Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): It may well be that the Chair would consider that request favourably, but it cannot consider it now because we have not reached those amendments on the amendment paper. They come beyond the next group of amendments, so they cannot be voted on, under any circumstances, at this moment. We move on to—

Mr. Field: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. So that I am clear, is it the case that although we have debated the amendments on which I wish to vote, we will not vote on them now, but we will be able to return to them and vote on them at a later stage?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: At the discretion of the Chair.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you confirm that

10 Jun 2003 : Column 651

once we reach this stage in proceedings, if an hon. Member is in the process of speaking when the time expires, when we return to the Bill that Member would still be on his or her feet when the debate resumed, and the time allowed would take into account what may have been said? At this stage of the debate, it would be useful if Members in the Chamber were aware of what was possible.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The answer is yes.

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker interrupted the business, pursuant to Order [4 June].

Bill to be further considered on Tuesday 17 June.

10 Jun 2003 : Column 652

Customs Services (Cornwall)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dan Norris.]

7.44 pm

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter of great concern in my constituency—the future of the customs service in Cornwall and the south-west more widely.

In March, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise published its business plan for the next three years. It included the restructuring of the service, reducing fixed- location staffing in favour of flying squads responding to intelligence and tip-offs. That was confirmed by my hon. Friend the Minister in a parliamentary answer on 26 March 2003. I believe that the Government's plans will be detrimental to my constituency and raise issues affecting the whole county and country.

Before coming to the current problems, I should like to remind the House of Cornwall's link with smuggling. Our literature and history are littered with the stories of smuggling, from the Poldark novels to the chimney, known as the pipe, that grows out of our customs house in Falmouth, where smuggled baccy was burned. I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that there is an excellent restaurant called the The Pipe as a testimony to the importance that the chimney played in the history of the town.

Falmouth is the world's third-deepest natural harbour. For centuries, it has played host to those seeking to ply their trade by sea. Sometimes, those trades were less than honourable—hence, the presence of the Customs in our town. Indeed, smuggling has been a central part of the county's history. Our tourists love nothing more than to visit our historic smuggling coves and areas. The stories add colour to our visitors' visits, but the fictional and rather romantic side of the issue hides a more serious and dangerous side.

I first visited Falmouth customs house in 1997, after my election to this House. Even then, Inland Revenue officers felt that the service that they provided was under threat. I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), now Paymaster General, and urged her to continue to support the service in Cornwall. As a regular visitor to the waterfront, I had frequent updates, both formally and informally, and word reached me after the last election that Falmouth customs house was under threat. Indeed, the whole service was under threat. To be honest, I was at first in disbelief about that. A Cornwall without Revenue presence is like a fish without water, and I put the letter in the green ink file.

The current customs house is situated on the old customs house quay in the centre of town, overlooking the harbour and the Carrick Roads. It could have come straight out of a set from the Poldark novels and, indeed, it has appeared as such. It dominates the landscape, and it undoubtedly needs renovation and more modern facilities. The service started negotiations locally for a new building. A local company was informally asked to prepare plans for a new customs house, only to find later that the service had changed its mind, that no building was planned, that its plans were not to be used and that it was not going to be paid for

10 Jun 2003 : Column 653

its work. I have raised the matter with my hon. Friend the Minister in the past, and I am pleased to say that it has now been partially resolved and that a payment has been made to the company.

At the same time, I heard again that the entire service was to be removed from Falmouth—and not only Falmouth, but Cornwall. People were telling me that Cornwall, with its long history of smuggling, was to be without any regular Inland Revenue presence. That is good news if one is a smuggler, whether of human beings or illegal goods, a terrorist or somebody engaged in an otherwise illegal activity. It is bad news if one has concerns about those issues.

I understand that the plan is to have an intelligence-led operation. That sounds very grand, does it not, Mr. Deputy Speaker? The reality, however, will be that the needs of south-east England will be seen as more important than those of Cornwall. I accept that there are real problems in the south-east, but I do not believe that the answer lies in withdrawing Cornwall's services. In future, the Inland Revenue in Cornwall will operate in the following way. On Monday morning, all the officers—there are currently 17 in Falmouth—will turn up for work, get into a minibus and head off to all parts east. They will spend the working week in that manner, at some considerable cost to the service, and have the following week off. If the service believes that a major ring is operating from Dover or Gatwick, to Dover or to Gatwick the officers will go. That leaves me completely speechless, which does not happen very often. Germany is significantly nearer to Dover than Cornwall is. Cornish officers will spend at least eight hours travelling to Dover, and a similar amount of time returning. Two of the five days of their working week will be spent just travelling. Is that not daft? At the same time, there will be nobody left in Cornwall to provide any intelligence, so the teams will never be able to act on it.

When I heard those incredible proposals, and after I had picked myself up off the floor, I immediately contacted my hon. Friend the Minister, tabled parliamentary questions and determined to do all that I could to oppose them. The proposals extend to ports across the length of the south of England—the same system will operate from Falmouth to Bristol and along to Dover. For the far south-west, there will be no officers at all in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. Has any Member ever heard of such a smuggler's charter?

The lunacy of the plan is shown by events that occurred just two weeks ago. The Revenue had a great success in Plymouth when officers found a caravan equipped for smuggling, 400,000 cigarettes and 200 kg of tobacco. Amazingly, there was no publicity about that incredible seizure. Could that be because it might have been slightly embarrassing for the Customs, given its involvement in the changes?

It would be fair to say that the Public and Commercial Services union was less than impressed with the plans when they were published, and immediately started discussions with management. It is not for me to get involved in those discussions, but I know that it has significant concerns for its members, many of whom are

10 Jun 2003 : Column 654

my constituents. I understand that some of the staff quite liked the voluntary arrangements, but not the proposed compulsory ones. Can anyone say that they know what their family commitments will be in years to come? To date, only one person has opted to join the mobile teams. I have great sympathy for the staff. They are being asked to leave families, homes, educational courses, pets and social life to lead a life that is not dissimilar to an MP's—that is, away from home for most of the time. The crucial difference, though, is that we chose this lifestyle, whereas they sought a local job serving a local community—they did not join the service to traipse around the country for most of the time. Last week, the union went to the Whitley council, but it was unable to reach an agreement and is now in official dispute.

What will it all mean? In September, under current plans, the customs house in Falmouth will close. A Portakabin will be located on Falmouth docks and used for those staff who do not agree to join the mobile scheme. The Revenue in Cornwall are being reduced to a Portakabin. That will last for three years, after which the Revenue will apparently operate out of a white van. I thought that those were the guys we were supposed to be chasing. Smugglers—whether of drugs, cigarettes, tobacco, people, animals or even terrorists—will know that there is an open door in the west country. There will be no one around to provide intelligence, and therefore no one around to apprehend smugglers. There is already a thriving local trade in smuggled cigarettes. No doubt some people will not welcome my campaign for the Government to think again, because their cheap baccy will be all the easier to obtain, but I happen to disagree. Local shopkeepers will suffer, legitimate publicans and others will be undercut and the Government—partly due to their folly—will lose their tax income.

A few years ago, I visited some of the more remote Scottish islands. One island was visited irregularly by Customs, which suited some people. Like Cornwall, it had several remote beaches where one could land smuggled goods. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the ferry came in and, as it approached, a white van would cruise down to the harbour. At any sign of customs officers or strangers on the ferry, it would gently drive away. If there were no strangers or customs officers, the white van would slip quietly on to the ferry. I saw that for myself, and I predict similar occurrences in Cornwall if the plan goes ahead.

Next Section

IndexHome Page