HC Deb 16 October 2002 vol 390 cc317-9 3.31 pm
Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to create a system of prior approval by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise for duty free imports for personal use; and for connected purposes. I arrived at this place on the Order Paper today in an attempt to rationalise four increasingly strained forces in the arena of personal imports to the United Kingdom. They concern the importation of duty free goods and goods on which duty has been paid abroad. First, the United Kingdom is part of the European Union, where jobseekers, residents and businesses can come and go throughout what was meant to be a truly free market. We have a right to cross our borders into the EU and are, indeed, encouraged to do so. I remain one of those who still believe passionately in the Common Market principle.

Secondly, the increasing use by all Governments of indirect taxation that has dramatically exceeded that levied elsewhere in the EU is a process that has been accelerated by the remorseless promotion of stealth taxes since 1997. That has created the incentive to make legitimate use of cross-channel travel to import goods—principally alcohol and tobacco—for personal use. I can think of few other reasons for voluntarily spending a never-ending period on an overcrowded ferry on a dark October evening on the English channel. If the UK Government had not seen those goods as a soft target for taxation, the existing price differential would have been substantially reduced.

Thirdly, we are seeing the Customs and Excise equivalent of military overstretch. Customs budgets are often seen as a soft touch and the codewords "intelligence-led operations" are substitutable for reduced manpower, which covers the country so as to leave the stable door ajar for covert smuggling operations. Resources are at a premium, as is illustrated by the recent revelation in an inquiry conducted by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs of the fact that the service in Scotland does not have access to one detection sniffer dog. Instead, that dog is on "intelligence-led standby" from Hull or Manchester.

The Bill is intended to focus scarce resources on the genuine problem: organised smuggling operations. The price differential has created a much more sinister and despicable trade. Hon. Members will know of many independent retailers in their constituencies who are paying the price of regular smuggling for resale. Consistent abuse by individuals and groups of free-flowing traffic between the United Kingdom and our neighbours puts at risk the future of many independent businesses and UK jobs.

The regional media in the south-east of England were surprised that an hon. Member with a constituency that is a long way north of Watford raised the issue. They should know that the effects of illegal smuggling reach far beyond the south-east. Convenience stores and supermarkets in Newton Stewart and Stranraer are only too aware of the effect on their businesses. Legitimate sales are all but eliminated in some areas of the country by illegitimate trade in smuggled goods. For example, smuggled goods account for more than 20 per cent. of cigarette consumption in the UK as opposed to the 7 per cent. of legitimately imported goods. It is little wonder that smoking started to increase again in 1997. The low street price of smuggled tobacco proves a dangerous attraction to the new generation of vulnerable young smokers.

Her Majesty's Customs and Excise is doing what it can to restrict the illegal trade, but with increasingly limited resources. It is struggling to make the distinction between legitimate import and illegal trafficking. The Bill would introduce a voluntary procedure and assist Customs and Excise in making the distinction.

The system's premise is simple. United Kingdom residents who want to visit the continent with the principal or secondary aim of bringing back goods for personal use should be able to do that. If the goods are genuinely for personal use, those people are most likely to use a system of prior notification. Conversely, those who undertake illegal activity are least likely to notify Her Majesty's Customs and Excise of their trip in advance. If Customs officers used the system properly, they could prioritise their scarce resources and concentrate on travellers who had not given prior notification of their trip.

With the House's agreement, I shall engage with Customs and Excise to develop a workable system of prior notification. It must be administratively simple and must facilitate easy analysis by officers at the ports.

If prior notice were given of a trip by the same vehicle on three separate occasions in three months, the service might deem it suitable to use the information as sufficient intelligence for stopping and inspecting it. If someone gave prior notification of one trip in five years, perhaps to gather continental beverages for one of those 40th birthday parties for which Galloway is famous, it would be reasonable to assume that Customs resources would be best targeted elsewhere. Surely that is simply common sense.

Hon. Members know about the publicity that surrounds ordinary members of the public who have vehicles confiscated when apprehended by Customs and Excise officers. It would be much more straightforward to identify those who were attempting to smuggle for commercial gain if we could presume in favour of those who had gone out of their way to inform the authorities in advance of their journey. A constituent of mine, Mr. Andy Shiells from the Machars in Galloway found no such system in place. He wanted to do the decent thing and advise Customs and Excise of the trip in advance, but was unable to do that. The Bill will put that right.

I do not propose an increase in state surveillance or support for big brother. Curiously, the system needs to be voluntary to be most effective. The Bill would not compromise the right of Customs officers to inspect anyone entering the United Kingdom, pre-registered or not. They must retain the ability to act on intelligence. However, the House must accept that more accurately targeted resources are increased resources, at no cost to the taxpayer.

The Bill is not a smugglers' charter. It is intended to provide a system whereby honest and law-abiding UK citizens who want to import for personal use can do that without feeling like criminals. They have a right to use the Common Market, just as those who try to abuse the system have the right to expect that our limited Customs and Excise resources will focus on their activities.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Peter Duncan, Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Paul Goodman, Mr. Peter Atkinson, Mr. John Baron, Mr. Mark Field and Mr. Christopher Chope.