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Economy Economy

Improve HMRC’s capabilities to stamp down on smuggling

Last updated: 03:04pm 22 November 2019

We will improve HMRC’s capabilities to stamp down on smuggling, including by improving our policing of the border as we leave the European Union.

Conservative Party Manifesto 2017, p.17

Our verdict

Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) is responsible for protecting “the UK’s fiscal, economic, social and physical security before and at the border”. The actual policing of the border, however, is conducted by the Border Force which is part of the Home Office. This policy is a promise to help HMRC counter smuggling by improving policing of the border. We’re looking for evidence of measures to improve the operations of the Border Force.

There has been lots of activity relating to the border under this government due to the expectation that the UK would be leaving the European Union, although that didn’t happen in the end. Brexit is currently scheduled to take place under the next administration.

Most of the work around improving border policing has involved increasing the number of staff working at the Border Force, although it’s difficult to track the changes because the figures keep shifting. In July 2018, the Immigration Minister said an extra 1300 staff would be recruited. By November 2018, however, that target had dropped to an extra 900 staff. Most recently, in September 2019, the Security Minister said the government was “recruiting up to 1,000 new Border Force staff”.

Whatever the actual numbers, Border Force workers were warned that agency staff were likely to be used to plug gaps after Brexit. Further, the National Audit Office said in October 2019:

“it is likely that organised criminals and others would quickly exploit any perceived weaknesses, gaps or inconsistencies in the enforcement regime”

The NAO report also indicates that government faces challenges in “mitigating risks of the border becoming vulnerable to fraud, smuggling or other criminal activity”.

The government has taken action to fulfil this pledge by recruiting staff to the Border Force, but we can’t say with any certainty that it has improved HMRC’s ability to tackle smuggling. For that reason, this remains ‘in progress’.

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