Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Fourth Report


FOURTH REPORT

 

The Scottish Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Report:

 

CUSTOMS SERVICES IN SCOTLAND

 

Introduction

1. HM Customs and Excise has in recent times become a predominantly intelligence-led service in pursuit of its law enforcement activities. In a world where communication and information technology are increasingly sophisticated, this tendency is understandable. But it seemed to us that the focus of attention on intelligence at the expense of prevention, along with the consequent reduction in the regular physical presence of Customs Officers at strategic points might be unwise, and perhaps as much due to resource limitations as to the quest for efficiency.

2. We have reservations about the removal or relocation of Customs staff in Scotland. We were also concerned that the country's geography, with its long, exposed and often remote coastline could present opportunities to the known ingenuity of traffickers in contraband. These criminals are adept at probing weaknesses in security. Further, we wished to consider the implications of the advent of the Rosyth to Zeebrugge Ferry and its effect both on smuggling activity in Scotland and the additional Customs supervision that would be required. As a result we felt that it would be pertinent to investigate the adequacy of Customs cover at Scottish ports and airports. We therefore decided to undertake a short inquiry into Customs services in Scotland. Our remit was confined to the deployment of front line officers to combat smuggling. We considered the extent and effectiveness of resources in Scotland; criteria used to determine whether or not Customs controls were provided, particularly in remote areas; and the availability in Scotland of detector dogs to assist with relevant Customs work. On this occasion we did not raise matters related to fraud, VAT or excise collection.

3. We held one formal oral evidence session, which took place in Paisley on 22 April, when HM Customs and Excise (HMCE) and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) appeared before us. We also visited Orkney, where we were able to speak informally to a wide range of relevant, informed and interested parties. With the assistance of HMCE, we inspected Customs operations at Glasgow Airport. We thank all those who participated.

 

 

 

 

Summary

4.   (a)  We believe that HM Customs and Excise should receive additional resources in order to counter illegal meat imports. [Paragraph 9]

(b)  Customs officers should be given the authority to check for consignments of meat likely to prove a danger to human health. [Paragraph 9]

(c)  In its response to this Report, the Government should provide us with an early indication of the levels of smuggling that have come to light in Rosyth following the introduction of the Zeebrugge Ferry, along with an assessment of the impact for Customs services in other parts of Scotland of the provision of staff at Rosyth. [Paragraph 18]

(d)  Detector dogs should be located in Scotland at a level to be determined. [Paragraph 22]

(e)  We recommend that HM Customs and Excise should seek to supplement its intelligence-led approach to law enforcement in Scotland by increasing the number of occasions on which staff are on duty at strategic points. [Paragraph 26]

(f)  A frequent high profile Customs presence should be apparent in parts of Scotland where discernible risks of smuggling activity can be demonstrated. [Paragraph 26]

(g)  We ask the Government to make available the necessary additional resources. [Paragraph 26]

 

 

Current organisation and current concerns

5. Since 2001 HM Customs and Excise has divided its operation into two main areas of activity, Business Services and Taxes (dealing with VAT, Excise and International Trade) and Law Enforcement. The Law Enforcement branch, upon which we concentrated, has three operational arms: Intelligence, Investigation and Detection. These are split into regions across the UK. Law Enforcement North Region includes Scotland, Northern Ireland, North West and North East England. It employs 1,391 staff. In Scotland there are 57 Intelligence staff, 82 Investigation staff and 148 Detection staff; a total of 287.[1] HMCE described its Law Enforcement arm as a force which was "mobile, multi-functional and able to be deployed swiftly to counter threats".[2] The policy was one of 'selective attack', which could display 'demonstrable impact'.[3]

6. PCS told us that exact comparisons between past and present staffing were difficult, although there had been an overall decrease.[4] It believed staff were being concentrated in the Central Belt and relocated to serve both Edinburgh and Glasgow airports ("which are not necessarily staffed on a 24-hour basis"[5]), northern England or Northern Ireland.[6]

"PCS is concerned that large areas of Scotland are being left without cover to prevent or deter the smuggling of alcohol and tobacco in particular."[7]

In response, HMCE said that staff had only been removed from areas identified over a period as 'low productivity'.[8]

7. The main priorities for HMCE Law Enforcement in Scotland were the detection of illegal consignments of tobacco, road fuel and alcohol.[9] The 17 April Budget 2002, allocated an additional 90 million pounds over the next three years to HMCE to finance specific measures throughout the UK. Of this sum 25 million was designated towards striving to overcome the illegal trade in oils, including the provision of 340 new posts.

8. Illicit tobacco imports had become a major problem over the last three years.[10] At Glasgow Airport we heard that more profit was to be had through the supply of smuggled cigarettes than from illegal supplies of Class A drugs. Even so, according to PCS, none of the extra 1,000 Customs jobs resulting from the tobacco strategy had come to Scotland, where there had been no subsequent increase in tobacco seizures.[11] Figures quoted by HMCE reinforced the point.[12] It kept a vigilant watch for container consignments of contraband drugs,[13] but suggested that in Scotland Class A drugs matters had become essentially a police rather than a Customs issue.[14] There had been no significant seizures of heroin in Scotland during the last two years.[15] The major route into Scotland for hard drugs was through England.[16]

 

Illegal meat imports

9. The growth in the market for illegal consignments of meat is a worrying development. HMCE was looking to provide an improved and 'sensible' response to the problem at frontiers. As we were told:

"One real problem with health controls is it only takes one consignment to destroy the whole effectiveness of the activities."[17]

10. We note the action plan published by the Government on 28 March, which is intended to address concerns arising from meat and other food products illegally imported into the UK and the inquiry into illegal meat imports announced by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 18 April. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has spoken of an exercise which his Department has commissioned in order to assess the risks caused by illegal meat imports and how any additional resources directed at the problem should be utilised.[18] We welcome these initiatives. HMCE currently does not have the power to look explicitly for unwholesome meat.[19] We believe that additional resources should be made available to HMCE to enable the proper and effective inspection of meat imports at frontiers. Customs Officers should be given the authority to check for consignments likely to prove a danger to human health.

 

Reorganisation and relocation

11. PCS had no quibble in principle with "flexible and mobile brigades of customs officers".[20] The system had some advantages. These included the ability to be able to react in strength when intelligence provided the impetus.[21] But, in a Scottish context, PCS thought there were flaws in the strategy which caused areas to be exposed to smugglers through lack of appropriate staff.[22] It was further suggested that current HMCE arrangements had created gaps in intelligence about "vast areas" of Scotland.[23] According to PCS, drug smugglers were beginning to explore the use of small ports and airports. "The absence of a permanent Customs and Excise presence in many locations is undoubtedly creating more opportunities for the smugglers."[24] In Orkney we heard of a Scandinavian drug smuggler who had used quiet Scottish airports.

12. The last PCS point was echoed by prominent members of the community during our visit to Orkney. There were now no permanent HMCE staff on Orkney, where, we heard, 25 years ago there had been a contingent of 19 officers. Orkney is served by three of Customs Officers located on Shetland (where 25 years ago there apparently were 25). Their appearance, we heard, were rare during the winter months, but activity increased during the summer. HMCE explained that the 'negligible' number of international flights landing in Shetland was a factor which contributed to the limited operations there.[25] This point was diminished by the fact of a substantial Customs presence when there were no international flights.

13. Local opinion in Orkney believed that the current situation would need urgently to be reconsidered if plans to develop a transhipment hub for container vessels at Scapa Flow was successful. An Orkney interlocutor described to us the sense of vulnerability to smuggling which was felt on the islands, given the proximity of international shipping lanes and the increasing visits from oil, freight and leisure vessels. However, HMCE argued that uniformed staff (and static controls at frontiers) had never proven to be effective against drug smuggling; the only successful detections had been intelligence led.[26] The police representative we met on Orkney noted the good working relationship with HMCE and spoke of the free flow of information which occurred. This level of co-operation was underlined by PCS.[27]

14. The memorandum from HMCE acknowledged that the extensive Scottish coastline did pose problems, but it was not currently assessed as a high threat.[28] We felt that this assessment, which was not shared by any of those we spoke to informally, indicated a short-sighted view of the potential of the Scottish coastline to be exploited by drug smugglers. HMCE also described the "modern cutter fleet", which was used to combat the maritime smuggling risk.[29] One of these craft was permanently located off the west coast of Scotland, but HMCE regarded its deterrent effect as negative.[30]

15. We were concerned that HMCE witnesses apparently lacked an understanding of how an increased Customs presence in remote communities could enhance the intelligence gathering mechanism which forms the basis of current activities. It might also be incumbent on HMCE to take proper notice of anecdotal information which derives from remote communities, which should not get lost in the system.

16. PCS considered that perceived gaps in control in the UK could be overcome with the introduction of 500 additional customs officers whose presence would lead to an increase in duty yields, disruption to smugglers and better protection for society.[31] The cost would be in the region of 15 million a year, much of which might be regained through revenue benefits caused by additional fraud prevention and an increase in the seizure of contraband goods.[32] HMCE disputed this assessment and referred to 1,000 extra staff introduced two years ago.[33]

 

National Co-ordination Unit

17. As a result of reorganisation the HMCE's Scottish Collection and Co-ordination Unit (CCU), based at Inchinnan, near Glasgow Airport, which collated, stored and disseminated information was scheduled for closure. The work of all 14 CCUs throughout the UK was centralised at one site in Ipswich, the National Co-ordination Unit (NCU). At the time the announcement of the change was made, there was some hostile reaction from local PCS staff who questioned the decision on the grounds of lost efficiency. However, the memorandum from PCS said:

"PCS is satisfied that the decision to centralise CCU work into Ipswich NCU was based on maximising the health and safety of our members in the field and putting HM Customs and Excise at the cutting edge of Intelligence technology."[34]

Staff affected by the transfer have all been redeployed. "The Department has chosen to resite some work for 14 posts to Paisley."[35]

 


1   Ev 3, para 22. Back

2   Ibid, para 29. Back

3   Q12 and Q24. Back

4   Ev 16, para 12. Back

5   Ibid, para 15. Back

6   Ibid, para 13. Back

7   Ibid, para 14. Back

8   Q31. Back

9   Qq 2 and 3. Back

10   Q3. Back

11   Q81. Back

12   Q13. Back

13   Q23. Back

14   Q3. Back

15   Q23. Back

16   Q3. Back

17   Q5. Back

18   Official Report, Thursday 18 April, col 697. Back

19   Q6. Back

20   Ev 16, para 11. Back

21   Q66. Back

22   IbidBack

23   Q77 and Q79. Back

24   Ev 16, para 11. Back

25   Q53. Back

26   Q24. Back

27   Q88. Back

28   Ev 3, para 24. Back

29   IbidBack

30   Q24. Back

31   Ev 17, paras 22 and 23. Back

32   Q73. Back

33   Q21. Back

34   Ev 17, para 18. Back

35   Q30. Back

 
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