The Cocaine Trade - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Joint memorandum submitted by HM Revenue and Customs and the UK Border Agency


  1.  HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the UK Border Agency (UKBA) welcome this opportunity to set out our roles in relation to enforcing the import and export prohibition on class A drugs, specifically cocaine, the legal framework in which we work and our approach to enforcement both at the UK border and in the international context.


  2.  The creation of the UKBA integrates the work of the Border and Immigration Agency, UKVisas and border related responsibilities of HM Revenue and Customs to create a single immigration and customs control to tackle smuggling, immigration crime and border tax fraud. Day-to-day responsibility for the operational enforcement of prohibitions and restrictions on the import and export of goods, including cocaine, transferred to UKBA in April 2008. The formal transfer of functions from the Commissioners of Revenue and Customs is subject to Parliamentary approval. Provisions enabling the transfer of functions are in the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration (BCI) Bill currently subject to Parliamentary scrutiny.

  3.  At present HMRC retains overall accountability for Departmental Strategic Objective 3, which is to reduce the risk of the illicit import and export of material which might harm the UK's physical and social well-being. HMRC also retains statutory accountability for the actions of HMRC staff working in UKBA. For clarity we have provided a joint memorandum that sets out these interim arrangements, whether the activities described are performed by HMRC or UKBA or both.

  4.  UKBA's strategic objectives include two that have clear links to our drugs enforcement role:

    — to protect our border and our national interests by:

    1.guarding routes to Britain with early action overseas;

    2.detecting and stopping risks and threats to Britain at our border.

    — to tackle border tax fraud, smuggling and immigration crime by:

    1.holding those who break our laws to account for their actions;

    2.creating and managing customs anti-smuggling crime partnerships in the UK and overseas;

    3.transforming collection, dissemination and use of intelligence; globally and locally;

    4.transforming our enforcement capability.

      5.  Looking ahead once the BCI Bill becomes law, the UK Border Agency will exercise customs functions related to controlling the movement of goods, people, and means of transport at the border, according to agreed priorities and legal obligations. The UKBA will detect and deter non-compliance with customs obligations at the border, tackling smuggling and other activity that poses a risk to border security, the integrity of the tax base and the UK economy. We can provide the Committee with an update on the transfer of functions in our oral evidence.

  6.  UK Border Agency anti-smuggling staff work at the frontier to detect and disrupt smuggling of a wide range of goods—fiscal as well as prohibited and restricted. To ensure that activity is as effective as possible HMRC and UKBA take a targeted risk based approach to intervention that is intelligence led. Deployment is based on flexibility and mobility to ensure that resources are deployed to those ports and airports that present the highest smuggling risk.

  7.  We use a variety of detection technologies to scan and examine baggage, vehicles and freight to detect drugs smuggling. This includes up-to-date x-ray and trace detection technology coupled with the use of detector dogs. We deploy a fleet of Cutters that have a maritime surveillance capability to track and interdict large smuggling attempts at sea and support other national and international law enforcement partners.

  8.  Responsibility for criminal investigation and intelligence work relating to drugs smuggling transferred from HMRC to SOCA in April 2006. HMRC and SOCA operational staff work closely together in a number of ways, under the overall direction of a Partnership Agreement. HMRC notify SOCA of all detections of cocaine and other class A drugs. Detections that are not adopted by SOCA may be investigated by HMRC's Referred Investigation Teams or referred to a local police force


  9.  The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 categorises cocaine as a class A controlled drug. Section 3 of the Act prohibits the importation and exportation of a controlled drug unless either:

    — the import or export is made under and in accordance with a licence issued by the Home Office; or

    — an exception is made by the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 under Section 7 of the Act (MDA).

  10.  Customs enforcement powers are mainly derived from the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 (CEMA), which sets out the offences and sanctions in the event of an illegal import or export. The most relevant provisions are:

    — Section 49: makes imported prohibited and restricted goods liable to forfeiture;

    — Section 139: powers to detain or seize goods liable to forfeiture; and

    — Section 170: offences in relation to the import of prohibited and restricted goods.


  11.  The key driver for our drugs enforcement activity is the Government's Drugs Strategy led by the Home Office. Its enforcement aims include maintaining strong border controls and working with international partners to intercept drugs before they reach the UK borders, and disrupting serious and organised crime through our combined actions. We work in partnership with SOCA, police, the Home Office and FCO to prevent harm to communities by reducing the supply of drugs, tackling those that cause the most harm, namely crack, cocaine and heroin.

  12.  In practical terms we aim to maximise the potential impact that anti-smuggling controls can provide to reducing harm, not just by seizing smuggled drugs but also by conducting checks and interventions that directly support SOCAs targeting of organised crime This reflects our contribution to DSO 3, one of the outcomes of which is to maintain the level of disruption of the attempted import and export of illicit drugs, for which there are two indicators:

    — To maintain seizures of heroin and cocaine at 2006-07 levels. For 2009-10 the cocaine targets are 1,200 seizures totalling 2,400 Kgs;and

    — To fulfil taskings from SOCA involving an intervention and SOCA requests for checks and enquiries, the HMRC/UKBA target is to meet 98% of intervention requests and checks by SOCA.


Operations "Airbridge" and "Westbridge": International Partnerships

  13.  Operation Airbridge was set up in 2002 by HM Customs and Excise working in partnership with the Jamaican authorities to support their efforts to intercept at the point of embarkation the high numbers of drug couriers, particularly those with internal concealments (ie swallowing or concealed in body cavities), using the Caribbean island as a gateway to the UK and other European countries. The operation is now run by UKBA.

  14.  Since the introduction of Operation Airbridge, the number of drug couriers with internal concealments of cocaine detected at UK airports from Jamaica has declined steadily from approximately 1,000 in 2002 to 3 in the last financial year.

  15.  In 2006 HMRC accepted an invitation from the Government of Ghana to assist them in tackling the growth in the trafficking of cocaine by air from Ghana. Operation Westbridge, working in a similar way to Airbridge, began in November 2006 and has so far been responsible for seizures of 485 kgs of cocaine worth over £96 million.

  16.  These operations meet our Drugs Strategy commitment to intercept drugs and drugs couriers before they reach the UK. Agencies in host countries have told us that they gain not only from the mentoring and training provided by UK Customs officers but also from sending out a clear message that their country is a more hostile environment for drug traffickers.

European Partnerships

  17.  One of the aims of the EU Drugs Action Plan for 2009-2012 is to develop international co-operation and better engagement with countries outside the EU. UKBA and HMRC are looking for opportunities to develop and extend the Airbridge and Westbridge operational models to other countries and also with other EU Member States. We work closely with SOCA whose overseas liaison officer network is assisting our efforts. In the longer term our goal is to set up operational and intelligence platforms in both regions, working in partnership with those countries whose Governments wish to collaborate to stem the flow of drugs through their ports or airports and with other Member States.


  18.  The following table sets out our key outputs in the last three years the total number of cocaine seizures made and total weight for the last 3 years by HMRC and UKBA. Please note that these seizures were made at the UK Border, they do not take account of HMRC/UKBA upstream activity.

Financial year
Total number
of seizures
Weight of
cocaine seized
No of persons
No of persons


  The attached Appendix lists brief summaries of some of the recent significant cocaine seizures.


  19.  UKBA has more than 9,200 officers in its Border Force directorate who are responsible for securing the border by ensuring that only legitimate travellers and goods are allowed to enter and leave the UK, while reducing the risk and threats to our border. To do this Border Force applies and supports the controls at points of entry and exit to the UK on people and goods.

June 2009

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