Damian Green is a former Immigration and Policing Minister, and is MP for Ashford.
While the police rightly concentrate much time and effort on fighting terrorism, they are also engaged in a permanent battle against organised crime gangs. Indeed, the current Strategic Defence and Security Review says that dealing with the most harmful organised crime groups is a national security requirement. It is that serious
In June last year, the Home Secretary said: “the facts are stark. Organised crime costs the UK at least £24 billion a year. There are over 5,300 organised criminal groups that affect people in the UK today, and more than 36,000 people are engaged in these criminal activities.”
That is the context behind today’s report by Charlie Edwards and Calum Jeffray “On tap: Organised crime and the illicit trade in tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceuticals in the UK”, which has been published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
The report makes disturbing reading. It describes how organised crime operates in Britain today. It is diverse, sophisticated, networked and largely invisible to the general public. The report highlights the danger of illicit trade becoming out of control. It talks of co-opted communities, undermined governance structures and changes in tactics by organised criminals who overwhelm the agencies in charge.
Many of these gangs are global. When I visited China as a Home Office Minister, I was told by officials there that whole villages were devoted to producing cigarettes for smuggling, and that they were now concentrating their activities on Australia, which was the first country to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes. They were politely incredulous at the suggestion that Britain might follow suit, as they knew it would make life easier for criminal gangs.
This is what worries me about the Government’s stated intention to proceed with the introduction of standardised packaging for tobacco. Standardised packaging will make it easier for counterfeiters to produce and sell counterfeit cigarettes. Australia has seen the illicit trade in tobacco reach record levels. Illicit tobacco poses a health risk, as well as depriving the Treasury of revenue and funding the criminal gangs. The UK is heavily exposed, as HMRC figures show the Treasury is already losing between £2 to £2.9 billion a year in tax revenue to illicit tobacco.
As Minister for Police and Criminal Justice, I saw at first hand the damage that crime does to people’s lives and the dangers it poses to society. We should be making criminals’ lives as difficult as possible. I’m pleased that the RUSI report recommends increased penalties for those associated with illicit trade. I hope that the Government will now reconsider standardised packaging; at the very least until the full evidence from Australia is available.