Leeds police find van containing £43k worth of illicit tobacco outside Harehills shop

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A white van containing more than £40,000 worth of counterfeit cigarettes was found at the rear of an east Leeds shop, a licensing hearing has been told.

Maxi Foods, at 268 – 270 Harehills Lane, has been accused by police of owning the stash and covertly selling illicit tobacco to customers. Officers want the store to lose its premises licence as a result.

Maxi Foods, which also runs two other stores in Harehills, denied the claims. The company’s solicitor told Tuesday’s hearing there was “no evidence” linking the van to the shop.

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The store did admit selling a can of Stella Artois to a “significantly” underage child in September 2023, as part of a police test purchase operation, but insisted all staff had been retrained since.

Maxi Foods in Harehills denies owning the stash (Photo by Local Democracy Reporting Service)Maxi Foods in Harehills denies owning the stash (Photo by Local Democracy Reporting Service)
Maxi Foods in Harehills denies owning the stash (Photo by Local Democracy Reporting Service)

Speaking at the hearing, PC Andy Clifford from West Yorkshire Police said the discovery of the van, on June 16 this year, followed a search of the premises and surrounding area.

The unlocked vehicle contained 3,000 packets of unlawful cigarettes, with the total stock valued at more than £43,000.

PC Clifford said: “Maxi Foods was not selected at random. The store was chosen based on police intelligence.

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“They (the cigarettes) certainly weren’t there for personal possession and they were laid out in such a way as they would be in a shop. It’s a serious offence. Smuggling goods into UK is a big problem.”

PC Clifford said shops using vehicles parked nearby to store counterfeit goods was an “increasingly common tactic”. “It allows them easy access to and from the store, but it also gives them plausible deniability,” he said.

A Trading Standards representative told the hearing the van was later found to have been untaxed and uninsured and had not been driven for at least 12 months before it was discovered.

But Maxi Foods’ solicitor, Chris Rees-Gay told the hearing there was “no evidence linking the van to the premises”. He suggested the vehicle had been used by another shop in the area.

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“The white van is not associated with Maxi Foods,” he said. “No members of staff recognise it. It just happened to be parked on that public street.

“No illicit goods were found within the store and the police carried out a search with a sniffer dog of between 60 and 90 minutes. Maxi Foods don’t sell any cigarettes at their stores.”

Mr Rees-Gay admitted the shop had sold alcohol to a child, who’d been sent into the store by the police as part of a test operation, on September 13.

PC Clifford said the youngster in question was “signficantly under 18” and “looked and sounded under 18”.

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But the store said it had passed a second test operation later that month and that all staff, including the employee responsible for the sale, had undergone training to avoid a repeat.

A decision on whether or not the shop loses its premises licence over the claims will be revealed by the city council in the coming weeks. If it does, it would effectively ban it from selling alcohol to anyone.