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Cross-Border Traffic

Volume 491: debated on Wednesday 22 April 2009

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on levels of cross-border traffic between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to take advantage of different duty levels. (269404)

I have had no such recent discussions. Policy relating to rates of duty is the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, while responsibility for the promotion of business in Northern Ireland is largely devolved to Northern Ireland Ministers.

The Minister will be aware of the huge increase in volumes at the border, with people trying to take advantage of both different duty rates and the collapse of sterling, thanks to his Government. What specific involvement has he seen of organised crime and paramilitary groups in that increased trade?

The price of particular items on either side of the border will reflect a range of factors, including the value of the currency, VAT rates and duty rates. People will act rationally and make choices accordingly. However, the hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an important issue, which is the need to deal with those who would manipulate the border as a way of conducting illegal activity. We have established an illegal fuel enforcement group under the Organised Crime Task Force. Yesterday it had its most extensive operation yet, when 19 premises north and south of the border were raided. Huge volumes of illegal fuel were seized, as well as vehicles and cash. We take the issue extremely seriously and there will be more action to follow.

What discussions, if any, has the Minister had with the Irish Government and, in particular, with the Irish Finance Minister on cross-border activity and mutual matters?

Of course, it would not be appropriate for me to have discussions with the Finance Minister of the Irish Government, because such matters go beyond my responsibilities. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that I have certainly had many discussions with the Justice Minister of the Irish Government about how we can co-operate to ensure that those who deal in illegal fuel are dealt with and brought to justice.

I acknowledge the good work that was done yesterday on apprehending fuel launderers along the border, but would the Minister agree that there is a lot of frustration in Northern Ireland—[Interruption.]

Order. It is unfair to hon. Members who are here for Northern Ireland Questions that there should be so much noise.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Does the Minister agree that there is a lot of frustration in the communities in Northern Ireland about the lack of further action against fuel launderers? Does he acknowledge that more work needs to be done between the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Office and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to ensure that a real focus is brought to this issue?

That is what the Organised Crime Task Force does: it brings all those agencies together in a focused way. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to say that people are impatient for action when they see illegal activity being carried out. We will seize assets that have been criminally acquired, and ensure that people are prosecuted when that is appropriate. When people commit serious offences, they should go to prison.

I welcome what my hon. Friend says about trying to stop the smuggling of fuel across the border. What evidence is there that fuel is being smuggled not only into Northern Ireland but into the north of England and the rest of the mainland? What effect is that having, and what is he doing to prevent the fuel from reaching the mainland?

My hon. Friend has put his finger on an important issue. Criminal networks in Northern Ireland might seek to bring their illegal fuel over to England and Wales and beyond. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs leads on all this work, and operates right across the United Kingdom. We take this matter very seriously.

The Minister has already referred to the seizure of large amounts of fuel. As he said, 175,000 litres were seized yesterday, along with €22,000, four mobile laundering plants and 12 vehicles. I would like to congratulate the police and customs authorities on both sides of the border who have done extremely well in making these seizures, but it is worrying that as many as 15 to 20 organised crime gangs are involved in smuggling fuels including red and green diesel. What assessment has the Minister made of the full extent of this problem?

The assessment that I have made leads me to believe that the only way to deal with this issue is on a cross-border basis. That is why the fuel fraud enforcement group involves Revenue commissioners and the Criminal Assets Bureau in Ireland as well as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the PSNI; it is a collaborative effort. The hon. Gentleman could add to the list that he just read out the 25,000 litres of toxic waste, which would otherwise have been poured into the environment, that was rescued yesterday. Those who conduct this kind of activity have no regard for human life or for the wider environment.