Clause 47 - Repeals

Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 18th January 2005.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Good morning, Sir John. You deserve a break after that batch of amendments and clauses, so perhaps we can pause on the rather quaint clause 47. The explanatory notes tell us that clause 47

''repeals obsolete provisions either where the provisions were no longer relevant prior to the formation of HMRC, or where this Bill contains provisions that replace older statute.''

In one of the representations that the Committee has received, the Public and Commercial Services Union suggested that, in its view, the reasons for the repeal of some of those sections should be subject to greater scrutiny than would be available from reading the explanatory notes. In particular, the representation draws attention to sub-paragraphs (iii), (iv), (v) and (viii).

Sub-paragraph (iii) relates to the repeal of a particular section in law that deals with the kidnapping of customs officers, and the explanatory notes indicate that in future

''the conduct would be penalised as obstruction''.

It would be useful to have more detail from the Paymaster General on the thinking behind the getting rid of that offence altogether. I have no doubt that there have been many kidnappings of customs officers, and it would be useful to know whether there have been any in recent years. Is she confident that penalising such conduct in the future as obstruction is satisfactory?

The second sub-paragraph about which doubts have been raised is (iv), which deals with signalling to smugglers. That might have been relevant in the 1700s and 1800s, but may be less so today. Have any individuals been charged under that section in recent history? I am more confident than the Public and Commercial Services Union that the provision is no longer required, because the explanatory notes convincingly state that

''the conduct in question constitutes an offence of being knowingly concerned in an attempt at evasion of duty or prohibition''. 

It is therefore plausible that such offences might be covered under existing legislation.

Sub-paragraph (v) is another area over which concerns have been raised about the deletion of existing provisions. It relates to a higher penalty where an offender is armed, and the explanatory notes state that

''the provision has been overtaken by increases to the mainstream penalties for smuggling . . . and it is now the Firearms Act 1968 which provides for enhanced penalties for armed crime of all sorts''.

That does not indicate precisely whether the effect of deleting this section would be to ensure exactly in law that any offenders previously covered by section 86 will automatically face a higher sentence as a consequence of being armed. I assume that that would be the effect, but clarification would be useful.

The final sub-paragraph about which the Public and Commercial Services Union has raised concerns, and on which it would be useful to hear more, is sub-paragraph (viii), which deals with false scales. Again, that sounds like something of an historic relic, and it would be interesting to know whether there have been any recent prosecutions for false scales. Somewhat oddly, the explanatory notes state that, in the future,

''in practice the use of false scales would be penalised as obstruction.''

I do not know whether that will have any implications for the penalties that would be imposed, both in respect of sub-paragraph (viii) on false scales and of sub-paragraph (iii) on the kidnapping of officers. We are told that both offences will be prosecutable as obstruction. Does the Paymaster General consider that to be sufficient, and would it have implications on the sentences that could be handed down for such offences?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury) 10:00 am, 18th January 2005

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman raises those points, because he answered himself by saying something like, ''I am sure these are very old powers that have probably been superseded elsewhere with enforcement powers that are slightly stronger.'' It is unusual, and somewhat refreshing, to hear him querying whether Customs has enough powers. It is normally the other way round; he is of the view that its powers are a little out of date or excessive. I shall deal with each query in turn.

The hon. Gentleman was right to refer to sub-paragraph (iii) and the question of kidnapping an officer. The offence goes back a long way and is superseded by clause 27 of the Bill with regard to the offence of obstructing an officer in the course of his duty and the repercussions of that. While I have been a Minister, there has been no record of a Customs officer being kidnapped. Should that occur, or should an officer be detained by an unauthorised person against their will, the Department would take it extremely seriously. It would be an obstruction, which would be prosecutable under the obstruction laws.

Kidnapping goes back a long way, to the behaviour of some people who may have lived in the south-west—the region that contains my constituency and   that of the hon. Member for Yeovil—where they had an interesting and unhelpful relationship with Customs in previous centuries.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Will the Minister write to us, stating whether there have been any prosecutions under the section in the last 10 or 20 years? Can she say whether prosecution for obstruction will include the ability to sentence people for the same period as under the existing measure, which relates to what sounds like the more serious offence of kidnapping?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

The Bill aligns the penalties for all offences with the police counterparts for England and Wales. It has the same force and seriousness for customs officers as for police officers. We are all well versed in the consequences of obstructing a police officer in the conduct of his or her duty, and those penalties arise in relation to customs officers, too. I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about whether there have been any prosecutions under the obstruction arrangements; there have been none for kidnapping since I have been a Treasury Minister.

On the matter of signalling to smugglers, the hon. Gentleman is right again; the measure goes back a long way. The specific provision is no longer required. When we were considering the Bill, my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary and I thought that the Committee would expect us to remove statutes that were not being used and thus were no longer needed.

The conduct in question is the offence of being knowingly concerned in an attempt at evasion of duty or prohibition and is arrestable under section 170(2) of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 and under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984PACE—as applied to Customs and Excise matters by the PACE application to Customs and Excise, which is in statutory instrument 1985 No. 1800. An officer may enter premises under section 17 of PACE to effect an arrest. Paragraph (v), section 86—concerning a higher penalty where the offender is armed—has been overtaken by an increase in the mainstream penalties for smuggling under the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979. The Firearms Act 1968 now provides for the enhanced penalties for armed crimes of all sorts.

The hon. Gentleman's final point was about the use of false scales. Again, he is right; it is a penalty under the obstruction provisions. The penalties are enforceable by fine and imprisonment; the obstruction provisions for Customs and Excise officers in the course of their duties follow those provided for the police in England and Wales.

It is perfectly clear that all these matters are dealt with elsewhere, giving the protection that we would rightly expect our customs officers to receive in pursuit of their duty. Neither the Economic Secretary nor I would do anything to undermine those processes. First, we need to ensure that our officers can carry out their duties on behalf of the House safely in all circumstances. If the very few circumstances in which they were challenged actually occurred, the penalties in the proposal have to be enforceable. The Economic   Secretary and I will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that those officers are properly protected.

With those explanations, I think the Committee will agree that with legislation that goes back a very long time, the most recent powers are the most effective and should be used. Whenever possible they should be standardised for all law protection work. Customs matters have been aligned on that basis for some time and the Bill puts it beyond doubt by removing old legislation that is no longer used.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.