14 Apr 1999 : Column 761

House of Lords

Wednesday, 14th April 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham.

Cross-Channel Alcohol Smuggling

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What new measures they are taking to combat cross-Channel smuggling of alcohol.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey : My Lords, following the thorough alcohol and tobacco fraud review, the recommendations resulted in the Comprehensive Spending Review in July 1998 allocating Customs £35 million to tackle evasion of alcohol and tobacco duties. This has enabled it to employ more than 100 extra front-line staff, who have been operationally effective since 1st April.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that whereas these measures may be worth while, nevertheless they tend to deal with the symptoms and not the cause of the problem? The real issue is the duty differential. For example, beer in France has 5p a pint excise duty compared to 33p a pint in Britain. Meanwhile, the Treasury is losing out because 15 per cent. of French beer sales is drunk in Britain. Organised crime is muscling in on this illicit trade and Kent police are having a job to cope with the situation. Surely fresh thought is needed on this important problem.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we should get the figures into perspective. Yes, of course it is true that it is a serious problem; I do not wish to underestimate it. The loss through cross-Channel smuggling of alcohol is put at £220 million, which is 2 per cent. of UK alcohol receipts. On the other hand, if we were to bring our alcohol duty levels down to those of France and our tobacco duties down to those of Belgium, we would be losing £9.5 billion in revenue. That is the balance which should be considered.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the Minister spoke about the new Customs and Excise officers being "operationally effective". Does he mean that they are working or does he mean that they have caught smugglers?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Both, my Lords. They have been recruited and in training since July of last year when the money was allocated. They are now all on duty--some were on duty well before 1st April--and they are all contributing to the work of Customs and Excise in combating smuggling.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on how much smuggling there might be of

14 Apr 1999 : Column 762

tobacco and drink between France and Belgium? Perhaps I may suggest to him that if there were some harmonisation between rates of duty and taxes within the Community--up as well as down, bearing in mind what the Minister has just said--that might eliminate the problem.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend knows that the land frontier between France and Belgium is pretty well 100 per cent. open. I have no idea what degree of smuggling there is. I do not think anybody could possibly know such a figure.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, can the Minister confirm the recent announcement that 1,000 Customs and Excise jobs are to be cut in the south of England?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: No, I cannot, my Lords. I will investigate and write to the noble Earl.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the higher the disparity between the taxes on alcohol and tobacco in this country and other countries, the more incentive there is for criminality? Does that not in itself worry the Government, because they are having to employ more officials to prevent this criminality from taking place and growing? Would it not be far better to have more reasonable taxes on these two items than continually to increase them above the cost of living and make things even more difficult as time goes on?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am not surprised at the question. My noble friend is of course right; great disparities in excise duty rates result in smuggling. I have already given the difference between the cost to the Revenue of smuggling and the cost to the Revenue if we were to harmonise the rates fully. However, I am surprised that the question should come from him and that my noble friend Lord Stoddart of Swindon, of all people, should be arguing for tax harmonisation within the European Union.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, my noble friend is quite wrong. I was not arguing for tax harmonisation; I was arguing for the Treasury and Parliament in this country to reduce the taxes on those particular items. That is not harmonisation.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, will the Minister recognise that young people can obtain supplies of alcohol more easily from illicit dealers, whereas with off-licences at least there is a measure of control? Will he also recognise that the licensing trade employs many thousands of people throughout the country and that eventually these smuggling activities will have a knock-on effect on jobs?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not know that I can confirm that this is likely to increase sales of alcohol to children. Unfortunately, a great deal of smuggled alcohol and tobacco goes through legitimate or semi-legitimate retail outlets. As to job

14 Apr 1999 : Column 763

losses, it should be borne in mind that a large proportion of the alcohol smuggled into this country is manufactured in this country, sent out to hypermarkets in Calais and Boulogne and then brought back again. So there are job losses in the retail trade but not in the brewing industry.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, in view of what the Minister has just said, would he care to comment on the losses suffered by Kentish pubs and breweries?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I hoped that I had answered that question. Yes, of course the loss to Kentish pubs is very serious. That is why we are putting the extra effort into anti-smuggling activity. But the loss to breweries is probably not that great as it is British beer that is being brought back into the country.

Lord Ironside: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that there is another differential to consider; namely, the difference between the strength of export spirits and that of spirits obtained on the home market? Is not the lure to smuggle the ability to be able to buy export strength spirits, for example gin and whisky, at 47 per cent. by volume, as opposed to spirits sold in the domestic markets at 40 per cent. by volume? Does the noble Lord therefore consider that there is good reason to harmonise the rates of alcohol content in order to avoid and reduce smuggling?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, harmonising rates of alcohol strength would be a step that would take us far in the direction of a "united states of Europe" in which this Government do not wish to go. I do not know that extra high-strength spirits form a significant proportion of the goods brought back into this country. A significant proportion of the beer that is brought back into this country is high-strength. It has no market in other European countries; it is manufactured in this country, sent over to Calais and Boulogne and then returned here.

European Single Currency

2.45 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will issue a White Paper setting out the political and economic reasons for and against the United Kingdom joining the European single currency and identifying the questions which need to be answered before a decision is reached.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Government have already spelt out clearly their policy on membership of the single currency. The key factor underpinning any government decision will be whether the economic benefits to the United Kingdom are clear and unambiguous. If they are, the Government believe that there is no constitutional bar to British membership.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would be good enough to read the

14 Apr 1999 : Column 764

Question on the Order Paper and then attempt to answer it. So far, he has not done so. Does he remember the way in which my right honourable friend the recent Prime Minister was drenched in ridicule for not having forecast, years ahead, the attitude of the Government to the single currency? Now that the single currency is in existence, the Government ought to be capable of setting out in a White Paper the reasons, both economic and political, in favour of and against our joining it. So far, they have failed miserably.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I reject that accusation. As I said in my Answer, the Government have already clearly spelt out their policy. In doing so, they have spelt out the economic factors and the political considerations. The Chancellor did so in his Statement in October 1997, as did the Prime Minister when he spoke on the subject earlier this year.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that at some time in the not too far distant future the people of our country are to be invited to make a decision of the utmost importance? Would it not therefore be in the public interest for the Government to cause to be published the quantified factors in the economic sphere that have enabled them to arrive at their decision? Surely the decision of the people, when it is made, ought to be an informed decision. In the interests of transparency, as well as the future of our country, will the Government reconsider the whole matter of providing proper information?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page