HC Deb 16 December 1999 vol 341 cc392-3
13. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

What proposals he has to combat the smuggling of alcohol into the United Kingdom. [101777]

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo)

The comprehensive spending review allocated customs an additional £35 million to tackle evasion of excise duties, enabling it to deploy 145 additional staff. Currently, another 55 officers have been redeployed to the south-east to tackle the seasonal peak in excise smuggling.

There has been a steady increase in the number of staff deployed on this work. At the beginning of this financial year, Customs had about 1,000 staff employed in combating excise smuggling. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in his pre-Budget statement additional funding for customs to deploy a national network of X-ray scanners designed to detect smuggling in freight.

Mr. Illsley

I welcome that reply, but is my hon. Friend aware that in my constituency and the whole of the north of England, smuggling and illegal sales of alcohol are on the increase and are destabilising many legitimate traders? Will she consider the reintroduction of the wholesale liquor licence, which I understand was done away with in the early 1980s, to help to prevent illegal traders from selling contraband booze? Will she also reconsider the rates of duty on alcohol, and especially beer, and try to bring them more in line with those on the continent?

Dawn Primarolo

Customs has deployed 130 extra officers inland, away from the frontiers, to disrupt the illegal distribution networks. The Government have also increased the penalties for those caught dealing in these illegal goods. We have an agreement with Camelot, for example, that a trader who is convicted of trading in illegal goods would lose the licence to sell lottery tickets. In the pre-Budget report, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that we are considering the use of tax stamps to identify legitimate products, so that those who trade in products not bearing the stamp can be prosecuted.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

I am delighted to hear of the new measures and the extra manpower that Customs and Excise has been able to deploy. That is good news. Does the Paymaster General agree, however, that the news is still very bad and that an enormous amount of illegal goods is getting through? Will she assure the House that Customs and Excise will prosecute whenever it has evidence, to ensure that people understand that the illegal trading is not just a fly job but a serious matter that is deeply destabilising to many firms in the south-east, which are under great pressure as a result of this wholly illegal activity?

Dawn Primarolo

Yes, I am happy to confirm that Customs and Excise will prosecute when we catch people dealing in these illegal goods. There are considerably more staff available for tackling the problem than there would have been under a Conservative Government: on election in 1997, we found that the Conservative Government had planned in their fundamental expenditure review to reduce by 300 the anti-smuggling staff. We kept those officers in place and have deployed them to do exactly the work that the hon. Gentleman implores us to do. He is quite right: the illegal selling undermines the legitimate trade and undermines our communities because of the criminal activity. We will continue to deal with the problem and to prosecute the offenders.