My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I remind the House that I am president of the Heavy Transport Association.
The Question was as follows:
My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's somewhat optimistic reply. I fully accept the need for Customs and Excise to be able to seize a vehicle involved in smuggling. But is the Minister aware that the transport industry is becoming increasingly fed up with Customs and Excise seizing vehicles and then retaining them for considerable lengths of time without any involvement from the courts, except by means of appeal? Would not it be better if there were a requirement for a warrant to be issued by magistrates if Customs and Excise felt it necessary to retain a vehicle beyond, say, five days?
My Lords, I am surprised that my purely factual reply was described as optimistic. Of course, the courts are involved. An individual or company whose vehicle is seized can challenge that seizure within one month of the date of the seizure. If there is a challenge, Customs is obliged to begin magistrates' court proceedings to declare the vehicle forfeit so that it can continue to retain the vehicle. If the magistrates agree with applicant companies or individuals, they get the vehicle back. If not, then exactly what the noble Earl asks for has been achieved. In any case, there can be an appeal to the Crown Court.
My Lords, my noble friend will be aware of the case of Orchard v. Customs and Excise which was held last year before the VAT and Duties Tribunal about the confiscation of a motor vehicle and contents in Dover. Does he know what has been the Government's response to the letter of formal notice that initiated an infringement procedure under Article 226 of the EC treaty issued by the Taxation Commissioner, Frits Bolkestein, on behalf of the Commission, and whether that has led to any reform of the practices at Dover?
My Lords, Customs and Excise replied to the letter last December, but no formal response has been received. The Commission recently decided to defer any decision on whether to act until the autumn. We are disappointed by that, because the Commission should understand that our view is fair and balanced. The provisions are aimed not at the ordinary shopper but at highly organised smugglers.
My Lords, I understand that those who have perishable contents in their vehicles are invited to take them away when the vehicle is seized.
My Lords, have not the Government achieved the worst of all worlds with their policies in this area? They appear to have offended the hauliers represented by my noble friend Lord Attlee, the European Union and human rights groups by being too heavy handed. Yet on the other hand, they are somehow managing still to allow 17 billion cigarettes to be smuggled into the country every year.
My Lords, I was not aware that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, claimed that the Freight Transport Association was offended by Customs procedures. Surely, the important consideration is that we should protect legitimate business. I should have thought that that would be the priority for the Conservative Party, just as I should have thought that it would be a priority for it not to be encouraging tax harmonisation within the European Union.
My Lords, I do not know how many such single-vehicle companies there are, but as only 700 commercial vehicles were impounded between June last year, when the policy was introduced, and January, clearly not many of those can involve single-vehicle companies.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that we have levels of smuggling into this country that we have not had since the 18th century? Does he further accept that, whatever one's views about tax harmonisation within the EU, such levels of smuggling are likely to continue whatever the level of seizures by Customs as long as excise duty rates differ so strongly between Britain and our continental neighbours?
My Lords, I am interested to hear that the Liberal Democrats are in favour of greater tax harmonisation. I should have thought that both Opposition parties would have taken account of the fact that our levels of duty on tobacco and cigarettes are justified by health reasons, quite apart from the fact that, otherwise, the cost that would have to be met by a reduction in expenditure on health, education and other worthy causes would be severe. If, for example, we were to reduce alcohol duties to the level prevailing in France, we would lose over £5 billion. That represents more than two pence on the rate of income tax.
My Lords, tax harmonisation is the policy of making the taxes on any commodity the same throughout Europe. The difference that my noble friend is complaining about is a large one. Would not a level somewhere between the two be acceptable?
My Lords, a level somewhere between the two would be slightly less damaging to health and would take slightly less revenue away from health, education and other worthwhile causes. If the noble Lord wants to see such a compromise, he is welcome to try to persuade his party about it.