Pubdate: Mon, 13 May 2002
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: The Scotsman Publications Ltd 2002
Author: Dan McDougall and Andrew Denholm


POLITICIANS are to press for a review of controversial changes to customs 
and excise services in Scotland - as senior officials claimed its coastline 
had become a "soft touch" for smugglers.

The Scotsman understands that a report by a Westminster select committee 
this week will voice serious concerns over surveillance and security along 
beaches and remote harbours, particularly in the north-east and west.

Members of the Scottish affairs committee may also call for a further 
investigation to assess whether the number of officers at key points along 
the coastline should to be increased.

Last night, senior customs officials said the government's decision to move 
officers away from remote Scottish ports and concentrate resources on 
Liverpool, London and the south-east of England had allowed a flood of 
drugs to enter Britain along Scottish shores.

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCSU), which represents Scottish 
customs officers, claimed about 500 uniformed officers have been made 
redundant or relocated from Scotland's shorelines in the past five years. 
The union called on ministers to put in place a high-profile customs 
presence around the Scottish coastline - a third of the UK's whole - as a 
matter of urgency.

Opposition politicians called on the government to bolster Scotland's 
customs force in an effort to halt the flood of drugs entering the country.

Mounting criticism of the government's strategy comes as research conducted 
by The Scotsman highlights the full extent of the problem.

Our study found almost 95 per cent of Scottish harbours are now without a 
uniformed customs presence.

Yet the latest figures from the National Criminal Intelligence Service 
indicate major traffickers are continuing to bring their cargoes through 
Sco tland.

The number of drug seizures rose nearly four-fold between 1985 and 1995 and 
had increased by a further 40 per cent by 1998. However, there was a fall 
of 4.9 per cent in Scotland in 1999, which some critics claim was a result 
of the restructuring of the customs service.

Bill Johnstone, a spokesman for the PCSU, said Scotland was being seen as 
an "easy touch" by drug smugglers. He said: "There are no full-time customs 
officers in over 90 per cent of Scotland's harbours and small ports. At the 
same time, we have a lot of intelligence that suggests that Scotland is 
regarded as an easy touch for smugglers, particularly given the lack of 
permanent uniformed customs officers in remote Highland harbours.

"Scotland's 4,000 miles of coastline have always been a haven for 
smugglers, but the government continues to insist all of the drugs coming 
into Scotland are coming in through Liverpool and London."

Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish National Party's justice spokeswoman, 
echoed the concerns, calling for staffing to be bolstered immediately.

She said: "We know drugs come into Britain through Scotland because cases 
of drugs are often washed up on our beaches. Drug dealers are the ultimate 
opportunists and it would be ridiculous to suggest that they are ignoring 
the possibilities afforded by secluded beaches which are currently 
untended. We need more bodies on the ground in Scotland immediately to 
prevent this flow of drugs from getting out of hand."

However, Phil Rogers, a spokesman for HM Customs, insisted the strategy to 
centralise operations, begun in 1996 under the Conservative government, was 

He said: "We maintain the belief that small harbour and coastal offices do 
not offer us the best use for our current resources. We also don't accept 
that major traffickers are using remote Scottish harbours to bring drugs 
into Scotland, because our intelligence suggests otherwise.

"The amount of seizures police are making on the roads from London and 
Liverpool backs this up."

According to recent figures, customs has 150 detection officers in Scotland 
specialising in the seizure of smuggled goods and 130 intelligence officers 
for drug and cigarette trafficking.

The majority of these officers are now based in Aberdeen, Shetland, Dundee, 
Edinburgh and Paisley.
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