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Power Of Customs Officer To Detain Goods

Volume 116: debated on Wednesday 13 May 1987

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I beg to move amendment No. 49, in page 28, line 27, leave out 'forty-eight hours' and insert 'two working days.'.

With this it will be convenient to consider Government amendment No. 50.

These provisions have been the subject of considerable debate. The purpose of the amendments is to extend the period during which Customs and Excise can detain imported goods. The question how long it should be able to detain goods was debated extensively during the passage of the Consumer Safety (Amendment) Act 1986. The Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) originally provided for 72 hours. The Government considered that 24 hours was sufficient and a compromise of 48 hours was eventually agreed.

Local authorities consider that, particularly over weekends and bank holidays, 48 hours does not allow sufficient time for them to form a view on whether to exercise their powers. The local authority associations have wanted the detention period to be used as a time when they can make rather more extensive examination of the goods concerned without having to use their formal powers to seize or suspend the goods, powers which would attract liability to pay compensation in the event that the goods turned out to be safe.

This issue has been a major bone of contention. It was raised on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report in another place and on Second Reading in this place. Having listened carefully to the points that have been raised in the many discussions on the subject, and having given further consideration to the potential difficulties of enforcement, I accept that significant difficulties may arise where the 48-hour period encompasses a weekend or a bank holiday. To overcome those difficulties, I propose that the period during which the Customs and Excise may detain imported goods should he altered to two working days. That will make no difference in the majority of cases, and therefore minimises the risk of challenge from the Community institutions. It will allow the enforcement authorities much greater flexibility in those cases where real difficulties may arise. I hope that the House will agree that this allows an adequate time for the limited purposes of the provision.

I welcome this change. It gives effect to amendments that we asked the Minister to make. I can only observe that it takes a long time to persuade the Minister to make even the most minor concessions. We have spent over a year trying to do that, and it has taken a general election to squeeze this concession from him. I am glad that he now recognises that the arguments that some of his hon. Friends, as well as Opposition Members, put forward about the Consumer Safety (Amendment) Act 1986 were valid and it leaves me with a grave suspicion that his stubbornness on so many other amendments that have been moved in the other place and here is something that he and the enforcement officers may come to regret. However, it would be churlish to make a sour point on a concession. It improves the Bill, and in those circumstances we welcome it.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 50, in page 28, line 30, at end insert—

'(2A) In subsection (1) above the reference to two working days is a reference to a period of forty-eight hours calculated from the time when the goods in question are seized but disregarding so much of any period as falls on a Saturday or Sunday or on Christmas Day, Good Friday or a day which is a bank holiday under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 in the part of the United Kingdom where the goods are seized.'—[Mr. Howard.]

Clause 31, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 32 to 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.