Sweeping it under the carpet

Sweeping litter under a rug

Losses to illicit trade run into billions, but more than half of respondents to a new survey say reporting criminal activity was none of their business.

by Simon Walton

Retail is in the front line in the fight against illicit trade, and the criminals are pocketing a fortune. HMRC believes the loses run to £3bn in tobacco trade alone, with about £300m of that lost to the Scottish economy, and convenience retail suffering keenly. Yet, as The Tobacco Manufacturers Association’s recent survey revealed, there remains significant apathy to the issue, and when asked why they hadn’t reported illicit sales (in this case in the tobacco category) 57% said they didn’t believe it was any of their business. Clearly that’s an issue across the whole retail sector.

“They do not think it affects them so why should they be concerned,” says Inverurie retailer Keith Whyte. “The preconception that the authorities make enough money from the industry and customers means they perhaps see the cheek of these type of sales as getting one over. In some areas though, turning a blind eye to what is going on could be a safe bet for avoiding any future consequences.”

What difference would almost £300m make to the retail sector? As the biggest and most diverse employer in Scotland, that level of investment could move the economic fortunes of thousands of employers, and tens of thousands of dedicated workers.

HMRC sources express concern about their ability to stem the flow of illicit goods into the country. In short, customs officers feel there are stretched to cover all ports of entry. If that means there’s inevitable leakage into the country, and the flow can’t be stopped at source, then it falls to the trade at large and the public in general to put a stop to the criminal activity at back doors and around our back streets. “Everybody thinks the only loser is the chancellor through loss of taxes,” notes Abdul Majid, immediate past president of the Scottish Grocers Federation. “Loss of sales for retailers is never considered.”

While the lack of resources in the authorities is a concern for most people, confronting crime is never going to be a pleasant task. Clearly there is a fear factor, but, as Keith Whyte suggests, the hassle factor has to be taken into consideration too. “Quite often there is a lot of hidden consequences in terms of time and cooperation with various prosecuting bodies.”

Stronger public information as well as better counterfeit-proof packaging should be enforced, adds Keith Whyte. The public information films of not so long ago highlighted the part ordinary shoppers play in sponsoring crime. They’re still familiar, and remain relevant. Buying illicit goods, no matter how innocently, contributes to the funds of much less innocent individuals, whose activities would hardly be described as legitimate.

  • Keep an eye out for evidence of local illicit tobacco trading, and report suspicious activity via the HRMC hotline on 0800 59 5000. Imperial Tobacco has set up a dedicated website to combat illegal tobacco, www.suspect-it-report-it.co.uk.

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