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By David Barrett Home Affairs Editor

22:10 19 Feb 2024, updated 22:38 19 Feb 2024

  • UK Border Force failed to check occupants of hundreds of private jets last year

‘High-risk’ aircraft are landing in Britain without security checks in a major new immigration scandal, the Mail can reveal today.

The borders watchdog warned of ‘dangerous’ failings at a prominent London airport which potentially allowed thousands of passengers to evade passport controls.

Home Office data provided to Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Neal, showed the UK Border Force failed to check the occupants of hundreds of private jets arriving at just one airport last year.

The debacle means gangsters, illegal immigrants, trafficking victims and even extremists may have entered the UK without even rudimentary scrutiny. 

Mr Neal voiced concerns the problem may be duplicated at other airports which handle private and chartered aircraft.

Gangsters, illegal immigrants, trafficking victims and even extremists may have entered the UK without even rudimentary scrutiny (stock image)
The completed report was sent to Home Secretary James Cleverly last week

Passengers aboard such flights, known as ‘general aviation’, who are not met by Border Force, are allowed to leave the airport with no further checks.

Border Force officers are supposed to check 100 per cent of general aviation flights which they have classified as ‘high-risk’. But last year, just 21 per cent were inspected by immigration officers at London City airport, Mr Neal told the Mail.

It handled 1,305 general aviation flights in all last year, with 687 categorised as high-risk, he said. Only 144 of those were checked by Border Force, and 543 – about ten a week – underwent no passport inspections at all, according to figures provided to him by Border Force last month.

The remainder of general aviation flights are classified as ‘low-risk’ with 30 per cent supposed to be checked, according to guidelines. But last year just 9.7 per cent of those into London City, in the east of the capital, were inspected by officers, the watchdog found during a routine inspection.

The Home Office last night ‘categorically rejected’ the breakdown between high-risk and low-risk flights. However, it was unable to provide revised data and said there had been a ‘recording issue’ with the figures it had given the watchdog.

Unchecked flights are thought to include some from terrorism and extremism hotspots in the Middle East and Africa, as well as flights at risk of organised crime from across Europe.

‘This is a scandal, and incredibly dangerous for this country’s border security,’ Mr Neal said.

‘There should now be a rapid independent inspection of general aviation across the country.’

He said the lapse risked organised criminals being able to bring gang members and contraband into this country.

It also heightened the risk of people smuggling, including children and sex trafficking. It was unknown whether foreign nationals with no right to enter the UK were aboard some of the unscrutinised flights, Mr Neal said.

Although an aircraft’s manifest declares the number of passengers it is supposedly bringing to the UK, there is a fear that additional passengers could have been aboard some flights, and entered the country without passport controls, he added.

Mr Neal – who leaves his post next month – said he had decided to go public because of the ‘massive public interest’. The process of recruiting his successor, which is likely to take up to nine months, has not yet been launched by the Home Office.

A former career soldier who was appointed Provost Marshal (Army) and commanded the 1st Military Police Brigade from 2016 until 2019, Mr Neal said: ‘I’ve been involved in protecting this country all my working life.

Mr Neal voiced concerns the problem may be duplicated at other airports which handle private and chartered aircraft (stock image)

‘It would untenable to see this scandal go unaddressed until the end of the year. There will be no-one in this position to investigate whether these serious problems at London City airport are prevalent at other airports around the country.’

READ MORE: DAVID BARRETT: Is the arrival of unchecked ‘high-risk’ flights to the UK happening all over the country?

The problems were uncovered at a spot inspection at London City by Mr Neal’s team just over two weeks ago. His completed report was sent to Home Secretary James Cleverly last week.

A Home Office spokesman said: ‘The Home Office categorically rejects these claims. Mr Neal’s report into general aviation border checks at London City airport was submitted last week and underwent fact checking, as is standard practice. We made Mr Neal aware of a specific issue with the recording of data at London City airport, which meant that a large proportion of flights recorded as high-risk should have been re-classified as low-risk.

‘It is disappointing that Mr Neal has chosen to put misleading data into the public domain.

‘The Home Office’s priority is to deliver a safe and secure border and we will never compromise on this.’

A source close to Mr Cleverly said: ‘It is very disappointing that Mr Neal should do this after meeting the new Home Office ministerial team not long ago, and knowing his term was nearly over, being told by officials he could reapply in an open and transparent process to do the job in the future. Why he should now choose instead to share information he was told was incorrect is a great shame.’

A Labour spokesman said: ‘The Home Secretary’s failure to enforce proper checks on our borders is a total scandal.’

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