I beg to move,
That this House notes with concern the continued prevalence of serious organised criminal activity in Northern Ireland on a cross-border basis in relation to fuel smuggling, fuel laundering and the counterfeiting of consumer goods; recognises that this has had a significant and detrimental impact on HM Treasury; regrets the lack of prosecutions in relation to this activity; and calls on the Government to ensure greater co-operation between HM Revenue and Customs, the National Crime Agency and the PSNI so that this criminal activity can be eradicated.
It is a great pleasure to move the motion tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends.
According to the Home Secretary, organised crime costs the UK at least £24 billion a year. In Northern Ireland, police assessments indicate that there are more than 140 organised criminal gangs in operation. We are all acutely aware of the audacious attempts by such gangs to carry out all sorts of crimes, including the laundering and selling of illegal fuel, and the counterfeiting of consumer goods.
Although the criminals respect neither borders nor victims in their illegal pursuits, Northern Ireland is unique within the United Kingdom in that it shares a land border with a foreign country. The findings of a recent British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly report show that law enforcement agencies in both jurisdictions work together; that illicit trade and smuggling are some of the largest challenges faced by cross-border agencies; and that the number of border area fuel laundering plants, and the number of filling stations selling illicit fuel, is alarming. The report called for a cross-border approach with a permanent multi-agency taskforce to deal with illegal activity and to tackle tobacco fraud, and for legal changes to prevent filling stations prosecuted in connection with illegal fuel from reopening within months of conviction.
I echo the comments made by Fine Gael TD Patrick O’Donovan when he spoke in a debate at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly on the report. He said that authorities were turning a blind eye to illegal activity in the border area, motivated by an “appeasement” process of replacing the cowardly butchery wing of the IRA with the racketeering wing, in what has effectively been considered a bandit area, which has helped to support claims that the Real IRA is the ninth richest terror group in the world.
Fuel laundering is currently worth around £400 million a year in lost tax revenues in Great Britain, and £80 million in Northern Ireland, where the problem is particularly acute. According to Mr Pat Curtis, a senior official at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, organised crime gangs have established sophisticated laundering plants to remove the giveaway dye, sourcing chemicals from China and using the internet to improve their techniques.
Figures for 2012-13 indicate that the illicit market is worth 13% of the total. HMRC is responsible for investigating fuel fraud, including fuel laundering—as part of that work, it cleans any sites it uncovers—but in 2012 the Northern Ireland Environment Agency commenced a fly-tipping pilot in partnership with local councils. Between June 2012 and January 2015, Antrim borough council, which is in my constituency, had one fly-tipping incident. The cost incurred by NIEA was £346.76. In the same period and in stark contrast, Armagh city and district council had 114 incidents at a cost of £266,743.65, and Newry and Mourne district council had 198 incidents at a cost of £585,333.94. Those figures are startling.
In 2013-14, some 38 fuel laundering plants were dismantled in Northern Ireland compared with 13 plants in 2003-04. Although a fuel laundering plant is detected every 10 days in Northern Ireland, and despite the fact that this criminality is filling terrorists’ coffers and bankrolling the IRA and Real IRA, no one has been jailed for fuel fraud since 2002. Such statistics are preposterous, and the Northern Ireland public have a right to know whether that is the price of keeping republicans bought off for the sake of the peace process, or whether fuel launderers are tipped off ahead of raids.
One challenge is that the nature of the fuel laundering process means that people do not need to be present. Part of the difficulty is catching the right evidence. The Northern Ireland Department of Justice is trying to ensure that evasion of the duty becomes a criminal offence so that people can be put in jail for it. That is much easier to prosecute.
I thank the hon. Lady for that helpful comment. I trust that that will be a warning to those participating in that illegal activity.
I am sure my hon. Friend will mention this, but does he recognise that the criminality extends to drugs, cigarettes, alcohol and many other things in addition to fuel laundering? Does he also recognise that it is not the sole preserve of republican paramilitary organisations, but that some of the loyalist paramilitary organisations have moved into organised crime, and are corrupting our young people in many communities in Northern Ireland?
I concur. This is not an issue for just one community. However, there is an area of the Province along the border that lends itself greatly to cross-border crime, and republicans are up to their neck in that.
There is a query about whether fuel launderers are tipped off ahead of raids. After the 2013 major cross-border police raid on Thomas “Slab” Murphy as part of Operation Loft, the authorities at the time believed that the IRA chief of staff and his associates had been tipped off just hours before, as salvaged from the embers were the burnt remains of laptops, documents and computer discs. The status quo approach to tackling fuel smuggling and laundering is untenable. When the operators of filling stations are successfully prosecuted—this is not really happening at the moment—for selling illegal, laundered fuel, provision should be made in legislation to ensure that these outlets cannot simply be reopened again after a few weeks, as happens at the moment. The community is sickened by this.
The challenges we face are grave. We must take them head on and the Government ought to take them head on. These fraudsters must be stopped and the criminals must be put behind bars. However, a number of questions must be asked regarding Government proposals that are supposed to tackle this problem. Why are the Government continuing to designate the Dow fuel marker in legislation, when they knew a year ago that it was not fit for purpose? Why do the Government not support their own British science company, when its fuel markers are the only IMS-proven—invitation to make submissions—indelible markers recommended? Why did Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs director, Mike Norgrove, give evidence to the 2012 Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry that he would travel anywhere in the world to find a solution for fuel fraud, when he personally turned down an invitation a year earlier by the same British science company that saved the Brazilian Government billions of US dollars and reduced fuel fraud to less than 1% by 2012? Why would any Government allow billion-pound fraud to continue, when a British science forensic solution already exists? Even more troubling to me, however, is that I am told that a Treasury Minister wrote to the NIAC Chairman asking him to keep the Dow launderability confidential. We must do all within our power to stop illegally traded fuel raking in massive profits for the criminal gangs mentioned today.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, apart from the loss of revenue to the Exchequer and the financing of criminal gangs, immense problems are being caused to the environment as a result of toxic chemicals being poured into water courses?
Concern for the environment was also mentioned by a Minister of the Irish Republic recently. The House should be taking this matter very seriously, because damage is being done and we cannot turn a blind eye. The concern that many of us have is that the Government could do more. I cannot understand why those involved in this activity have not been brought before the courts. That is totally unacceptable. The last time anyone was brought before the courts was 2002, even though there are those who are known to have committed this crime.
Does the hon. Gentleman think the problem might be that HMRC has the lead duty to investigate fuel laundering? Perhaps, given that this involves serious organised crimes, the Police Service of Northern Ireland ought to have lead responsibility in Northern Ireland. Perhaps it would be more effective at bringing prosecutions.
I believe there are many agencies—when I am winding up I shall draw attention to this—that could work together to resolve this situation. I also accept what my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) said. We must turn our attention to the cross-border drugs and alcohol problem.
I turn now to another serious organised criminal cross-border activity: the counterfeiting of consumer goods. Although smokers have been warned of the serious health threats posed by illicit tobacco, the current price of duty-paid tobacco makes cheaper tobacco more readily available to the young and the vulnerable. For example, a notorious black market cigarette brand, Jin Ling, which is known to contain asbestos, was recently found on sale in Belfast. Smuggling black market cigarettes is extremely lucrative for organised gangs, which can make huge profits and which cost the UK £2 billion a year in lost taxes.
Last month, almost 1 tonne of raw leaf tobacco and 10,000 suspected illicit cigarettes were seized in raids by customs officers at a farm in south Armagh. HMRC said they were worth an estimated £236,000 in lost duty and taxes. In separate searches on the same day, 10,000 illegal cigarettes were recovered. A number of private and business addresses in County Down were inspected. A vehicle and the cigarettes were removed, worth an estimated £2,800 in lost duty and taxes. It is truly remarkable that no arrests have yet been made in relation to either operation. The question we have to ask is: why?
It is believed by many in the Province that the authorities are turning a blind eye, because this is a way to keep some paramilitary groupings sweet. Those groupings are able to fill the coffers of their organisations and even stand in elections against those who seek to do things in a legal and proper fashion. Although earlier this month five people from County Tyrone and County Down were arrested as part of an investigation into a suspected tobacco fraud worth £110 million, the situation highlights Northern Ireland as an attractive region for international crime gangs owing to the inertia in past months of parties failing to support the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland. It is through these statistics that we are now clearly seeing the out-workings of not having the NCA in operation over the past year-and-a-half. It is no accident that these quantities of illegal substances are being smuggled across the border into Northern Ireland. These gangs know only too well that at present if the gang leaders are caught, some of their assets cannot be taken from them. For the past 18 months, we have been a soft touch for smugglers and criminal gangs. Although the NCA is now expected to be operational in Northern Ireland by May, it is largely a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Nothing surprises us about the intransigence of Sinn Fein and their hostility to the introduction of the NCA. They have a vested interest in seeking to hinder investigations into the skulduggery of their republican mates. However, others have dithered in their support for the NCA and have denied the Exchequer millions of pounds in lost revenue that could have ultimately benefited the people of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive. The difficulties of policing the area along the border are well documented. As recently as last month, a south Armagh man was injured in an explosion while taking down a poster, put up by republican criminal gangs, which claimed that a second individual was a security forces informer or “tout”. However, while it is clear that there are tensions within republicanism, there remains a prevalence of fear in the community about co-operating with the police to bring those behind such threats and attacks to justice.
In conclusion, the motion calls on the Government to ensure greater co-operation between HMRC, the National Crime Agency and the PSNI in combining their investigative prowess to eradicate the scourge of criminal activity from our society.
I am very grateful for this timely debate. The motion, tabled in the name of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and his DUP colleagues, is a good one and we support it. I am conscious that many in this House have given a great deal of attention over the years to the various issues under discussion. For example, I am happy to acknowledge the work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in its 2012 report on fuel laundering and smuggling. I also pay tribute to the work of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, whose committee report, “Cross-border Police Cooperation and Illicit Trade”, which was published last month, the Government are studying closely. I also congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) on presenting his remarks in typically robust fashion. I will try to address the points he has raised as far as I can.
The motion lists a schedule of serious criminal activity, but before I address each of them in turn I want to put on the record the fact that crime rates overall in Northern Ireland are low and that Northern Ireland is a safe place to be. I say that because it is important to pay tribute to the various agencies that operate in Northern Ireland for the work they do in ensuring that safety, and to give a message to those who are looking at Northern Ireland as a good place to invest and a good place to be. Many of us grew up in the 1970s and ’80s and, although we did not live in Northern Ireland, every night we saw images on our television screens that portrayed a very different Northern Ireland. That is, mercifully, a thing of the past and, in order to foster the economic security that goes hand in hand with security, we need to give the right message to those who may be seeking to invest in Northern Ireland. I know that the hon. Gentleman feels as strongly as I do about that.
The DUP is right, however, to bring the issues under discussion to the attention of the House. Northern Ireland has particular issues regarding criminality. It is a very particular place and the challenges are peculiar to Northern Ireland, and we cannot ignore them. We owe it to people in Northern Ireland to address them to the best of our ability.
The hon. Gentleman effectively described the situation of fuel laundering, which is a clear and present danger that is particular to Northern Ireland, given that it has the United Kingdom’s only land border. Fuel laundering and fuel smuggling come at a great cost to the Exchequer, honest businesses and the environment. The hon. Gentleman also touched on the possible cost to security. The Government take the problem of oils fraud and crime very seriously indeed. The hon. Gentleman should be assured of that and I hope to be able to give him some examples of the efforts we have made to drive it down. Moreover, with the assistance of the agency to which he referred, I hope we will have further successes in the months and years ahead.
Fuel duty plays an important role in a range of Government objectives—social, environmental and fiscal. Fuel duty is also the fifth largest revenue stream for the Government at around £27 billion a year. Clearly, we cannot ignore it. The rates of fuel duty for all of the UK are set by the Chancellor, taking a wide range of factors into consideration. To support motorists and businesses, the Government cut fuel duty in March 2011 and have cancelled all subsequent planned increases until the end of the Parliament, a point I touched on during Northern Ireland questions earlier today.
The Government have a comprehensive strategy in place to tackle fuel fraud and crime. The oils anti-fraud strategy was originally launched in 2002, as the hon. Gentleman has said, and has driven down the estimated illicit market considerably in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Indeed, the latest tax gap figures published by HMRC indicate that the estimated illicit market share for diesel for Northern Ireland has fallen from 26% to 13%. By any measure, that is quite an achievement. The strategy was aimed at making it much harder for fraudsters to obtain rebated fuels, and to track and analyse the supplies of them, including a requirement for all dealers to register and submit returns. The registered dealers in controlled oil scheme has been a key weapon in our fight back against fuel fraud.
In Northern Ireland, the Government have close and productive co-operation with the Northern Ireland Executive and with the authorities in the Republic. Co-operation and intelligence sharing through the Organised Crime Task Force and the cross-border fuel fraud enforcement group has been invaluable in applying multi-agency pressure to tackle oils fraud, including fuel smuggling and laundering.
On combating fuel fraud, will the Minister confirm that the new fuel marker that is about to be introduced in Northern Ireland has no roadside test capability whatsoever and that, therefore, the Government are about to put in a marker that cannot be tested on our roadsides?
The road marker has been a long time in the making. It has been trialled both in the UK and in the Republic and both countries are happy with it. I am assured that it will be robust and that it is extremely difficult to remove.
I will have an argument with the Minister about its capability in a moment, but I am asking a specific question about roadside testing. We cannot combat crime if we are not able to stop someone who has the fuel and test it at the roadside. One of the requirements of the IMS test was to have roadside capability, so will the Minister confirm that the Dow marker has no roadside capability?
What I can confirm is that the marker is capable of being discovered; otherwise, frankly, there would be no point in having it, would there? What would be the point of going to the expense of putting in a marker if it was not possible for criminal justice agencies to determine whether the material was illicit or not? [Interruption.] Perhaps I will be able to come back to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks later, but if I cannot deal with them satisfactorily perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who will be in the hot seat shortly, will be able to shed some further light to his satisfaction.
In the financial year 2013-2014 alone, HMRC dismantled 38 laundering plants, closed 79 huckster sites and seized more than 500,000 litres of illicit fuel in Northern Ireland. I accept that the hon. Member for South Antrim is frustrated by the failure to eradicate this particular form of criminality, but that is quite an achievement and it represents considerable downward pressure on organised crime in Northern Ireland. Although we are all impatient for more, we sometimes have to celebrate successes as well as take note of failures.
The Minister refers to progress, but what about the issue mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) about the lack of prosecutions and of people being put through the courts and convicted? A lot of people in Northern Ireland, and, indeed, anyone watching the debate, would find it incomprehensible given the scale of the illegal activity that so few people are brought before the courts.
There have been prosecutions and perhaps I can enlighten the right hon. Gentleman about them later in my speech. Clearly, we all want to see prosecutions for criminal activity and the hon. Member for South Antrim rightly highlighted the introduction of the NCA into Northern Ireland, which everybody in this House would welcome, I hope. We are doing that to drive down further organised criminal activity in Northern Ireland and to get the convictions that the right hon. Gentleman seeks.
Does the Minister not realise that the community finds it absolutely abhorrent that filling stations that sell illegal fuel are not only not prosecuted but open the following week to sell fuel again? In many cases, the community has seen such filling stations closed down on a number of occasions without any court case following.
I would certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration if there has been criminality without prosecution. Of course, these matters do not rest with me but when crime exists we want it to be expunged and dealt with. I would start to part company with the hon. Gentleman, however, on the suggestion that there has been some complicity or a deal done. I have seen no evidence to suggest that that is the case. I can understand his suspicion, of course, but I would like to downplay some of his suggestions that in some way agencies have been allowing things to go on or have not been prosecuting or pursuing cases when, of course, the law would require them to do so. That is a very serious charge and were there to be substance in it I would expect it to be reported to the appropriate authorities and investigated.
I join the Minister and others in welcoming the fact that the NCA will now have a remit in Northern Ireland. I congratulate the DUP and all those who pressed the Government and other bodies to ensure that that happened. Given that the NCA now has this much wider remit, as the Select Committee on Home Affairs has recommended in the past, will it receive any additional resources to deal with these issues?
Part of the difficulty, of course, has been that the PSNI has had to deal with a lot of these matters itself. The Chief Constable will say that he is well resourced, but he has been subject to considerable restraints, as have all police forces in the United Kingdom in recent years. That inevitably has an impact on what he can do. The fact that the NCA has not been able to operate at anything like its fullest extent in Northern Ireland has meant that there has been a deficit in policing in Northern Ireland. That is now, mercifully, being remedied so that the people of Northern Ireland can benefit from the full entirety of policing to which they are entitled. That will clearly have resource implications, which I hope will be beneficial, for the PSNI.
On the question of concerns about the lack of custodial sentences, after running a consultation in summer 2013 the Northern Ireland Department of Justice implemented legislative change in December of that year allowing the referral of unduly lenient excise fraud sentences to the Court of Appeal. The consultation and the resulting measure had the Government’s full support, of course. I can report to the House that in the period 2013-14 six individuals were prosecuted for fuel fraud in Northern Ireland. I accept that that is nothing like enough, given the extent of the problem, but it gives the lie to the suggestion that there have been no prosecutions as there clearly have. However, I would share the assertion made by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) that there need to be more. I hope that the introduction of the NCA will play a part in that.
On the specific issue of fuel laundering—
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will in a minute.
Hon. Members might be aware that the UK has worked closely with Ireland to identify a new fuel marker. It will come in in May and represents a significant improvement on the current fuel marker. It gives much more protection against fraud.
Will the Minister give way?
I think that we have exhausted this particular point, and I did say that I would come back to the hon. Gentleman. However, I said that I would give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills).
While we are talking about the lack of prosecutions, the sentences that are given out are somewhat more lenient than we might hope for an offence of such seriousness. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a problem in that a lot of people perceive fuel laundering and illegal sales of tobacco to be victimless crimes whereas—this is certainly the case in Northern Ireland—they are serious organised crime offences that fund other serious activity and should be treated with that seriousness by the public, by all the authorities and by those who give out the sentences when people are caught?
I agree it is not a victimless crime, as is clear from the figures I have trotted out—there is the cost to the Treasury alone. All of us who rely on the largesse of the public services we enjoy are victims of this crime, so I would certainly agree with my hon. Friend. On the leniency of sentences, I will be interested to see what the Court of Appeal decides.
I think the Minister said—I stand to be corrected on the exact wording—that the Government were confident that the marker would work, but a test carried out in Bellingham with Queen’s university and others, to which HMRC had to be dragged kicking and squealing, along with the Irish Revenue, proved that the Dow marker could effectively be removed by simple distillation. We must have confidence in the marker, but this one cannot do it.
I am certainly not going to assert that any marker or anything added to a substance is incapable of being removed, but clearly it is perfectly possible to launder fuel at the moment—it happens all the while—and although the pattern of fuel laundering is changing, as was touched upon by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), nevertheless it remains and brings with it financial and environmental costs, and costs in terms of criminality, security and all the rest of it. I am advised that the new marker, which we will introduce in May, is an improvement on what we currently have.
I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman does not agree, and I am sorry if I cannot give him an absolute assurance that any substance we add could never be removed, but he will have to accept that it is an improvement on what is happening at the moment, which is patently inadequate.
Well, I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks when he makes his contribution.
Mention has been made of fraud and tobacco—topical given the deferred Division at lunchtime. To be clear, our aim is to maintain the downward pressure on the illicit market in cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco. HMRC’s anti-smuggling strategy is effective and has been adapted continuously to deal with changes in criminal behaviour. Since HMRC first launched its strategy to tackle tobacco smuggling, the illicit cigarette market has reduced by half and the illicit hand-rolling tobacco market by a third, which is substantial.
The motion refers to greater co-operation between the PSNI, the NCA and HMRC on combating serious criminal activity. This cuts to the heart of today’s debate and the point on which we pin so many of our hopes for the future. Extensive multi-agency cross-border co-operation is a key element of the operational response to fuel fraud. HMRC chairs a multi-agency cross-border fuel fraud group that meets quarterly and has representatives from HMRC, the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment, the NCA, the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and their Republic of Ireland equivalents. This group shares intelligence and information on operational activity, as well as co-ordinating joint operations. The joint UK-Irish project that identified the new fuel marker is a prime example of that co-operation, notwithstanding the remarks from hon. Gentlemen this afternoon.
I am delighted that the House has agreed legislation to extend fully the remit of the NCA in Northern Ireland. This follows the vote in its support last month in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Serious and organised crime groups do not operate in isolated pockets of each region, and nor do they respect borders or force boundaries. The PSNI estimates that there are between 140 and 160 organised crime groups active in Northern Ireland and 800 active criminals. Nearly one third of these groups are assessed as having links to international criminality, and another third are linked to criminality in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
Since it was created just over a year ago, the NCA has begun to make a real impact on the threat to the UK from serious and organised crime, but until now the fight against such offences in Northern Ireland has been inhibited. There have been a number of significant PSNI investigations that the NCA would have been better placed to lead, given that key criminals and their associated infrastructure have been based outside Northern Ireland. It has also been difficult for PSNI to access the specialist resource and capability that the NCA holds. Northern Ireland has been left at a greater risk from child sexual exploitation, cybercrime and economic crime because the specialist resources that the NCA has developed have not been available.
Civil recovery has been affected. Since June 2013, civil recovery investigations are down by more than 50% and property-freezing orders by more than 70%. This is worrying, because denying criminals the proceeds of crime is one of the most effective ways we have of disrupting their activities. However, the NCA will soon be able to deal with serious and organised criminals—no matter where they are—and I am confident that the people of Northern Ireland will now have the same protection against serious and organised crime as those in the rest of the UK. That is surely their right.
As I have said, we do not doubt the seriousness of these types of criminal activity and the harm they cause to society and security. We and devolved colleagues are, as I have outlined, working in co-operation with partners elsewhere to address these problems vigorously. There is often close co-operation with counterparts across the border, and I would say that it is increasing, but we need at all times to ensure that the fullest pressure is maintained on the perpetrators, wherever they may be, and the Government will seek to go on doing just that.
Several hon. Members
Order. I now have to announce the result of the deferred Division on the question relating to the draft Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015. The Ayes were 367 and the Noes were 113, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
I first pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) for bringing home both the scale and seriousness of the threat in Northern Ireland. I welcome the initiative of the Democratic Unionist party in bringing this motion before us, because the DUP is absolutely right to bring home the scale of the problem, and to argue for determined action to deal with what is a serious threat, involving effective co-ordination of all the agencies concerned within Northern Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
The motion is right, too, to argue for vigorous enforcement of the law in circumstances where, to be frank, enforcement in the past has sometimes been lamentable. In particular, for vigorous enforcement of the law, it is necessary to make an example of the worst culprits and to go after their ill-gotten gains, sending an unmistakeable message that crime will never pay. Sadly, at the moment, it too often does, which is wrong and must be put right.
David Ford, the Northern Ireland Justice Minister who chairs the Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland has said, as the Minister mentioned, that there are between 140 and 160 gangs operating in Northern Ireland. Criminal gangs in Northern Ireland are not just involved in what one might call “traditional criminal activity”, but are now turning to computer-based cybercrime and operating in rural areas. A report released last November on “Serious and Organised Crime” in Northern Ireland states that
“serious and organised crime ranks among the most serious risks of harm to the community in NI”.
It went on to say:
“Organised crime also has very significant consequences with the impact of, for example, drug dealing, robbery and fraud and other insidious forms of organised criminality. It has significant consequences for individual communities and for society as a whole. Both serious and organised crime…has a detrimental impact on public finances.”
That is absolutely right, because the consequences of serious and organised crime can include, with particular respect to the drug trade, the ruining of lives. Those who commit fraud and online crime and prey on the vulnerable may leave them bankrupt and destitute. There is also the impact on the taxpayer. The Minister mentioned the overall tax take of £27 billion from fuel duties, but too many people in Northern Ireland who are operating across the border get away with paying no duty at all.
The Northern Ireland Omnibus Survey, which measures perceptions, found that nearly two thirds of respondents believed that the problem of organised crime was widespread in Northern Ireland. Indeed, having recently reported its findings in Dublin, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly expressed alarm at the extent and scale of the fuel-laundering business along the border. On a fact-finding visit, members of the group witnessed no fewer than 12 diesel-laundering fronts in operation on the border area between south Armagh and the Republic. As a result, they made several recommendations with the aim of curbing the lucrative black market that currently exists. They urged, for instance, that
“every possible effort must be made by law enforcement authorities in their collaborative efforts to shut down these operations, despite the difficulties in policing some of these areas.”
In the context of fuel laundering and the avoidance of fuel duty, may I press the Minister further on the issue of the Dow Chemical Company? I should like to know how confident the Government are about that issue, because some serious questions have been posed to us. It was proved to HMRC and the Republic’s revenue authorities that the Dow marker was defective, in what we understand to have been a private test. Is that true? Both sides said that they would carry out a scaled-up version of the test. That has now happened, and a report is available. The report states that the Dow marker can be removed completely, and cost-effectively, in a scaled-up field test. Is that true? We are told that Ministers may not know exactly what is happening. We do not know; is that true? What does the Minister know, and what would he be prepared to tell Parliament?
Instead of opting for the immovable British marker that came top in the test but was more expensive, the Government are sticking to a flawed marker which may well not work. That cannot be right in the context of combating fuel laundering, and it also cannot be right for a good British product to be turned down in favour of an alternative that is flawed.
I have had sight of a letter to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) from the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), the present Education Secretary, who was then in the Treasury, which deals with the question of whether the test is defective. In the letter, the right hon. Lady wrote that she was aware that the hon. Gentleman was focusing on the issue of the marker, and that his Committee was discussing it. She also wrote:
“I would be grateful if you could otherwise treat the contents as confidential as any information regarding theoretical weaknesses could alert fraudsters.”
Are there weaknesses, theoretical or otherwise? I think that the Government need to tell Parliament, because if we are finally and fully to combat the menace of fuel laundering, we need to be absolutely confident that what we have works.
It is clear that more needs to be done to combat such illicit activity. In fact, the report “Serious and Organised Crime: An inspection on how the Criminal Justice System deals with Serious and Organised Crime in Northern Ireland”, to which I referred earlier, recommended that
“The OCTF should develop a new jointly agreed strategy with clear outcomes focused on co-ordinated joint enforcement operations and linked to explicit underlying harm reduction strategies.”
The setting of such an objective is welcome, not least because crime groups are highly mobile and flexible, operating across national and international borders and criminal sectors. If there is a gap in our defences, including in respect of asset recovery and coverage, it affects everyone. These problems are not confined to Northern Ireland and can bleed through to Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and beyond, and vice versa. In some cases, the root cause is yet more nefarious than mere profit, because historically some of the gangs concerned have had strong links to both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups. Dissident republican groups, which continue to be a threat to the peace process and to the stability of Northern Ireland, are heavily dependent on organised crime. Members of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, too, have been known to be involved in extortion, loan sharking, robbery, drugs, burglary, theft and money laundering, and the list goes on.
With reference to the powerful speech from the hon. Member for South Antrim, we are rightly concerned about the link between organised crime and dissident republican groups because that puts peace and stability in Northern Ireland at risk, but the problems of organised crime being linked to paramilitaries is not exclusive to the republican community.
I pay tribute to the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, George Hamilton, for all the work that he has been doing to address these issues. However, the motion from the Democratic Unionists is right to say that we need to be more vigorous in our approach at the next stages, with strengthened and more effective co-ordination between all relevant bodies to enhance law enforcement and bring more people to justice in order to stamp out fuel and drug smuggling for criminal profit and, in some cases, terrorist ends.
On the extension of the National Crime Agency to Northern Ireland, we warmly welcome the fact that the impasse has finally been broken, the law has been changed and we will see the extension of the NCA’s coverage to Northern Ireland. It is an objective that we have supported for some time. We have encouraged parties to come together in Northern Ireland and agree that objective. It is not right that there were some who dragged their heels, but at last the remit of the NCA has been extended, which is to be welcomed. Wherever racketeering and exploitation take place, action should be taken to tackle those serious crimes.
I welcome the fact that in this place there was cross-Chamber agreement, with all parties coming together to say that the extension of the NCA to Northern Ireland was a sensible measure, not before its time. At the next stage, co-ordinated action is crucial, as the motion calls for. The point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) about the effective resourcing of that was well made. In circumstances where the lack of prosecutions is lamentable, the enforcement of the law and—I stress this again—a much more vigorous approach are needed to pursue the ill-gotten gains of those involved in serious and organised crime. Although the extension of the NCA to Northern Ireland is a welcome step, it needs to take a much more vigorous approach to going after those who benefit from the proceeds of crime. During the passage of the recent Serious Crime Bill we sought to strengthen the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and some progress was made, which we welcome, but there is enormous room for improvement in future.
Recently I heard Keith Bristow, head of the NCA, saying that the agency had seized only £22.5 million in criminal assets in its first year, and he went on to say that more than £1.3 billion of the £1.46 billion owed by convicted criminals to the taxpayer is unlikely ever to be recovered. As with so many other issues, this is an issue where, here in Britain but also in Northern Ireland, we must be more vigorous in our approach to recovering those ill-gotten gains and starving criminals in Northern Ireland of their resources.
This is a welcome debate at a crucial moment. There is a determination across communities in Northern Ireland, as here in Britain, more seriously to tackle serious and organised crime, but it is not enough that we simply pass motions in this House or elsewhere; it is about what is done to see the law implemented. There must be effective action against that which remains a serious threat. Tackling serious and organised crime is important no matter where we turn in the UK, but it is all the more important in Northern Ireland because of the tremendous progress that has been made in terms of the peace process. It remains in some respects fragile, and there are those who challenge it, but the last thing we want is that those who challenge it, particularly republican paramilitaries, being able to benefit from serious and organised crime to fund their nefarious activities. We strongly support the motion.
It is a great privilege to speak in this timely debate. We have debated this subject before. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has done a report on it, and it has been ongoing for some time. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) used the word “Horlicks”—and that is exactly what this is. It is costing the Exchequer hundreds of millions of pounds. I predict that the Government will introduce this Dow marker, and it will not reduce the problem. That is my prediction, because the tests we have witnessed and those that have been carried out show that it does not work.
I will be brief as I know other Members wish to speak, but I need to put a number of questions to the Minister. Can the Minister or his officials tell us why Dow Chemical Company was not thrown out of the IMS—invitation to make submissions—tendering process for the marker under European law, when in 2013 it was fined $1.1 billion for fraud? It was fined $1.1 billion, yet it is part of the tendering process, and we are about to introduce a dye that comes from that company.
The Minister was asked a question earlier to which we did not get an answer, but perhaps his officials or the representation from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs today can provide the answer: why was this technology awarded to Dow with no roadside test when the other, British recommended company had a roadside test?
A number of years ago—maybe 10—I was asked to pay a visit to South Armagh by a political activist who lives there. He rang me and said, “David, you have raised issues of fuel smuggling. Would you like to see some of them?” I spent the day going around 15 distilleries and seeing their fuel laundering equipment—or whatever the terminology is—and got within 100 metres of Slab Murphy’s house and his laundering facilities. We moved back up the road a mile, on a hill, and the lorries were freely going in and out of Slab Murphy’s facilities, with nothing being done about it—absolutely nothing.
Right up to the present day, no one has been imprisoned for this. The Minister corrected one of my colleagues on the subject of prosecutions, but this is costing the Government and the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds. We spoke earlier about the budgets. There is no money in the budgets, and I understand that there are to be further cuts after the general election to try to clear the deficit. There will be issues if that is the case, because we are suffering and the amount being lost to the Revenue every year could be used to build several hospitals.
Is my hon. Friend talking about the same Slab Murphy whom Gerry Adams described as a decent businessman?
After we had seen the activity I have just described, we reported it to what was then the RUC, and several moves were made to close some of the laundering facilities. These activities are unfair to the ordinary everyday workers and businessmen in Northern Ireland who are doing their best to pay their taxes and keep their businesses going. They are completely above board, yet other individuals are profiting from their activities. That is totally wrong, and it has been going on for far too long.
Whether the Minister has been furnished with all the information or not, the information I am giving him is factual, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) will certainly be able to give him a lot more when he winds up the debate. This issue needs to be got right. It has gone on for far too long and it has become a laughing stock. At the beginning of the debate, it was suggested that this arrangement might have been a pay-off for the republicans. When we were talking about the National Crime Agency earlier today, someone in the House remembered that the deal involved 2p to the pound. I would hate to think that any Government had done any kind of deal with republicans and criminals or given them 2p to the pound to keep their mouths shut. It would be a travesty if that were the case. There is something rotten about this whole process and system. There is something wrong and we need to get to the bottom of it.
This might be a laughing stock, but it is certainly no joke. This is a very serious matter. Did my hon. Friend hear the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) say that the British-Irish grouping went out on a fact-finding mission and saw 12 of these facilities in operation? If they could see 12 of them operating on that one day, where was HMRC and where were the authorities at the time?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask that question. Someone was sleeping on their watch, if indeed they were watching at all.
I have another question for the Minister. Why would the Government not support their own world-leading British science company when its fuel markers are the only IMS-proven indelible markers that are recommended? I want to ask him a further question. Given that the IMS is a joint UK-Republic of Ireland process, why was a single Dow marker IMS awarded when the Government knew that they needed a minimum of two indelible markers? I have asked a series of questions. I do not expect to get the answers today, but it is important that we try to get to the bottom of this.
Perhaps I can write to the hon. Gentleman with a fuller account if he wants me to. This whole debate appears to be revolving around the Dow marker. That is fine, but hon. Members need to understand that the tendering operation was free and open. The Government are bound by rules in that respect, so there was no shady deal in which a British company was disadvantaged or in which Dow was given preference. That would have been madness. The alleged laundering method does not appear to be a viable large-scale proposition. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks that a marker exists that can never be removed. The experiences in the laboratory and in the field are very different, as I think he will probably, on quiet reflection, understand.
On the other point about markers and whether we would be able to detect at the roadside whether something was illicit or not, clearly we are not going to remove the marker we already have until we are completely happy with the new one and it is proven. So the hon. Gentleman can be assured that the two will run in parallel and, thus, there will be no disadvantage. I am hopeful that the new marker will be an advantage, but certainly we will be running the two in parallel. I hope that gives him some reassurance.
Not really, but I will say something about the process. My understanding is that a year ago the Dow marker was tested and found not to work, yet a year down the road we are introducing it. I cannot understand that. If something does not work, why are we spending millions of pounds on introducing it? We are trying to get to the bottom of this and we need the proper marker introduced.
The Minister said he is “hopeful” that it will work, but I am not sure that will inspire confidence. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when the Minister said that the Government were bound to accept the bid—suggesting that because it was a cheaper bid they were bound to accept it—that was not a correct reading of, among other things, European procurement rules, because ultimately what is procured has to work?
We do not necessarily have to take the cheapest option—it has to work.
I understand that 23 markers from 12 companies were assessed side by side, and clearly the one that worked was chosen. I hope that is helpful.
As I have said, time will tell. I think this is going to be an expensive exercise that will be proven in time to be not as effective as the Minister has been led to believe.
If we are introducing something, surely it must work—millions of pounds will otherwise be lost to the Exchequer. If those millions of pounds are not needed here, I assure hon. Members that they would be very welcome in the coffers of the Northern Ireland Executive, given the deficit we face. Surely this has to work and we have to be sure that it works. We are not doing this on a trial-and-error basis; we have to be sure that we have something that works.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, because he is correct about that. The matter is too serious for the marker not to work. This situation has been ongoing, and the amount of money that has been lost and wasted over the past 10 to 15 years—or longer—is just horrific. It could have done a lot to help many vulnerable people, not only in Northern Ireland, but on the mainland. We are where we are and time will tell, but I know my colleague will have a few other statistics and figures to give in his winding-up speech.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) for bringing this motion to the House today. This important issue is often overlooked because in many ways it is a hidden crime, and, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) said, it is often viewed as a victimless crime. It is anything but. It is important that as well as trying to combat it through the various agencies that have a role in addressing organised crime, we communicate carefully with the public about their role in combating it and about the risk it poses to them. People often simply see cheaper goods and that is the only aspect they see of organised crime; they do not see the risks to them, the other criminality that goes with it, the danger, or the money taken from revenue that would otherwise be invested in services.
Obviously this is a complex area. Others have mentioned how difficult it has been to secure convictions, and I shall move on to discuss that. First, however, I pay tribute to the law-enforcement agencies for the work they are doing on both sides of the border. A complex collection of agencies has to deal with this complex area of crime. We have the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Garda Siochana and the National Crime Agency. We welcome the fact that we now have the additional resource of the NCA, because while we focus on one border, criminals operate across many borders, so having that national organisation involved is hugely important. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Revenue commissioners and Border Force work closely together in order to share intelligence, to disrupt those who try to perpetrate crimes and to ensure that they are eventually brought before the courts. When people are brought before the courts for participation in organised crime or for benefiting from taking goods that are clearly only available as a result of organised crime, the penalties should be a deterrent.
The impact of fuel laundering has been discussed at considerable length. The scale of the problem in Northern Ireland is undeniable. Fuel laundering is not just a cross-border issue: the uncollected revenue from fraudulent diesel in Northern Ireland was estimated by HMRC to be £80 million in 2012-13, which is 13% of the overall market share in Northern Ireland. That is a significant sum of money, especially when we compare it with the GB figure for illicit market share, which was about 2% in the same year. That gives us a clear indication of the scale of the problem, but it is not just a Northern Ireland issue, because that revenue is being denied to the UK as a whole. There is a genuine interest here in Parliament to address the issue robustly, because it is Great Britain’s schools and hospitals as well as our schools and hospitals that lose out as a result of the revenue not being collected.
The nature of fuel laundering means that sites themselves are not regularly attended, which can make it difficult to establish a clear link to the perpetrators. In Northern Ireland, we often say that everyone knows who does things, but knowing and proving are two different things when it comes to the law. Part of the strategy is to disrupt those who are involved in illegal activity, and part of it is to try to catch them. Trying to balance those two things can be very difficult. It is often hard to make that clear link to the perpetrators. It requires the seizure of records and the scene of crime work, which is complex and slow. Prosecutions in this field often do not come to court for many years after the breaking up of the illegal fuel laundering plant.
There has been an increase in the number of fuel laundering plants dismantled—the number has risen quite quickly over the past few years. There has also been an increase in the number of convictions, but the problem is that not one person has received a custodial sentence of more than 10 years, which seems ludicrous given the impact that the crime has on society.
The challenge in making arrests and obtaining the evidence is something of which the Department of Justice and my colleague David Ford are fully aware. As the Minister rightly said, the Department of Justice has introduced legislation adding the evasion of duty in relation to fuel and tobacco to the list of offences that can be referred by the Director of Public Prosecutions from the Crown court to the Court of Appeal when a sentence is considered to be unduly lenient. That does not resolve the issue entirely, but it does mean that there is a fall-back position when judges are seen not to have taken seriously enough someone who is brought before them in connection with these crimes.
Does the hon. Lady accept that there is another difficulty? In the instance I mentioned, laptops and documents were destroyed or burned before HMRC arrived at the scene. The concern was that there had been a tip-off.
There is no doubt that that is a concern, and it has been a concern for some time. There is evidence that when HMRC or the PSNI has turned up on site, people have scattered and taken with them some of the critical evidence, which suggests that they were aware that those organisations were coming. Obviously, we can look at that in two ways. The first is that someone could be tipping off those launderers. The alternative is that these are complex organisations that have their own intelligence. They are observing the movements of the police, HMRC and others in the area and may well become aware that operations are moving against them. In some ways, we need the intelligence on the legal side of the fence to be much more robust than the intelligence on the other side. We should not rule out the possibility that the criminals themselves are gathering intelligence about what is happening in their neighbourhoods that helps them to evade capture.
I want to move on to the wider issue of the impact of this crime. I have referred to the fact that this is not a victimless crime, and it is worth talking now about some of the victims.
The point about intelligence is well made. It is important not to provide organised criminals with information if we can possibly avoid it, which recalls the letter from my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) to the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I have not seen the letter so cannot comment on it in any detail, but I think it is probably wise not to put such a letter in the public domain if it would give succour to organised criminals. We must be careful not to display our tactics and what we do to those who might wish to make use of them in a way that is contrary to national security or good order.
I understand the Minister’s point, but there is a wider point about how Members can raise their concerns about these issues. They have done so via correspondence and in private evidence sessions, as the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has done here with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and in other places. It appears not to have been taken seriously. That is the concern expressed by Members on this side of the Chamber. I certainly would not wish to put anything into the public domain that would give any succour or encouragement to any criminal; neither would I want to rely on a marker if there was evidence that it could be easily removed.
We also need to acknowledge that this is a multi-billion pound business for the people involved. Whatever marker is used, they will invest in the technology that will allow them to evade it. All that we are trying to do—all that we can ever do in these circumstances—is stay ahead in the game. We need to be realistic about the fact that when it comes to protecting the public, what we are trying to do is stay ahead of the criminals in the technology we use: they will no doubt be chasing that technology as soon as it is included as a marker.
As I said, I want to move on to the wider issue of the impact on the victims. I have already mentioned that this is not a victimless crime. I want to talk about the wider impact of fuel smuggling and fuel laundering and the wider counterfeiting of consumer goods. The motion ranges slightly wider than fuel, although fuel obviously exercises us all because of its significance. There are two separate but linked issues. The illicit and counterfeit goods themselves have an element of risk attached to them. They defraud the public. People often purchase inferior goods in the belief that they are getting the real thing, and that in itself can be extremely dangerous.
For example, when fuel is stretched rather than laundered or smuggled, it can seriously damage vehicles. Often the people who purchase it are unaware that it has been stretched. There are two classes of people in that regard: those who know that they are buying fuel at a ridiculously low price and that they are risking their vehicles; and those who stop at what looks like a reasonable petrol station and purchase fuel, only to find out subsequently that it has damaged their vehicles because it was illicit. That is a different issue, but it causes real damage to vehicles, and is the public need to be made aware of that. Frankly, it may well provide a bigger deterrent against buying laundered fuel than almost anything else we could say to motorists.
Counterfeiting also places the public at risk in other ways. Reference has already been made to the discovery that some counterfeit cigarettes contain asbestos. Counterfeit cigarettes sold in Northern Ireland in the past have been found to contain arsenic. The people who make these products do not really care what goes into them or what impact they might have on health. When people purchase counterfeit and illicit goods, they are placing themselves at considerable risk. Another example is that of products made of flammable materials being brought into the household. People might think that those products meet the regular standards, unaware that they are actually bringing materials into their home that could put their family at serious risk.
I also want to highlight the conditions of those involved in counterfeiting these goods, because often they are being held against their will in other countries, having been trafficked as slaves in order to produce them. The abuse often reaches much further than consumers and the public here in Britain; it also affects those producing the goods further afield.
As the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) rightly, if rather surprisingly, said, significant environmental damage is caused when people get involved in fuel laundering. The mess that is left around the countryside in Northern Ireland not only costs millions of pounds to clean up but will take many years to be ameliorated. It will leave an almost indelible mark on parts of our countryside, on our water supply, and on many other things, so these illicit and counterfeit goods have a significant impact on the public.
The other aspect is smuggled goods—the stuff that is brought in through smuggling routes. Those who open up those routes do so not for one particular set of goods; once they are available they will use them for anything. When they have good routes for smuggling fuel, consumer goods or cigarettes, we can be sure that they will use the same routes for smuggling people and drugs—and all human misery is there. It is about opening up routes around the world so they can smuggle goods, and they do not care whether it is people or goods being trafficked.
In all cases, whether counterfeiting and laundering or smuggled goods, people are evading their tax and Revenue payments. That brings us back to the issue of robbing public services. Those who purchase cheap cigarettes or cheap petrol and diesel, and thereby counterfeit goods, may think that it makes no difference. However, when they turn up at the hospital and face long waiting times for accident and emergency services, or cannot get a bed and are lying on a trolley for 48 hours, they should realise that those problems are due to money not going to the Revenue. We have to be honest with the public and say: “You are only stealing from yourself when you purchase goods in this way; you are not doing anything to help your own situation.” We need to try to disabuse people of the notion that this is a victimless crime.
In Northern Ireland, as several hon. Members have said, this has a more sinister element in that much of the money raised in this way is being funnelled into further illegal activity and, in particular, paramilitary activity. That should be a matter of concern to us all. We want a stable and peaceful future, but most of all we want a safe and secure future for the people we represent. We need to say to people: “When you purchase smuggled goods at the petrol pump or elsewhere, bear in mind the fact that you are putting money in the pockets of people who are quite happy to set out with murder in mind and take lives for political gain. Those are the people who benefit from this.” It is not only republicans but loyalists who are willing, through organised crime, to work in drug smuggling, drug dealing, counterfeiting, and all the other things. Criminals will work together where there is money to be made. That will be more important to them than any political objectives they may claim to have, and much more important than the lives and the security of the people in their communities.
It is important in this debate that we spend a little time considering the fact that this is not a victimless crime but a complex and difficult one that requires a multi-agency approach. I have no doubt that the agencies are pushing very hard to bring it to an end, but we need to secure public support. With that support, it will be much easier to find those who are behind these smuggling rings, hold them to account in the courts, and see them serve jail time for what they are doing. I commend the hon. Member for South Antrim for bringing this motion to the House.
It is a pleasure again to follow the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), as in the previous debate. Again, much of what I say will find agreement with what she has said, and indeed with what some other hon. Members have said. I might need to take up some other points that were directed particularly at the SDLP.
I am glad to endorse the motion and commend my colleagues—right hon. and hon. Members from the DUP—for introducing it. It is important that we now harness every single effort that we possibly can to combat organised crime in all its forms and at all its levels, conscious of all its effects and impacts.
As other hon. Members have said, some people perhaps labour under a false impression that fuel laundering or smuggling is a victimless crime, but it is not. It robs revenue from hard-pressed public services. Such scams are not against big business and the taxman, but against neighbours, the community and consumers, as well as against public services and the revenue on which those services depend. In that sense, we are all victims of these crimes.
Nobody should have any fancy notions about the rackets and scams happening in this part of the 21st century being in any way connected with little family, folklore stories of people smuggling butter during the war years. They are nothing like that, and should not be seen in such a way. This is ruthless big business, and people are in it not just for their own mercenary motives, but with lethal menace. They go about their business in that way, and people who dare to interfere with them, are suspected of cutting across them or make a tip-off about their rip-offs face very serious consequences. That is why people who are conscious of, or surmise that, things are going on, first, find that it is very difficult to say anything, and secondly, find it hard to believe that more is not being done by the authorities who know about it, seem to know about it or should know about it.
Other hon. Members have mentioned cases in which action has been taken, but such action has been taken at a time or in a way that means people have removed themselves from a property and destroyed the evidence there before the authorities arrive. That raises all sorts of questions about how such situations arise.
There is a sense of scandal in many quarters about the fact that, as we moved on from the paramilitarism in all the forms we knew during the troubles, there was basically an acceptance that it was okay for some paramilitaries to privatise themselves into various criminal activities so long as someone within their broad political community could vouch for their staying on the right side of the argument over the peace process. The authorities were told to be careful about interfering with or coming down too heavily on some of those people because it might upset the balance of opinion or of favour within their republican base. That sense of scandal is one reason why the authorities need to be seen to be acting with full intelligence and full vigour, and why people want to see the courts follow through on prosecutions brought by policing authorities and HMRC, with convictions and credible, meaningful sentences. Rightly or wrongly, there is currently the sense that in that regard something does not add up or some connection is not being made.
Hon. Members have touched on the environmental impact of some of these crimes. Just as the criminal activity—the sourcing, processing and transfer for sale of the materials—is of a cross-border nature, so too have been the hazardous environmental impacts. Materials have been dumped into watercourses and have found their way into various counties and communities, as well as into waterways contributing to the public water supplies, on both sides of the border. That shows that the people committing these crimes are not just content with acting against the authorities or big businesses, but are prepared fundamentally to risk the health and well-being of neighbours and communities.
Hon. Members have mentioned the delegated legislation Committee that met in the House this week to discuss providing for the NCA to have full powers in Northern Ireland, and that is something I welcome and that we have worked for. When the legislation was first introduced in the Chamber in 2012, we made it clear that our concern was not opposition in principle to the role of the NCA, but a requirement that the NCA should meet the Patten threshold. We set those terms and they have been reached. I acknowledge the role of the Home Secretary and her ministerial colleagues in the Home Office, as well as that of the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland, the NCA, its director, and the PSNI leadership, in helping to tease through those issues. The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee said that a circumstance has been arrived at that means Northern Ireland has a scheme of accountability and insight for the work of the NCA that he would like for parts of Great Britain as well. We have arrived at something stronger.
It must also be noted that the legislation does not only give the Policing Board Patten-style oversight and accountability in terms of the work of the NCA. It does not only vest particular responsibility in the Chief Constable, or only ensure that the ombudsman’s reach on issues arising with the NCA entirely matches the reach that it has for the PSNI. It also gives the Policing Board responsibility for encouraging public co-operation and support for the work of the NCA, which is hugely important. People need to understand what the work and role of the NCA will be so that they cannot misrepresent it in some sinister way, as some may try to do in the aftermath of the debate last month in the Assembly and the legislation passing through this House. That must be clearly understood, and I am sure that Members of all parties—certainly all those represented in this House—who are on the Policing Board will want it to discharge that role of assisting in full public co-operation with the NCA, as well as all the other vital roles that will fall to the Policing Board under these arrangements.
As we have heard, this debate is not just about fuel crime because there is also the issue of counterfeit goods. Again, criminals are using significant networks to make real profit for themselves at the expense of consumers. Those consumers are not buying quality or reliable products; they are buying products that are not only substandard but can be dangerous and risky in many ways. All of a sudden the House supports the added profile coming from organisations such as the Trading Standards Institute, again to help make people aware of the situation. It is important that some of these messages do not always appear to come from traditional law enforcement mechanisms but come from other civil purpose agencies as well, so that perhaps people will listen to them differently and hear—or at least credit—a warning that they do not hear from somebody else. We need to see that issue cracked, and action against it.
There is also significant waste crime in Northern Ireland and, of course, in the island of Ireland. Some of that waste crime has been cross-border in character, but not all of it. There have been debates about the NCA, and whether delays in passing legislation on that issue mean that all the work of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and other policing responsibilities that still fell to the police during that period will stop. One point that has been made is on waste dumps. One significant illegal waste dump was found in recent years in my constituency. It clearly represented an illegal business on the scale of millions of pounds. It emerged because of a random activity by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. It was not known to anybody in policing, anybody in HMRC or anybody in SOCA. Nobody knew it. Everybody knows that it was essentially sourced and directed not from my constituency but from South Armagh. It seems strange that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency happened to stumble on it. It was not because of a tip-off or anything else—it was pursuing another matter and it came to its notice. Given the provenance and the scale of the business, it is hard to believe that nobody knew it was going on.
That brings us back to the concern that other hon. Members have reflected. There is a sense that a blind eye is being turned, and that there is some sort of set-aside deal going on, where people are saying, “You can have those rackets up to that point so long as you don’t transgress in other matters.” The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) mentioned the 2p in the pound. I would certainly refer to deals done between SOCA and people it was meant to be pursuing in respect of criminal assets. Those deals were for pennies in the pound. The story is that such deals were brought before the High Court. What choice would the High Court have but to say, “Here is an agreement between SOCA and somebody it is pursuing”? Of course the High Court would accept that agreement. Word has it that that sort of agreement not only applies to the individual in that case, but has the status of a group deal—it becomes the going rate for offers to join in on those terms.
That is one of the issues that the Social Democratic and Labour party was at pains to ensure could be addressed in future. We want oversight and accountability mechanisms that apply to the NCA. Many of the questions asked in the debate could be framed, raised and properly addressed in the Policing Board’s engagement with the Chief Constable, and with the director of the NCA, whenever they hear NCA reports and plans, and whenever they monitor the effectiveness of the NCA’s work. That all goes to the Policing Board under the arrangements. It would be right and proper to pursue that.
Another experience of SOCA that I hope will not be repeated under the NCA arrangements is that we had evidence, which I took to the Secretary of State and others, that MI5 was promising that, if people turned and joined dissident organisations and essentially became MI5 agents, it could remove a working SOCA interest in them. We presented evidence that showed that SOCA seemed to be pursuing people not so much for SOCA’s purposes, but to help frame operations that had MI5 at their heart. We must ensure that none of that happens in future. We must ensure that the NCA’s work and the work it carries out in Northern Ireland with the PSNI under the approval of the Chief Constable has none of that about it. If it does, it brings the NCA into disrepute, and compromises the Policing Board’s important role in ensuring the fullest support for, and engagement with, the NCA’s future work.
Revenue and Customs needs to be more active in these areas. On many of the cases referred to by other hon. Members, it has been less than authoritatively convincing in its silence. More assurance is needed.
We need to encourage fully the significant cross-border work that takes place under the Organised Crime Task Force. I recognise that that extends not just to the areas of crime that many of us have touched on today, but to other areas of crime—this was touched on by the hon. Member for Belfast East—relating to human trafficking. It was heartening that one of the first engagements of the new UK Anti-Slavery Commissioner was a meeting with the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland and his southern counterpart to address this issue. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), will recall that this was one of the issues on which I tabled amendments during the Committee stage of the Modern Slavery Bill, to ensure that all aspects of the Bill would either apply to Northern Ireland or be compatible with legislation that was then going through the Northern Ireland Assembly. In particular, I wanted to ensure that the new commissioner would be able to consider issues in Northern Ireland, and the performance of enforcement agencies not just in Northern Ireland but as they operated and liaised and engaged with their counterparts in the south as well.
I am very glad that we have legislation not just in respect of the NCA, but modern slavery provisions. That puts us in a stronger position to address different aspects of serious crime as they happen in Northern Ireland and across the border.
At the outset, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) on securing this very important debate and on introducing it in such a powerful way. I thank all Members from across the House who have spoken, but I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), the Labour Front-Bench Spokesman. He has put on the record some incredibly startling facts that require answers.
Last week, Alan Bennett, the famed playwright, when interviewed on “World at One”, was asked to outline for us the most important achievement of this nation. After pondering on whether it should be the National Trust or our physical heritage, he said very clearly that it was English hypocrisy.
I am sick, sore and tired. We have heard a unified voice from this side of the House, whether nationalist or Unionist. We are sick, sore and tired of the hypocrisy that is fed to us by the shovel-load: that we are somehow thick Paddies who have no idea of what is going on in our country when it comes to crime, and that if we dare to expose anything about it, we are told, “Hush, hush, you’ll tip the criminals off.” Anyone would think we were a bunch of suckers when it comes to dealing with crime, but we have lived among these criminals for decades. We see how they work. We see the evil they bring upon our society. We want it dealt with and we want it dealt with now. We are saying that with a unified voice on this side of the House, across all parties. We are no longer prepared to be fed, quite frankly, the bull that we are being fed: that this matter is being dealt with by officialdom.
Alan Bennett was right when he pointed to hypocrisy. I see it in the officials that I meet and have met daily since 2009 and since entering this House. We have tried to deal quietly and discreetly with the issue of how we can tackle serious and organised crime in our society. All we get, frankly, is this hypocrisy: it will be dealt with, it will be dealt with. Well, five-and-a-half years later it has not been dealt with. Since 2009, when I came off the Organised Crime Task Force board, I have not seen one single inch of progress. I have heard a lot of platitudes. We on this side of the House are sick, sore and tired. We want something done. We want something done urgently. We want something done that is effective and actually makes a difference. I believe we are all on the same side and want to see the criminals beaten, but officials are dragging their feet when it comes to sorting out this problem. I hope they can get to grips with it.
Last week, a national newspaper report by Brian Flynn dealt with a number of crime issues and I want to address those listed in the motion. The first is the smuggling of tobacco products and the impact it has on our economy. Every crate of smuggled tobacco products puts £1 million into the coffers of the criminals, and 40% of all cigarettes smoked across the United Kingdom are either counterfeit or smuggled. The vast majority of that money goes into the coffers of the IRA. In fact, last year it was estimated that it achieved about £22 million from that enterprise.
Some of us take a different view of plain packaging, but under new regulations it is estimated that the profit margin will increase to €120 million, which is £87 million. That is enough money, as we would say locally, to choke a donkey. The people engaged in this serious organised crime are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of plain packaging after today’s vote because, whether we are for or against plain packaging—I respect the views of those who support it for health reasons—the legislation is defective on the issue of tracking and tracing.
At present, the manufacturing of cigarette boxes involves placing an electronic track-and-trace system in each box. The legitimate manufacturer of the cigarette packet gives those track-and-trace numbers to the police and customs, and the police can at any time place the packet on a hand-held machine in order to see the date and location of manufacture. Under the defective delegated legislation that went through the House today, that has been removed and packs cannot have track-and-trace. The Government have told me privately, “We’ll introduce it later on,” but apparently the earliest it can be introduced under the delegated legislation is in about three years. There is a bonanza coming for the next three years, because cigarette packets will have no track-and-trace capability. Criminals out there are rubbing their hands in glee because an effective security measure has now been removed from cigarette packets. The hypocrisy stinks to heaven.
The second issue that has taken up a lot of time in this debate is that of fuel laundering and fuel fraud, and it is a most serious crime. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington asked some very serious questions. Indeed, he and my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) asked 13 specific questions that have not yet been answered, and this House is entitled to answers.
Why would the Government continue in January 2015 to designate in legislation the Dow fuel marker when they knew a year ago that it was not fit for purpose, being completely launderable using basic science? The Hydrocarbon Oil (Marking and Designated Markers) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 will come into force on 1 April and they indicate the precise ingredients of the Dow marker. Under law, believe it or not, we have to tell the world what makes up the Dow marker. That is how pathetic the hypocrisy of our country is: we have to tell the criminals that publicly. The Minister said tonight that the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, should not have read out a letter as it could have tipped certain people off, yet we publish in black and white the exact ingredients that go into the Dow marker. The statutory instrument is well timed, because it comes into effect on 1 April, April fools’ day. What fools we are for just going along with that and accepting the regulations, which publish what will be in the fuel and tip off scientists, legitimate and otherwise, about what is in the recipe for the Dow marker and what they therefore need to do to remove it.
If the marker was effective, that would not matter, because we would have those people and could prevent them from doing that. However, it is not effective and the Government knew that it was not effective a year ago. The Opposition spokesman put on the record the letter from 9 July 2014 from the then Treasury Minister, the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), telling him that the information about the theoretical weaknesses in the fuel could alert fraudsters. The idea was that he should just hush it up and not tell anyone and the Government would keep working on it. The Government then went on to say that there was insufficient evidence to show that the process of distilling the fuel was
“a viable option commercially on a large scale for effective laundering of rebated fuels, although HMRC are continuing to investigate these claims.”
I will come to the question of whether that can be done effectively and economically, but let me turn first to the question of hushing things up. Members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee were prepared to sit for some time and give the Government the opportunity to change things and to make a move. We waited from last July and promises were made through August, September and October. Bigger promises were made in December and, at the turn of the year, we were told that things would be changed. They have not been changed and the April fools’ day legislation will be put in place without a single jot or tittle removed from it. The legislation, which will be pushed through, will push through a defective marker that the criminals will welcome and that they know they can remove.
How do I know that it can be removed? Today, we have placed in the Library a report that was confidential until yesterday, written by four academics, one from Queen’s university. The report, entitled “Distillation of fuel markers”, makes a number of startling claims, which I want to put on the record. In its opening section, it states:
“Distillation is a very simple and highly cost-effective way of removing a marker and has a key advantage over many of the methods cited above in that there is no laundering residue for the criminal to dispose of.”
My hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) can rest tonight in the knowledge that in future when criminals distil fuel and remove markers from it there will no longer be terrible sludge and waste pumped into our rivers. This marker is so simply removed that it can be distilled off the top of fuel without creating any terrible after-pollution. The simplicity of the distillation process is incredibly beneficial to the criminals.
The report goes on to state:
“Given the simplicity of distillation it is apparent that an authority would be foolhardy to employ a marker whose boiling point fell just in or entirely outside the boiling range of the fuel to be protected.”
That is exactly what Dow has done. It has created a marker that is effective until just below boiling point, so people can boil the marker away without causing any harm and it vanishes up into the heavens. It is the devil’s share. He gets his share and the criminals get theirs. That is what is happening as a result of the new fuel marker.
The report stated that the academics took a British piece of scientific equipment, a marker that was found worthy of being put into British fuel, and tested it against the Dow marker. It stated this, after testing both markers:
“These results clearly indicate that the Dow marker can effectively be removed by simple distillation and successfully separated from the diesel distillate.”
In other words, the fuel can be separated completely from the marker and sold as unabated fuel that is no longer marked.
The hon. Gentleman is making a speech in his usual robust fashion, but it is important to put on the record the difference between a laboratory analysis and scaling up to field operations. I think he needs to reflect that in his contribution.
I am delighted by that, because I am going to reflect that point now and I thank the Minister for encouraging me to do so. The then Treasury Minister said that there was insufficient evidence that the process was a viable commercial option, which I think is the point the Minister has just made: “Yes, you can do this in a lab, but could you really do it in the field?” Well, the report that is now in the Library goes into this, under a section entitled, “Economics of distillation”:
“The capital cost of a distillation plant suitable for laundering out a marker from fuel is low. Cost for off the shelf plant can be as little as…£12k”.
For an initial outlay of £12,000 for a small plant, the criminals could make about £16,000 per day, after they have laundered the product, or 5.8 million quid a year—that is pretty economical in my books; that is pretty cost-effective. I will come to the in-field testing in a minute, so I hope the Minister will brace himself, because it gets even better.
The report goes on:
“Even taking into account the worst case scenario presented above, a 160kW distillation laundering plant would generate huge profits with a payback in just under a fortnight. If this process was refined with heat regeneration and vacuum distillation, it would be quite feasible to double the capacity of this system. A small 1MW industrial unit could operate 6 of these 160kW systems, generating clear profit of approximately £92,000 per day and a payback period of less than 2 weeks. Such a 960kW laundering facility would be capable of generating an annual profit of approximately £33.5 million.”
This is a feasible, cheap alternative for gangsters and criminals. This report, which is in the Library of the House, is by a credible group of scientists and, critically, presented in such a way that if it is wrong, the Dow Chemical Company could sue the pants of these people. But it won’t go near it—it won’t even address the points made.
I understand that in-field testing was carried out on four occasions. The one at Bellingham, which my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) mentioned, was not a small test; it was a test of 30,000 litres of fuel distilled successfully—it was just distilled off. Another test was carried out in Northern Ireland, and another test of a similarly large quantity, carried out by a scientist, Professor J. J. Leahy, in the Republic of Ireland, also proved that this material could be distilled off. Queen’s university also carried out a test, but sadly, after it reported privately to officials last year, the official response to the professor at Queen’s university was this: “You’d better tell us where that illegal plant you’ve just set up is, because we want to put it out of business.” I can take a joke, but I do not think that was a joke—it is almost like they were telling him for daring to undermine what officials were doing. It is hypocrisy.
As well as congratulating the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the huge amount of personal commitment he has put into this issue. Will he explain why, despite the evidence that the Select Committee saw, the Government, officials and the authorities have been so singularly afraid to go down the route we suggested?
I think that deserves a more detailed answer than a brief response at this point, so I will come back to the matter. The hon. Lady, my friend, puts her finger on a very important and worrying point. This was a worrying trend that we watched with our own eyes when we tried to deal with this matter.
I asked the Minister earlier whether there was roadside capability in detecting this marker in our fuel, but he did not quite get the right end of the stick. I must deal with this critical issue. The head of the oils fraud section takes the lead in dealing with fuel laundering in Northern Ireland. He is an important official in the department. He gave evidence to our Select Committee in 2013, and he told us that the IMS tendering process for the new fuel marker was incredibly important. Although a specific roadside test was not specifically asked for, his view was—and he is the expert—that it was critical because it was the one measure through which the system could be policed.
One of the companies that tendered brought forward a roadside test capability—a kit that is the size of a laptop. If a drop of fuel was put on to a pad, the kit could detect within two and a half minutes where and when the fuel was bought—both the location and time. That is how sophisticated the marker was, and the roadside test could be done in two and half minutes.
The Dow marker has no roadside capability. In fact, after the April fools’ day legislation comes into place, let me explain what will happen. If an official stops a vehicle and takes a sample from it, he will have to send it away to the Government’s own plant. Three weeks later, the sample will be returned and the result on whether the Dow marker remains or has been removed will be provided. Why should we have to wait three weeks? Unless someone has a very efficient car, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) does, the fuel will be evaporated within days.
The hon. Gentleman is making a technical argument on this issue, displaying a lot of knowledge that is obviously garnered from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry. Is he aware of the level and number of prosecutions resulting from illegal fuel laundering? Is it documented on a year-on-year basis?
I understand that the level of prosecutions is woeful—zero. That is one of the driving forces that show why we need a marker that actually works, and it explains why some of us are so passionate about this issue. We know the type of villains and individuals who are carrying this out, and it would be valuable if we could get them behind bars or at least stop them in this particular aspect of their criminality. Yes, they will turn to something else, but at least we would have blocked off one section of activity for them. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The prosecution level is woefully zero, and it will remain zero because of this defective marker.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) asked why the Government would not support their own world-leading British science company whose fuel markers are the only recommended IMS-proven indelible markers. This is important. The final report on the IMS procedure, which was a tendering process between the Republic of Ireland revenue authorities and our own HMRC, provided two options. One was to implement the Dow marker—it listed what it was—and the other was to introduce two markers: the Dow marker and the British company’s marker, which would provide something with which to confuse the criminals. There would be a choice of markers, allowing consideration of which one went in one month and which one did not go in. That was one of the options provided, but that course of action was not chosen, but it could still be chosen today.
The Government could amend the April Fool’s day legislation. They could introduce another statutory instrument tomorrow, providing for a different marker, and I hope that they will. I hope that, following today’s debate, they will see how foolish they have been in following the line they have followed. Some of us never wanted this debate to take place. We wanted the Government to take action and solve the problem, but unfortunately we have been pushed to this point. I think it will be clear from the anger that has been expressed today by members of several parties that we are all rightly concerned about what is going on.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington asked why, given that the IMS had been a joint United Kingdom-Republic of Ireland process, an IMS for a single launderable dye marker had been awarded when the Government knew that they needed a minimum of two indelible markers. Why—this is another question that was asked today—was technology awarded to Dow when no roadside test was available?
Who has the contract for HMRC fuel marker testing, and did the testing company have anything to do with the evaluation and final recommendation group? That very important question goes to the heart of the IMS procedure. The allegation that something went awry between whoever was carrying out the evaluation of the tests and the company that was awarded the final contract is very serious, and deserves to be answered by Ministers.
We have seen the answers to those questions. We know what has gone on. I actually feel sorry for the Minister, because he has been dropped into this debate without having been properly briefed about what has gone on and how serious the position is.
In 2012, the HMRC director Mike Norgrove gave evidence to the Select Committee. He had been offered the chance to see the new marker being used in Brazil. Why did he turn down that opportunity? I believe that that question was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann.
Why would the Government cover up a £1 billion fraud when a British scientific solution already exists?
One of the last questions that were asked was: the Government must be aware that the Dow Chemical Company was fined $1.1 billion in 2013 in a fraudulent bribery case, so why was the company allowed to continue to engage in the IMS tender process?
Opposition Members have asked important and pertinent questions that deserve to be answered. In an intervention, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) asked me why this was happening. I think that there has been a deliberate turning of a blind eye. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) put his finger on it when he said that a company had operated illegally in his constituency, and that it was based in South Armagh. I have the same problem in my constituency. North Antrim could not be any further from South Armagh, but we have a fuel station that changes its name regularly to avoid tax, and regularly sells illicit fuels to unsuspecting motorists. Sometimes it changes its name to “Taxco”, just for a laugh, to rub the officials’ noses in it. On other occasions, it changes its name to “Taxnoco”. It looks like “Texaco”. The name is spelt like that deliberately to embarrass officialdom, and nothing is ever done about it.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim spelt out loud and clear the problem of pollution that was associated with this crime—the leaking of waste into our lakes and river courses. With the new Dow marker, that will no longer be a problem, because it is now evaporating from our fuel. In the words of Alan Bennett, the hypocrisy will continue.
I think that we deserve answers to those questions, because we have waited long enough. We have pushed this issue for five years—we have pushed it in the Select Committee—and we have expected answers, but, to date, we have been let down.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) on introducing the debate and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) on his concluding comments. It has been an interesting and passionate debate and in my closing remarks I will endeavour to address the points that were made.
As we heard, serious and organised criminal groups do not operate in isolated pockets. We know, for instance, that they exploit the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. As the motion reminds us, they are engaged in a range of crimes, including fuel smuggling, the supply of counterfeit medicines and electrical goods, and fraudulent trading in numerous products to evade VAT or make illegal repayment claims. VAT fraud associated with tobacco and alcohol has become more sophisticated and more multinational, and the internet has opened more opportunities for the criminals. The cost to the Treasury is substantial and the impact is felt in communities throughout Northern Ireland.
A number of hon. Members referred to the fact that these are not victimless crimes. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made that point explicitly, and they are right. The effect of fuel laundering, which has been a major part of the discussion, means that it is clearly not victimless. The hon. Member for Belfast East spoke about the impact on the vehicles of unsuspecting purchasers of illicit fuel. The impact on us all from the loss of that tax revenue means that we have less tax from which to pay for much-needed teachers, nurses and police officers. People purchasing that fuel are aiding and abetting the criminals. This is not victimless crime. The people involved in such criminality are not cheeky scoundrels. This is serious crime that is a threat to us all.
Our strategic approach needs to be tightly co-ordinated to counter that threat; otherwise, serious and organised criminals will exploit the gaps. We need to ensure that measures are in place relentlessly to disrupt serious and organised criminals, stop people getting involved in crime and strengthen our protection against the criminals. The UK Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly are doing exactly that. The launch in 2013 of the National Crime Agency and the serious and organised crime strategy represented a step change in our approach. The NCA and the 4 Ps strategy are already making a difference, leading to a more co-ordinated response across the whole United Kingdom. As a result, we have improved our understanding of the threat, strengthened co-operation with partners, invested in better capabilities and introduced important new legislation.
Implementation of the serious and organised crime strategy is consistent with the approach in Northern Ireland, where the Organised Crime Task Force enables law enforcement agencies to work alongside other Government bodies and the private sector to share knowledge and tackle organised crime in partnership and to deliver the objectives of Northern Ireland’s organised crime strategy for 2014-16. Leading the operational fight are the PSNI, HMRC and the National Crime Agency.
The NCA works closely with its partners to investigate the activities of organised criminal groups, including those involved in fuel smuggling, fuel laundering and the counterfeiting of consumer goods. The NCA is a key member of the OCTF in Northern Ireland, providing specialist knowledge, support and expertise. It continues to support the PSNI through the exchange of intelligence and information relating to Northern Ireland, including instances where the situation has required constabulary powers to be exercised. The NCA is undertaking civil recovery investigations in Northern Ireland, where fuel laundering and cigarette smuggling are believed to be the underlying criminality.
It is clear that fuel smuggling and laundering is a major problem in Northern Ireland. I was interested in many of the points that were raised, including the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast East about criminals. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. This is a supply chain issue that the hon. Member for Foyle and I explored at length when we served together on the Committee considering the Modern Slavery Bill. He is right to commend the Bill for covering Northern Ireland where necessary, as does the remit of the commissioner. He made an interesting point about the impact on human trafficking and modern slavery. Sometimes we say that the criminality of organised crime groups lies in drugs trafficking, firearms trafficking or people trafficking, but in reality those groups are involved in all forms of criminality. That was brought home to us all by the dreadful case of the container in Tilbury docks with 35 Sikh people in it, including one who, sadly, died in transit. Part of the investigation of that incident involved a fuel laundering plant. That brings it home that this is not a victimless crime; it is a crime that affects us all, and those criminals are nasty people who want to harm us and are prepared to go to great lengths and hurt many people through different types of criminality to make money from organised crime.
We have heard from my fellow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), that the Government have a comprehensive strategy in place to tackle fuel fraud and crime and it is working. HMRC’s latest figures indicate the illicit market share of diesel for Northern Ireland has fallen from 26% to 13%. Co-operation and intelligence sharing through the Organised Crime Task Force and the Cross Border Fuel Fraud Enforcement Group has been invaluable in tackling oil fraud, including fuel smuggling and laundering, and I remind the House that in 2013-14 HMRC dismantled 38 laundering plants, closed 79 huckster sites and seized over half a million litres of illicit fuel in Northern Ireland.
As has been said, a new fuel marker will come in on 1 April. Many Members, including the hon. Members for North Antrim, for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), for Belfast East and for Upper Bann (David Simpson)—and I am sure there were more—raised that point.
The Minister refers to some of my party colleagues. My hon. Friends the Members for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) and for Upper Bann (David Simpson) mean no discourtesy to the Minister, whom I know they are very fond of, but they have had to leave the Chamber because of a meeting tomorrow morning with a Minister in Northern Ireland. I hope the Minister will appreciate that they had to catch their flight.
I appreciate that intervention, apart from anything else because I am not going to have to answer yet another question from those hon. Gentlemen, who gave me a significant number to try to address. I do understand completely the time pressures we all face, however.
I understand that HMRC is making sure it has the best and most appropriate roadside marker testing equipment, further to strengthen testing capability. From day one of the new marker implementation, its road fuel testing units will be able to use their existing battery of tests to identify suspicious samples, and I should repeat the point that this is not a replacement marker initially; this is a running-alongside marker with the existing marker, to ensure we have full evidence and information. I also understand that, in addition, HMRC expects to have ground-breaking roadside testing equipment by the summer.
The hon. Member for North Antrim made a number of points and I understand that HMRC has written to him on many of them, in particular the point about the new marker being easily laundered and that that can be done on a commercial scale. I urge him to provide details of any trials about which he believes HMRC may be unaware. It does want to review the report he has laid in the House, and it will respond to him. The Government will of course review the report as well, and HMRC has investigated whether this can be done on a large scale. The hon. Gentleman says he has seen the test to prove that that is the case. If he provides that evidence to HMRC, it will review the report and write to him, but the only large-scale test that we are aware has been undertaken, which was with 25,000 litres, fully supported HMRC’s conclusion that this is not easily translated to large-scale operations in the field. We do take these claims very seriously, however, and HMRC will look at any reports that the hon. Gentleman provides.
The hon. Member for South Antrim talked about the number of arrests and prosecutions for this crime. In the period 2011-14 there was a total of 56 arrests for fuel fraud, and 47 of them were in Northern Ireland, while just nine were in the rest of the United Kingdom. We have not, of course, yet got the full figures for 2014-15, but the latest information is that there were 25 arrests, 13 of which were in Northern Ireland and 12 in the rest of the UK. That shows that we take this crime very seriously, including in Northern Ireland.
Confiscation was also mentioned. In 2013-14, the last year for which we have figures, £113,001 was applied on confiscation orders relating to this type of crime, of which £113,000 related to confiscation orders in Northern Ireland, with only £1 relating to the rest of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington and I have enjoyed many debates on the topic of asset recovery, and we agree that we want to see more confiscation orders and more recovery. The Government take this issue seriously and progress is being made.
HMRC’s anti-smuggling strategy is effective, and we continuously adapt it to accommodate changes in criminal behaviour. Since it was first launched, we have reduced the illicit cigarette market by half and the illicit hand-rolling tobacco market by a third, but we all recognise that more can be done. The hon. Member for East Antrim contributed to yesterday’s debate on the order to bring the National Crime Agency into Northern Ireland. I want to put it on record that, in regard to the priorities for policing and the NCA in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Policing Board will agree the NCA annual plan. That will allow key crime types, which may include fuel laundering, to be prioritised for the NCA in Northern Ireland.
One of the blockages to having full support in Northern Ireland has been the limit to the NCA’s ability to provide support to HMRC and the PSNI in Northern Ireland. That related to the powers issue, and thankfully that issue is now resolved. Yesterday, we debated and approved in Committee here, and in another place, the draft Crime and Courts Act 2013 (National Crime Agency and Proceeds of Crime) (Northern Ireland) Order 2015. The order will enable the NCA to operate with police powers in Northern Ireland from around the end of May. It puts in place accountability arrangements for the NCA that have been agreed with the Northern Ireland parties. It also extends civil recovery provisions and civil recovery investigation provisions under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to Northern Ireland. This will increase activity and improve performance, alongside the efforts of other accredited financial investigators in Northern Ireland, such as the Serious Fraud Office, the PSNI and the Environment Agency. Perhaps that will answer the question from the hon. Member for Foyle about waste crime.
We are also strengthening the provisions of the Proceeds of Crime Act through the Serious Crime Act 2015. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington and I served on the Committee that considered that legislation. Its provisions will make it harder for criminals to move, hide and use the proceeds of crime through the better enforcement of existing court orders and the better recovery of hidden assets overseas. These steps are important, as denying criminals the proceeds of crime is one of the most effective ways of disrupting their activities. We agree that, so far, not enough has been recovered, but with these enhanced powers, the NCA, working with law enforcement, will be able to recover more. I urge the courts to ensure that confiscation orders are applied whenever possible, and that compensation orders for victims are also put in place.
The hon. Member for Foyle also raised concerns about engagement with communities. The Crime and Courts Act 2013 (National Crime Agency and Proceeds of Crime) (Northern Ireland) Order 2015 that we approved yesterday provides that the Northern Ireland Policing Board must make arrangements for obtaining the co-operation of the public with the NCA in the prevention of crime. The hon. Gentleman will recall that, as part of the Justice Minister’s proposal paper, there will also be a requirement for NCA officers to have a duty to secure the support of, and to act in co-operation with, the local community. Additionally, the order provides that the NCA’s director general must obtain the Policing Board’s prior consent to the Northern Ireland aspects of the NCA’s annual plan.
Serious and organised criminal groups do not respect borders or force boundaries. The PSNI estimates that there are around 150 organised crime groups active in Northern Ireland. Nearly a third of those groups are assessed as having links to international criminality, and another third are linked to criminality in the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. HMRC operates across the UK as a whole, and the National Crime Agency has both national and international reach. They are working more closely than ever before with the PSNI and other partners to disrupt organised criminal groups undertaking fuel laundering and smuggling in Northern Ireland and to deny criminals the proceeds of that crime. As has been said, we will not oppose this motion, and I want to thank everybody for the debate. I look forward to Northern Ireland seeing the benefits of the NCA that the rest of the UK has benefited from since October 2013.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes with concern the continued prevalence of serious organised criminal activity in Northern Ireland on a cross-border basis in relation to fuel smuggling, fuel laundering and the counterfeiting of consumer goods; recognises that this has had a significant and detrimental impact on HM Treasury; regrets the lack of prosecutions in relation to this activity; and calls on the Government to ensure greater co-operation between HM Revenue and Customs, the National Crime Agency and the PSNI so that this criminal activity can be eradicated.