Power to enter premises and inspect goods

Part of Finance (No. 2) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:30 pm ar 16 Ionawr 2018.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General 3:30, 16 Ionawr 2018

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and observations. Clause 46, as he pointed out, extends HMRC’s existing powers, allowing it to examine goods thoroughly away from ports, airports and other approved places that are under customs control. The power is expected to be exercised mainly in situations in which goods have been mis-declared at import and thus the correct amount of duty has not been paid.

Under their current legislative powers, HMRC officers working inland and post clearance are not permitted to examine and take account of customs goods; that includes opening, marking, weighing, loading and unloading them. Under section 24 of the Finance Act 1994, a customs officer has the power to enter the premises of a business that contains goods subject to customs duty, and to inspect those goods. That means that if there is reasonable cause to think that there has been a violation of customs law, an officer is only allowed to pick up and inspect goods visible at those premises. Today, HMRC officers often investigate sophisticated frauds involving customs goods, the majority of which are at inland premises and not within the confines of approved places such as ports and airports. It is therefore essential that officers are empowered not only to enter and inspect, but to examine and take account of goods.

The changes made by clause 46 will extend officers’ powers to examine goods thoroughly post clearance, inland, where a customs offence is suspected. The power covers all customs offences, but current operational experience suggests it will be largely used where goods have been mis-declared at import. The clause will enable officers to examine and take account of goods found on premises. It will allow the officer to mark, move, open or unpack goods or containers, or require a relevant person to provide assistance that is reasonable for the purpose of examining the goods. As the search power is for the purpose of searching containers, boxes and so on and not the premises, a warrant is not needed.

Amendment 60 seeks to deny HMRC those powers in cases where a search warrant has been sought and refused, or where a warrant could reasonably be sought. The purpose of entry under section 24 will be to carry out compliance checks, which will include examining goods to ensure they comply with any paperwork. That cannot be done effectively under the current power, because it only allows the inspection of goods.

Section 24 is not—and is not intended to be—a substitute for seeking a warrant. A warrant will be used when there is a need to enter and search a building or place where there are reasonable grounds to suspect the presence of forfeitable goods. A warrant also grants the power to force open doors and windows and open any obstruction. Unlike section 24, warrants can be used outside of business hours. If a warrant to enter and search a building or place was required and refused, the amendment could not be used to gain access.

We are amending these customs powers to ensure they work effectively, not as a means of unduly expanding customs power. At the moment, officers can merely pick up goods that are immediately visible to them, but on some occasions that is not enough. For example, to ensure that the contents of a box correspond to the relevant paperwork, it is necessary to be able to look inside the box and examine the goods. Under section 24, all visits are strictly regulated. They must be carried out during business hours, and most visits will be pre-booked, routine compliance visits. Officers currently receive training in how to conduct visits, which includes the legal basis and powers available to them. In addition, stringent rules, safeguards and guidance place limitations on an officer’s powers, ensuring that they are used proportionately and only where necessary. That will be updated when the measure is introduced.

The measure will extend the powers available to officers when visiting premises where there are customs goods. It will allow them to take account and examine goods thoroughly, making operational duties more effective. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.