HL Deb 07 October 2002 vol 639 cc4-6

2.44 p.m.

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

What guidance they give to (a) customs officers and (b) the general public regarding the quantities of tobacco products and alcoholic drinks that may freely be brought into the United Kingdom from other European Union countries.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the guidance that Her Majesty's Government give to customs officers and the general public is the same. As long as it is for their own use, travellers can bring into the UK as much EU duty paid alcohol and tobacco as they wish.

If travellers bring back large quantities of excise goods, they may be asked to provide a satisfactory explanation of how the goods are all for their own use. I stress that Customs is legally entitled to stop, question and, if necessary, search travellers as part of its duty to protect society from smugglers.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, given the obvious difficulty of drawing a distinction between amounts for personal use and amounts that are suitable for running a business, is not the present situation grotesquely unfair? It is unfair to Customs and Excise officers, who have a difficult job to do; it is unfair to retailers, who are losing much business; it is unfair to those people who cannot afford to travel and take advantage of cheap offers; and it is unfair to taxpayers, because of the millions—if not billions—of pounds that the Treasury is losing through that trade. Above all, does my noble friend agree that the process of allowing people to bring in tobacco so cheaply undermines the Government's policy of reducing tobacco smoking?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I recognise all of the difficulties that my noble friend pointed out. There are indeed grave difficulties for legitimate business in this country if there is a great deal of smuggling. There are difficulties for those who obey the law—and they, after all, are the people we must, above all, seek to protect. However, we have a problem: our excise duties on tobacco and alcohol are very different from those in other European countries.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, following the recent High Court judgment, there still seems to be some confusion, despite the Minister's Answer, on this point. If it is true that individuals can bring back as much as they wish for their personal use, does that mean that the previous limits set by Customs and Excise or indicated by it no longer apply? More specifically, could the Minister clarify whether the onus of proof about whether something is for personal use is on the individual or Customs and Excise?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, is referring to the Hoverspeed judgment. Customs and Excise has appealed against that judgment. There are some matters outstanding on which it would not be possible for me to comment. However, although the Hoverspeed judgment questioned whether Customs was acting properly in terms of whether there was a reasonable suspicion to search anyone or to confiscate goods, it confirmed that it is illegal to bring back goods other than for personal use. It confirmed that it was acceptable for Customs to impose what is called an evidential burden on travellers that they should show. It confirmed that commercial imports—in other words, imports for sale or reimbursement—can be seized. Above all, it confirmed that there has been no breach by Customs and Excise of human rights.

Lord Cobbold

My Lords—

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is it really right that the car should be impounded by Customs before a court has decided whether the goods have been brought in for personal use, not just on the ipse dixit of the Customs officer?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, Section 141 of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 specifically provides for the impounding of the vehicle in which illegally imported goods are carried. Of course, it is open, within a month of the seizure, for the traveller to appeal. If the traveller challenges the judgment of the Customs officer, customs has to go before a magistrates' court to seek authority for that seizure. If it does not get it, the vehicle goes back.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I know about that but I asked the noble Lord—

Noble Lords


Lord Newby

My Lords, I am sure the House will have much sympathy with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said. However, will the Minister accept that it is absolutely impossible for Customs and Excise to deal with the problems to which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred while excise duty differentials are so great? Therefore, the only two options available to government are either to accept that nothing can be done about the issue or to begin to look at a long-term strategy which might lead to lesser differentials on excise duties between this country and the rest of the EU.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am not sure whether from his party's Front Bench the noble Lord, Lord Newby, is advocating tax harmonisation. When we last discussed the matter, the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, did specifically advocate tax harmonisation. That may be the view of his party, in which case I am most interested to learn that. It is simply not true that nothing can be done. When we introduced the most recent Customs rules, in the first full year—that is, 2000–01—we cut cross-Channel smuggling by 76 per cent. Efforts are continuing to reduce the amount of smuggling.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, is it not unreasonable to expect a Customs officer to make a quick judgment on the spur of the moment of the capacity, the appetite and, even more difficult, the length of life of a consumer or traveller?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, indications are available to Customs officers—sometimes from intelligence and sometimes from the appearance of the people who pass before them. The Hoverspeed judgment made it clear that there must be reasonable grounds for stopping and searching a person and for asking questions. That issue is still before the courts. I received a most pathetic letter from a gentleman who complained about his vehicle being seized. When I inquired, I discovered that, on the occasion it was seized, he had with him 20,000 cigarettes and 17 kilos of hand-rolling tobacco. I also discovered that he was making that journey every two weeks.