HC Deb 11 January 1996 vol 269 cc313-5
1. Sir Fergus Montgomery

To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what priority he attaches to tackling the smuggling of alcoholic drinks. [7076]

3. Mr. Hawkins

To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what steps he is taking to counter the smuggling of tobacco and alcoholic drinks. [7078]

The Paymaster General (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

The Government take a serious view of smugglers, who seek to evade payment of revenue duties and undermine legitimate trade. Customs and Excise has about 250 single market excise staff specifically engaged in countering smuggling of alcohol and tobacco. Additionally, other Customs staff involved in audit and investigation work make an important contribution.

In the 12 months to 30 September last year, Customs and Excise made more than 3,500 detections related to alcohol and tobacco with a revenue value of £7.6 million. Smugglers run the risk of losing the imported goods and the vehicle used to transport them, and of a prison sentence of up to seven years.

Sir Fergus Montgomery

Is my right hon. Friend working with the honest traders in cracking down on smugglers? Is he aware of the effect of smuggling on the businesses of honest traders, who play by the rules and are penalised for their honesty?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Yes, I take seriously the fact that smuggling is not only anti-social and illegal but undermines legitimate traders. That is why, last November, Customs and Excise formed an excise alliance with trade groups representing those who make, transport, distribute and sell alcoholic drinks and tobacco, to exchange information about smuggling and to co-ordinate action to stop that traffic.

Mr. Hawkins

What my right hon. Friend has said will be welcome to tobacconists and those in the licensed trade in my constituency, who have been concerned about the problem for a long time. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the active steps that he has always taken to meet groups of people involved in the trade from my constituency and from many other constituencies. Has there been any opportunity to employ additional staff to deal with the important and serious problem of smuggling. Was it possible to introduce any particular measure in the latter part of last year, or will it be possible for the future?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Yes, I can give that assurance. In the present financial year, Customs and Excise has deployed additional staff where there is a particular risk. I am pleased to say that 20 additional excise verification officers have been allocated to work against smuggling during the coming financial year. We take the threat seriously, and deploy resources accordingly.

Mr. Skinner

I think the Government have a cheek to talk about controlling smuggling of any kind, because when I met the customs officers in Southend last year, their biggest complaint was not about 20 new workers but about the fact that thousands of them had been given the sack and sent to the dole queue. What they are concerned about—

Madam Speaker

Order. I should like to hear a question from the hon. Gentleman. He has not yet put a question to the Minister.

Mr. Skinner

If the Minister is really concerned about dealing with smuggling, what he ought to do—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing Member of the House, and he knows that it is Question Time. He may have a perfectly genuine question to put to the Minister, but he must put it in the form of a question, not make a statement.

Mr. Skinner

Why does the Minister not get off the backs of the customs officers and allow them to do the job that they are intended for—dealing with all those problems? Instead of talking about 20 staff being added, why does he not ensure that the thousands who have been sacked get their jobs back?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

It is good to know that old Labour has survived into the new year, and still believes that public services require ever-more staff at ever-higher public cost. We believe in deploying staff effectively—where the risk and threat arise. I explained in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) that we are deploying extra excise verification officers to deal with the smuggling risk in the areas affected.

Ms Primarolo

Is the Minister aware of the significant discrepancy between the amount of beer supposedly exported to France from the United Kingdom and the amount of beer that the French imported from us? According to official statistics, some 107,000 barrels of beer disappeared into thin air in 1994, whereas previously the two sets of figures were approximately balanced. We must assume that not all of that beer was drunk on a booze cruise somewhere. Will the Minister confirm that he is aware of, and concerned about, the damage being done to revenue into the Treasury, the growth of illegal duty scams and criminal activity and the threat to jobs in this country? Could he explain to the House the Government's strategy for tackling this growing criminal activity?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I do not know whether the hon. Lady wrote her question before she heard my earlier reply, but I have outlined the additional staff and resources that we are deploying. The hon. Lady has reminded the House of something that is at least partly true—that cross-border shopping is only a part of the trade and smuggling is only a part of the problem. There is also a threat caused by the diversion of exports back on to the home market having received the repayment of excise duty. It is to counter all of those threats and illegalities that we have formed the excise alliance with the trade and deployed additional staff. In his Budget, my right hon. and learned Friend—recognising that specific problems affected certain excise items—either froze or reduced duty in some cases.

Mr. John Townend

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the successes of Customs, but may I remind him that hundreds of millions of pounds of smuggled goods are coming over? If we could only take the simple precaution of having a customs officer open the doors of the dozens of transit vans which come over on the cross-channel ferries, we could stop this. However, I am told that that is against European Union regulations. If French industry was being damaged, can one imagine that the French would take any notice of the regulations? If we cannot open the doors of vans at the port, why can we not have a road block 50 yd down the road?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

As I think that my hon. Friend recognises, the single market in Europe means that a port is no longer a routine fiscal frontier. However, that does not mean that we cannot open doors and examine cargoes where excise duty fraud is suspected. When I visited Dover last year, I saw the excise verification officers carrying out effective checks to counter the menace.

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