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Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, is the Minister aware that a vast trade has developed in the black marketing of tobacco which has been smuggled into the country? Many criminals are thriving on the cross-border trade. With bulk buying on the Continent on a large scale, criminals are selling tobacco in the pubs and clubs of the north at half the UK price. As the noble Lord suggested, small shopkeepers are suffering terribly, some losing up to £20,000 a year. It also takes up a lot of police time. Apart from the Exchequer losses, it is a costly exercise. Apart from consultations with the tobacco industry and Customs and Excise, what positive steps are the Government taking to halt this illegal trade?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we should not get the size of the problem out of proportion in relation to the total amount of sales of tobacco products. The excise revenue from tobacco in this country is about £7.5 billion a year. As I mentioned in my original Answer, the legitimate import comes to around £120 million of lost excise duty. We do not know what smuggling adds to that, but we take it extremely seriously.
In the current year we increased the number of posts available for excise verification by some 20 people, based in the south east of England where the major entry ports of this country are situated. As I explained earlier, we are using all the intelligence methods at our disposal to catch those people who are importing illegally large amounts of tobacco products and alcoholic beverages.
Lord Glenamara: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, so far as cross-border shopping is concerned, many thousands of Scandinavians come to Newcastle each year to do their Christmas shopping and the shopkeepers on Tyneside are delighted to have them?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am delighted to agree with the noble Lord. Indeed, the last time I answered a question like this, I drew the attention of the House to the fact that cross-border shopping is not all in one direction and is not all about tobacco and alcohol. There is considerable cross-border shopping from those Scandinavian countries into, as the noble Lord said, Newcastle and also into Scotland.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am not entirely sure where that question led me. I suspect the noble Lord wishes to hear me say that we should reduce taxation on tobacco products. However, I think he will be disappointed because I am convinced, as are the Government, that the health reasons for imposing considerable duty on tobacco are unanswerable.
Lord Eatwell: My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that in the British Medical Journal last year there was a detailed study of tobacco smuggling. The study discovered that most tobacco smuggling was associated with organised crime and concluded that any reduction in smuggling must therefore involve increased co-operation between Customs and police authorities, particularly throughout the European Union. This week the European Union planned to push forward the development of a unified policing policy. The Government have said that they will veto that development. Is that not a free gift to the smugglers and to organised crime?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the Government's decision on these and other matters at the present time is a defence of British interests, which I know will come as a strange suggestion to the noble Lord--
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: No, my Lords, not smuggling, because even the noble Lord knows that my right honourable friends are taking the view that they are adopting in the Councils of Europe because of the unreasonable attitude Europe is taking over beef. I should have thought that even the noble Lord would have understood that distinction without my having to spell it out to him.
The Viscount of Oxfuird: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the current major area for smuggling is hand rolling tobacco? If this continues, surely it will move into the area of cigarettes, which will produce a massive drop in the Treasury's takings.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, my noble friend is right that the smuggling of hand rolling tobacco is a major problem. Indeed, it is one we watch very carefully. My right honourable friend the Chancellor took action last year by not increasing the duty on hand rolling tobacco in order to try to dampen down that trade.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Lindsay): My Lords, since the inception of the disposals programme in 1981 the Forestry Commission has sold 208,000 hectares of land, including 128,000 hectares of forest land in some 2,700 transactions. Nearly 100 access agreements have been concluded since we introduced the arrangements to protect public access in October 1991.
Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, I welcome the Minister back. He arrived from Brussels only half an hour ago. I am sure I speak in the name of the whole House when I wish him well in the exacting duties he has to carry out in Brussels. Is the Minister aware that the total number of day visitors to the Forestry Commission estate is 50 million and that this represents a considerable contribution to the quality of life of people who enjoy the countryside? Will he give an assurance that there will be limits on the disposal of Forestry Commission land where there are not restrictions on access? Without such limits we shall be denying families the opportunity to enjoy walking and rambling in the countryside.
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I am grateful for the kind remarks offered by the noble Lord. I am glad that he is pleased to see me back from the Continent. The noble Lord makes a very good point. There are indeed 50 million visitor trips to Forestry Commission lands. The Forestry Commission puts a considerable amount of effort and resources into improving the recreational facilities it has within its management.
However, the noble Lord's second point is based on two false assumptions. First, we do not seek to sell Forestry Commission land where public access is a priority or a significant feature. Our disposals programme is concentrated on those forestry sites where there is either no, or low, public access. Secondly, we try to concentrate our disposals programme on those areas of the Forestry Commission estate where, because of legal constraints, there may not be any public access whatever. I would add that when any Forestry Commission land is being disposed of we contact the local authorities and seek to enter public access agreements with them prior to the sale.
Lord Renton: My Lords, I declare an interest which I handed over to my family some years ago. Is my noble friend aware that in south-west Scotland, although the Forestry Commission has provided public access quite successfully, it does not always look after its plantations as well as it should? Will he do all that he can to expedite the opportunity of the owners of the land to
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, as my noble friend makes clear, there are examples of good management and bad management in forestry both in the public sector and in the private sector. We are anxious to see the Forestry Commission's estate, which still exceeds 1 million hectares, rationalised. That involves sales of Forestry Commission land to the private sector where very often stronger incentives exist to manage well.
Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that the contribution of the Forestry Commission to employment in the rural areas is significant and important? Can he tell the House how many people are currently employed by the Forestry Commission?
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. The employment that forestry generally stimulates, especially in rural areas, is of great significance. Some 35,000 jobs are currently dependent on forestry. About 3,500 to 4,000 jobs are within the Forestry Commission itself. When one takes the current employment statistics, plus the fact that woodland production is up by 50 per cent. since 1980 and is set to double in the next 20 years, one can see a very secure source of employment for many years to come.
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