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Alcohol Smuggling

13. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): What proposals he has to combat the smuggling of alcohol into the United Kingdom. [101777]

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): The comprehensive spending review allocated customs an additional £35 million to tackle evasion of excise duties, enabling it to deploy 145 additional staff. Currently, another 55 officers have been redeployed to the south-east to tackle the seasonal peak in excise smuggling.

There has been a steady increase in the number of staff deployed on this work. At the beginning of this financial year, Customs had about l,000 staff employed in combating excise smuggling. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in his pre-Budget

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statement additional funding for customs to deploy a national network of X-ray scanners designed to detect smuggling in freight.

Mr. Illsley: I welcome that reply, but is my hon. Friend aware that in my constituency and the whole of the north of England, smuggling and illegal sales of alcohol are on the increase and are destabilising many legitimate traders? Will she consider the reintroduction of the wholesale liquor licence, which I understand was done away with in the early 1980s, to help to prevent illegal traders from selling contraband booze? Will she also reconsider the rates of duty on alcohol, and especially beer, and try to bring them more in line with those on the continent?

Dawn Primarolo: Customs has deployed 130 extra officers inland, away from the frontiers, to disrupt the illegal distribution networks. The Government have also increased the penalties for those caught dealing in these illegal goods. We have an agreement with Camelot, for example, that a trader who is convicted of trading in illegal goods would lose the licence to sell lottery tickets. In the pre-Budget report, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that we are considering the use of tax stamps to identify legitimate products, so that those who trade in products not bearing the stamp can be prosecuted.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): I am delighted to hear of the new measures and the extra manpower that Customs and Excise has been able to deploy. That is good news. Does the Paymaster General agree, however, that the news is still very bad and that an enormous amount of illegal goods is getting through? Will she assure the House that Customs and Excise will prosecute whenever it has evidence, to ensure that people understand that the illegal trading is not just a fly job but a serious matter that is deeply destabilising to many firms in the south-east, which are under great pressure as a result of this wholly illegal activity?

Dawn Primarolo: Yes, I am happy to confirm that Customs and Excise will prosecute when we catch people dealing in these illegal goods. There are considerably more staff available for tackling the problem than there would have been under a Conservative Government: on election in 1997, we found that the Conservative Government had planned in their fundamental expenditure review to reduce by 300 the anti-smuggling staff. We kept those officers in place and have deployed them to do exactly the work that the hon. Gentleman implores us to do. He is quite right: the illegal selling undermines the legitimate trade and undermines our communities because of the criminal activity. We will continue to deal with the problem and to prosecute the offenders.

Growth Forecasting

14. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): What assessment he has made of his Department's accuracy in forecasting United Kingdom growth since 1997. [101778]

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The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Miss Melanie Johnson): Recent forecasts have been very accurate compared with those in the past. We have been helped by the National Audit Office audit of key assumptions, and the Government are ensuring that fiscal plans are set on a sound and prudent basis.

Mr. Kidney: Does my hon. Friend recall how many forecasters, including the Opposition, scoffed at the Treasury's forecast in this year's Budget of growth of 1 to 1.5 per cent? They said that the forecast was unrealistically high, but it has now been completely vindicated. How does my hon. Friend explain the Treasury's forecasting success when so many people have egg on their faces?

Miss Johnson: As my hon. Friend says, the Treasury's success is rightly to be contrasted with that of the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor at the time that we made those forecasts:

A couple of days later, the right hon. Gentleman said in his press release:

    "The economy is heading for a far sharper slowdown than the Government is complacently predicting."

Is it any wonder, given that the Treasury got it right and the Opposition--as usual--got it wrong, that no one believes a word that the right hon. Member for Horsham says?

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): In the economic forecasts for United Kingdom growth, is not the Treasury now deliberately underestimating growth in years two and three in the pre-Budget report to massage the public finances and to hide a huge Budget surplus in future years? Are not the Government amassing a huge election war chest? Will the Minister tell the Chancellor when he returns from the G20 that there is no point in being an iron Chancellor if he leaves our public services to rust?

Miss Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is wrong. We have shown the prudence that the previous Government should have shown when they looked at a brief moment and decided to make economic decisions that led us into boom and bust in the 1980s. They should have looked to the longer term, and that is what this Government are doing. We have made prudent assumptions and we are sticking to them. I will take no lectures from the Liberal Democrats on forecasting because they have spent 1p so many times that most of us have lost count.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): How can the Government possibly hope to forecast anything accurately when they are in denial about what is happening now? We heard from the Chief Secretary earlier more of this eyewash about the tax burden falling, but the figures--I have them here from the Library--show that, in every single quarter from 1997 to the second quarter of 1999, which is the last quarter for which figures are available, the tax burden has increased. Let me throw

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the figures to him now across the Dispatch Box so that he will not be able to continue to deny the facts. Can we please have an answer to the question?

Miss Johnson: The hon. Gentleman has, as usual, got it completely wrong. The figures are as my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary said. [Interruption.] I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for passing the figures across the Dispatch Box--[Interruption.] I do not need to pass across the key figures that Opposition need to reflect on, because they are their predicted tax rises for 1999-2002. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order, Mr. Paterson.

Miss Johnson: The Conservatives' figures for all three years show that there would have been a higher tax burden under a Conservative Government than there will be under Labour. As with everything else, the country is better off with a Labour Government.

Economic and Monetary Union

15. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): If he will make a statement on progress on implementation of the national changeover plan. [101779]

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The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Miss Melanie Johnson): Progress on the national changeover planning project was reported in the Treasury's third report on euro preparations on 1 November. Copies of the report are available in the Library.

Mr. Chapman: Is not the implementation of the national changeover plan the only sensible way to proceed? What individual or organisation--in the private or public sector--would proceed with the prospect of a decision when the conditions are satisfied without making adequate preparations? Does my hon. Friend not agree that the position of the Conservative party is entirely incomprehensible in that respect? Will she also tell me when the second implementation plan might be published?

Miss Johnson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making exactly the right points on this matter. We need to take a lead in making preparations so that we are able to decide one way or another. We have consulted more than 100 organisations. The public sector has taken a lead in the preparations and, this month, the Bank of England issued a document on its work in this regard. We also now have the opportunity in our preparations to consider the experience of first-wave countries.

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ECHR Judgment (Thompson and Venables)

12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I should like to make a statement about the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, which announced its judgment this morning, in the case brought against the United Kingdom Government by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. A copy of the judgment has been placed in the Library.

Those two youths were responsible for the appalling murder of James Bulger in Liverpool in February 1993. The whole House and the country have the deepest sympathy for James's parents. As Lord Reed, one of the court's judges, said in this judgment:

He added that the fact that those responsible

    "were themselves only ten years old at the time of the murder makes it particularly disturbing".

The authority of the European Court of Human Rights derives from our membership of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe was established after the war on the initiative of the allies, especially the United Kingdom. It now has 41 nations in membership. The Council predates the European Union, and is wholly separate from it.

The European convention on human rights is a convention of the Council of Europe and the Court of Human Rights, which sits in Strasbourg, is one of its principal institutions. British jurists played a leading role in drafting the convention and the UK was the first nation to ratify it in 1951. Successive UK Governments have, ever since and consistently, abided by the decisions of the court, introducing amending legislation in this Parliament where necessary.

In the case that Robert Thompson and Jon Venables brought before the Strasbourg court, the two youths essentially argued that facing trial in a Crown court and having their tariff set by the Home Secretary were inappropriate given their ages. They claimed that those arrangements breached articles 3, 5, 6 and 14 of the convention relating to powers of detention and the right to a fair trial. The youths were 11 at the time of conviction and they are now aged 17.

The House will understand that I have had only a short time to read the judgment, which was not issued to the public or to Ministers until early this morning. However, the key findings are as follows.

First, there were no violations of the European convention on human rights in respect of article 3 and, in one regard, in respect of article 5(1). Article 3 is on the right not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment and it relates to matters of both trial and of sentence. In particular, the court held as lawful the age of 10 as the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales. It was also of the view that the particular features of the trial process did not cause,

The court also held that there had been no violation in respect of article 5(1), the right to liberty. It held that the sentence of detention at Her Majesty's pleasure was

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clearly lawful under English law and was not arbitrary. However, the court did find violations in respect of article 6(1), the right to a fair trial, and, under articles 6(1) and 5(4), relating to the setting of the tariffs and their continued review.

On article 6(1), the right to a fair trial, the court found that, notwithstanding the special arrangements made to help ensure that the youths could properly participate in the trial process in the Crown Court,

It therefore followed, in the view of the court, that the applicants had been denied a fair hearing in breach of article 6(1).

On the setting of tariffs and their continued review, the court first held that there was a fundamental distinction between the sentence for murder in respect of juveniles and that for murder in respect of adults. As far as the latter--the sentence for adults--was concerned, the European Court, in an earlier judgment on the 1994 Wynne case, had accepted the lawfulness of the mandatory life sentence for adults convicted of murder. It had also accepted as lawful the arrangements for tariff-setting by the Secretary of State.

Today's judgment does not deal with the arrangements for adults who have been, or will be, convicted of murder in the courts in England and Wales. However, in this case, which involves juveniles, the European Court followed a decision by the House of Lords' Appellate Committee of the Privy Council that the setting of the tariffs for juveniles was itself a sentencing exercise. The court added that, as the Home Secretary--who set the applicants' tariffs--was clearly not independent of the Executive, there had been a breach of article 6(1) in respect of the determination of the applicants' tariffs.

On article 5(4), the court held that, because the applicants' tariffs had been decided by the Home Secretary, there had been no judicial supervision incorporated in the initial fixing of their sentences. The court therefore found a violation of article 5(4) based on the lack of any opportunity for the applicants to have the lawfulness of their detention assessed by a judicial body.

In summary, therefore, the court has found in favour of the United Kingdom Government on two important issues--that Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were never subjected to inhumane or degrading treatment by the Government, and that the sentences imposed by the court were not inconsistent with the requirements of the convention. However, it has found against the United Kingdom on issues relating to the trial process, to the way in which the tariff linked to their sentence was set, and to the failure subsequently to review the tariff.

The judgment does not overturn the verdict of murder in this case, nor does it in any way exonerate the two youths for their part in this terrible crime. The judgment does not direct their release from custody. The parole board remains responsible for deciding release in these cases.

As with any such decision of the court, the Government accept its judgment. However, the full judgment runs to 120 pages, and the House will understand that I need to

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study carefully the detail of what the court has said, and fully to consider the implications. I will of course report the outcome of my considerations to Parliament as soon as possible, and it will be for Parliament to agree any change that may appear to be required in the legislative framework for dealing with juvenile offenders in these circumstances.

The appalling murder of James Bulger--a two-year-old murdered by two 10-year-olds--profoundly shocked this country and continues to do so, but the real agony is felt by James's parents. It is they who have endured, and will continue to endure, the profound grief of losing their son--a fact which nothing can ever repair.

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