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Illegal Imports: Dangerous Materials

Volume 779: debated on Monday 13 March 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to increase the physical and human resources available to Border Force, Her Majesty’s Coastguard, the National Crime Agency and police forces in 2017–18 to combat illegal import of firearms, drugs and other dangerous materials into the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as recorded in the register and beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, securing the UK is about active law enforcement, using and sharing intelligence to ensure that resources are effectively utilised in line with threats and pressures. Law enforcement partners work to prevent dangerous items ever reaching our shores, and at the border a combination of law enforcement officers and officials, targeting and technology is used to make our already secure borders even stronger.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, which I interpret as meaning that there is no plan to increase the resources available to protect our borders. In September last year, the outgoing Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police said that the rapid increase in gun crime was a result of more illegal arms coming into the country. Last month, dog walkers on the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts stumbled across packages containing cocaine with a street value of more than £50 million. I am told that the weight of this was 360 kilograms. To put that in context, it is about three times my body weight, so we are not talking about a small amount here. Can the noble Baroness tell us whether the Government are being complacent about the arrival of drugs and guns in this country or whether they will increase the resources to patrol our borders and make them effective?

My Lords, the Government take the issue of guns and drugs arriving in this country very seriously. The noble Lord and the House will have heard me talking previously about Operation Dragon Root last October, in which 800 potentially lethal weapons were seized and 282 suspects were arrested. In addition, 80 kilograms of illegal drugs were seized. I do not know how that compares with the noble Lord’s weight, but that is a lot of drugs.

My Lords, currently at UK airports EU citizens use automatic gates, which check only that the person seeking entry is the passport holder. Once we leave the European Union, EU citizens will have to be questioned about the purpose of their visit, as there will be no automatic right of entry. How will the Border Force cope without a massive increase in resources, particularly when it is already failing to meet its own targets in terms of delays?

The noble Lord has asked me a bit of a hypothetical question in terms of numbers. However, he asked about e-gates, which have provided a very efficient way of handling people at passport control. Not only are they very efficient but, in terms of the facial recognition service that they provide, they are very accurate. Just to give the noble Lord an example, one officer can deal with five e-gates.

My Lords, there are, as we speak, naval reservists from HMS “President” serving on board border patrol vessels but, unfortunately, they do not have the resources. Last year, I suggested that it would be very good for the reservists if we had about a dozen boats equivalent to the old-style MTB fast torpedo boat grade, with marine reservists on board, stationed at various small ports up and down the coast. The advantages would be that the populace would see that they were being protected and it would provide a role for the reservists. I am sure that the subject will come up in a major debate next week led by my noble friend Lord Howe, but does the Minister feel that this is worth pursuing?

I can tell my noble friend that we take a very robust approach to maritime security. Border Force and partner agencies use a combination of cutters, radar, onshore assets and area surveillance to detect and stop small craft. We also work closely with domestic and international enforcement colleagues on an intelligence-led approach, allowing us to tackle the criminals involved before they leave for the UK. We have more cutters on order.

My Lords, 260 years ago tomorrow, Admiral Byng was shot for upsetting the Government. At the risk of falling into the same danger, the co-ordination of the very limited assets around our inshore waters—seven craft for the Border Force—is a complete and utter dog’s dinner. Does the Minister not agree that that there is a crying need to establish a command and control centre to co-ordinate action that the National Maritime Intelligence Centre provides, so that we can actually protect our inshore waters, because at the moment we are absolutely not doing that?

I can assure the noble Lord that I am not going to shoot him. The NMIC brings together 14 maritime security stakeholders to provide the UK with a unified picture of maritime threat around the UK and globally. As I think I pointed out in previous Questions, a multi-agency, multi-effort approach to intelligence and security and control of our borders is the way forward.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that wildlife crime is another international illegal activity that feeds into all sorts of crimes here in the UK. The wildlife crime unit is always under pressure. Interpol takes it incredibly seriously: it has 30 officers. Are the British Government going to take it seriously as well, and not cut its budget?

The British Government do take it very seriously; in fact, I was watching last night, as I am sure that the noble Baroness was, the programme that is on at teatime on Sunday, which I think is called “Countryfile”. It was about the death of wildlife and some of the wildlife crime that goes on. Yes, the Government do take it very seriously indeed.

During Oral Questions just over a month ago, I suggested that figures on the number of firearms illegally imported into the United Kingdom that are seized each year were not very meaningful without an estimate of the percentage of firearms illegally imported into the UK that are seized each year. I also asked whether we were seizing most firearms that are illegally imported, or only a very small percentage. On behalf of the Government, the Minister has since written to me to say that the information that I was seeking was,

“operationally sensitive and not suitable for release”.

Why is it operationally sensitive? I hope that it is not operationally sensitive because of the low percentage of firearms illegally imported into the UK that are seized each year. Certainly, withholding information is very helpful to the Government, since it means that they cannot easily be held to account for their failures, which were identified by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner last September, and to which my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey has already made reference. Will the Minister look again at the figures and information that the Government can provide on this issue? Governments should be able to be held to account.

I agree with the noble Lord that Governments should be held to account, but I cannot give him the figures. I hope that he will understand that I simply cannot give him the figures. I was going to suggest that we meet, at some point, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, given his sustained interest in this subject. Perhaps we could talk through some of the issues that he is concerned about.