Inquiry opened into Customs after case collapses

An independent inquiry into Customs and Excise's handling of criminal cases was opened by the Government last night after a prosecution over black market alcohol collapsed.

Four defendants walked free from Liverpool Crown Court after the Crown Prosecution Service conceded that the failure of a Customs officer to take detailed notes and the late disclosure of evidence meant the case could not go ahead.

The National Investigations Service (NIS), a branch of Customs, is already facing a police investigation into allegations that it illegally entrapped suspects and lied to judges over the role of informants. Thirteen convictions have been overturned on appeal.

In Liverpool yesterday, the judge, Mr Justice Grigson, said it was "inevitable" that an inquiry into the NIS should follow.

After the judgment, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, John Healey, and the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith QC, said they would set up an independent review into the management of Customs and Excise criminal cases.

In the July judgment, Lord Justice Rose, vice-president of the Court of Appeal, and two other judges roundly criticised Customs, concluding that "lies were told by reason of a deliberate decision on the part of Customs and Excise to conceal from the judge the true status of [an informant]".

In those cases, the defendants had been allowed, and even encouraged, to take untaxed cases of spirits out of bonded warehouses, supposedly for export. Instead, the whisky and gin was sold locally. The warehouses in east London were owned by Alfred Allington, who was portrayed by prosecutors as an unwitting victim. In fact, he was an informant and both Mr Allington and his Customs handler were found to have lied to courts about their true relationship.

In the Liverpool cases, the prosecution was again forced to admit that Mr Allington had not been registered as an informant and that vital information was only disclosed last week.