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House of Commons Hansard
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Fuel Laundering
22 May 2018
Volume 641

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Milling.)

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I want to draw the House’s attention to a serious problem on a serious scale. It is a problem run by organised crime gangs across our country, yet it appears to many that the Government are lackadaisical or so distracted by other matters that they are not that concerned by it. I want to address the issue of Government concern, because they ought to be concerned as this crime is costing the Treasury hundreds of millions of pounds. So much so that, by a modest calculation, every 10 years the sums the Government could recover would make the Conservative and Democratic Unionist party confidence and supply agreement moneys cost neutral. The Government should consider that when dealing with this issue.

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I wish to raise an area of major concern, which is the position of road hauliers, particularly those in Northern Ireland, who are missing out because they are having to compete against those who are dealing in smuggled fuel and are, thus, unable to compete on a level playing field. Most of the moneys being derived from this are going into the pockets of paramilitaries.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The Government’s very conservative estimate of what this crime amounts to is largely down to the lack of resources being directed at tackling it, as measured by the small amount of arrests and convictions, and to the fact that the current Government strategy of markers has failed because the markers do not work as well as the Government pretend. As it is Northern Ireland’s problem, it is often regarded as a problem that is out of sight and out of mind. However, the facts available to me indicate that it is fast becoming a UK mainland problem.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that a zero-tolerance approach must be taken to fuel laundering, not simply because of the cost to the Exchequer of some £100 million per annum in Northern Ireland, but because those carrying out these crimes are very often inextricably linked with paramilitarism? We must cut off the money-making arm of paramilitary groups throughout Northern Ireland. Do away with the money and we stop the paramilitary groups being active.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We hear much debate about Brexit and the hard border, and how it must be frictionless and customs must be harmonised. Every gangster who is engaged in this operation in Northern Ireland and this level of crime, many of whom are senior Sinn Féin supporters and other senior paramilitaries, believes in a hard border on this one, because they love the fact that there is a customs differential and they want to ensure their ability to transfer vast amounts of laundered fuel in a frictionless manner.

Let us examine the scale of the crime. In March, Baroness Neville-Rolfe stated in an answer to questions in the other place that the estimated level of illicit fuel sales amounts to “£50 million” in lost revenue for the last year for which figures were available. I believe that is a glossed over view and that, even though it is a staggering amount, it conceals a far greater level of fraud. However, if that was the height of it, that is half a billion in resources lost to the Government over the term of a normal Parliament. The most recent official report of the Organised Crime Task Force—I must declare an interest, as I served as a member of it before I joined this House—details that the tax gap between Government known legitimate sales of oils and fuels, and illicit fuel trading is about £100 million, as my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) identified. That has reduced from about £160 million nine years ago, but it is still a staggering amount.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that, in addition to the substantial amounts of money that the Treasury is losing, an issue that is sometimes not highlighted is the danger of the damage done to vehicles? Some of these illicit fuels are poisoned and treated very badly so that these people can maximise profits.

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If we start to go down that line, the costs are in many ways incalculable. We need to bear that in mind.

The Organised Crime Task Force recounts a case study of an organised crime gang that evaded duty of more than £3 million. It had laundering plants in 13 locations, at one of which the police seized approaching £300,000 in cash. They also seized 72,000 litres of illicit fuel that was being sold to unsuspecting motorists, like my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said. Nine people were convicted, and two custodial sentences were handed down amounting to—listen to this—just 16 months in prison. Seriously? A multimillion-pound crime gang and they get 16 months in prison. What sort of disincentive to criminality is that?

The Government will no doubt point to their new fuel marker, which they introduced in conjunction with the revenue and customs people in the Republic. They claim that it is particularly special and

“significantly more resistant to laundering”

than old markers. Given that old markers could be laundered through a sieve, that is not actually a good recommendation. They also boast that there has been a

“reduction in laundering plants discovered”.

That boast is hollow, as it means that the authorities cannot find the laundering plants.

I will tell the House why that is so. Previously, removal of the marker left an environmentally hazardous sludge that ultimately gave away the launderers’ locations and caused a multimillion-pound hazard that the local authorities had to pay hundreds of thousands pounds to clear up. The new so-called more effective marker can be removed via the process of distillation, leaving no environmental waste at all—it simply evaporates—hence the carefully crafted words of the report. If the laundering plants do not leave any trace, they will be much harder to find, so fewer plants will be discovered. On the fact that the new marker can be distilled off the fuel, I leave this thought with the House: many people in Northern Ireland know a lot about distillation. They have been distilling a produce in Northern Ireland for very many years, so it is now so much easier to commit this crime than it was previously.

Let me turn to the substance of my argument; I hope that the Minister will respond to these points. This is not a uniquely Irish problem. Because a blind eye has been turned to stamping it out, organised crime gangs are exporting this crime across the Irish sea. A case study produced by the Government’s Organised Crime Task Force recounts how the

“fuels may move across the EU borders without supervision”.

If ever we were going to get a warning that we need more friction on our border in respect of this issue, this must be it.

In 2016, there were 80 movements of ISO tanks—tank containers built to the standard of the International Organisation for Standardisation—containing 26,000 litres each. The Government estimate that millions of litres of this oil were smuggled before it was identified. The crime amounted to millions of pounds in lost revenue for Her Majesty’s Exchequer—and this is just one operator. Such crimes have a devastating impact on our haulage industry, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) said earlier.

At the weekend, three Secretaries of State visited Northern Ireland and heard at first hand from the haulage industry. The industry took the opportunity to spell out the following, saying that organised crime gangs

“are now exporting laundered diesel to GB on an industrial scale using bulk containers contained inside curtain slide trailers. This is of huge concern to Roll on Roll off operators on the Irish sea as it is hazardous cargo, is not manifested or transported safely”.

A potential disaster looms that would make the Zeebrugge disaster look insignificant. This operation is being used to supply illicit vehicle operations across England. The Government promise that legitimate trade must not be interfered with or delayed, as a result of Brexit, between our islands and on our island. I agree wholeheartedly with that position, but to have confidence, illicit trade must be stamped out. The Government must not sacrifice their principles on ensuring that we have open trade. They must not allow criminals to get away with it. We must deal with the criminal elements, because they are rubbing their hands in glee, looking at the opportunities that Brexit will open up for them.

There are 5,730 licensed commercial vehicle operators and 22,000 licensed goods vehicles in Northern Ireland. Some 27% of Northern Ireland licences are international hire and reward work compared with an average of 10% here on GB mainland. Therefore, this is big business in Northern Ireland. Some 27,000 people are currently employed in the transport and storage industries in Northern Ireland, and fuel represents about 32% of the operating costs of those industries. It is obvious from those figures that illicit traders can destroy a legitimate business by focusing on the sale of illicit fuel, and put a legitimate operator out of work overnight.

Our duty on fuel is, of course, the highest in Europe and it is unlikely to fall, so the pressure on legitimate trade and the opportunity for the criminal grows. Last month, I met people from the Petrol Retailers Association. They are appalled at how easy laundering has become. They have identified a number of sites across Northern Ireland that are openly run by criminals, and yet nothing has been done about it. I was going to use privilege this evening to read out the names of 12 illicit trade operators across the United Kingdom that have been given to me by the Petrol Retailers Association. I would get a very easy headline, but I will not do that, because I am not here to embarrass the Government. I am not here to try to pull that one on them, but I do make a plea to the Minister that if we know who these people are, and if their names are easily circulated between the police, the association and the operators, surely something must now be done to stamp them out. I hope that the Minister will push that matter back to the authorities and tell them that we want these criminals dealt with, and that we want to see examples set.

I have three pleas to make to the Minister this evening, and I hope that he can respond to them. The first is in the words of the Petrol Retailers Association. Let me quote again from the letter:

“I firmly support you and your colleagues in demanding from Government a fresh look at the real impact of this HMRC marker initiative and a renewed commitment to tackle the heinous problem of illicit fuel which has spread to the mainland.”

Secondly, I want the Government to review the sentencing policy and practice of those caught engaging in this heinous crime. Finally, as Brexit approaches, let us use this as an opportunity to make the United Kingdom have the gold standard fuel marker and to put in place a proper and effective British marker that works and stops this illicit trade. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively to these matters and offer me the opportunity to meet senior officials to address them.

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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) for raising an important issue, which I know that he, his constituents, and the effective quartet of Members from Northern Ireland who are here this evening—[Interruption.] Quintet, I do apologise. Who could forget? I know that this is an issue that many people feel strongly about. I know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be delighted to hear that the Democratic Unionist party now wants to be cost neutral, and I will make sure that that is taken into consideration in future conversations.

Fuel duty makes an important contribution to the public finances. In 2016-17, it generated £28 billion, or nearly 5% of total tax revenue. It is the fifth largest source of tax revenue to the Exchequer, behind only income tax, national insurance contributions, VAT and corporation tax, so, as my hon. Friend rightly suggested, this matters. Fuel fraud is not a victimless crime. It deprives the Exchequer of funds that pay for public services, and fuel laundering—the removal of chemical dyes and covert markers from rebated fuel to give the appearance of legitimate road fuel—poses a range of further risks to the public. Criminals experimenting with the process to defeat the new marker can create, as we have seen, a high risk of explosion, fire and potential risk to life. Laundering plants also produce toxic waste, which causes environmental damage. Finally, as we have also seen, illicit fuel is often transported in vehicles that are unfit for purpose and unsafe. As with any form of fraud, fuel fraud is a serious concern, and we recognise that it can be linked to organised crime, serious organised crime and, as my hon. Friend argued, the financing of paramilitary activity. That is a concern across the United Kingdom and, quite obviously, a particular concern in Northern Ireland.

For all those reasons and those set out by my hon. Friend, the Government are and must be committed to tackling the issue and to giving it the due consideration that it deserves. HMRC’s strategy to tackle fuel duty fraud has seen the UK’s tax gap for fuels in general fall from £1.5 billion in 2002 to less than £100 million in 2015-16, but £100 million remains a significant sum of money, as we have heard. In Northern Ireland, where the issue is a particular problem, the illicit market share has, according to HMRC, fallen from 26% to 8% over the same period. None the less, there is no room for complacency. Indeed, there has been a modest increase in laundering plant detections over the past year, which should give us all cause for concern. The new fuel marker that was brought in together with the Republic of Ireland in April 2015 to tackle the problem of fuel laundering is part of the significant investment made by HMRC to ensure that all businesses and individuals contribute to the tax revenues that are required to fund our public services. I appreciate that my hon. Friend has in the past raised objections to Accutrace, but I will return to those shortly.

As outlined in HMRC’s evaluation of Accutrace, the new marker has led to a reduction in the number and size of fuel laundering plans discovered by HMRC, although there has been a modest uptick over the past year. That apparent success reflects our commitment to tackle fuel fraud, as evidenced by the reinvestment of over £1 billion in HMRC’s fight against evasion and fraud over the spending review period. To continue that work, the Government announced the expansion of road fuel testing unit capacity in Northern Ireland in particular, but also in mainland Great Britain, in addition to the extra resource for fuel fraud work within HMRC’s criminal investigation directorate that was announced in the autumn statement 2013. That should complement HMRC’s fleet of road fuel testing vehicles, all of which are equipped with gas analysers that all officers have been fully trained to use. In 2016-17 alone, HMRC took 45,000 samples in the UK, so the problem is being addressed seriously at quite a scale across the UK.

Multi-agency, cross-border co-operation is clearly essential, and HMRC chairs a quarterly multi-agency cross-border fuel fraud group to share intelligence and information on operational activity, as well as co-ordinating joint operations. I have reiterated the importance of that with the Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime in advance of this debate. HMRC’s testing capability can now identify markers down to parts per million, including the new Accutrace marker that has been introduced on both sides of the border. HMRC investigates all attempts to remove Accutrace. To date, HMRC advises that there is nothing to suggest that rebated fuel can successfully be laundered to remove the marker in a way that is not detectable to HMRC. Although all markers have theoretical vulnerabilities and there is no perfect marker on the market, this new marker cannot be removed profitably at any scale. It remains HMRC’s view that the marker has been, and continues to be, effective in driving down fuel fraud. Clearly, I am interested in hearing further evidence from my hon. Friend if he wishes to engage with this. Where HMRC has detected laundering plants, these have not been capable of successfully laundering the new marker.

My hon. Friend raised the question of custodial sentences. Custodial sentences for fuel laundering were handed down in 2016 following a successful HMRC investigation into a £2.6 million fuel laundering scheme. However, the scarcity of custodial sentences for what is clearly a serious crime is noticeable and disappointing. My hon. Friend was right to raise that matter today. Right hon. and hon. Members from Northern Ireland know that justice and policing are devolved matters, but I will give further consideration to this issue and I am happy to engage with them on how we might move forward. I am informed that sentences for this crime in Northern Ireland are, taken together, more lenient than those in England and Wales. We should all give that further consideration.

My hon. Friend mentioned points raised by the Road Haulage Association. I am happy to meet him to discuss these issues at a later date. We have increased our capacity in road fuel testing units, and have provided extra resource for fuel fraud investigations across the United Kingdom, particularly in Northern Ireland. I would be happy to supply further information from HMRC regarding the quantity and where the units are being deployed. I have asked HMRC officials to supply us with better data on the numbers and on the locations at which roadside testing is happening in Northern Ireland. Tests are completed throughout the supply chain. The number of tests at suppliers’ premises in Northern Ireland has increased over the course of the last two financial years.

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I really appreciate the level of engagement that the Minister is offering—both with himself and officials. Will he arrange for the Chancellor also to be engaged in the discussions, so that we can ensure that he appreciates how seriously we want this matter to be addressed?

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I raised this matter with the Chancellor in advance of this debate, and he would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues if they wish to join. I suggest that I arrange a meeting with him and others who wish to participate as soon as possible so that we can take this matter forward. In advance of that meeting I will review some of the other issues that he has raised and the points made by the Road Haulage Association so that we can have the most productive conversation possible. The Chancellor is very aware of the importance of this issue in Northern Ireland and of the assiduous way in which my hon. Friend has pursued it over many years—going back at least five years—by raising it with the Government and in Parliament, so we would be happy to take this matter forward.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue. We have had a productive debate. I listened closely to the comments that he made and hope that I have been able to answer some of them. The Government are committed to tackling avoidance, evasion and fraud throughout the tax system. For all the reasons that we have heard this evening, this is an important issue that deserves our attention and deserves to be elevated in the level of importance to which HMRC and law enforcement authorities in the whole United Kingdom, but particularly in Northern Ireland, attach to it. I will do everything that I can from my position in the Treasury to ensure that that happens. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and his colleagues to take this matter forward.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.