detection, the inspection found.
Other batches of goods - known as route 2, which require goods and documents to be examined after intelligence tip-offs - were not being searched in more than two-thirds or 68% of cases.
Immigration minister Mark Harper said he wanted to see Border Force refer more cases for prosecution and financial penalties.
He said: "We're doing some work already with HMRC, Border Force and NCA (National Crime Agency) to make sure we do refer more cases for prosecution and we do follow more of them up."
Mr Harper added that small numbers of seizures were being referred for fines or prosecutions because there had been a shift of focus on to larger items, and where smaller seizures were occurring they had not been pursued.
He added: "I'm clear if there are cases where people are breaking the law we ought to pursue them where we think there's a reasonable chance of prosecution.
"We are looking at increasing the number of investigations we take up with HMRC, so we have an increasing number of referrals, both for prosecution and financial penalties as well."
The inspection, which took place between March and July 2013 and covered ports at Immingham, Felixstowe, Heathrow and Dover , also revealed two breaches of Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, where suspects were denied certain rights after they were arrested.
At Heathrow, inspectors found there was no Border Force scanning facility in place for freight, instead staff relied on the use of small X-ray machines owned by the companies who managed the sheds.
Mr Vine said: "Considering that approximately 70% of all UK air freight arrives into Heathrow, we consider this to be a weakness in the protection of the UK border."
However, the chief inspector did find Border Force staff to be "committed, knowledgeable and experienced" in countering threats from freight imports.
Similarly, there was no permanent scanning facility in place at Immingham, in North East Lincolnshire. Instead, t he scanner was a mobile unit fixed to the chassis of a lorry, which was driven around to all ports on the Humber estuary when it was needed.
And in Immingham, Felixstowe, and Heathrow, staff told an inspectors an IT shortage often forced them to use personal mobile phones to research the details of importing companies and shipping agents.
Elsewhere, the report reveals a device designed to catch vehicles carrying nuclear or radioactive materials into the country sounded the alarm 390 times in just six months at one of the ports visited - an average of one every 11.2 hours.
But in the same passage, ministers have blocked further details on how many times the so-called Cyclamen portal set off an alert in the other three ports inspected. In Felixstowe, they were told 11 staff per shift were needed to man the device.
During 2012, 311 million tonnes of goods arrived into the UK via seaports with the busiest being Grimsby and Immingham, London, Milford Haven and Southampton.
In terms of air freight, 2.2 million tonnes of international air freight arrived into UK airports in 2012. Of this total, 1.5 million tonnes or 68% of the total UK international air freight was handled by Heathrow airport.
In the year to April 2012, 455.2 million cigarettes, 4.2 million litres of alcohol and 2,948kg of cocaine were seized, as well as 17,708kg of herbal cannabis and 15,566kg of cannabis resin.
Mr Harper added: "It will take time to transform Border Force and fix all the problems we inherited but I am confident that we are making the right changes.
"None of the issues raised in this report come as a surprise and they are already being actively addressed."