Customs wins new powers.

Tory and Liberal Democrat protests have failed to halt government plans to give Customs new powers to change the law by notice, write our parliamentary staff.

Financial Secretary Stephen Timms also refused to accept a change to the Finance Bill requiring the notice to be sent to everyone to whom it might apply. But he promised during committee debates on details of the Bill that they would apply only to ‘detailed technical provisions’ and that substantive changes would continue to be made by regulation subject to parliamentary approval.

Shadow chief secretary and accountant MP David Heathcoat-Amory complained the proposal ‘leaves open the possibility that even more important changes could be made simply by publishing a notice’.

He intervened in a section concerning a new cigarette pack marking scheme designed to reduce cross Channel smuggling to protest: ‘It is not right to make changes or additions or withdraw regulations affecting criminal liability simply by notice.’

He added: ‘The issuing of VAT notices is sometimes late and not always complete … traders sometimes receive them weeks, if not months, after the date of publication.’

Liberal Democrat spokesman Edward Davey said it was essential all those involved were properly notified.

Tory MP Nick St Aubyn warned: ‘Where criminal liability is involved it is highly likely that those facing prosecution will take the matter right the way through the courts system, arguing it is contrary to natural justice for Customs & Excise to turn a legitimate practice into a criminal offence.’

Timms retorted that the amendment would require hundreds of thousands of people to be sent a mail shot every time a technical change is made in the design of the mark on the pack which involved action by half a dozen manufacturers and a small number of importers.

He claimed Customs needed to be able to act quickly to accommodate manufacturers ‘requests on changing their own packaging or counterfeiting emerged. The new power was approved by 16 votes to 11.

Related reading