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« Quiet, please! | Main | That was the week »

Illicit trade: how government works

I attended a conference yesterday on the subject of illicit trade. Delegates included civil servants, trading standards officers, tobacco lobbyists and representatives of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC), to name a few.

Venue was the National Liberal Club which used to have a portrait of Winston Churchill, painted by Ernest Townsend in 1915, in the foyer. (I think it's still there. I didn't look.) Townsend was my paternal grandmother's brother which makes him my, er, great uncle.

Anyway, speakers included Mark Garnier MP, Treasury Select Committee; Andy Leggett, deputy director, Alohol and Tobacco Policy, HMRC; Joe Barrett, a member of Retailers Against Smuggling, an Irish campaign group; and Peter Astley, Public Protection Manager (I kid you not), Warrington Borough Council.

It was during Astley's presentation - during which he talked of "coordinated enforcement activity", "improving [the] intelligence base", "funding specialist teams", not to mention more scanners and using prison sentencing to tackle tobacco smuggling - that I finally became so exasperated that I stood up, introduced myself, and pointed out that there was an elephant in the room that no-one was addressing.

The number one reason for the booming black market in tobacco, I said, was the high level of taxation. "We all know that the Department of Health is driving tobacco control policy in the UK. What," I asked, "is Peter, and the stakeholders represented in this room, doing to lobby the DH to support a reduction - not a freeze - in tobacco taxation to bring it into line with other EU countries?"

Silence. Astley ignored the question and instead mumbled something about his priority being "smoking prevention".

So there you have it. Truth is, there is a very simple way that government could address the problem of tobacco smuggling - which costs the Treasury hundreds of millions (if not billions) of pounds every year - but they won't consider it while the tobacco control lobby is pulling the strings.

Meanwhile criminal gangs - who are happy to sell cigarettes to anyone, including children - reap the dividends while officials such as Peter Astley propose spending even more public money tackling a problem of the government's own making.

Nice work if you can get it.

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  • Response
    Response: YOU DO THE MATHS
    So I did my own maths and found it remarkable how much I'm saving and how much I'm enjoying my trips abroad by boycotting the tax on buying in the UK. My own rough calculator revealed I'm saving £336 every six months with still change left after my trip to save ...

Reader Comments (13)

It was neatly summed up by Sir Humphrey Appleton in Yes Prime Minister. He says that civil servants are not judged by the profits they make, how may goals they score but how big their departments are. A conspiracy of incompetence. The Taxpayer's Alliance maybe interested to know too.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at 13:48 | Unregistered CommenterDave Atherton

My Yes Prime Minister point comes in at 5.10.

This is pro-prohibitionist JD Rockefeller lamenting its failure.

"When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at 14:06 | Unregistered CommenterDave Atherton

Trying to stop the import of cigarettes whether legal or illegal is a total waste of time and resources. People smuggle drugs and weapons which are illegal to even possess because there is a profit in it. Human beings are trafficked into the sex industry and other forms of slavery despite being illegal and the penalties if caught are severe.

Smuggling cigarettes will never attract the same penalty as heroin or cocaine smuggling yet can generate profits in the same league. Prohibition does not work and I wholeheartedly agree with Simon. Cost is the issue and if prices came down smokers like me would be less inclined to buy what we know are illegally imported products.

I do not want my money going to criminal gangs and crooks but then again there is little difference between the Mafia and the ConDemn Coalition.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at 15:07 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Peoples

I don't want to stray off topic, but Michael despite your excellent post much of sex trafficking is an urban myth. It probably goes on but nowhere to the extent that nanny politicians would lead us to believe.

I was chatting to the delightful and charming Dr. Belinda Brooks-Gordon who did her PHD in sex trafficking, spending a year living with them. Out of 1,000 people barely 2 or 3 were 'victims.' 99.97% were prostitutes by choice. Self employed, flexible working hours and most importantly in control of their lives. Like most government intrusions like tobacco control, is full of unintended consequences and making a situation far worse than needs be.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at 16:01 | Unregistered CommenterDave Atherton

Don't know how you keep your temper, Simon.

I also fail to understand why the burden of proof should rest with the consumer bringing in more than the guideline. A fifty a day smoker will get through some 18,000 cigarettes a year. Do they disbelieve that someone can smoke as many and still be alive? Do they disbelieve that not everyone can afford four trips abroad a year? At any rate, no-one should be considered guilty unless they can prove their innocence. As for the evidence to prove their innocence, how can we keep receipts if we buy our tobacco abroad (or at the corner shop which doesn't issue receipts)? Should we keep our empty fag packets and take them on holiday as well LOL? Doctor's statement? Firstly, is anyone truthful to their doctor anymore? Even if you are, a statement, willl cost you £100 (doctors, like lawyers, do nowt for nowt) if the doctor even agrees to sign one.(he wouldn't want to encourage you, either). Ditto employer (if you work in a PC company, which is just about every one except Car Repairs R US).

Please can we have a revolutiion like Egypt?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at 20:08 | Unregistered CommenterJoyce

Try to match our tobacco prices with the rest of Europe? I think they are catching up with us! In Spain, 10x50g of Amber Leaf is now 66€. OK that is still half the price of ours. Eighteen months ago however, 10x50g of Amber Leaf was 24€!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 0:28 | Unregistered Commentertimbone

Right, Timbone. I have been going to Majorca for years and seen the difference in prices fall and fall. Of course, it is a deliberate ploy. But, for me, Eastern Europe beckons - never been to Prague. I have in mind a little trip towards the end of March.....

As regards the 'proof' that one smokes X fags per day, I thought of that some time ago. My answer is that I will visit my solicitor and swear an affidavit. It is a simple procedure and should not cost much. If it costs £100 (and I have not actually checked yet), it will be a small price to pay compared with the money I save.

I also have a pretty big garden........Oh, and I once brewed some wine. Although it was piss, I could try again.........

Do these arsehole politicians realise what a can of worms they have opened by allowing themselves to come under the tyranny of the unelected WHO and the IPCC?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 1:13 | Unregistered CommenterJunican

What I'd really like to know is 'who paid for the conference?' and 'who paid for Peter Astley's travel expenses?'. My bet is the tax payer somewhere along the line.

Also I bet Astley travelled first class from Warrington (being a Londoner I had to google Warrington to find out where it is!)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 7:13 | Unregistered CommenterMark Butcher

Mark, the conference was organised by Progressive Vision and the Tobacco Manufacturers Association. It is normal for speakers' expenses to be covered so I don't imagine there was any cost to the taxpayer.

To be fair, the event was an interesting and worthwhile exercise. Like the other speakers, Peter Astley gave a useful and informative presentation. The point of my post was not to criticise Peter personally, it was to highlight the fact that government agencies are being forced to spend public money tackling a problem exacerbated by the taxation policies of successive governments.

That said, the taxation issue wasn't entirely overlooked. The TMA, to its credit, did raise it. My beef is that this fundamental issue wasn't addressed by those speakers representing local government or HMRC, perhaps because they feel it's not their responsibility.

Their job, they may argue, is to manage/control the situation, but if excessive duty is the number one reason for the high level of illicit tobacco in Britain I just wish there was greater public acknowledgement by government agencies of the underlying reason and recognition that the solution should not have to involve even greater sums of public money and more illiberal measures to counteract illicit trade.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 10:28 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

They really are stupid are they not.
Reducing the amount shoppers can bring in through customs will make the problem even worse.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 10:32 | Unregistered CommenterC777

The bloody cheek of these jobsworths not to answer Simon when he asked a very pertinent question, apart from being downright ignorant it just proves they cant deal with the truth.
The truth seemingly is something they leave at the doorstep when they step into these cushy govt jobs and then its left up to us the ordinary citizen to prove and try and hold them to account.
How crazy is that and who in the name of god gives these guys the right to ride roughshod over us the minute they join these organisations and start telling us whats good for us when it should be the other way round, after all we elect most of these duffers in the first place.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 12:06 | Unregistered Commenterann

The question was worth posing but it's no surprise they were not in a position to respond, at all. These bodies are really not responsible for making the Laws directly and their job is purely to operate within the limits imposed on them. The subject of taxes and/or bans is not their remit, whatever their personal preferences. They may do a job with enthusiasm or not but they can't change it. However, it's always worth reminding them that not everybody supports their direction of travel if only to cool their ardour.

Lets not forget that the only problem is SHS. If that's shaken, all else will stop or at least slow considerably.

Thursday, February 3, 2011 at 10:18 | Unregistered CommenterFrank

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011 at 12:43 | Unregistered Commentercheap Winston cigarettes 

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