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Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate on such an important matter to our constituents. Does she agree that there is also a huge question mark over the Government's commitment to tackling the drug supply in our area? Plymouth has unfortunately experienced a recent increase in drug deaths from crack cocaine. Does my hon. Friend accept that that is a critical issue for our constituents?
Ms Atherton: I certainly do. I remember that, on one of my visits, representatives of Falmouth Revenue took me out on a local boat to show me how they identified the vessels that could be smuggling crack cocaine. I regret that that service will be lost if we lose our local teams.
I described what was happening in Scotland. I believe that in Cornwall, white vans will quietly meet yachts and ships and travel up the A30 with their contraband. I made that clear to my hon. and good Friend the Economic Secretary during a meeting that he agreed to hold with me recently.
Let us consider deterrence. It has been alleged that only intelligence works today. However, I wonder whether a deterrent is also valuable. I cannot help but believe that the imposing presence of the customs house overlooking Falmouth harbour plays its part in telling the world, "We are watching you." If smugglers know that there is an open-door policy in Cornwall, they will walk straight in and never go near Dover or Gatwick.
I feel strongly about the matter and for the people who are affected. As parliamentarians, we understand the problems of working away from home. However, my constituents want to work in their towns and live with their families. They do not want to be away one week and home the next. How can a lone parent or someone with caring responsibilities work in that way? I suggest that they cannot.
The economy will be affected. The Treasury is doing great things to help us to overcome the disadvantages of peripherality. It would be a tragic irony if it gave with one hand and took away with the other. We would lose 17 jobs from the economy in the long term. I predict that people will not stay in their employment, but leave what I consider to be a good job that pays pensionable, good wages in a low-wage economy.
Is the proposal a licence for all smugglers to stick two fingers up at the Revenue? I fear that it is. I do not believe that my constituents would do that, but I cannot vouch for visitors from all points of the compass. Falmouth is a lively, cosmopolitan port. The proposal is bad for my constituents; and it is bad for the good publicans, newsagents and tobacconists who struggle to survive and are daily undercut by people who bring in goods from the continent and deprive them of the money. They pay the Revenue while others do not.
The proposal is bad for law-abiding citizens and the Treasury, which will not receive the money to which it is entitled. However, it is good for smugglers and I strongly urge the Economic Secretary to think again.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to the way in which she has represented her constituency on this matter. I have answered her parliamentary questions, her letters, her request to see me and to see the Customs and Excise regional director, and now I am pleased to be able to answer her Adjournment debate as well.
My hon. Friend set out her criticisms in typically combative style. Let me start, however, with the concern we share, which is to see the UK's frontier effectively protected against threats such as smuggling and terrorist activity. I want to explain why the proposed reforms of Customs and Excise are designed to do just that. As a Government, we are committed to making sure that Britain is better protected and that Customs is more effective in tackling smuggling and security threats. We have demonstrated this from the day that we took office.
In 1997, we rescinded the cut of 300 front-line anti-smuggling staff imposed by the previous Government. In 2000, we invested an extra £209 million of new money to tackle tobacco and cross-channel smuggling, leading to an extra 1,000 Customs staff. Last year, we provided a further £39 million to tackle road fuel fraud and fraud linked to VAT in the European Union. Most recently, as a result of the extra £330 million that the Chancellor announced in this year's Budget to tackle terrorism, Customs' anti-smuggling and border security resources will see a further overall increase over the next three years. There will be redeployments, as we are discussing tonight, but overall resources and staff will increase.
The threat of serious crime and the potential threat of terrorism in the 21st century demand the most modern methods of law enforcement. That is why much-needed changes are being made to the way in which Customs works, and those changes will ensure that the south-west, including my hon. Friend's constituency, is betternot less wellprotected. Modern smuggling is big business, run by international criminal gangs that are well organised, well financed and highly adaptable. They use ever more sophisticated methods to generate their illegal wealth. Our challenge has been to build a modern customs service to match these criminals. This means not only working in new ways but developing new skills, using new intelligence techniques and investing in the latest technology.
Our presence in some locations has simply been too predictable for criminals. In my experience, our customs officers are strongly committed to their job and dedicated to their public service role. Nowadays, however, when we have them based at a port "just in case", they are simply not able to produce the results that we need. Nor, with routine duty patterns in low-risk ports and airports, are we ensuring an efficient use of taxpayers' money or best protecting society against smugglers and their activities. This is not the fault of individual staff. The way in which we currently deploy customs officers in the south-west does not match the threat that modern crime poses.
A thin blue line of static customs officers on routine duties at low-threat ports does not deter the well-resourced criminals who are determined to breach our borders. For this reason, staff in the static detection team based in Falmouth are now being redeployed into mobile brigades. I stress that this is a redeployment, not a redundancy programme. Let me say to my hon. Friend that fivenot oneof the 17 Falmouth-based officers have signed up for the mobile team. Let me also say to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) that in her constituency, we will be able to maintain the cover that we need with the two new brigade teams, reinforced as necessary with other teams from the region to safeguard our frontier at Plymouth. All but eight of the 42 Customs staff at Plymouth have signed up for the new arrangements.
Whatever happened in the Poldark period, intelligence and experience now show that most drugs and illegal goods on the streets in the south-west come through ports in the south-east and the airports around London. Even small-scale individual bootlegging is often routed through the busy ports in south-east England. Last year, for instance, 2 tonnes of hand-rolling tobacco and three quarters of a million cigarettes
In contrast, the local frontier team in Falmouth has not detected any illegal cigarettes or crime-related cash in substantial quantities during the past two years. In the past five years there have been only two significant seizures of class A drugs in Cornwall, neither of which resulted from local detection. Evidence shows that customs activities outside the south-west are more beneficial to south-west communities.
Ms Atherton: Will my hon. Friend say something about deterrence? While I am very ready to accept the figures he has given, I cannot help wondering whether they would be very different in a few years if the people who are smuggling were found.
John Healey: I know that this is contrary to common sense, but as I have explained, modern smugglers are increasingly sophisticated. Predictable duty rosters involving static staff in low-volume, low-threat ports constitute no deterrent to the organised smuggler nowadays. If our intelligence leads us to detect a change in the pattern and methods of smugglers, and perhaps the reintroduction of 18th-century smuggling routes that use Cornish coastline or ports, we will respond accordingly.
Customs is building more flexible teams to operate in the south-west and beyond, wherever intelligence tells us there is a threatwhether from drugs, illegal meat or terrorism. The south-west coast, including my hon. Friend's constituency, provides a good example of the way in which intelligence is now the key to the detection and tackling of smuggling. Without intelligence-led targeting, there would be no hope of identifying the few offending vessels among many thousands along nearly 500 miles of coastline between Dover and Land's End. That is why 99 per cent. of drugs seizures from yachts in the south-west have been intelligence-driven rather than a result of routine checks by static officers at ports such as Falmouth.
Ms Atherton: One of the problems is that we will not have officers in Cornwall, which is surrounded on three sides by water, with intelligence to feed into the system if all the operatives are in the south-east.