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Cocaine Smuggling

Volume 448: debated on Thursday 13 July 2006

6. How many drugs liaison officers within Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are employed in tackling cocaine smuggling. (84767)

From April this year, the Serious Organised Crime Agency—SOCA—took over responsibility for the network of overseas drugs liaison officers. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs retains responsibility for anti-smuggling controls at the UK borders, and continues to seize drugs as part of its frontier work.

Unlike drugs such as heroin, cocaine is incredibly price-sensitive. Can the Minister give us an assurance that the expertise that has been built up in Customs and Excise will be made fully available to SOCA to ensure that the unsung successes in intercepting cocaine that have taken place in areas such as the Caribbean, giving great value for money, are not only continued but expanded by the Government?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work in the House, his constituency and elsewhere on the serious menace that drugs cause in our communities. I can give him the assurance that he seeks. When SOCA was set up, more than 1,100 drugs officers and their expertise were transferred from HMRC, and they now play an integral part in the work that SOCA is undertaking. I can also assure him that HMRC and SOCA continue to work closely together, including at the frontiers, so that we can continue to play a part in the battle against drugs.

A very high proportion of the 8,000 foreign prisoners in British jails are drug smugglers from Jamaica and other Caribbean countries. Will the Minister liaise with the Home Secretary to ensure that those people are sent back to secure detention in their own countries, thus saving the British taxpayer a small fortune?

The hon. Gentleman refers to a groundbreaking, innovative and highly effective programme called Operation Airbridge. This involved UK Customs and Excise—later HMRC—linking up with the Jamaican constabulary to prevent would-be cocaine smugglers and swallowers from getting on to the planes in the first place. That operation has resulted in an increase in the number of smugglers being intercepted in Jamaica, a reduction in the number of seizures and smugglers from the Caribbean being intercepted here, and a consequent reduction in the number of smugglers from those parts of the world having to be dealt with by our criminal justice system.

Until April there were two drug liaison officers in Peru, and then SOCA moved them to Colombia. Peru is the second largest cocaine-producing country in the world, cocaine production is on the increase and crop eradication and substitution programmes are not working. Intelligence-led intervention in trafficking will make the biggest difference to this country. Will my hon. Friend increase SOCA’s resources for that work, so that our drug liaison officers, who are very successful, can be in both Peru and Colombia?

My hon. Friend is right to say that the role played by drug liaison officers overseas is pivotal. As I have explained, they have now been transferred to SOCA. He is right to stress the importance of being able to intercept drugs at every stage of the supply chain. He may be interested to know that in the first 10 months of last year, the agencies combined intercepted more than 30 tonnes of cocaine destined for European markets, which we would otherwise have had to try to intercept either at our borders or on our streets. That important international work is helping to keep some of our local communities freer of drugs than they would otherwise be.