New Customs chief warns against free trade abuse: Colin Brown meets Valerie Strachan, the next chairman of Customs and Excise

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The Independent Online
VALERIE STRACHAN won a European woman of the year award for her work in bringing down the barriers to free trade on 1 January. But, as the chairman- elect of Customs and Excise, she is promising a crackdown on revellers who abuse the system.

'We would be concerned if that is happening,' Ms Strachan, 52, said yesterday after it was announced that the deputy chairman would be taking over at Customs and Excise.

'We will have teams of officers who are on the look-out and using intelligence tip-offs to try to make sure that we don't get bootlegging and racketeering,' she said. 'In our publicity we made it clear it was for personal use not for resale. We are starting as we mean to go on. We are not there to conduct fiscal checks at the frontiers. We are going to make selective checks on drug smuggling.

'We will be following up fiscal fraud inland, using intelligence tip-offs, good ferreting-out work by excise teams we set up.'

Some of the revellers who took advantage of the lifting of Customs limits at Britain's ports on 1 January to resell drink or cigarettes for a profit may be getting a visit from her agents.

In spite of her enthusiasm for the single European market, Mrs Strachan made it clear that the decision to maintain passport controls at British ports - in spite of pressure from the Commission - was a political decision, beyond her remit.

She is fastidious in pointing out that, although Customs and Excise is more independent than most Whitehall departments, she is still a civil servant responsible to the Chancellor and Sir John Cope, the Paymaster General. Mrs Strachan studied politics at Manchester University and was vice-president of the union, before entering Customs and Excise in 1961 as a graduate trainee. 'It was a jolly good political course, but I learned more about politics when I joined the department.' But the only party she remembers joining was the English Country Dancing club.

Visitors to her office overlooking the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge, are greeted by a black museum of smugglers' tools, including a fake coat hanger and an underwater speargun once filled with cocaine. Her administrative skills were used as a commissioner for VAT, which occupies two-thirds of the work at Customs and Excise. She headed the Cabinet Office team on management reforms for the civil service and was involved in the negotiations for the creation of the single market.

The introduction of a third, blue section, in addition to the red and green customs areas, at Heathrow airport for EC citizens has been criticised for adding to the confusion about Customs. 'I am sure there will be a period when people will be confused but we will be understanding. I am old enough to have been responsible for introducing red-green channels back in the 1960s. There were people utterly flummoxed then. But that wore off.'

(Photograph omitted)