The House will be aware that the previous Government circulated the text of their Customs and Excise (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, 1987, immediately prior to the dissolution of the Dáil on 20 January last. The Government have given careful consideration to their predecessors' legislative proposals in that Bill and have decided that they are necessary and should be proceeded with. The text of the Bill now before the House for a Second Reading is identical to that circulated by the previous Government. I wish to give notice, however, that I am considering some amendments which will be moved by me on Committee Stage. These will not affect the main thrust of the Bill.
The purpose of the Bill is twofold: (i) to give additional powers to officers of Customs and Excise which will enable them to play a more effective role in the fight against drug smuggling, and (ii) to make a number of other amendments to existing Customs and Excise legislation. I consider it a matter of great importance that the powers here proposed for customs officers in relation to drug smuggling be enacted into law. Senators will not need to be reminded of the grave threat posed to the well-being of the community through the misuse of drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Despite the record of successes of the Garda Síochána and the Customs service in combating drug distribution and misuse, these drugs continue to be available and this is a matter for the gravest concern. I believe that the necessary legislation should be put in place to enable preventive agencies to work with the utmost effectiveness to combat this evil.
The general effect of what is perhaps the key section in the Bill, section 2, is to confer on officers of Customs and Excise powers similar to those already conferred on the Garda Síochána by the Misuse of Drugs Acts, 1977 and 1984. These powers are to detain and to search, without warrant, if reasonable cause for suspicion exists, persons, vehicles, vessels or aircraft for the purposes of detecting drug smuggling. The exercise of those powers by Customs and Excise officers at or in the vicinity of points of entry to, and exit from, the State including the Border with Northern Ireland will be permitted by section 2 of the Bill.
This provision is in accordance with the recommendations of the Second Report of the Select Committee on Crime, Lawlessness and Vandalism published in July 1984. During the debate on the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1984, several calls were made for a strengthening of the powers of customs officers to ensure that they have the authority to combat the illegal importation of drugs. In their second report, the select committee point out that "the smuggling of illegal drugs into the country has become a major cause of concern for society generally". They go on to say:
The country's first line of defence to the problem, namely the barriers at point of entry, must be geared to tackle the sources and prevent these commodities reaching the streets. Such action, assuming it were to be successful, would reduce the demands for expensive follow-up activity as well as reducing the unquantifiable social cost of drug addiction to a young person.
Every member of the Customs and Excise service engaged in the examination of passengers and of goods at points of entry to the State must be regarded as forming part of a first line of defence against the illegal importation of drugs. When that first line of defence is breached, subsequent action within the State is primarily a matter for the Garda Síochána, with the Customs and Excise service providing any co-operation and assistance required. The Bill now before the House will considerably strengthen the all-important first line of defence.
I might point out to the House that the select committee's recommendation that a drugs unit be established within the customs service was implemented in 1985. Five officers are now employed full time in such a unit on drugs-related work. It is worth noting also that every member of the Customs and Excise service engaged in the examination of passengers and goods at entry points to the State is given special training in relation specifically to drug smuggling, and a number of staff have been sent abroad for further training. The most up-to-date drug identification equipment is provided to customs officers and this equipment is being further augmented.
Steady progress has been made by customs officers in the detection of drug smuggling. There were 47 seizures of heroin, cocaine and cannabis in its various forms by customs officers in 1986. These drugs had a street value of £42,000. Up to the end of June this year there have been 24 seizures by customs officers of drugs valued at £12,000. Section 3 of the Bill will give added powers of search to Customs and Excise officers. Taken together, sections 2 and 3 of the Bill will, the Government have no doubt, increase the effectiveness of the customs service in making detections but, while the checks envisaged will form an important part of our first line of defence, great reliance must continue to be placed on information provided by the Garda and from agencies including customs services in other countries about the movement of drug traffickers. Given the high value of even small quantities of drugs such as heroin and the ease with which they can be concealed the task is not an easy one. I am hopeful that the measures now proposed will help in the task of stemming such supplies at point of import.
The other provisions in the Bill not arising from the recommendations of the select committee in relation to drug smuggling chiefly provide for some strengthening of the law in relation to smuggling generally.
I wish to take this opportunity to say to the House that the Government are deeply perturbed at the apparent scale of commercial smuggling of certain goods such as drink, oil products and electrical goods. Smuggling damages local retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers and robs the Exchequer of vitally important revenues. The receivers of such goods obtain their "bargains" at the cost, first, of their neighbours' livelihoods and, secondly of the ability of the Exchequer to maintain essential public services at an optimum level. I know that legitimate traders are seriously perturbed at the existence of such traffic and the unfair position they find themselves in when trying to compete with smuggled commodities. There should be no doubt in anyone's mind as to the detrimental effects of participating in such black economy transactions. They are not helping the community, the economy or ultimately themselves by so doing. Smugglers are encouraged by those who are prepared to accept a quick return by availing of under-the-counter services. The entire fabric of our business and social structure is affected by it. There must be no dissembling in recognising smuggling for what it is; there can be no pretence that it is morally or socially acceptable or somehow justified by high taxation levels. No such argument is acceptable. The Government do not intend to allow the community to continue to suffer from these abuses. The Bill contains a number of provisions which aim to strengthen the hand of the authorities in dealing with smuggling.
The Bill also contains clarification of the Customs and Excise status of goods won from the Irish-designated areas of the Continental Shelf, and it provides for excise control measures in relation to oil found on-shore or in areas of the Continental Shelf over which the State exercises sovereign jurisdiction and for the application of Customs and Excise controls to goods conveyed by pipeline.
Finally, the Bill increases a number of penalties in relation to breaches of Customs and Excise law. I will invite Senators to consider whether the level of penalties proposed is adequate. My own belief is that they are not. I am giving further consideration to this question and I intend to move amendments in Committee which will increase some of the proposed penalties still further.
I turn now to outline in sequence the provisions of the Bill. A number of provisions are relatively self-explanatory and I will do little more in such cases than repeat the Explanatory Memorandum which accompanies the Bill. Section 1 contains definitions and provides for standard interpretation clauses. Section 2 gives officers of Customs and Excise powers to detain and to search, without warrant, persons, vehicles, etc., for the purposes of detecting drug smuggling. The section provides that these powers may be exercised in the vicinity of a port, airport, or the land frontier. I have already explained the rationale behind this section.
Section 3 provides for the issue to, and execution by, an officer of Customs and Excise of a search warrant authorising him to search premises or land for controlled drugs which were illegally imported or are intended to be illegally exported, or for documents relating to such drugs. The section also empowers the officer who executes the search warrant to arrest any person found in the place being searched and to search that person.
Section 4 provides for the acceptance as evidence, in proceedings under the Customs Acts in drugs smuggling cases, of certificates giving the results of tests or analyses carried out in the State Laboratory.
Section 5 provides for the issue of a search warrant to an officer of Customs and Excise to search premises or places where books or documents relating to smuggling transactions are suspected of being kept or concealed. It also provides for the seizure of any such documents, as well as any smuggled goods which may be found in the course of a search. Under existing law, there is no provision for the issue of a search warrant to an officer of Customs and Excise authorising him to search for documents per se. Such documents can be vital in the successful prosecution of a case against a smuggler.
Section 6 provides that, where goods liable to seizure or detention by customs are found in a vehicle or other conveyance shall be deemed to have been made use of in the conveyance of the goods and thus liable to seizure or detention along with them. The purpose of this section is to remedy a possible weakness in the existing law governing the forfeiture of vehicles used to convey uncustomed, prohibited or restricted goods.
Section 7 makes provision for the detention by an officer of Customs and Excise of goods suspected of having been smuggled or of being irregularly exported. The period of detention, which may not exceed one month, is to enable investigations to be carried out to determine whether the goods in such cases should be seized. Legal problems can arise in the case of premature seizure of goods which this section will surmount by providing for a period of detention of suspect goods.
Section 8 remedies a possible technical weakness in one of the existing provisions relating to the liability to forfeiture of smuggled goods by providing generally that such goods shall be liable to forfeiture, regardless of whether they have been unshipped or unladen.
Section 9 deals with the onus of proof in certain proceedings relating to exported goods or goods seized under the customs Acts. Under existing law, where proceedings are taken by the State under the customs Acts in respect of goods suspected of having been illegally imported, the onus of proving that the goods were lawfully imported rests on the defendant. Section 9 provides for a similar onus in relation to goods suspected of having been illegally exported or of being intended for illegal exportation. The section also provides that where civil actions are brought against the Revenue Commissioners, etc., in relation to goods seized under the customs Acts, the onus of proving where the good originated, or whether the goods were lawfully imported or were lawfully exported or otherwise lawfully dealt with for exportation, is on the person bringing the proceedings.
Section 10 provides that goods won from the Irish-designated areas of the Continental Shelf and brought directly ashore shall be deemed for Customs and Excise purposes to have been grown, produced or manufactured in the State and not to have been imported. Section 11 provides for the application of excise controls to (a) oil found in the State and (b) oil found in the Irish designated areas of the Continental Shelf and deemed under the previous section to have been produced in the State.
Section 12 empowers the Minister for Finance to make regulations governing the importation or exportation of goods over the Border with Northern Ireland. The section also provides that the existing land frontier regulations shall have effect as if they had been made under this section, and increases the maximum penalty for contravention of or failure to comply with the regulations from £100 to £500. The purpose of the section is to remove any possible doubt about the validity of the existing regulations.
Section 13 empowers the Minister for Finance to apply the provisions of the Customs and Excise Acts to pipelines and goods conveyed in pipelines. In effect this will enable the normal Customs and Excise controls, that is, the requirements to make customs entry, which govern goods transported by ship, aircraft and road vehicle, to be applied to goods conveyed by pipeline.
Section 14 provides for a general penalty of £1,000 for offences relating to illicit distillation under the Illicit Distillation (Ireland) Act, 1831 and provides that a district justice may mitigate the penalty for these offences to not less than one half of the full penalty. The most common offences committed against the 1831 Act relate to possession of equipment or materials used in illicit distillation and making, possessing, conveying or selling illicit spirits, which currently attract penalties of £200. A district justice is currently empowered to mitigate these penalties to not less than £6.
Section 15 increases from £100 to £1,000 the maximum penalty which may be imposed for an offence under section 12 of the Customs and Inland Revenue Act, 1881. The offences referred to in that section include assault or obstruction of Customs and Excise officers and rescue of seized goods.
Section 16 amends section 31 of the Finance Act, 1929, so as to confer on an officer of Customs and Excise authority, in cases of suspected fraud, to detain documents relating to goods the importation or exportation of which is prohibited or restricted. That section already authorises the detention of documents in cases of suspected fraud relating solely to customs or excise duties. This provision brings documents relating to goods which are prohibited or restricted within the scope of section 31. Section 16 also increases, from £50 to £500, the penalty for resisting an officer in the performance of his duty under section 31 of the Finance Act, 1929.
Section 17 increases, from £100 to £500, the maximum penalty which may be imposed for contravention of regulations made by the Minister for Finance governing the application of Customs and Excise law and controls to Shannon customs-free airport.
Section 18 increases, from £100 to £500, the maximum penalty which may be imposed for contravention of regulations made by the Minister for Finance governing the application of Customs and Excise law and controls to imports and exports by air. As I have already indicated I will propose higher penalties at a later stage in the case of sections 11, 12, 13, 16, 17 and 18.
Section 19 amends section 29 of the Finance Act, 1971, so as to ensure that prohibited or restricted goods are subject to the same controls as dutiable goods when they are being imported or being taken out of the State by travellers in their baggage and to strengthen the powers of officers of Customs and Excise in relation to control of travellers. The proposed amendment to the 1971 Act is necessary in order to provide a clear legal obligation on incoming travellers to declare to customs prohibited or restricted goods in the same way that it is mandatory for travellers to declare dutiable goods in excess of the permitted limits and to impose an obligation on travellers leaving the State to answer any questions put to them by a Customs and Excise officer and to produce their bagidit gage for examination.
Section 20 provides for the short title of the Bill and for its construction with the customs Acts and the excise statutes. In introducing this Bill I want to pay tribute to our customs service. They have a difficult, frequently unpopular and sometimes dangerous job to do. Most of us have contact with them only when we are entering or leaving the country. We should remember that, in addition to doing an essential regulatory job, they are our first line of defence against smugglers who have the capacity to destroy the economy and to create considerable social distress. The smuggler of today is often a very sophisticated operator and we must keep pace with developments in giving our customs officers adequate powers of inspection and detention. Because of its very nature, we cannot quantify the scale of smuggling. All the indications are, however, that it is on a large scale and that it does have a significant and damaging effect on the economy. We have particularly difficult problems on the Border with Northern Ireland. Significant price differentials between North and South provide a strong incentive for smuggling. The very length of the Border and the nature of the terrain are to the advantage of the smuggler and detection is difficult. The smuggler will thrive as long as he can escape detection and find a ready and profitable market for his goods.
The lasting solution to this problem is equalisation of prices. We hope, in the context of harmonisation within the European Communities, that we are on course for this. In the short term, however, we cannot make enough progress for financial reasons so we will have to live with price differentials for some time yet. In order to limit the loss to the economy, a 48-hour restriction on travellers' allowances was introduced in this year's budget. We no longer accept as a genuine traveller a person whose sole purpose in travelling is to benefit from duty-free allowances. The price incentive for the smuggler will, therefore, remain. Life, however, is becoming more difficult for him. For obvious reasons I cannot go into details but he can expect more tough and uncompromising opposition for the future.
We can look ahead to big changes in the customs service. The future development of the European Community will have a big impact. The internal market envisages an opening up of borders between the member states and the role of the customs officer will change with this. Big increases in numbers travelling and more sophisticated ways and means of importing illegally will create new problems and the customs service and the legal provisions underpinning this service must keep fully up to date with developments.
The Government are of the view that the measures set out in this Bill will be of significant assistance to the work of the Customs and Excise service particularly in the area of drug smuggling. I, therefore, commend this Bill to the House.