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Customs chief urges greater scrutiny

CLOSER VIGILANCE of Customs prosecutions by the Attorney-General would bring 'positive advantages', the Scott inquiry was told yesterday.

Valerie Strachan, chairman of Customs and Excise, said sensitive prosecutions, such as Matrix Churchill and the Iraqi supergun, could in future be referred to the Attorney-General at a very early stage. 'One doesn't want any of our cases to come as a surprise to the Attorney-General,' she said.

Her evidence fuelled a growing belief that Lord Justice Scott will recommend closer supervision of Customs' unfettered powers to prosecute. The inquiry team, which is examining the role of Customs as both investigator and prosecutor in the controversial Matrix Churchill case, questioned Mrs Strachan about the relationship between Customs and the Attorney-General.

Mrs Strachan said that although the Attorney-General had overall 'purview' for Customs cases, it did not amount to the same kind of supervisory role he had with the Crown Prosecution Service, or the Serious Fraud Office, where sensitive prosecutions were routinely drawn to his attention. Treasury ministers were constitutionally accountable for Customs' management and policy responsibilities but they would not get involved in specific prosecution decisions.

Mrs Strachan, who became chairman of the Customs Commissioners last year, said cases were rarely referred to the Attorney-General.

The decision in 1990 to refer the supergun prosecution to Sir Patrick Mayhew, the then Attorney-General, was so unusual that it sparked a series of false rumours. 'There was this feeling about supergun that because we had gone to the Attorney-General there was something sinister going on and we were being leant on,' she said.

There were several advantages in regular and routine contact between Customs and the Attorney-General's staff, Mrs Strachan said, and added: 'I would see positive advantages from a number of points of view of the relationship being a bit closer, better articulated and with a more regular channel of communication.'

The inquiry continues tomorrow.