Examination of Witnesses (Questions 61-79)
MR MIKE DUGGAN, MR PAUL SMYTH MR JOHN BROWN AND MR FRANK THOMPSON
MONDAY 22 APRIL 2002
61. Good afternoon, gentlemen. We are the Scottish Affairs Select Committee from Westminster and we are conducting an investigation into Customs and Excise in Scotland and front line services in the main. We have taken evidence today and we have been to visit Orkney to look at some of the services provided there. Any evidence you give to us will be very helpful when we come to look at issuing a short report on this. If there is anything that you feel we have missed throughout the session, please do not hesitate to come back to us at the end of it. For the record, would you like to introduce yourselves?
(Mr Duggan) I am Mike Duggan, the Secretary of the PCS; that is the Public and Commercial Services Union, Customs and Excise Group. The PCS represents something like 90 per cent of all staff that work for HM Customs and Excise and we have recognition rights for all staff but joint recognition with FDA for senior civil servants; but FDA represents the Department's solicitors otherwise, the PCS represents all staff within Customs and Excise.
(Mr Smyth) I am Paul Smyth, Secretary of the Council for Civil Service Unions in HM Customs and Excise and as such, I have a national remit.
(Mr Brown) John Brown. I am the local Branch Secretary for West of Scotland.
(Mr Thompson) Frank Thompson. I am the Branch Secretary for the Scotland East Branch of the Customs and Excise Group.
62. How would you assess the current HMCE law enforcement provision in Scotland? What could be done to improve effectiveness?
(Mr Duggan) We listened to Terry Byrne's answers to your questions and, from a PCS point of view, we can agree that there is a need for Customs and Excise to focus on where it has the greatest risk. However, also from our point of view, we look at the resources that have been given to dealing with law enforcement, particularly to Detection work over recent years. In Customs and Excise, there has been no increase in resources to deal with class A drug prevention since 1997. When the Labour Government was elected, the intention of the previous administration was to cut 300 anti-smuggling officers and the incoming government did revoke that intention. Whilst there has been an increase reported of 1,000 extra staff to deal with tobacco smuggling and, last week, an announcement of an additional 350 staff to deal with oil smuggling, there has been no increase in staffing to deal specifically with class A drugs, which is our members' main concern. In Scotland, on the basis of the recent analysis produced by the Department, there has been no increase in any detection staff for any activities over the last five years. They have pretty much got to deal with class A, tobacco and other smuggling activities with the same levels of staffing they had in 1997. The result has been that whilst, because of government directives, the Department has attempted to focus much of its resources in areas where it can deliver high levels of seizures, focusing on the larger airports and other ports of entry, it has led to a depletion of the Department's efforts, including intelligence gathering, in more remote areas. Whilst the Department has increased its seizure of class A drugs, the price of drugs on the street has not increased. If anything it is decreasing from the last figures we have had; so the drugs must be coming in by some ways and, whilst it is important to concentrate on the areas where there are the large, known, commercial deliveries through freight etc, we believe the Department has missed out on what is happening in the more remote areas, the quieter areas of this country, particularly Scotland with its large coastline, and the permanent presence that has been lifted from most of the ports and airports has had a detrimental impact. In our view, there is a need for more resources and more staff. We are not calling for unlimited numbers because we agree that you cannot have Customs officers every ten yards along the coastline. There have been recent instances which indicate that Scotland is beginning to be targeted. Members of the Committee have probably seen the reports in the newspapers of a large scale heroin seizure in Lithuania recently, of individuals from Glasgow. It was heroin coming through the Baltic route to Glasgow and at the weekend I understand in France that two individuals from Dundee were arrested with large quantities of class A drugs which looked like they intended to fly by light aircraft into Dundee. In Lithuania, you will have seen the enormous amount of tobacco that was seized that again was aimed at Glasgow. We believe there is evidence to suggest that Scotland's ports and airports are being targeted but we feel that, because of the reduction overall in terms of the staffing that is available for intelligence gathering, we may be missing out on drugs coming into the country. That is our assessment. We do not disagree overall with the Department's strategy; we just do not believe that the Department has enough resources to do all that it could and should to stop the entry of class A drugs.
63. Do you have any specific evidence of the problems on the coastline and the outlying areas?
(Mr Duggan) The difficulty we have is that there is very little intelligence gathering taking place on the border. Most of the intelligence resources are concentrated inland and there is not the resourcing to provide evidence of what is happening on the coastline.
64. Do you think there is too much emphasis being placed on inland seizures rather than ports or do you think the balance is right at the moment?
(Mr Duggan) Our view is that all the resources required inland are required inland. The problem is that there is little or no resource being given to those areas that are deemed to be low risk because of lack of intelligence. There have not been the resources in the past to gather the intelligence. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy to a degree that has occurred over a number of years in Scotland. We agree that the concentration must be on the major ports of entry and if you take out tonnes of tobacco by focusing there that is all well and good but the price of drugs on the street shows it is coming in from other avenues of access.
65. If you were to get these 500 further staff that you suggest are required, where would you use them to plug the gaps? Would it be at the ports?
(Mr Duggan) The PCS has made a submission to the Treasury under SR2002 for what resources it believes need to be added to Customs and Excise and, in particular, the 500 extra staff that we estimate will make a difference would be to plug the gaps in smaller ports and airports and to be engaged in the gathering of intelligence along coastlines, to plug the gaps filled by staff being taken out of those areas into the larger ports and airports. We have not worked out a specific number for Scotland but clearly we would be talking about a percentage of that 500.
66. We heard from Mr Byrne about the strategy of the Department and he talked about flexible and mobile brigades of Customs officers. What do you think are the flaws in that strategy?
(Mr Duggan) If you have no increase in resources, if you are dealing with the same amount of money that you had before, inevitably, a flexible resource means that you leave certain parts of the country on a permanent basis. It means you have a limited amount of knowledge and intelligence about what is happening in those particular parts of the country. It means inevitably that there are going to be areas left unstaffed for considerable periods of time. There are advantages: the element of surprise; the element of being able to flood an area on particular occasions. We do not disagree with the strategy. The strategy can only work if it is on the basis of ensuring that there are sufficient resources to deal with what were the risks that were being left behind.
67. Was that your way of overcoming the problem, to have flexibility but with greater numbers everywhere anyway?
(Mr Duggan) We are not talking about vast numbers. We are not ransacking the Treasury. We are only talking about a limited number in terms of overall government spending, but we believe it could make a considerable difference and plug many of the gaps that we believe exist in the Department's Detection and Intelligence efforts.
68. The one thing that I was disappointed at was the lack of the word "prevention" and visibility of Customs and Excise. What is your opinion on that?
(Mr Duggan) We agree. Up until very recently, most of our members engaged in law enforcement thought of themselves as preventative staff. Their job was to catch but to prevent the import of drugs and, to a great extent, the Department has moved away from prevention into detection. We are all in favour of massive detection but we need to make life as difficult as possible for smugglers and for those who are trying to import cigarettes illegally. If they are aware that there are going to be ports, airports and other means of entry that are only spasmodically going to be staffed by Customs officers, it encourages them to use those locations. I hate to say anything good about drug smugglers, but they are inventive, resourceful and prepared to use any means to get their product into the country. I am sure that they are aware that there are means of access that do not enjoy the same level of preventative cover that has undertaken in the past. We view the issue with concern. The emphasis is more on detection. We believe that it should not be to the detriment of prevention.
69. It appears to me that we are playing the numbers game here. A target is something that is set heavily for youi.e., capturing so many packets of cigarettes or so many people. Is that the only drive to bringing somebody into Customs and Excise?
(Mr Duggan) The Department's financial settlements with the government are based upon achieving fixed targets for class A drugs, tobacco and oils, spirits and other areas. The money that the Department gets depends upon being able to reach those targets. There is a driver within the Department to meet the level of seizures to ensure that they meet the targets set by the government. We are all taxpayers. We agree there should be value for money. The Department should take out as many drugs as possible but that means that certain preventative efforts that were engaged in the past are overshadowed by the need to concentrate more and more on the larger ports of entry. We are not sure whether the Department has the resources to be flexible enough to respond quickly once the "opposition" realises what the Department is doing.
70. You stated in the past that large parts of Scotland have been left effectively without cover. What action should be taken to deter the open sale of contraband, tobacco and alcohol, which has been on the increase?
(Mr Duggan) Part of the responsibility of the new, flexible teams is to undertake jointly with other agencies more disruption of the sale of contraband. The difficulty with that is it is another area of responsibility placed upon the limited resource that exists within Scotland. The previous levels of anti-smuggling resources are expected to deal with further increase in disruption as well, along with other agencies. We agree that this is an approach that should be taken but we are talking about a limited amount of resources available within Customs and Excise in Scotland, that has not increased over the last couple of decades, being asked to take on additional work to disrupt the sale of contraband. There just is not enough to deal with all that is expected of them.
71. When we were at Glasgow Airport this morning, the officers there spoke about the fact that they have had raids on car boot sales and open markets in Glasgow. Do you think that is where the majority of the contraband is being sold through or is it being sold through shops, pubs or wherever?
(Mr Duggan) That is probably a question best put to the Department. As a union, we do not analyse these types of figures. Our members respond to intelligence information that they have and, under the new arrangements, are flexible and expected to disrupt inland as well as to take drugs and tobacco out at the ports of entry. From our point of view, the traditional Customs role has been to stop it where it is easier, when it comes in, in large quantities. Whilst we are not averse to disrupting the chain of command, delivery or sale, there should be far more focus on ensuring that we have sufficient resources and means by which we stop it at the ports of entry rather than being engaged in guerrilla warfare with traders on the street. It is useful in some respects but it is not the best use of resources.
72. You seem to believe that we need extra resources and more Customs officers to combat smuggling. We have had evidence that we do not have to man all the airports, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, all the time. Even at Rosyth, you have to have people at a certain time of the day on a certain day of the week and management of the staff can produce results. There is a clear contradiction here. What do you have to say about this?
(Mr Duggan) I am not sure there is a contradiction. The Department is arguing that it wants to deploy its resources in the most effective, efficient way that it can. It only has a limited amount of money that has been provided by the government to deal with the problems and what it wants to do is employ that most effectively. What I did not detect from the Department was that if it had additional resources they could not be used productively. We are arguing that the Department is getting better at stopping drugs. The seizure rates have gone up, but the price of drugs on the street is not going up. Drugs are coming in. It must surely be the caseand this has been proven where some of our flexible teams in other parts of the country have been engaged in intensification work where we have some of the flexible teams going in for a week or two at a time stopping everybody and everything that they get enormous amounts of tobacco or drugs. Obviously, you cannot stop everybody coming into the country and search them but the Department has to be careful what it says because it is answerable to Ministers. If it had additional resources, they could be productively employed to stop more drugs coming into the country. The Department is saying it wants to deploy what it has as effectively as possible to meet the targets set by the government and I thought the Department put that very well.
73. Can you tell us how much it will cost employing 500 more Customs officers and how much will be the saving to the Treasury in terms of reducing smuggling?
(Mr Duggan) If you employ another 500 Customs officers, it will cost about £1.5 million. Customs officers, depending which part of the country you are in, take out between 10,000 and 700 cigarettes per hour. Those 500 officers would more than pay for any money that was invested in them. Customs officers are relatively cheap when you look at the returns that they individually make to both protecting society and the amount of duty that they collect and the fraud they stop. They are very cost effective. In our view, the employment of Customs officers would not mean a net loss to government funds but a net increase. More importantly, they could contribute more to protecting society against the greater evil of drug smuggling.
74. Mr Sarwar made mention of Rosyth. How high does your union rate the risk of smuggling through the new entry point at Rosyth? How satisfied are you with the arrangements being made to control smuggling at Rosyth and how satisfied are you that providing resources for Rosyth will not have damaging effects on the service elsewhere in Scotland and the north of England?
(Mr Duggan) We do not disagree with the Department that a lot of the drugs coming into Scotland do start in Dover or other airports and come up the motorways into the cities of Scotland. There is no doubt if the opportunity exists for a ferry to come from Zeebrugge to Scotland there must be a considerable amount of traffic that would avoid Dover and go via that direction because it is straight to Scotland. Our colleagues have been discussing with management the need for additional resources to tackle this particular problem. We are very concerned at this stage that we do not have additional resources. It has to come from the existing resources to deal with this particular problem. Even if it is only four hours a day for 30 or 40 Customs officers, that is four hours times 30 or 40 Customs officers per day that is being taken out of the Customs effort elsewhere in Scotland. In our view, the government should be prepared to make some initial outlay and contribution towards increased resourcing that could be reviewed at a later date as the Department said. To expect initially to be able to staff it on a no increased cost basis will be damaging to efforts elsewhere.
75. What other aspects of the service in Scotland do you think are most at risk of being affected by the diversion of staff to meet the needs of the Rosyth ferry?
(Mr Duggan) I would imagine it would lead to less cover at Glasgow and Edinburgh Airports and reduce the amount of flexible attendance at those locations. The vast bulk of Detection resources are based in the central belt and to staff a new operation in Rosyth would demand a reduction in the numbers and amount of attendances at Glasgow and Edinburgh, I would imagine, initially.
76. You said that you were generally happy with the Department's policy of assessed risks. Is that a fair statement of your position?
(Mr Duggan) Intelligence, in our experience, shows that major seizures are made at the major airports and ports and more resources need to be focused there. We are not happy about the fact that it depletes resources elsewhere.
77. What assessment have you made of the benefits to the law enforcement side of the Department of the operation of this policy of assessed risk?
(Mr Duggan) I would not dispute the figures provided by the Department earlier today. They have increased the seizures of class A drugs and tobacco. They have increased because of focusing more on the larger ports of entry. It has caused difficulties in terms of moving staff from areas where they have traditionally worked to other areas. There has been a great deal of difficulty in moving staff considerable distances. We are concerned in the longer term about the health and safety risks to our members being on permanently, flexibly deployed patterns of attendance. The worry we have is that there has been a depletion in intelligence gathering and Detection in other parts of Scotland and we believe that there are gaps in the Department's knowledge of what is happening in vast areas of the country.
78. You raise the health and safety risk. We have heard a lot about staff being moved long distances across the country. What effect is this having on staff morale, staff recruitment and staff retention?
(Mr Duggan) It is not because I am a union official representing a certain group of members but our members in law enforcement are an exceptionally dedicated, committed group of workers. They are highly committed to their work and often work above and beyond the call of normal duty. They accept the redeployment but inevitably it is going to take some toll in terms of their health and the degree to which they are subject to stress and strain. We are closely monitoring the position. The sick absence record has not been notably increased recently but we are concerned that it does lead to more stress on officers. It does also cause difficulties for the Department's policy on equality of opportunity because if jobs are only available to those who have the ability to be flexible or to move long distances, to be at immediate beck and call, it does limit the equality of opportunity for certain jobs. We are about to engage in a series of discussions with the Department about the view that many of our members have that there could be adverse impacts upon the diversity and equality of opportunities by the nature of the establishment of flexible teams which impacts upon teams themselves. If teams are not diverse, they are not as effective as they could be in terms of the work they have to do. We are worried that the Detection teams are turning into principally male organisations with not much opportunity for women and ethnic minorities. That is something we are looking at but it is an issue that may reveal a down side compared to some of the benefits that the Department gets from these flexible deployments.
79. One of the concerns I expressed to Terry Byrne was that you cannot assess the risk if you do not have the staff on the ground to gather the intelligence, particularly in the remote areas of which Scotland has an abundance, and of which I represent more than my fair share. Do you agree with that assessment?
(Mr Duggan) We agree. The discussion we had about the numbers required and how many there should be is relevant. In our view, the concentration on the central belt in Scotland has led to real gaps in intelligence, local information and knowledge. We believe that drugs are coming into this country from many directions. We are focusing a lot of Departmental attention on the large ports and airports but the price is still dropping. We believe that it would be a sound investment to employ more staff in the remote areas to ensure that the Department has those means of access covered. We are not so sure that they have at the moment.
2 See Q96, Ev 24.