Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 707 - 719)




  707. Welcome and thank you for coming. For the record, can you first each state who you are and what you do?
  (Mr Byrne) Terry Byrne, Commissioner for Law Enforcement in Customs and Excise.

  (Sir Keith Morris) Keith Morris, former Ambassador to Colombia, retired.
  (Dr Dorn) Nicholas Dorn, DrugScope, a criminologist.

  Chairman: We are going to start with some questions on whether existing drug policy is working.

Mr Malins

  708. Mr Byrne, may I raise a couple of matters with you about seizures of drugs by Customs which go up and down? Sometimes it is said that the volume of seizures has no effect on anything. Could you perhaps comment on whether it is possible to control the illicit drugs market through Customs and your impact generally on availability and price?
  (Mr Byrne) I do not believe that Customs alone can tackle the supply problem effectively and deliver alone the Government's requirements of the 50 per cent[1] reduction. Law enforcement can only take part within an overall strategy and I should like to make this point at the very outset. I totally accept, indeed was party to the drafting of the strategy by Keith Hellawell and Mike Trace back in 1998, that the strategy will either succeed or it will fail in whole. There is no prospect of a one-legged strategy working so that demand side will be overwhelmed by a limitless supply of cheap drugs from abroad. Similarly, there will always be the unscrupulous who will supply a profitable market if there is an insatiable demand here in the UK. Within that, all of the output indicators at the moment, given that we have changed the nature of the attack on the supply side, are going in the right direction. That does not mean that the outcome indicator is yet going in the right direction; it clearly is not.

  709. How do you change the nature of the attack?
  (Mr Byrne) In the last 18 months, the groups of agencies have come together in a much more concerted and harmonised way under an organisation called CIDA,[2] which is a group of senior representatives chaired by Customs. Whilst before it was true for probably at least the last 20 years that there has been some good ad hoc bilateral partnership activity between the enforcement agencies, most of what we did frankly was tactically driven. There were good individual operations, some management intervention to overcome on healthy competition, but there was no overall strategy, there was no overall approach which identified the drug trafficking as a business.

  710. For my benefit. What volume of Class A and Class B drugs do you seize per year?
  (Mr Byrne) The figures have changed dramatically. In the mid-1990s we were roughly taking out in the region of two to three tonnes of combined cocaine and heroin.

  711. Is that round our ports of entry?
  (Mr Byrne) With cannabis the figure was in the region of 70 tonnes a year. Yes, most of that was round our ports of entry.

  712. Is that volume of seizure going up?
  (Mr Byrne) The volume of seizures of cannabis has gone downwards in the last year or so; that is not just by ourselves, we now aggregate the figures. Customs and police together are taking out less cannabis, as is happening across the rest of Europe, largely because all countries are focusing on the drugs which cause harm, essentially cocaine, heroin and to some extent synthetic drugs. In the heroin and cocaine area, from around two to three tonnes in the mid-1990s, by the late 1990s we were taking out in the region of five tonnes a year. The figure for 2000-2001, which was the first year we had implemented a concerted strategy, was about 13 tonnes, principally by Customs, although often in partnership with others.

  713. That is quite a lot.
  (Mr Byrne) Under the concerted strategy this year the figure at the half-year stage shows that we are likely to get nearer to 17 or 18 tonnes.

  714. So you seize a lot more. What effect does that have on the market here though, no effect, some effect, prices up, down?
  (Mr Byrne) No, the principal outcome indicators of street price, crude though they are in fairness, show that the figures are as low as they have ever been here in the UK. There is no sign at the moment that the overall attack on the supply side is reducing availability or increasing the price.

  715. Effectively you can get hold of all these drugs just as easily as you ever could, which makes me ask: what is the point of trying to stop any coming in?
  (Mr Byrne) The price of a kilo of cocaine in South America is around £1,000. There is no reason with the normal transport rates why it should not cost £1,500 even with profit here in the UK. The price of a kilo of cocaine in the UK is around £30,000. The figures are similar for heroin; they fluctuated slightly wildly recently because of 11 September, but there is a very clear indication that law enforcement is having an impact on the level of supply. What it is not doing at the moment is not reducing the level of supply. What we do not know is what the level of supply would be were we to take the brakes off completely.

  716. Because an awful lot maybe is getting in that you do not know about. Can you say to yourselves that your seizure of up to 13 tonnes of cocaine and heroin was terrific because you are really making a difference to what happens?
  (Mr Byrne) Until we see the headline indicators of availability in the UK going in the right direction, that is prices going up and availability going down, there is no room for complacency or self-satisfaction. No, that would be wrong. However, if you look at the change in the results, the step change which has been achieved in the last 18 months, there is every reason now to be less pessimistic—that does not mean I am an optimist at all—in thinking that law enforcement can do nothing about the problem.

  717. Is it right that you have 61 officers from Customs scattered around the world?
  (Mr Byrne) Yes.

  718. More coming along. How many more are coming along?
  (Mr Byrne) I think there is funding for ten currently in the pipeline, but part of our overall strategic attack significantly, and we are really only in the first year or so of it, is for Customs particularly to take its activities further overseas. We will change the nature of our expenditure so that I would imagine what we call the upstream attack—a bad phrase in some ways —

  719. Is that placing more people in Afghanistan or wherever?
  (Mr Byrne) Afghanistan is a case in point at the moment which we are now contemplating. There is a particular opportunity there to make a significant difference to the heroin trade, but it actually means principally concentrating in Afghanistan and the surrounding countries and in different parts of South America and the Caribbean basin.

1   Note by witness: The Government's Key Performance Target for the availability strand of the anti-drugs strategy is "To reduce the availability of class A drugs by 25% by 2005 and by 50 % by 2008". Back

2   Note by witness: CIDA-The concerted Interagency Drug Action Group is chaired by HM Customs and Excise and includes representatives from the Association of Chief Police Officers, National Crime Squad, National Criminal Intelligence Service, Metropolitan Police, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other agencies. Back

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