Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by HM Customs and Excise



  1.1  Frontier control activity in the UK has become increasingly complex in recent years. Traditional routine checking of goods entering or leaving the country has largely disappeared, to be replaced by a more sophisticated risk-based and intelligence-led approach to intervention. The advent of the single market in 1993 created a distinction between the overt frontier activity which could continue at the EU's external borders and the more light-touch forms of activity which are acceptable in relation to traffic between Member States. In addition there has been a shift in the objectives of frontier controls carried out by Customs—away from a focus on the collection of import duty and toward intelligence-led anti-smuggling operations and frontier checks carried out on behalf of other departments.


  2.1  Facilitation

The international trading community expects customs procedures to have at best nil, or at worst minimum, impact on the movement of their goods. There will always be a tension between effective control and facilitation. But there is meaningful dialogue between UK Customs and the legitimate international trading community about how best to work together to meet the legitimate needs of both parties.

  2.2  Freedom of movement

  Similarly, the travelling public have increasingly high expectations about being able to cross frontiers with minimum fuss, especially within the EU.

  2.3  The Human Rights Convention

  This is a further Freedom of Movement issue. When the Convention takes effect in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in October (already effective in Scotland), Human Rights issues will be triable in the courts. We have trawled Customs Law and procedures to ensure that what we do is Human Rights "proof", and we have faced no challenges in Scotland. There may of course be challenges that we have failed to anticipate.

  2.4  Single EU Frontier Force

  The present agreed position is that the member state customs services should "act as one". Extending that to the wider EU justice and home affairs responsibilities, a single frontier force could well be proposed at some time in the future. There would be advantages through achieving consistency and uniformity for the whole of the external frontier, but we would no longer be able to use UK resources to meet particular UK needs. Politically, this would also trigger sensitivities about sovereignty.

  2.5  Schengen

  The United Kingdom has requested to take part in the provisions of the 1990 Schengen Information System (SIS), but not to the extent that these provisions serve the purpose of applying the provisions of the Convention relating to the free movement of persons in the territories of the participating States (Article 96). The UK has concerns that this aspect of the SIS would be incompatible with our position on the maintenance of frontier controls and our decision not to seek participation in the frontiers provision of the Schengen Convention (Title II). Discussions are continuing in Council, the UK policy lead is held by Home Office.

  2.6  Tobacco and Alcohol

  Within the Community excise duty becomes chargeable on alcohol and tobacco products when they are released for consumption on the home market. The commercial movement of excise goods between member states may take place free of excise duty under the terms of the 1992 "REDS Regulations". (Excise Goods (Holding, Movement and Warehousing and REDS) Regulations 1992). With the lower excise duty levels in France and Belgium the smuggling of excise goods for illegal sale ("bootlegging") has become a serious problem. Customs operate controls both at points of entry and inland to detect illicit trade in excise goods. These controls are being sufficiently enhanced with the additional resources made available to the Department in the recent budget. Inevitably, although we can enforce our controls anywhere in the country, we concentrate our resources near the entry points to the UK. There is a risk that we will be seen as acting contrary to Single Market rules as operating an internal border control for fiscal purposes.


  3.1  At both internal and external frontiers we target our controls on the areas of highest risk, informed by intelligence. Our arrangements are decided and agreed through discussion with our EU partners. Where our needs differ from those of our EU partners, eg for Article 30 TEC reasons (pornography, drugs etc), we are free to determine our own priority targets.


  4.1  The Committee is already aware of our use of x-ray scanners at ports of entry. We also use smaller mobile and static x-ray facilities, and a range of other technology, eg ion trace detectors (an electronic sniffer dog). We work closely with the Police Scientific Development Branch to consider technological developments. We monitor the Market for new developments which might enhance our effectiveness whilst remaining within the funding limits.


  5.1  In 1999-2000 Customs have some 2,592 staff years engaged on the full range of frontier control activities, for example, combating alcohol and tobacco smuggling, Class A drugs and fraud; and the intelligence-led or risk-based challenge of passenger traffic. This represents the resources present at the frontier, of course we also allocate resources in support of this activity, for example, corporate services and policy. More importantly, a significant amount of effort goes into Compliance activity within the UK which is directly related to the enforcement of the prohibitions and restrictions on the import and export of goods.

  5.2  There is already co-operation between the three main frontier organisations; the Immigration Service, dealing with controls on the movement of people; the Police Ports Special Branch (police units under the control of the local Chief Constable) whose primary responsibility is for the prevention of terrorism; and Customs, dealing primarily with controls on the movement of goods and the contravention of import/export regulations. This co-operation is carried out under a national framework Memorandum of Understanding which is supported by more detailed local agreements. Legislative arrangements are in place to permit the exchange of information between Immigration and Customs and to allow Customs Officers to act as Immigration Officers where necessary. The Terrorism Bill currently before Parliament will provide for open information exchange between Ports Special Branch, Customs, Immigration and will enable Customs and Immigration Officers to act as "Examining Officers" for anti-terrorism purposes.

  5.3  Customs has a pivotal role in co-operating with other departments and agencies which have an interest in frontiers activity. We operate a diverse set of checks and controls on behalf of MAFF, DETR, DoH, DTI and others. Some of this work is carried out under Customs legislation, some under legislation sponsored by the relevant lead policy department. This form of activity in Customs is growing and we are under resource pressure to meet the enforcement expectations of others.


  6.1  Joint Surveillance Exercises

  The UK actively participates in and organises joint surveillance operations. These are funded by the European Union. The subject matter is diverse eg drug trafficking, container traffic and movement of paedophiles. They provide an ideal opportunity to see how other countries' controls operate, not only at the internal, but also at the external borders of the European Union.

  6.2  Benchmarking

  Benchmarking is used internationally by customs administrations, to measure and compare performance with each other. Within the EU, the UK and the Netherlands have been working together on benchmarking over the last two years. Our international benchmarking partners include Australia and the USA, and the subjects have included paedophile controls, detector dogs, and customer satisfaction. The European Union Customs 2002 programme is providing funding to enable this work to continue.

7 April 2000

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