Cannabis shock in VAT fraud swoop

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The Independent Online

Officers from Customs & Excise and Staffordshire Police taking part in Britain's biggest ever anti-VAT fraud swoop were surprised to stumble on two tonnes of cannabis at a business park in Staffordshire. The discovery was made in one of 70 raids made at premises across the country as well as at several properties in Spain.

Thirty-three men and six women were arrested during the operation, in which searches were carried out by 350 officers relating to a £120m VAT fraud. Last week it was revealed that VAT frauds accounted for £20bn worth of bogus trade. Also seized in 13 raids in Staffordshire were sus- pected stolen cars worth an estimated £500,000, cash and five shotguns with ammunition.

Officers discovered the £12m worth of cannabis resin hidden in a lorry at Blythe Business Park in Staffordshire. Three men were arrested. A 32-year-old man has appeared at Newcastle magistrates court charged with supplying drugs.

The discoveries reveal how organised crime has moved into VAT fraud as a less risky addition to traditional crimes. Just how lucrative was illustrated last week when record-breaking confiscation orders were issued for £7.1m against nine men convicted in London for taking part in an £11m VAT computer-chip fraud.

The Customs operation started after the National Crime Squad discovered that Raymond May and Vincent Stapleton were engaged in VAT fraud, using UK and French companies to facilitate the fraud.

May has a minimal criminal record. Stapleton, however, has convictions for robbery, handling stolen goods and assault. Also convicted for the fraud was Stapleton's son, Vincent Junior, for whom Stapleton's daughter, the former EastEnders actress Nicola Stapleton, provided £125,000 bail during the trial.

Stapleton never paid any taxes, commenting that it was difficult when your earnings were the proceeds of crime.