HL Deb 07 March 1977 vol 380 cc849-52

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the existing organisation available in the United Kingdom for detection of the illegal importation of narcotics, with particular reference to the seizure of 26 lbs. of heroin (valued at £1,625,000) at the Port of Cardiff.


Yes, my Lords. Her Majesty's Customs and Excise keep under active review the deployment of staff against smuggling as well as methods of detection. The seizure at Cardiff reflects the effectiveness of Customs' methods.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Baroness for that reply, and expressing my appreciation of the work of the Customs and Excise and the police in this detection, may I ask her whether she really thinks that at the present time our services are sufficiently geared by way of manpower and facilities to deal with this threat, which is increasing; that is to say, the threat of narcotic smuggling into this country? Has the noble Baroness seen the statement or expression of opinion to the effect that, out of the total quantity of heroin being smuggled into this country at the present time, only 10 per cent, is being detected? Would she like to comment on that? Is it not a fact that there has been a great increase in addiction to heroin over the last seven years—that is to say, from 1970—and have the Government any information that any subversive activity is being employed in this trade, from which profits as great as £1,500,000 can be made on the black market through the smuggling of 26 lbs. of heroin?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, on the noble Lord's last supplementary question, as to whether we have any knowledge of subversive activity, I would say that that is quite a different question. It deals with the whole of the "drug trade", whereas his original Question concerned Customs and Excise. We are satisfied that as a recent thorough-going review of Customs preventive services indicated, staff savings could be made by more effective use of resources, and this without loss to existing standards of preventive control.

As to the increase in addiction, this has been going on, as the noble Lord will be aware, over some period of time. In the case to which he referred, in Cardiff, the find was as a result of normal boarding and inspection. No special effort was mounted; and this, I think we must agree, really reflects both the keenness shown by the staff and the effectiveness of their methods. In the last couple of days, one man has been charged with the illegal importation of the heroin found at Cardiff, and he and two others have also been charged with the illegal importation of cannabis. All I can say is that the methods used and the deployment of staff are such as to try to deal as effectively as possible with this problem. I would prefer not to go into further details on deployment, because I think that could only be of great assistance to the people concerned in the "trade"; but we are satisfied that, in the circumstances, as much as is possible is being done.


My Lords, is not the position here that drugs are very light, very small and very valuable, and that anybody can walk through Customs carrying £100,000 worth of drugs without his pockets bulging, which makes the position almost impossible from the point of view of the Customs officials; that in fact one finds drugs only when one has received a tip-off that they are being brought in by somebody, and that that tip off normally comes from a rival illegal organisation?

Baroness BIRK

Yes, my Lords, that is true to some extent, but there is also a great deal more spot-checking than there has been in the past, and the detection methods have been stepped up as the "trade" has been stepped up. Again, perhaps I could leave it at that.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that, while it is very gratifying that this was the product of a spot-check, it is disturbing to hear her talking about staff reductions in the context of increased drug addiction? Is she satisfied that the maximum is being done to keep this lethal and corrupting substance out of the country, in particular by means of getting information from the countries of origin? Will the noble Baroness confirm that the ship in question came from the Far East, and particularly from Bangkok via Singapore? Are our links of information there sufficient?—because I believe that in that part of the world there is a better network of information than in any other and we should like to see it used.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, this is again a widening of the Question. The ship was a container en route to Holland. They forgot to tell me where she came from. I have no doubt that it was from the Far East. My noble friend's point about the tip-offs is true; but again the amount of spot-checking makes a great deal of difference. It is true that there are staff cuts right across the board, but in this particular section of Customs and Excise they are really being spread very thinly across the whole staff and, we feel, are being more than compensated by rationalisation of method and improvement in effectiveness. I do not think there is much more I can say about this, whatever further questions are asked.


My Lords, in spite of her last remark, may I ask the Minister whether any effort has been made by Customs and Excise to enlist the help of sailing clubs along the coast? We are, naturally, a vulnerable country in this respect with so many craft going backwards and forwards across the Channel. I think the Customs and Excise have done a wonderful job, but I should have thought that there might be an effort made to enlist the services of local clubs to help them.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, it is a difficult point. I do not know in what way the noble Baroness would intend to utilise such help. If she is thinking in terms of vigilantes, there are a great many problems there. It is possible that some of the tip-offs to which my noble friend referred are from the sailing clubs; but beyond that, I think it would be quite wrong to go.