Ambassador to Austria and UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other International Organisations in Vienna
Part of UK in Austria
10th January 2020 Vienna, Austria
A tobacco bust in Slovakia
At a nondescript warehouse in Eastern Slovakia, fine tobacco dust fills the air, and the lungs of the workers. The remote building has been sealed carefully to keep any smells and sounds hidden from the outside world, which might give away its true nature.
When Slovak officers arrive, they act quickly, arresting 47 people involved in the production of illegal cigarettes. Many of these dangerous products would have crossed the Channel into the UK black market. The raid was the result of close cooperation between the HMRC team based at the British Embassy Vienna and the Slovak authorities.
Our Fiscal Crime Liaison Officers are part of a global network responsible for stopping crimes that hurt the UK’s tax revenues. There are 47 HMRC officers posted in 37 locations around the world, covering 140 countries. The work is hugely varied. Some posts are strategic, while others are more active in stopping smuggling on the ground. Vienna’s location in the heart of Europe makes it a natural base for tackling criminal gangs who smuggle. The team here help countries in the region to build their own crime-fighting capacity, through sharing information and expertise.
The government estimates that £2.5b is lost in UK tax revenues every year from smuggled tobacco alone, with one factory of the type found in Slovakia depriving UK public services of £100m. Mineral oils and alcohol are also frequently smuggled by organised criminal gangs whose business model is based on this kind of operation.
HMRC is one of several UK law enforcement bodies with overseas representation, but the only one permanently present in Vienna. Although based in Vienna, the team here covers Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia as well as Austria, working closely with the embassies in each country. They also work with the multinational organisations based in the city, such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This relationship is in its early days but it is clear that UNODC offers benefits in terms of capacity building, lobbying and networking.
Organised crime undermines good governance and the stability of countries. It affects global prosperity and security, costing the United Kingdom at least £32 billion each year, and depriving people of their security and prosperity.
When our Fiscal Crime Liaison officers arrived on the scene in the days after the raid, the air was still pungent. One of the team said “you have sympathy and compassion for the people working there – you could see life was hard in this part of Slovakia – but overall it was a feeling of a job well done”.