Border Force customs custody suites in England and Scotland – significant progress made

Border Force customs custody suites across England and Scotland had significantly improved since their last inspection, said Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, and Dru Sharpling, HM Inspector of Constabulary, publishing the report of an unannounced inspection.

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Border Force – Joint inspection of police custody

The inspection was the second in a programme of inspections of Border Force customs custody suites. Detainees held in Border Force cells are people primarily suspected of secreting or swallowing drugs. The inspection covered the network of custody suites which include interview suites and ‘spine suites’. Spine suites are normal custody suites with cells. Inspectors went to spine suites at: Birmingham Airport, Colnbrook (Heathrow Airport), Dover Seaport, Gatwick Airport, Glasgow Airport, Harwich Seaport and Manchester Airport. Interview suites do not have cells but can be used for detention of usually no longer than six hours. Inspectors went to the interview suite at Stansted Airport.

The illegal importation of controlled drugs often involves the suspect ingesting them in sealed packages to avoid normal search procedures. Spine suites are equipped with specially adapted and supervised toilets where suspects can be detained until the body naturally excretes the packages.

Inspectors were pleased to find that:

  • there was a clear organisational structure to director level supervising this work and it had adapted principles from the College of Policing Authorised Professional Practice to develop safe custody policies;
  • good work with partners in commissioning a health needs analysis for detainees was evident;
  • an excellent custody early warning system had been developed with Metropolitan Police Service health care which helped to monitor the health of people suspected of ingesting drugs;
  • detainees were generally well cared for;
  • staff were aware of human trafficking issues and knew how to make referrals to the National Crime Agency or Home Office immigration enforcement;
  • staff knew they had to ensure that children were not kept in custody; and
  • generally health services had improved except in Scotland, where a new contract was to be signed in February 2015.

However, inspectors were concerned to find that:

  • In the custody suites that had a low throughput of detainees, staff said they did not feel confident about their skills, but Border Force managers were considering options to bolster their experience;
  • there were inconsistencies in the use of handcuffs; and
  • all detainees had to be observed when using the toilet and were given a one-piece suit which could only be zipped from the front. This meant that women would be semi-naked while they used the toilet. This could have been resolved by providing two-piece suits.

Nick Hardwick and Dru Sharpling said:

“Overall, Border Force demonstrated significant progress in all areas that we inspected. This report provides a small number of recommendations. We expect an action plan to be provided in due course.”

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Border Force – Joint inspection of police custody


  1. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  2. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) is an independent inspectorate, inspecting policing in the public interest, and rigorously examines the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces to tackle crime and terrorism, improve criminal justice and raise confidence. HMIC inspects and regulates all 43 police forces in England and Wales.
  3. This joint inspection was carried out from 2-13 February 2015.
  4. Please contact Jane Parsons (HMIP Press Office) on 020 7035 2123 or 07880 787452 or Phil Gillen (HMIC Press Office) on 020 3513 0601 if you would like more information.