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Glasgow Airport (Strip-Search Procedures)

Volume 115: debated on Wednesday 6 May 1987

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Portillo.]

11.49 pm

I sought this debate to bring to the attention of the House, and especially to the Minister, the scandalous strip-search procedures that are employed by Her Majesty's Customs at Glasgow airport and, I suspect, at other airports and seaports in Britain. Those procedures, and the physical facilities in which they are conducted, are a scandal and must be changed and improved.

First, I wish to say a word or two about the distressing and humiliating ordeal that was experienced recently by a young woman at Glasgow airport. Naturally, that young woman, a constituent of mine, must remain anonymous. At about 1600 hours on Monday 20 April, the young woman arrived at Glasgow airport on a flight from Amsterdam. After close questioning and a careful examination of her luggage, she was told to wait for a while. Approximately one hour later, after first being questioned, the young woman was led away for an intimate body search. Customs officials prefer to talk about "strip searches", whereas the police and prison officers talk, in my view more honestly, about "intimate body searches".

I shall now quote from the young woman's account of that humiliating experience. She came to see me at my surgery and I asked her to write out her account for me. This is part of her description:
"Then two women asked me to follow them. I was taken into this room and she locked the door. She"——
that is the Customs official——
"said, do you know this is a body search? I said, what is that? What do you want me to take off? She said, everything. I said I had a period. She said, are you wearing anything? I said, yes, a tampon. After I had taken all my clothes off, she asked me to put my arms out by my side. She checked there. Then she told me to bend over, and she checked my back passage. By this time I was so embarrassed and angry that they can do this to innocent people. Then the other woman handed her a paper hankie, and then she said could I remove my tampon. I said, do you not have a toilet? She said, you can see we don't have one here. I said to them, this is the most embarrassing thing to do … She said it was not very pleasant for them, they were only doing their job … So she handed me a paper hankie, and I had to remove my tampon and give it to her in the hankie … By this time I was just about crying. I asked her could I put my bra on. The other woman had my passport and asked me my name and address, and marked it down in a book. Then I finally got to put my clothes back on. Then I got taken back to where our luggage was lying.
I wasn't even allowed to go to a toilet and use a clean tampon, or wash my hands. My fiancé was there when I got out. I was so upset by this, we had to wait another 10–15 minutes. Then the man who checked our bags came out with another man. They gave us back our passports and said, thank you, that they were just only doing their job."
The young lady goes on to say:
"I feel so hurt by this, and I have never been so degraded in all of my life. I would never want to go through anything like that again."
The young woman, who is a fine, decent, law-abiding citizen, told me that she was naked for 10 to 15 minutes. Incidentally, even female prisoners in Scottish prisons are not treated so callously. In response to a question I tabled on intimate body searches in Scottish prisons, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland said:
"The procedures observed in Scottish penal establishments for the strip-searching of female prisoners by female staff are as follows:
(a) When a female is being strip-searched she is required, after removing her outer garments, to remove or drop to the waist the underclothing of the upper half of her body; she is then provided with a sheet to wrap around herself before removing the underclothing from the lower half of her body for examination. In the interest of decency great care is taken by the examining officer to ensure the minimum exposure of the body at any given time." — [Official Report, 12 March 1986; Vol. 93, c. 486.]
I am sorry to say that my constituent was not treated with that civility.

I was so angry when I heard the complaint that I immediately decided to visit Glasgow airport and examine the facilities. At the airport I met Mr. David Waddell and Mr. Fitzcharles of HM Customs. Both officials were faultlessly courteous and co-operative. I was shown the facilities. In other words, I was shown into a scruffy little cell which contained a cheap table and chairs, all bolted to the floor for obvious reasons. There were no coat hangers or coat hooks. I was told that the nearest lavatory was some 30 yards away—not down a quiet corridor, but back through the customs hall.

In this case an innocent young woman who was menstruating and did not have a spare sanitary towel was 30 yards from the privacy of a cloak room. That is nothing short of disgraceful. The young woman did not object to a body search. Like the overwhelming majority of decent people, she abhors drug trafficking and accepts that occasionally innocent travellers must undergo intimate searches. But surely it should not be such a degrading experience.

I blame both Her Majesty's Customs and the British Airports Authority for the callous neglect of individual's needs. Once the search has taken place, preceded by the traveller being informed of his or her rights, immediate access to a wash room should be offered. Once the Customs officials are satisfied with the search, a door should be unlocked and access given to an adjoining cloak room which should contain a lavatory, a wash basin, a bidet, a shower and a supply of towels and sanitary towels. Prominently displayed on the wall of the search room should be a notice stating the rights of an individual caught up in those circumstances. None of those obtains in Glasgow airport and I suspect that that is the case at most airports north and south of the border.

Customs officials should wear plastic gloves when conducting intimate searches. No doctor or medical practitioner would conduct such an examination without plastic gloves. At all times they should be courteous to those they search. I regret to say that that was not so in this case. Nor is this an isolated incident. I have been informed that an Aberdeen student travelling to Glasgow airport two months ago, also menstruating at the time, was subjected to the same harrowing ordeal. She chose not to complain to her Member of Parliament, who is not the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow. The BBC television programme "That's Life" recently reported, I think on 5 April, about 14 or 15 cases rather similar to the Glasgow case.

Customs and Excise derives its power to search people entering seaports and airports from section 164 of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979. Subsection 164(2) outlines a person's rights. It states:
"A person who is to be searched in pursuance of this section may require to be taken before a Justice of the Peace or a superior of the officer or other person concerned, and the Justice or superior shall consider the grounds for suspicion and direct accordingly whether or not the search is to take place."
There is no statutory obligation to inform a passenger who is to be searched of this right, although I would hope that Customs officials would do so. I am informed that in the Glasgow case that information was withheld from the young woman concerned. Even though Customs officials are not bound under the Customs and Excise Management Act to produce a code of practice for intimate body searches, Customs has agreed to follow those practices that are required under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

I am deeply concerned about the code of practice since the number of body searches may be on the increase due to the evil of drug trafficking. It is an evil that regrettably continues to grow. Have these searches become a regular feature? Is there a monthly quota of strip searches set out for each airport and seaport? How many strip searches have taken place in each of the past five years? Are they on the increase?

The powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to conduct searches and, therefore, the codes of practice do not apply to Scotland. Customs officials in Scotland conduct searches under departmental instructions that are not available to the public. Will the Minister or one of his Scottish ministerial colleagues place a copy of those departmental instructions in the Library? I would certainly like to look at them, and I am sure that many other people would, too.

It appears that those departmental instructions differ little from the English statutory code of practice. However, the Scottish instructions are not so binding as they would be in England and Wales, and they may not be adhered to as strictly as those south of the border. This is deeply worrying, because the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, which I suspect will be returning here within a few days, proposes new powers of detention by Customs officers. Under clause 44 of the Bill, Customs officers would exercise the same powers of search that are available following an arrest. In the case of drugs, a suspect is required to submit to an intimate search, to be carried out by a registered medical practitioner, not by a Customs official.

I support wholeheartedly the often marvellous work performed by police officers and Customs officials to capture those evil wrongdoers, the drug traffickers. I have seen the dreadful evidence of their evil work in the west of Scotland. Despite my wholehearted support for the activities of Customs officials and police officers, the interests of innocent travellers must be protected at all times. That care must include both the provision of physical facilities, along the lines that I have outlined, and the fair application of codes of practice north and south of the border. The BBC television programme "That's Life" has documented cases that are as disturbing as the one that I have outlined about a young constituent of mine.

I want to hear from the Minister a positive response to my demand that the physical facilities in the search room at our airports will be improved. I also want an assurance that the codes of practice governing these intimate body searches will be adhered to in a fair, responsible and courteous way by the Customs officials involved.

12.5 am

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr, Godman) for bringing up this matter and for the manner in which he did so. Before I deal in detail with the points made by the hon. Gentleman, it might be helpful if I explained something about the search procedures operated by Customs and Excise.

The need for such procedures has been acknowledged by the hon. Gentleman and by others. Drugs smugglers have been found among almost every category of passenger. Couriers may include anyone from a baby to an old-age pensioner. There have been cases involving people who would normally elicit sympathy, for example an invalid confined to a wheelchair, and drugs are frequently imported concealed in or on the body.

The difficulties facing customs officers as they seek to intercept smuggled drugs and apprehend those responsible can be readily appreciated. Customs officers depend a great deal on the understanding and good will of the ordinary travelling public. The hon. Gentleman was generous in what he said on that subject.

There are particular problems where drugs are concealed internally or carried on the body, and this method of concealment gives rise to some very distasteful tasks which have to be performed by customs officers. None the less, officers are required to carry out the search procedures diligently. Customs and Excise realises that a personal search is not a pleasant experience and recourse to such measures is closely controlled by management, and officers are required to conduct all such examinations with tact and courtesy.

I readily acknowledge that it is regrettable that innocent passengers will, on occasion, be subject to search. However, Customs and Excise does not search people as a matter of routine or on a random basis. The law requires that there must be grounds for suspicion before a person can be searched. The procedures operated by Customs and Excise requires the examining officer first to explain the circumstances and then to obtain the permission of a senior officer, usually his line manager, before a search of a person can take place. A passenger, who is to be searched, may require to go before a justice of the peace—or a sheriff in Scotland — or a superior officer who will adjudicate and direct whether the proposed search should proceed.

A passenger may be searched only by an officer of the same sex. In most searches the passenger is not required to be completely naked at any one time. After outer clothing has been removed and examined, usually it will be possible for the top and bottom halves of the body to be unclothed and reclothed separately. As drugs are frequently concealed in body orifices, it may be necessary for women passengers to remove any sanitary protection.

If passengers are required to be without clothes other than very briefly, a blanket or other suitable covering will be provided. I understand from Customs and Excise that searches do not normally take very long and are usually completed in five or six minutes. If further sanitary protection is required after the search it will be provided.

While a search is in progress and, indeed, from the earliest moment at which the passenger is being interviewed, customs officers have to he extremely vigilant and observant to ensure that a smuggled item or other evidence is not moved from one concealment to another or is not disposed of. This explains much about the nature of the search procedure and why search rooms are sparsely furnished. For example, hand basins and flush toilets are not provided because they represent a most obvious means of disposal. If either of these facilities is required, portable equipment is held and will be brought to the search room.

In the particular circumstances in which drugs or other goods have been swallowed, the provision of portable or other non-plumbed facilities is important to allow officers to recover the evidence after it has passed through the body. These are extremely unpleasant duties, demanding much of the officers, as well as the careful following of prescribed procedures. We should all be grateful for the work that customs officers do on our behalf.

There are occasions when search procedures require more than visual examination of the passenger and an internal examination is required. Such circumstances are specifically provided for in law in England, and customs follows comparable procedures to those used by the police. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has broadly similar proposals before the House at this time. Internal examinations may only be carried out by a qualified medical practitioner, and any examinations of that kind would normally take place in the doctor's surgery. If it seems likely that such an examination will be required, the officer must first—in law—obtain the express permission of the appropriate grade of officer—in customs terms, a senior executive officer.

I have dealt at some length with the practical aspects of search of person, touching, as appropriate, on the legal provisions. The hon. Gentleman expressed disquiet about the premises that are available for search at Glasgow airport, and, in particular, he has expressed concern about the absence of ordinary toilet facilities in or adjacent to the search room. I have explained why search rooms are of necessity purely functional, to prevent the concealment or disposal of drugs or other goods or evidence. I am advised by customs that the search rooms and other accommodation provided for use by the public for the purposes of customs examination at Glasgow airport are considered satisfactory. A toilet is available some 20 yd or so from the search room. However, having seen the plans of the airport building, I freely acknowledge that, depending on which search room is being used, and on whether a male or female toilet is being used, the toilets are 20 to 30 yd from the search rooms, and in the opposite direction in terms of traffic flow. Those facilities are not provided by customs, but by the British Airports Authority, which owns and operates the airport.

It may help if I explain that Customs and Excise airports are approved by the Secretary of State for Transport in conjunction with the commissioners of Customs and Excise. However, airport operators cannot provide for international services without the appropriate parts of their premises being approved by customs for the handling of passengers or freight, as the case may be. Ely such means, international traffic is canalised so that customs procedures can be effectively and economically administered.

A balance must be struck between commercial and official requirements. Clearly, there must be sufficient public accommodation embracing facilities for immigration and customs purposes. Public accommodation in this context means all that is required for official procedures and used by the ordinary travelling public, including baggage hall, search and interview rooms and associated areas. Customs makes known its essential requirements for the application of the relevant customs controls, but the provision of the facilities is the operator's responsibility. Generally, the development of facilities for trade and official purposes proceeds harmoniously, and I have no reason to believe that there is any shortfall in the facilities provided by the British Airports Authority at Glasgow airport.

As I did not know precisely what the hon. Gentleman was going to say before he embarked on his speech, I want to respond more informally to some of the specific points that he raised.

It is important, in terms of the management of the process, to recognise the distinction between strip searches, which are essentially visual, and intimate searches, which are essentially of a tactile nature. The latter require medical supervision and the use of gloves. Visual search does not involve touch. The tampon that was removed was placed in a plastic glove for disposal. That explains why the equipment may be different.

The hon. Gentleman said that his constituent was naked for 10 to 15 minutes. One's judgment in such instances may necessarily be somewhat subjective; one may think that a disagreeable experience is continuing for longer than it actually is. Customs information, which obviously has to be recorded in an annotated form so that there is a record of the event, shows that the search lasted from 1700 hours to 1705. I recognise that there is a give or take of several minutes.

I have sought to respond generally to what has been said about the facilities at Glasgow. Both Customs and the British Airports Authority will be able to read the report of the debate and follow closely the hon. Gentleman's submissions. I shall make certain that the BAA, which does not fall within my responsibility, has its attention drawn to the hon. Gentleman's comments.

The hon. Gentleman has asked about the number of searches that are conducted. There were 46,000 searches of all sorts conducted last year by customs, which means about one in every 1,000 inward passengers. Of the 46,000, 840 were intimate searches. As will have been apparent from my earlier observations and from the description of the search that took place during the incident that we are discussing, we are not dealing with an intimate search as defined in legislation, that is of the tactile nature that I have mentioned. Of the 840 intimate searches, 224 revealed drugs being carried internally by those who were being searched. There were 32 searches at Glasgow and 10 of them produced drugs. One of the 10 involved internal concealment. There is no quota of any sort, for the reason that I have given already. There must be clear and specific suspicion before a passenger can be searched.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether it was possible to provide specific instructions. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 provides specific instructions in a code of practice on what must be done in the carrying out of intimate searches. I think that he asked also whether there might be similar instructions and a pattern of behaviour for more general searches, including strip searches.

Historically it has been left to the good judgment of officers to decide precisely what they should say to passengers about the procedures and their rights. There is a management problem in being too specific and too formal about rights. If an officer is asking someone only to take off his jacket, and he informs him that he has the right to go before a sheriff or a justice of the peace, he will read much more into the event than that which is intended. As a result of recent cases and current concern, it is now, under training procedure, standard practice for officers to inform those who are being searched of the nature of the procedure and that certain rights exist. This is an oral transmission of information on the ground that a written one would run the risk of going over the top into formality, which runs the risk of losing the co-operation of passengers, on which fundamentally all good customs work is based.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether departmental instructions could be put in the Library. It is not Customs and Excise policy to put such departmental instructions in the Library. Operational matters are regarded as confidential within Customs, but matters related to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the code of practice are incorporated in the instructions. I give that assurance to the hon. Gentleman.

I recognise that Scotland will pose a problem until we have greater formalisation. Nevertheless, Customs seeks to interpret it within the spirit of the prevailing legislation. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having brought up the case in the manner that he did. On his opening remark, that the searches were scandalously insensitive, I understand—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.