Skip to main content

Fuel Smuggling

Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 26 March 2008

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.