§ Mr. Richard Shepherd
To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer why two letters, dated 30 August and 23 October, from the American Privacy Foundation in Washington DC to the Campaign for Freedom of Information in London, on the subject of the Official Secrets Act and the interception of communications, have been opened for inspection by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise.
§ Mr. Ryder
[holding answer 1 December 1989]: Her Majesty's Customs and Excise have powers to require the opening by the Post Office of any postal packet or letter arriving in the United Kingdom. These powers are used only in the pursuit of contraband and especially drugs 126W which are frequently discovered in the mail. Drugs such as heroin, cocaine and LSD are often concealed in flat, apparently innocent, letters and packages.
Detection in these circumstances is extremely difficult and is made no easier by the possibility that packets containing certain drugs may contaminate other mail. Innocent letters and packages may be opened for internal examination, but will be resealed immediately if it is apparent that no contraband is present.
The size of the drug threat in the mail may be judged from the fact that 2,000 seizures of drugs have been made in a single year at one postal depot alone. Attempts to evade customs controls have led drug smugglers to use ingenious and sophisticated methods. They have been known to address a letter or package to a famous or highly respected person or organisation in the hope that it will not be examined, arrangements having been made for it to be extracted from the mail before delivery.
No letters are opened for examination at Customs' request for any other reasons than to discover goods prohibited by law.