Draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (The Convention on Mutual Assistance and Co-operation between Customs Administrations (Naples II)) Order 2001

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5.14 pm

Dawn Primarolo: I shall try to deal with the specific issues in order and with articles 20 to 24.

I shall deal first with the hon. Member for Hertsmere's difficulties over a written answer that he received on Monday. There is obviously something wrong typographically with the answer, and I undertake to ensure that the correct information about the recipient, day, column reference and page numbers is provided. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman; if he had rung my office, I would have had it corrected immediately.

Mr. Clappison: I hope that it is not point scoring to refer to these matters. The reply was given to me only recently. I conducted the research and scrutinised the documents only to discover the problem mentioned by the Minister. I am grateful to her and look forward to receiving the letter.

Dawn Primarolo: I have no problem with that. If it ever happens again, and I hope that it will not, the hon. Gentleman can contact my private office immediately and I shall deal with it right away.

Both the hon. Members for Hertsmere and for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) asked about the articles, and I hope to deal with all their questions. First, there is the matter of hot pursuit. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton specifically asked whether we could have opted out of part rather than all the article dealing with it. We opted out of the right to carry firearms in all forms of co-operation, not only in respect of hot pursuit. We also opted out of hot pursuit. I shall explain why we judged that it was not relevant to the United Kingdom.

As a caveat, I want to make it clear that, across the European Union, the functions of customs authorities—in respect of smuggling drugs, tobacco or alcohol, firearms, illegal paedophile material and so forth—are not constant. Our Customs authorities have certain powers, which may belong to other authorities in different member states. We are not dealing with like for like.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere asked why it took so long to agree the draft convention. I asked that question, too. It is because of the different functions discharged by different authorities, and Government policy on the Schengen agreement. We had to ensure that a consistent policy was enforceable in order to deal effectively with any breaches—I shall return to the available sanctions later. It took a long time in the making because of the complexity of the issues and the necessity for them to be clearly written into the convention.

Why did the UK Government decide not to participate in hot pursuit provisions? First and foremost, it is because we do not believe that those provisions are useful or necessary in the UK context. Simply in view of our geography, the opportunity for smugglers to attempt to flee their pursuers in or out of the UK—I leave Northern Ireland aside for the moment—are few and far between. Her Majesty's Customs and Excise is aware of no such cases to date, despite the fact that we have been co-operating for some time under the previous rules.

Were such an instance to occur, Her Majesty's Custom and Excise is confident that the time necessary to get to and from another country's territory would be sufficient to give advanced warning and for interception on arrival by our authorities. Given those factors, the Government believe that to have to provide for the theoretical possibility of foreign law enforcement officers operating on UK territory without supervision would complicate matters unnecessarily. The Government would have grave reservations about that possibility and an opt-out from the provisions was therefore the best solution.

For example, any officer conducting hot pursuit via the channel tunnel would have sufficient time to arrest and detain the suspect before arrival in the UK. All passengers must check in within a certain time prior to departure and arrest would most likely take place at departure points. If it were necessary to board the train, the authorities would be informed under the agreements, and that would include immigration officials on the train. If necessary, the train would be prevented from leaving France. However, if, for whatever reason, the officer was unable to arrest the suspect before leaving French territory, the controlled environment of the trains means that, de facto, there would be nowhere for the suspect to escape the pursuer. There would be sufficient time to contact Customs and Excise, which would be able to arrest on arrival in Ashford or Waterloo. The procedures are in place, so hot pursuit remains inappropriate, given that there are plenty of opportunities to notify officers. Obviously, there are even greater opportunities in the case of ferries.

Mr. Edward Davey: I am grateful for that reply and have a great deal of sympathy for the Government's position on this. I do not want to take the Committee down a James Bond scenario, but one could see, particularly as international criminals become more sophisticated, the use of speed boats, helicopters, private jets and so on. Could the Minister deal with those issues? Perhaps another part of international law deals with them? I hope that the Minister can enlighten the Committee.

Dawn Primarolo: I am sure that we do not want to go down the James Bond route, and it might not be appropriate here in terms of the interception methods that the Customs and Excise officials already have to engage in speed, such as our cutters and other vehicles. It might not be appropriate here, but I would be happy to facilitate the hon. Gentleman if he or any other member of the Committee were interested, perhaps with a visit and a briefing from our officers, but I cannot guarantee that it will happen in Kingston and Surbiton. He might need to go down to Dover or somewhere else off the coast. I can assure him that Customs and Excise is well equipped, well practised and very able—with the inter-agency co-operation that we have in the UK as well, which would also be buttressed and supported by Naples II—to engage in that pursuit.

If, as the hon. Gentleman says, at any time our experience demonstrated that we needed to revisit this, the procedure would be to seek approval of the House before doing so with regard to any of the conventions. I think he will agree that we have everything covered in terms of future possibilities. While I am on that subject, I remember that both hon. Gentlemen asked about how this would be co-ordinated in terms of the prior approval of, and co-operation for, the joint activities. Each member state would have a central co-ordinating unit and specialised officers. The convention requires that reports are submitted on operations. My understanding is that there are specific contact numbers for each member state, so that one member state would then notify via the specialised contact system that something was going on, and would seek approval.

There are other parallels that we use, as the hon. Gentleman may remember from the Finance Bill, for seeking fast prior approval, that is, half an hour before a visit to a warehouse that may store smuggled goods. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that these are speedy procedures that have been set up in order to do that.

Mr. Davey: I am sorry to take up the Committee's time, but let me ask the hon. Lady this. Does she envisage that the United Kingdom Customs officials in that specialist unit would have the power to decline to give approval if they had concerns?

Dawn Primarolo: I am not absolutely sure about that point and I do not want to give the hon. Gentleman the wrong answer. Hopefully, I will have the answer by the time that I have concluded my next section of remarks.

The hon. Gentleman also asked what sanctions we would have if the opt-outs were breached. For instance, failure to deposit a service weapon on arriving in the UK would represent an illegal importation of a firearm. The officer would be acting outside the provisions of the convention, so would be under the normal prosecution procedures of the UK. Where an officer was in hot pursuit, he would be acting outside the convention and therefore subject to the whole range of UK law, as would be our own officers or, indeed, an individual in this country with regard to whether there was an assault or inappropriate action.

As to the hon. Gentleman's question, the answer is that yes, we can decline, but I would stress that it would be something exceptional that we were very concerned about. The whole point of Naples II is to encourage that co-operation.

There was a series of questions with regard to who had agreed ratification and when the convention would come into force. The convention comes into force 90 days after the last member state has notified the depository of its ratification. Greece, Sweden, France and the Netherlands have ratified the convention. We understand that Ireland, like us, will opt out of hot pursuit and that Greece is doing likewise. Spain is considering which opt-outs it would want to operate. All member states are proceeding in that way.

I have dealt with co-ordination, why we have opted out of hot pursuit, why there is a restriction on firearms, which must be obvious, and what the sanctions would be. That leaves us with the remaining issues with regard to Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland border. I am in some difficulty about exactly how much I can say but, first, I want to stress to the Committee that there is already extensive co-operation between the United Kingdom Customs and its counterparts in the Republic of Ireland, helping to tackle cross-border crime in the many forms that it occurs.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere mentioned in particular the smuggling of fuel across the land border. The Government acknowledge that that is a significant issue and we have deployed extra resources and are working closely with the Irish authorities. The Committee will also understand that matters with regard to Ireland and Northern Ireland are dealt with delicately and sometimes have a greater complexity than the same issues elsewhere, but I assure the Committee that the co-operation is extensive and that Naples II enables us to build on it.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere asked me many questions on statistics relating to the levels of smuggling, particularly of tobacco. I did not come to this Committee today armed with detailed figures, but I would have done had I known that I was coming to a debate on smuggling. I came specifically to deal with legal powers. I say to the hon. Gentleman that, on election, this Government stopped the previous Government's planned redundancy of 300 officers who were engaged in anti-smuggling activities. We then commissioned the alcohol, tobacco and fraud review, which identified the problems with legal and illegal shopping, known as the white van trade; the action that we need to take in terms of increased powers, increased penalties and increased staff; and the extra resources needed. That was done in 1998.

Subsequently, we commissioned advice from outside the Department on the relatively recent, growing problems of the massive freighting in of cigarettes. That is quite a different problem from the cross-border shopping and smuggling previously experienced. This is the systematic freighting in of millions and millions of cigarettes—some made here, exported and then re-imported from beyond the European Union—from China, Latvia, the far east and South Africa. We sought to quantify the problem that we faced.

The hon. Gentleman knows that we published a report, which demonstrated that the Government were losing about £2.5 billion per year in revenue, that the problem was growing and that further powers for Customs and Excise plus a considerable increase in resources were needed. We spent £209 million over three years and increased customs staff by nearly 1,000. In this short, six-month period, something like half a billion cigarettes will be seized. All members of the Committee will read in the newspapers constant reports of how Customs and Excise is now stopping the growth of that problem. It was believed that about one in five or six of all cigarettes smoked in this country had been illegally imported and that about 80 per cent. of all hand-rolled tobacco had been smuggled in. There is now a firm policy in place to tackle those who organise and sell it. Naples II ensures that we get at their supply routes and the people who are organising these activities by virtue of the fact that we can share information.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere is right to say that we must not only seize goods and assets, but catch the gangs at the top of the supply chain—those who organise the smuggling and make the money—and prosecute them. I assure him that Naples II enables us to co-operate with other authorities, which means that the Mr. Bigs are closer to our grasp than they would otherwise have been. I share the hon. Gentleman's hope. I want to be able to report to the House in future years that we have apprehended and prosecuted those individuals, and taken away their ability to organise crimes involving drugs, tobacco, alcohol, firearms or paedophile material, which is a growing area of concern for us all. I hope, therefore, that the Committee will agree the order.

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Prepared 17 January 2001