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Northern Ireland

Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 26 March 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Fuel Smuggling

In February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State established a new multi-agency group within the Organised Crime Task Force to prepare a detailed enforcement strategy on fuel fraud. Later this week, I will meet my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to consider progress.

As the Minister will be aware, more than two thirds of illegal fuel seizures in the UK occur in Northern Ireland, yet the conviction rate is declining and forfeiture orders are uncommon. Some time ago, the Secretary of State suggested that he was considering the introduction of a specific offence of fuel laundering. Can the Minister tell us what progress has been made in that regard?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did suggest that that specific offence was being considered. That is one matter that the working group in the Organised Crime Task Force will consider. I will consider those issues with my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary when we meet tomorrow and subsequently. It might be that such an offence would help. I am also interested to ensure that we pursue landowners who rent out land and property and then turn a blind eye to the activities that go on there. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the full force of law and order in Northern Ireland needs to and will bear down on the issue.

The Minister will be aware that there is concern that in future the full force of law will not bear down on those involved in fuel smuggling. With the disappearance of the Assets Recovery Agency and the retrenchment and reduction of already stressed Revenue and Customs services, people are worried that fuel smuggling and other criminal enterprise in the category of level 2 crime will not be pursued. Clearly, the police service will pursue level 1 crime and the Serious Organised Crime Agency will pursue level 3 crime. Who will pursue and have the resources and capacity to pursue level 2 crime in Northern Ireland?

What it demands, of course, is a strong partnership among all the forces of law and order and, indeed, legitimate trade. Business partnership is an essential prerequisite of enforcement action, but we need to bring together the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and also the merged SOCA and Assets Recovery Agency. All those agencies need to work together and I assure my hon. Friend that we will not let up on this. Some £15 million of criminal assets have been taken back from fuel fraudsters in recent years. That effort will be undiminished when the new merged agency comes into operation.

Does the Minister accept that the effort needs to be increased? It is disturbing that so many people have got away with this crime, which is not a victimless crime, and that those who have been caught have not been adequately punished. Will he redouble his efforts?

Of course, the punishment of offenders is in the end a matter for the courts to determine. We are considering whether a new specific offence for fuel laundering should be introduced, but many existing offences can be prosecuted. It is important that Revenue and Customs, the police and the other agencies work together, gather the evidence and bring to justice those who break the law in such a way, because it undermines legitimate trade. That is key at a time when we are trying to build up the economy of Northern Ireland. I know that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which the hon. Gentleman chairs, is deeply concerned about the matter. The full force of law and order will continue to bear down on the issue.

Whether or not the situation is getting worse, the Minister is right to say that it is very serious. Will he give the House an assurance that he is satisfied that the cross-border arrangements are working satisfactorily? Given that some of the worsening situation seems to have been attributed to the merger of Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue a couple of years ago, will he assure us that the proposed merger between the Assets Recovery Agency and SOCA will not lead to a further problem in this area?

I warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position as his party’s spokesman on Northern Ireland. I look forward to constructive exchanges with him. I assure him that cross-border co-operation on law enforcement is a high priority. Indeed, we are considering including representation in the working group of the Organised Crime Task Force that deals with such issues from the Criminal Assets Bureau, which is based in the Republic of Ireland, and from the Irish Revenue commissioners, who are the equivalent of HMRC. We seek to bring the forces of law and order together.

I repeat the assurances that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). From next month, the Assets Recovery Agency and SOCA will be merged. In my view, that will toughen up our attack line on organised crime rather than diminish it. It will combine the intelligence brought by SOCA with the practical hands-on experience of asset recovery work brought by the Assets Recovery Agency. The combined agency will be even more effective.

The Minister talks about the merger of the Assets Recovery Agency and SOCA in glowing terms, but does he accept that, given what people have said today and during the consultation, there is fear that the big fish in Northern Ireland in fuel laundering and other serious crime will escape when we consider the overall objectives and priorities of SOCA? Will the Minister assure us that the godfathers in Northern Ireland and elsewhere will be pursued relentlessly and brought to book and that their assets will be seized?

I can give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance on that matter. There will be no thresholds imposed on Northern Ireland that relate to the rest of the United Kingdom. We will determine our own local priorities in Northern Ireland. Indeed, as soon as possible after the merger of the Assets Recovery Agency and SOCA, I shall publish a new asset recovery action plan for Northern Ireland, which will lay out what every agency is doing in order to pursue the criminal element and to recover the criminal assets that it has taken.

When I used to help run businesses in Northern Ireland, nothing undermined confidence in markets more than smuggling and cross-border illegal trade. Given the single land border in Northern Ireland between ourselves and Ireland, we need a border police force that really operates effectively in order to stop that undermining of confidence. Markets and market recovery in Northern Ireland are one of the best underpinners of peace, and that is why this is so important. Does the Minister agree?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very constructive remark. We have to bear down on any organised criminal activity intended to use and manipulate the border to criminal advantage. I say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that the proportion of UK duty-paid petrol that is currently consumed in Northern Ireland is up to 86 per cent. from 82 per cent. just a few years ago. Of course, some of the missing 14 per cent. is legitimate cross-border shopping. We are improving the position, but we need to do even more. He has my assurance that we will do that.

Irish National Prisoners

As of today, there are 107 prisoners who have declared themselves to be of Irish nationality—7 per cent. of the total prison population.

What steps is the Northern Ireland Office taking to return to their country of origin any Irish nationals, as well as nationals of other countries? There is growing concern across the United Kingdom about the number of foreign national prisoners held in British jails.

We of course have to be careful as we approach this issue because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, as a result of the Belfast agreement anybody born in Northern Ireland can declare themselves as Irish, British or both. He asks how many prisoners in the Northern Ireland system have a home address in the Republic of Ireland. That figure is 19. We will seek to deport people if it is ordered by the court or if the Secretary of State determines that it is in the public interest so to do. For other foreign national prisoners, of whom there are around 80 in the Northern Ireland system, we liaise closely with the Border and Immigration Agency, which takes the appropriate action when those prisoners are released.

Employment remains a crucial feature of keeping young people out of prison. What has my hon. Friend done to ensure that young people in prisons have access to workplace training placements?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The Prison Service of Northern Ireland is absolutely committed to ensuring that we improve educational opportunities and training, so that when prisoners move back into the community they are able to access jobs, have a home to live in and play a purposeful and positive role in the community, rather than return to offending.

Fine Defaulters

6. What proportion of those serving a custodial sentence in Northern Ireland were convicted for defaulting on fine payments. (195502)

Although on average fine defaulters occupy up to 30 prison places at any one time, they represent 30 per cent. of all committals to prison. Ministers have made a commitment to deal with that overuse of custody by a range of alternative community-based penalties.

The Minister will be aware that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, in a report on the Northern Ireland Prison Service, said that the sending to prison of fine defaulters placed an unreasonable demand on the scarce resources of the service, and recommended that immediate steps be taken to ensure that short-sentenced fine defaulters did not abuse the system. What steps exactly are being taken to ensure that?

I warmly welcome the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which put its finger on a number of important issues, including that one. It is quite a misuse of public resources that 2,000 prisoners each year are committed to prison in Northern Ireland because of fine default. They stay an average of four days, and usually their fine is of less than £600. In the new criminal justice measure that I shall shortly bring before the House, a new supervised activity order will put in place unpaid work instead of prison placement. Also, later this year, the fine default working group will produce further recommendations, which will include a proposal to introduce deduction from earnings and benefit, which of course should be in place well before custody is ever considered.

Does not the presence of fine defaulters in the Maghaberry high-security prison illustrate the Government’s failure to implement the recommendations regarding the treatment of those prisoners who require the lowest level of security management? When will the Government implement those recommendations, which will go some way to dealing with what the Secretary of State said in February was an “outrageous waste” of prison time and resources?

The hon. Gentleman suggests that that is an important issue that needs to be tackled, and to that extent I agree entirely. I have said that it is being tackled, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set out a prospectus to do just that. We are beginning with the supervised activity orders that I have described, which will be followed by deductions from earnings and benefits. We are rebalancing the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland: those who pose the greatest risk of harm to fellow citizens will go to prison for longer than was the case in the past, while less serious offenders will be given robust, community-based punishments.

Will the Minister give an estimate of the number of women in prison in Northern Ireland for defaulting on the television licence?

I cannot give a precise response to that question, but I shall write to my hon. Friend with the clear answer that he has asked for. However, it would be wrong to hold women or anyone else in prison for the non-payment of the television licence fee, or for any other minor matter. Such people should be dealt with robustly and their fines should be enforced, but they should not be detained in prison.

What does it say about the Government that they have found time to pass legislation granting amnesties for mass murderers in Northern Ireland, but not for legislation that would deal with fine defaulters and keep them out of prison? Will the Minister look at the legislation that was introduced in the old Stormont Parliament after the Social Democratic and Labour party held a rent and rates strike? The legislation meant that money could be docked from benefits as well as from earnings.

I am always grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s advice about things that were tried in the past, but I hope that he will agree that committing 2,000 people to prison each year in Northern Ireland for defaulting on fines is entirely wrong. In certain exceptional cases, it may be necessary to use prison as the last resort, but there needs to be a series of alternative, community-based punishments. I look forward to working with the right hon. Gentleman and others to make sure that the necessary reforms are made, so that fine defaulters are dealt with robustly but in the community.

The House is aware of the problem with fine defaulters, some of whom are in prison for as little as 24 hours, but there is also a problem with the number of remand prisoners in Northern Ireland. They make up 37 per cent. of the prison population there, compared with 15 per cent. in England and Wales, and that proportion is rising. What does the Minister consider to be wrong with the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, and what can he do about it?

As I have said already, we are reforming the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland to make sure that those who pose the greatest risk are dealt with most severely, while less serious offenders are dealt with in the community. The hon. Gentleman rightly states that about a third of people in the prison system in Northern Ireland are on remand. We must speed up the administration of the criminal justice process in Northern Ireland, but we are absolutely committed to doing so and have put in place targets to that end. Also, the criminal justice order that he and I will no doubt be debating soon contains a proposal to introduce electronic tagging to enforce curfews. Where appropriate, that will be another alternative to remanding people in custody, and it shows that we are taking action to rebalance the system to make it work more effectively.

Paramilitary Organisations

I am looking forward to receiving the next Independent Monitoring Commission report at the end of April. More work still needs to be undertaken by loyalist organisations, and dissident republicans continue to pose a limited but real threat.

The Secretary of State must be concerned about the apparent increase in paramilitary beatings, especially in some of the most deprived districts across the Province. What action is he taking to ensure that the police get a grip of those areas, and that the paramilitaries do not pose as defenders of local communities?

The police have got a good grip on dissident activity, and they do an extremely brave job. The right hon. Gentleman will know that at the end of last year two police officers were targeted by dissident republicans. I am pleased to report that they have made a good recovery. They do an extremely important and brave job, but the overall crime figures—and we should view that activity in the context of crime—reveal just how successful the PSNI is.

Will the Secretary of State inform the House whether, over the past two years, he has had negotiations or discussions with the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Defence Association, dissident republicans and other such groups, for the purposes of obtaining ceasefires and decommissioning? If not, what has led to the change of Government policy and strategy?

Again, the figures demonstrate the huge elements of progress that have been made. Whether we are talking about dissident republican activity or dissident loyalist activity, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, regrettably there are still elements out there who wish to behave in a criminal way. There is, of course, as the last IMC report indicated, more that needs to be done through action, and not just words, by dissident loyalist groups, but I look forward to receiving the next IMC report, which I am confident will show that further progress has been made.

Will the Secretary of State make a statement on the serious rioting in Londonderry at the weekend? When illegal parades on the Protestant side of the community take place, an attempt by the police to stop those involved from gathering is usually successful, but it seems that in the incident in question people could gather. In fact, for the first time in a very long time, 40 petrol bombs were recovered by the police, and there was a savage attack on the police in Londonderry. Would the Secretary of State not think it better, at this time, to concentrate on helping the police, rather than to enter into an engagement on whether power should be devolved to Stormont? Any organisation that has an army council associated with violence should not have anything to do with the police.

I think that this is the first chance that I have had since the right hon. Gentleman announced that he will stand down as First Minister in May to put on record in the House what a huge debt the House owes him for the work that he has done, both in leading his party and as First Minister.

On the events that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned in Londonderry, I think that no sensibly minded person would do anything, in any shape or form, other than condemn the behaviour on the streets over the weekend. Petrol bombs and attacks on the police are a thing of the past and should be utterly condemned. I remind all hon. Members that this weekend Sinn Fein were as strong as any in condemning the activity that took place. He is right to talk about the importance of devolution of policing and criminal justice, and to point out the attention that the Government continue to pay to the issue. I just say to him that, while I condemn without reservation the behaviour of those criminals on the streets in Londonderry this weekend, I make no apology for continuing to encourage momentum on devolution, because that is the best way for us to secure long-term peace on the streets of every part of Northern Ireland.

Criminal Justice and Policing

5. If he will make a statement on the progress of devolution of criminal justice and policing to Northern Ireland. (195501)

Since May last year, huge progress has been made in Northern Ireland, not least with the publication of the Assembly’s progress report, which I laid before Parliament yesterday. Perhaps there is no better indication of the progress made in Northern Ireland than the visit last week by Her Majesty the Queen, who was able for the first time to attend a maundy service there—and, even more significantly, a maundy service in Armagh.

The St. Andrews agreement is due to come into effect in May, and criminal justice and policing in particular go to the heart of that agreement. We have just heard that there may well be reasons why that deadline is not met. Will the Secretary of State meet that deadline, and if not, what does he expect will happen?

The St. Andrews agreement began in May last year with the first stage of devolution, and I am pleased to report just how successful in all the areas where devolution has taken place the power-sharing Government have been. There remains the second stage of devolution, which in the agreement was envisaged to take place this year, hopefully in May. However, the hon. Lady rightly asks whether we will be able to complete it. The Government will have completed their promises and their arrangements, so that when the Assembly and the Executive have cross-community support and ask for devolution to take place, the Government will be able to fulfil their promises and objectives.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the comments made by Mary McAleese, the President of the Republic of Ireland, when she said that Her Majesty the Queen could be invited to the Irish Republic only when policing and justice powers were devolved. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that statement was scandalous and shameful?

I understand the emotions that are inevitably raised on the issue, and I understand the comments made by the hon. Gentleman, but the comments made by President McAleese last week must be seen in the context of a reply to a question from a journalist. They were heartfelt and they followed what had been said by the Taoiseach. Let us be clear. A visit by the Queen to the Republic will be agreed between the Palace and the Irish Government, and it will be a matter decided upon by the Queen at a time of her choosing.

The key to devolution of policing and justice is to build cross-community confidence. What discussions has the Minister had with senior members of the republican movement to ensure that the IRA army council is disbanded?

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about cross-community support. As he knows, recent polls in Northern Ireland have consistently shown that a majority of people not only support the devolution of policing and justice powers, but that they support that sooner rather than later, and that a majority would like it to be in May this year. On the specific question about discussions with republicans about the future of paramilitary structures, let me be equally clear. All the paramilitary structures, the army council included, are vestiges of the past. It would be better if they were gone this afternoon, and the sooner any leaders in any party can bear down on getting rid of the vestiges of Northern Ireland’s paramilitary past, the better.

Actions speak louder than words. What steps is the Minister taking to encourage full republican co-operation, which is essential to solving the McCartney and Quinn murders and would go a long way to encouraging Unionists to support devolution?

The hon. Gentleman is right; actions do speak better than words, which is why we are seeing an unprecedented level of co-operation between the community and PSNI precisely in areas where, for example, the terrible Quinn murder happened, as the hon. Gentleman is aware from his own discussions with the Chief Constable. Further to that, let me say once again to the hon. Gentleman that none of those structures, the army council included, has any place in tomorrow’s or even today’s Northern Ireland, and I welcome his support in joining me to apply pressure wherever it can be applied to ensure that those paramilitary structures belong in the dustbin of history.

Surely the greatest leverage that the Government can apply on the republican movement is to insist that the army council is removed before there is devolution of policing and justice. That is the one lever that the Government have, and instead of putting it up to the political parties in Northern Ireland, is it not time that the Government used their position and influence to press for that and insist on it before there is any question of further devolution?

Let me put on record again my thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done with his Assembly and Executive Review Committee over the past six months to prepare the political parties of Northern Ireland for devolution. It is perfectly clear that he shares with all other hon. Members the view that there is no place in the future for any vestiges of paramilitary activity. He knows as well as I do that it is intention that matters. For that reason, I urge him to be careful about setting pre-conditions and to remain focused on intent and on building cross-community confidence. I remind him of what he said about policing and criminal justice only last week:

“I think that indicates that the political parties are almost at the point where they can take on this responsibility”.

Provisional Army Council

I am sure that everybody looks forward to the day when all vestiges of Northern Ireland’s paramilitary history, including the army council, have been relegated to where they belong: the past.

The Provisional army council is not some branch of the Royal British Legion, but a terror command structure. Given that the Government’s policies have put terrorists and murderers into government in part of the United Kingdom, and given that the self-same people were and may still be members of that terror command structure, how can the Secretary of State even contemplate having them in charge of policing the criminal justice system?

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but he will know that the Belfast agreement, subsequently built on by the St. Andrews agreement, enables the politicians and people of Northern Ireland to determine their future. As such, we built into the St. Andrews agreement that it would be for the parties to agree on the matter, that it would be an issue of cross-community confidence, and that when a motion was brought before and agreed by the Assembly, it would finally have to come before this House before we could move forward on devolution.

As for the idea of terrorists being put into positions of power, I simply say this to the hon. Gentleman: all those members of the Executive have taken an oath of office, and they are required, both now and in future, to live up to that oath.