Crackdown on festive smuggling

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The Independent Online
UNDERCOVER CUSTOMS and Excise officers are tracking organised smugglers in a Christmas crackdown on the cross-Channel traffic in cheap beer, spirits and cigarettes.

Customs and Excise officials are more interested in the professional gangs than in a few bottles of spirits being added to the shopping bags of Christmas daytrippers visiting the French ports.

Officials behind "Operation Mistletoe" said there was new evidence that the gangs of smugglers were using Mafia-style intimidation on publicans and shopkeepers to buy the illicit alcohol and tobacco.

"We are talking about high-level gangsterism. It is not Jack the Lad stocking up for Christmas," said a senior Customs official. "What we are most concerned about is taking action before crime becomes endemic."

Extra Customs and Excise officers are being trained in time for the Christmas rush in trade at the ports, under plans announced by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, in his pre-Budget statement, which aims to increase the seizures of smuggled drink and tobacco by pounds 80m over the next three years.

The total value of the seized goods last year was pounds 76m.

The Treasury has invested an extra pounds 35m in Customs and Excise to tackle the fraud and smuggling, which brewers in the South of England have said is threatening their business.

Increased smuggling has contributed to a pounds 600m cut in the expected receipts from Customs and Excise duty, raising fears that the bootlegging of liquor and tobacco is getting out of hand.

Officials have told the Treasury that the main cause of the cut in the expected excise revenues is that drinkers and smokers stocked up before the last Budget to avoid paying the higher duties, and sales fell after it. Customs and Excise have reduced their estimated revenues from pounds 8.9bn to pounds 8.3bn, but they also estimated that alcohol and tobacco smuggling is costing about pounds 885m a year.

The temptation by successive Chancellors to raise revenue in duty on drinkers and smokers has increased the incentives for smuggling from France and Belgium, where duty is lower.

Daytrippers to France have tripled in the past five six years, since the lifting of restrictions on imports of duty paid goods for personal consumption with the introduction of the European single market.

Heavily laden vans leaving the Calais superstores are now a weekend feature of the cross-Channel traffic.

Smugglers risk having their cars and vans seized, and the get-tough policy by Customs and Excise means that publicans, restaurant owners and hauliers face an increased risk of losing their licences for breaking the law.

Additional officers will be seen around the ports this Christmas and new year. Customs and Excise officials are wary of giving details, but the additional manpower is being directed inland in undercover operations against the organised smugglers.