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Customs Services (Cornwall)

Volume 406: debated on Tuesday 10 June 2003

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Dan Norris.]

7.44 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter of great concern in my constituency—the future of the customs service in Cornwall and the south-west more widely.

In March, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise published its business plan for the next three years. It included the restructuring of the service, reducing fixed-location staffing in favour of flying squads responding to intelligence and tip-offs. That was confirmed by my hon. Friend the Minister in a parliamentary answer on 26 March 2003. I believe that the Government's plans will be detrimental to my constituency and raise issues affecting the whole county and country.

Before coming to the current problems, I should like to remind the House of Cornwall's link with smuggling. Our literature and history are littered with the stories of smuggling, from the Poldark novels to the chimney, known as the pipe, that grows out of our customs house in Falmouth, where smuggled baccy was burned. I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that there is an excellent restaurant called the The Pipe as a testimony to the importance that the chimney played in the history of the town.

Falmouth is the world's third-deepest natural harbour. For centuries, it has played host to those seeking to ply their trade by sea. Sometimes, those trades were less than honourable—hence, the presence of the Customs in our town. Indeed, smuggling has been a central part of the county's history. Our tourists love nothing more than to visit our historic smuggling coves and areas. The stories add colour to our visitors' visits, but the fictional and rather romantic side of the issue hides a more serious and dangerous side.

I first visited Falmouth customs house in 1997, after my election to this House. Even then, Inland Revenue officers felt that the service that they provided was under threat. I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), now Paymaster General, and urged her to continue to support the service in Cornwall. As a regular visitor to the waterfront, I had frequent updates, both formally and informally, and word reached me after the last election that Falmouth customs house was under threat. Indeed, the whole service was under threat. To be honest, I was at first in disbelief about that. A Cornwall without Revenue presence is like a fish without water, and I put the letter in the green ink file.

The current customs house is situated on the old customs house quay in the centre of town, overlooking the harbour and the Carrick Roads. It could have come straight out of a set from the Poldark novels and, indeed, it has appeared as such. It dominates the landscape, and it undoubtedly needs renovation and more modern facilities. The service started negotiations locally for a new building. A local company was informally asked to prepare plans for a new customs house, only to find later that the service had changed its mind, that no building was planned, that its plans were not to be used and that it was not going to be paid for its work. I have raised the matter with my hon. Friend the Minister in the past, and I am pleased to say that it has now been partially resolved and that a payment has been made to the company.

At the same time, I heard again that the entire service was to be removed from Falmouth—and not only Falmouth, but Cornwall. People were telling me that Cornwall, with its long history of smuggling, was to be without any regular Inland Revenue presence. That is good news if one is a smuggler, whether of human beings or illegal goods, a terrorist or somebody engaged in an otherwise illegal activity. It is bad news if one has concerns about those issues.

I understand that the plan is to have an intelligence-led operation. That sounds very grand, does it not, Mr. Deputy Speaker? The reality, however, will be that the needs of south-east England will be seen as more important than those of Cornwall. I accept that there are real problems in the south-east, but I do not believe that the answer lies in withdrawing Cornwall's services. In future, the Inland Revenue in Cornwall will operate in the following way. On Monday morning, all the officers—there are currently 17 in Falmouth—will turn up for work, get into a minibus and head off to all parts east. They will spend the working week in that manner, at some considerable cost to the service, and have the following week off. If the service believes that a major ring is operating from Dover or Gatwick, to Dover or to Gatwick the officers will go. That leaves me completely speechless, which does not happen very often. Germany is significantly nearer to Dover than Cornwall is. Cornish officers will spend at least eight hours travelling to Dover, and a similar amount of time returning. Two of the five days of their working week will be spent just travelling. Is that not daft? At the same time, there will be nobody left in Cornwall to provide any intelligence, so the teams will never be able to act on it.

When I heard those incredible proposals, and after I had picked myself up off the floor, I immediately contacted my hon. Friend the Minister, tabled parliamentary questions and determined to do all that I could to oppose them. The proposals extend to ports across the length of the south of England—the same system will operate from Falmouth to Bristol and along to Dover. For the far south-west, there will be no officers at all in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. Has any Member ever heard of such a smuggler's charter?

The lunacy of the plan is shown by events that occurred just two weeks ago. The Revenue had a great success in Plymouth when officers found a caravan equipped for smuggling, 400,000 cigarettes and 200 kg of tobacco. Amazingly, there was no publicity about that incredible seizure. Could that be because it might have been slightly embarrassing for the Customs, given its involvement in the changes?

It would be fair to say that the Public and Commercial Services union was less than impressed with the plans when they were published, and immediately started discussions with management. It is not for me to get involved in those discussions, but I know that it has significant concerns for its members, many of whom are my constituents. I understand that some of the staff quite liked the voluntary arrangements, but not the proposed compulsory ones. Can anyone say that they know what their family commitments will be in years to come? To date, only one person has opted to join the mobile teams. I have great sympathy for the staff. They are being asked to leave families, homes, educational courses, pets and social life to lead a life that is not dissimilar to an MP's—that is, away from home for most of the time. The crucial difference, though, is that we chose this lifestyle, whereas they sought a local job serving a local community—they did not join the service to traipse around the country for most of the time. Last week, the union went to the Whitley council, but it was unable to reach an agreement and is now in official dispute.

What will it all mean? In September, under current plans, the customs house in Falmouth will close. A Portakabin will be located on Falmouth docks and used for those staff who do not agree to join the mobile scheme. The Revenue in Cornwall are being reduced to a Portakabin. That will last for three years, after which the Revenue will apparently operate out of a white van. I thought that those were the guys we were supposed to be chasing. Smugglers—whether of drugs, cigarettes, tobacco, people, animals or even terrorists—will know that there is an open door in the west country. There will be no one around to provide intelligence, and therefore no one around to apprehend smugglers. There is already a thriving local trade in smuggled cigarettes. No doubt some people will not welcome my campaign for the Government to think again, because their cheap baccy will be all the easier to obtain, but I happen to disagree. Local shopkeepers will suffer, legitimate publicans and others will be undercut and the Government—partly due to their folly—will lose their tax income.

A few years ago, I visited some of the more remote Scottish islands. One island was visited irregularly by Customs, which suited some people. Like Cornwall, it had several remote beaches where one could land smuggled goods. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the ferry came in and, as it approached, a white van would cruise down to the harbour. At any sign of customs officers or strangers on the ferry, it would gently drive away. If there were no strangers or customs officers, the white van would slip quietly on to the ferry. I saw that for myself, and I predict similar occurrences in Cornwall if the plan goes ahead.

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?

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.

7.59 pm

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 better—not less well—protected. 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 five—not one—of 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 were seized, mainly at Dover, from people with Devon and Cornwall postcodes, and 50 kg of heroin seized in Northampton was destined for a south Devon address.

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.

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.

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 threat—whether 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.

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.

In a moment I shall say something about where the mobile teams will be based; but their existence means that more officers, not fewer, will be available to cover the threats from Cornwall, and they will not be based solely in the south-east.

Results from the flexible teams already deployed speak for themselves. In 2002–03, one mobile team from the south-west, when deployed to a high-risk port or airport, typically seized 2 million cigarettes. Over the same period, three teams permanently based in Plymouth and Falmouth seized only 0.4 million cigarettes between them. In future, flexible teams operating from Poole, Plymouth and Avonmouth will be working in the frontier ports throughout the south-west and inland on a threat and intelligence-driven basis. Customs intelligence and detection officers will work in joint teams in Plymouth for that purpose. This summer, special joint operations will be carried out by Customs with the Devon and Cornwall police and other agencies. One of our fleet of customs cutters will be permanently deployed in the south-west approaches. Far from withdrawing from the areas from which staff are being redeployed, under Customs' new plans more officers than ever will cover the region in mobile teams wherever intelligence tells us that there is a threat.

For the police and the immigration service as well as Customs, our most effective law enforcement against major smugglers and criminals is now led by intelligence.

Therefore, alongside the deployment of more mobile detection teams across the UK, Customs is investing heavily to increase its intelligence capability—new methods, modern techniques and more staff. It is reinforcing intelligence links with other agencies and setting up new joint intelligence cells with police special branch and immigration staff. Customs already operates such joint intelligence cells in the south-west, based in Plymouth and Exeter.

I can today confirm that, to reinforce its intelligence cover in Cornwall, Customs will be setting up a dedicated unit of three officers in Falmouth. Those Cornish officers will link with other law enforcement agencies to monitor the threat from smuggling and fraud in Cornwall. They will play an important part in developing the intelligence that will drive the deployment of other Customs teams across Cornwall, both inland and at Cornish ports.

My hon. Friend raises concerns about the personal circumstances of staff affected by change. Customs managers are very mindful of that. Over 80 per cent. of nearly 350 staff in the south-west division of Customs have signed up for the new mobile brigades, and almost half of the remainder have either been found or lined up for work elsewhere in Customs. In some cases, arrangements have been individually tailored to deal with special family circumstances.

The Government will do what is needed to reinforce security at our borders and to tackle smuggling.

I am absolutely delighted about the three officers. I hope that, over the years, we can increase their number and eventually get back to the current complement, but where will those officers be located? Will we keep the customs house that has long dominated the landscape and skyline of Falmouth harbour?

Let me be clear. The role of those officers is an intelligence role; it is not a static detection role. Their function, purpose and role in the modern Customs are different. I am conscious—I have seen for myself—how dramatic the customs house is at Falmouth. At present, Customs managers are looking at the possibility of extending the current lease as the operational base in Falmouth.

Since 1997, the Government have shown themselves to be ready to invest heavily in Customs and Excise but, as the threats we face change, so must our methods. I hope that I have been able to offer reassurance that Customs' cover for Cornwall will be reinforced, not reduced. I am glad that my hon. Friend has welcomed the new Cornish intelligence unit that will be based in Falmouth and will play such an important role there.

These are major changes. I know that change on this scale is often hard for those affected, but our priority is the protection of the south-west and the rest of the UK from serious crime, and ditching outdated and unproductive working methods. We must build a modern customs service. Anything else will fail my hon. Friend's constituents, the people of Devon and Cornwall and all those others who rely on us to protect them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Eight o'clock.