Select Committee on Public Accounts Third Report


22 Customs have a range of sanctions, including the power to prosecute individuals, the non-restoration of any vehicles used to transport smuggled goods and, following court action, the seizure of individuals' assets. Customs normally apply sanctions if they consider the amount of cigarettes imported by individuals to be beyond that expected for personal consumption. Although not applying a rigid limit, Customs have worked on a figure of 800 cigarettes per person in line with a minimum indicative limit set by the EU. If they found quantities in excess of that amount they often prosecuted, or seized assets, such as the vehicle involved.[14]

23 New Regulations laid before Parliament in October 2002[15] and to come into force from 1 December 2002 have increased the indicative amount of cigarettes that can be imported for personal consumption from 800 to 3,200, and increased from 1kg to 3kg the amount of hand-rolled tobacco. Customs will continue to seize any vehicle used in smuggling, but will now offer small-scale first-time offenders the opportunity to have their vehicles back for a fee equivalent to the amount of the duty that they had attempted to evade. Large-scale and repeat offenders will not have their vehicle restored.[16]

24 Prior to 2000-2001 Customs pursued a large number of small prosecutions. They changed their approach at that time to improve the quality of their prosecutions, with the result that the average sentence awarded by the courts went up along with the number of defendants per case. Customs also focussed their prosecutions on those smuggling organisations at the upper end of the scale, relying primarily on the seizure of vehicles and goods, and the imposition of fines, for those engaged in lower level smuggling. As a consequence, the overall number of prosecutions dropped in 2000-01 by around 19%, when compared with the previous year. Since they gave evidence to the Committee, Customs have announced a further development, whereby they will conduct an increased number of prosecutions against large-scale smugglers as well as those serial cross-Channel passengers engaged in smuggling.[17]

25 Customs confiscated over 10,000 private light vehicles in 2000-01, almost double the number in previous years. They have adopted since July 2001 a similar confiscation policy on Heavy Goods Vehicles, seizing vehicles on first offence where the amount of duty evaded exceeds £50,000 and seizure on second offence where the duty evaded is less than £50,000.[18] Although this sanction is used, Customs recognise that the seizure of a valuable HGV represents a major sanction to a company. Their decisions on restitution of the vehicle have regard to the level of culpability of the haulier.

26 Cigarette smuggling may wrongly be seen as a victimless crime, without recognising that much of it is undertaken by organised crime. Customs accept that there is a need to change perceptions and launched in September 2000 a public awareness campaign aimed at informing people about the law, and persuading them to comply with it. The Department told us, however, that this campaign had been targeted at HGV drivers and retailers. They had not commissioned market research to ascertain the general public's view of tobacco smuggling.[19]

27 Customs consider x-ray scanners to be a key weapon in their armoury against tobacco smuggling. They told us that they had 12 scanners in operation at the major ports, which between them handle 90% of the container traffic and three quarters of the 'roll on roll off' traffic. Because of the introduction of scanners, smugglers are thought to be switching their operations to other ports, or importing their tobacco in other ways to avoid detection. Customs therefore plan to have a total of 20, which they will move periodically between the 43 major ports and points of entry. Customs acknowledged that there were teething problems with their scanners and that the introduction of the machines could have been better planned to avoid many of the logistic problems they had encountered. After they had introduced the machines Customs discovered the need for more training than expected, particularly in image interpretation.[20] They also underestimated how many staff would be needed to operate the machines.

28 Customs have had differing levels of performance from the scanners in each port. The manufacturer's estimates were that between 30,000 and 50,000 vehicles and containers could be scanned annually. Customs, however, have been achieving only some 10,000 to 20,000. Effective operation of the scanning machines is being limited in some instances because of the lack of space at ports. Limitation in the space available at Dover, for example, has served to reduce the number of lorries that can be scanned in a day, and Customs are unable to achieve the throughputs built into their assumptions. They intend in the future to set separate targets for each port.

29 Customs have experienced problems at some ports with locating and retrieving containers.[21] The port authorities are often required to undertake building works when scanners are introduced at their ports, employ more staff and purchase additional plant. Customs recognise the need to maintain the full co-operation of the port authorities if they are to maximise the effectiveness of the machines.

30 Customs consider intelligence to be essential to the success of the scanners. They try never to stop vehicles at random because they believe such searches are almost wholly ineffective. Specific intelligence on particular lorries or shipments, developed through targeted operations and covert means, had enabled Customs at Dover to increase the detection rate from scanners and other means from between 2 and 3% to 56%.[22]

14   Qq 71-73 Back

15   The Excise Goods Beer and Tobacco Products (Amendment) Regulations 2002 Back

16   HC Deb, 29 October 2002, cols 686-8W Back

17   HC Deb, 29 October 2002, cols 686-8W Back

18   Qq 47-54, 162-164 Back

19   Ibid Back

20   Qq 10-11 Back

21   Q 194 Back

22   Qq 31-32, 36 Back

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