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Belgian National (Customs Search)

Volume 465: debated on Tuesday 31 May 1949

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Popplewell.]

12.14 a.m.

About the beginning of this month I received a letter from a friend referring to the treatment accorded to his Belgian agent, Mr. Vanderzypen, when he came over here from Belgium to attend the British Industries Fair. The information which I received was that he arrived on 2nd May by the Ostend boat at Dover. At the Customs, Mr. Vanderzypen was separated, as is the ordinary routine on such occasions, from his British-born manager, Mr. Parker, and Mr. Vanderzypen went through amongst the foreigners and Mr. Parker amongst the British-born persons. Mr. Vanderzypen does not speak English and when he was asked how much English money he had on himself, he was trying to explain that he had £8, but that that was intended both for himself and for Mr. Parker. He was, I am told, then put into a room and asked to undress and was bodily searched. The search did not produce any further money or valuables and he was allowed to leave the room without any apologies being tendered.

I put a Question to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on 17th May. I put it in the first place, hoping that perhaps the facts might not be exactly as they had been stated to me, and secondly that there might be an explanation as to why this innocent Belgian businessman, coming to this country for the purpose of buying goods at the British Industries Fair, had been subjected to this indignity at Dover. The answer that the Financial Secretary gave me at Column 258 of the OFFICIAL REPORT was merely to say that the Customs officers were entitled to carry out a search of this kind—a fact with which I was already quite familiar—and his answer confirmed that in fact no dutiable goods were being smuggled through, nor was any offence in connection with currency being committed. He then added that the inconvenience caused to him was much regretted and that Mr. Vanderzypen was so informed at the time.

Whether an apology was offered or not is apparently the only point upon which there is any conflict of evidence between what the Financial Secretary said and the information which I had received. Everybody realises that the task of a Customs officer is a difficult one. He is required to be diligent to detect smuggling and he would certainly be blamed if large quantities of goods were successfully smuggled through, and similarly if there were breaches of the regulations relating to currency. Thus, as Shakespeare said:
"There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face "
And it is no easier in the case of smuggling than it is in the case of other offenders against the law.

But equally when the Customs officers are given these very wide powers, it is quite reasonable to ask that they shall exercise these powers with judgment and discretion. If it is the case that they are subjecting innocent travellers to the indignity and discomfort and humiliation of physical search, and then it is found that the person subjected to that has not, in fact, been doing anything wrong, it is only natural there should be protests. The fact that a Customs officer was acting within his legal right was no solution and certainly it is no comfort to those of us who are anxious that the tourist trade of this country should be encouraged, especially those who were coming to the British Industries Fair with the intention of buying British goods. Had the Financial Secretary been able to say that there were any reasonable grounds upon which this search had been carried out, then I should have had nothing more to say. I asked whether the right hon. Gentleman had inquired the grounds of suspicion upon which the Customs officer acted, and the right hon. Gentleman replied that obviously he could not answer that question there.

I then put it quite plainly that I was not asking him to divulge any confidential information which the Customs authorities might have, but I asked whether the right hon. Gentleman had satisfied himself that there was any sufficient reason to justify the action taken by the Customs officers. The right hon. Gentleman will agree, I am sure, that our custom in this House, if we are given an assurance by a Minister of the Crown that he has looked into the particulars of a case and is satisfied that the official has acted properly, is that in most cases the matter would be dropped, and not pressed any further by the Member raising the point. But what in fact he said was:
"Customs officials have the right to search anyone on suspicion, and that is a right which they exercise with great circumspection. We mast leave it at that."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th May, 1949; Vol. 465, c. 258.]
I thought that was not a very forthcoming answer for the right hon. Gentleman to give. I thought it probably meant that in fact he was not at all satisfied that in this case the Customs officer had had any reasonable ground upon which to carry out this search, and that he was anxious to protect him without in fact seeking to justify him, and it was for that reason I gave notice I would raise the matter on the Adjournment, which will, of course, give the right hon. Gentleman an opportunity of explaining why the Customs officer did act in the way he did.

As a result of the publicity given to my Question, a further point was raised of which I have given the right hon. Gentleman notice. That is in cases where smuggling takes place through the use of a vehicle of any kind, it is now the habit of the Customs authorities to avail themselves of an old statute, and to confiscate the vehicle whether or not the owner or driver of that vehicle knew that it was being used for the purpose of smuggling. That seems, again, to be a point where the administrative action of his Department can be reasonably criticised, and I should be glad to know what is the opinion of the Department on that subject, and whether the right hon. Gentleman seeks to justify the confiscation of vehicles which were not the property of the person convicted of the smuggling?

12.24 a.m.

I should like to take the second case first. The car was taken from Mr. Farquarson after he had been convicted by a magistrate for having liquor in his possession, and removing it without the necessary permit. As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, the Customs and Excise acted under Section 105 (8) of the Spirits Act, 1880, where it is laid down quite clearly that all spirits found to have been sent, delivered, or removed, or in the course of being sent, delivered, or removed, in contravention of this Section, and if horses, carriages, or boats are used in conveying the spirits, they shall be forfeited. That being so the Customs officers did no more than comply with the law. The magistrate fined Mr. Farquarson who had pleaded guilty. It was obvious that it was plain to the magistrate, as well as to the solicitor who defended Mr. Farquarson, what the law was.

I would add that this gentleman, although told that the car was about to be forfeited, drove off in it and it took the Customs three months at least to find him and take hold of the car as they were in duty bound to do. I honestly cannot see why that case is raised at all. It is a perfectly straightforward case where this gentleman had put himself within the section of the Spirits Act, 1880, and the Customs people have to see that the law is obeyed. I should have thought myself that hon. Members would have been only too pleased to see that the Customs people were doing their duty.

I come to the first case which the hon. Member raised—namely, the case of Mr. Vanderzypen. It is true that this gentleman came here, I think to attend the British Industries Fair. The Waterguard are not to know what is the purpose of the visits of people who come to our shores—and it is their job to prevent contraband of all kinds being smuggled in and, of course, being smuggled out. But on this occasion Mr. Vanderzypen was entering the country, and the officials at the port of entry came to the conclusion that it was their duty in this case—as indeed in the case of another man on the same occasion—to make an additional search.

It is not true that he was made to undress. He was taken into a room and was asked to turn out his pockets, which he did, and that was the sum total of the extra searching to which he was subjected. He was, as stated in my reply to the hon. Member, apologised to for the inconvenience caused him. It may well be that if he did not understand English he was not aware of what was being said, but my information is—and I am prepared to rely on it from what I know of the Waterguard—that the search, such as it was, was carried out with great circumspection and in a proper manner which certainly complied with the law, and that he was not asked to undress and that he was apologised to.

The hon. Member says he has raised this matter tonight simply and solely because I did not indicate, in reply to the supplementary question he asked me, whether or not I satisfied myself that the Customs officials on the spot had carried out their duties in a proper way. I honestly do not know in what way I can "satisfy" myself. I could not possibly be there to see this man come ashore and be questioned by the officials on the spot, and therefore I satisfied myself by approaching the Customs and Excise office here in London, who in turn got into touch with those concerned at the port. The information thus supplied to me convinced me, from what I know of the work of these officers, that the story they told me was the true one. It was quite obvious and I cannot go beyond that.

I said in reply to the supplementary question put to me by the hon. Member that the Customs officers have the right to search anyone on suspicion. Therefore, having that right, they can obviously search any individual passenger who comes in. No one denies that the man had been searched. No one denies that the officials had the right to search. That being so the only point at issue was whether the search had been carried out in a courteous manner. But that was not the supplementary question. The supplementary question asked of me was whether I had satisfied myself that there was any sufficient reason to justify the action taken by the Customs officials? Quite obviously they would not search an individual unless they, as officials on the spot, had sufficient reason to think it necessary to search him beyond just questioning him, which is the usual procedure carried through with ordinary passengers. It is true that in this case nothing contraband was found upon him.

It is quite obvious that when Customs officials do their job they cannot be 100 per cent. certain, but I am here to tell the hon. Member, what he probably already knows, that in 80 per cent. of the cases where search is carried out, grounds are found for the search and contraband is found on the person searched. The figure of 80 per cent. is a pretty high one when we realise the ease with which it is possible to smuggle gems, coins, rings and jewellery of all kinds through the Customs. As a matter of fact, on the very day after the hon. Gentleman put his Question to me, at the same port of entry, two Belgian women were caught with over 800 watches on their persons. People do, at this time—I suppose they think it is worth it—attempt to evade the Customs.

Customs officials have a very difficult job to do. They do it, in my view, and in the view of most people who have watched them at work, in a very courteous way, and it is very rarely that we get complaints. It is quite obvious that they must have this right of search. They cannot always be certain that their suspicions are justified, but occasionally they have to prove whether they are right or wrong. In the case of Mr. Vanderzypen it was obvious that they were wrong and they apologised, but in the great majority of cases so experienced are they, that they find their suspicions are well founded, and as I have already said, in over 80 per cent. of the cases it has been found that the more thorough search which they have carried out has been justified by the events.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-seven Minutes to One o'Clock.