Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. I wonder at times whether we have made too rigid a distinction between PIRA and both CIRA and RIRA, bearing in mind, for example, the Omagh situation. They do not move too far in Northern Ireland or anywhere else without PIRA knowing something of what is going on and yet they have not yet come forward to reveal names and support witnesses.
  (Mr Veness) We would agree with those as wise observations for two reasons. We are seeing historical evolution and we are seeing groups which are transforming, absorbing other members, and regrettably absorbing new members as well. As I was mentioning in relation to the last question, one sees some almost Godfather-type figures who are in the wings irrespective of what the first letter is in front of IRA, be it a "P" or "R". The other complication is one of geography, that we are seeing a common area of origin which in our view would be South Armagh and North Louth where, by obvious opportunity, the chances of smuggling are greater and that smuggling dimension flows into both organisations. Certainly it is a dimension which we regard as the most worrying seen from the position of British citizens in GB.

Mr Tynan

  101. We have evidence that by the end of October 2000 something like 44 million cigarettes were confiscated, double the amount that was confiscated in 1999. Have you any idea of the routes that contraband and smuggled goods and the materials for manufacturing such contraband have travelled between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and between the UK and Europe?
  (Mr Veness) I could give you a broad view on that but it might be helpful if I refer to my two detective constable colleagues who know infinitely more about the detail than I do.


  102. Please feel free to let the best person answer.
  (Mr Veness) Absolutely, which invariably will not be me, Chairman.
  (Mr B) Obviously this is an issue that we have been looking at closely for the last several years, the issue of terrorist fund raising. Since we have been looking at it we have seen an evolution, changes in methods that terrorists will use to raise funds. With regard to, for example, hydrocarbon fuels, when we first started looking at the issue we saw the movement of fuels from the island of Ireland on to the mainland. That seems to have dropped off and we now see the terrorists almost self-sufficient on the mainland using, as has been already highlighted, contacts with English criminals on the mainland to launder diesel. That is one of the trends that we have seen. With regard to hand-rolling tobacco and cigarettes, we have seen terrorist organisations making bulk purchases from warehouses on mainland Europe and using Great Britain as a route to take them back beyond Ireland. We have also seen evidence of terrorist groups using haulage companies' drivers. The wagons will come on to the mainland from the island of Ireland effectively empty, so if they were stopped at a west coast port and searched they would be empty. They would then travel to mainland Europe to a warehouse, perhaps in Germany or Belgium, make a bulk purchase of cigarettes or hand-rolling tobacco, secrete it very cleverly in the back of the heavy goods vehicle, move back on to mainland Great Britain, possibly through an east or south coast port, as I said, extremely cleverly disguised in shells of certain agricultural equipment etc, and the cigarettes would then be disseminated from Great Britain at a warehouse, at a farm, wherever, again using English criminals to do that. The wagon would then travel back to the island of Ireland and if it was stopped would once again be empty. We have seen the evolution of that sort of moving hand-rolling tobacco and cigarettes. We have also seen the evolution of the movement of massive containers full of cigarettes. The richest source of hand-rolling tobacco and cigarettes that we can identify at the moment would be the Baltic States and south east Asia. Obviously, by moving containers they completely cut Great Britain out of the equation. That is an overview of the trends that we have been monitoring up to the present time.


  103. Are the X-ray facilities we have now got at some of the ports any use in this sort of contraband or only any use for human beings?
  (Mr B) They are of use. Obviously this is an area of expertise that Customs have the lead on and we are very much dependent on Customs' X-ray machines to identify this form of smuggling. However, where X-ray machines have been deployed in certain east coast ports we have seen the displacement of smuggled traffic to avoid these X-ray machines. According to my Customs colleagues, and as I say it is their area of expertise, this is extremely effective in identifying and displacing movement of contraband goods.

Mr Tynan

  104. How successful are Customs in preventing contraband cigarettes and alcohol coming in? How often do they catch someone? The reason I ask is that I have a haulage company in my constituency which was stopped with £250,000 worth of cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco and they claimed that the driver was responsible. He ended up having his lorry restored to him without a fine and there was no action, I understand, taken against the driver himself. I am just wondering how successful we are in identifying and prosecuting that kind of smuggling.
  (Mr C) The policies on prosecution and so forth would be a Customs matter. In terms of how successful they are, we are obviously aware that the numbers of seizures have increased, certainly over the last 12 months, and there has been a more progressive multi-agency approach to this problem. One measure of their success could be seen in the fact that the price on the black market for sleeves of hand-rolling tobacco and cigarettes has increased over the last six months in particular. We have seen some very substantial seizures of containers, which my colleague spoke about, and also ships coming into both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

  105. This might seem a daft question, but as regards the paramilitaries finding a market for contraband, is that very easy to do and, if it is easy to do, are the people who are buying the contraband aware that they are breaking the law and how do you see that kind of action taking place?
  (Mr C) This is where your interaction with criminals comes into play. They will find your market place for you so you have your wholesaler then to push the cigarettes out to outlets, clubs, car boot sales. Many people have the impression that it is a victimless crime. The penalties compared to importing class A drugs are considerably lower, so people are prepared to take the risk to sell the goods.

The Reverend Martin Smyth

  106. How do you disrupt the distribution and dealing in contraband and smuggling goods on the mainland? What other agencies are employed and involved with you?
  (Mr Veness) I will take the strategic ground and then turn to Superintendent A for the day to day conduct of operations. It has to be conducted in a pan-agency and indeed pan-geographic approach. It cannot be done purely from London and it cannot be done by one law enforcement agency. We describe this as UK Counter-Terrorism PLC. It has to be that conjunction of endeavours. In terms of strategic linkage, clearly the Police Services are critical and that is both the Police Service of Northern Ireland and Garda Si«ocha«na and, because of the evolution of GB counter-terrorism, there is the very effective network that exists around the Special Branches of the United Kingdom. We on the police side have both policy mechanisms within the Association of Chief Police Officers and indeed an operational advisory group, of which I am the Chairman, which deals with day to day co-ordination of operations. This is far from being a police service endeavour on its own and must involve the critical contribution of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, indeed all of the border agencies, Inland Revenue and many others as well, including indeed the private sector in respect of the running of ports. In terms of day to day operations we have a series of initiatives which have involved port operations, traffic operations and linking those both in human and technical terms, for example exploitation of automatic number plate recognition technology coupled with CCTV. Perhaps I can turn to Superintendent A who will touch on the respective operations.
  (Mr A) About 18 months ago, coming at this from the police perspective and the national security side of the police perspective of countering terrorism, we realised that the number of agencies were looking very much at the same targets that we were looking at. They may have been looking at them from a different angle, of course. Customs and Excise are very much involved in this type of activity, and police investigating criminal activity across the country have also been touching on this activity but not necessarily recognising the security implications that we sought to identify and highlight. At that stage, about 15 months ago, we joined with the Security Service and all other police services in mainland Great Britain for a joint national plan to counter RIRA activity here in Great Britain. There were four main planks to that plan. One of them was very much aimed at attacking the dissident smuggling. We realised that the sort of intelligence that would be received within various organisations may or may not be acted on, depending on the threshold for dealing with that intelligence, the level of activity that was going on and the operational objectives of the particular organisation. We sought to bring those together. We were aware that probably a number of police officers working at a local level would be coming across exactly the sort of activity my colleagues have described: people distributing hand-rolling tobacco, cigarettes, alcohol, diesel. That may not be a priority for the local police who are engaged in combatting robberies and burglaries. Likewise, the Customs and Excise may be looking at the higher strategic levels. We wanted to bring this together and highlight across the country that there is an interest in this activity and that the police services, the security services, Customs and Excise and other government bodies, including the MoD engaged in Northern Ireland, could come together and maximise the use of the intelligence and the various intelligence sources to create opportunities to intercept some of these loads and create the opportunities to infiltrate the operations and disrupt the loads and deny to the terrorists the smuggling routes that Mr Veness has pointed out. A number of operations have happened throughout that time ranging out from the port operations. That was probably the first time that we have co-ordinated operations around the country where we have linked the west coast and the south coast, for the very reason pointed out by my two colleagues, the fact that when we first covered this we were probably looking at it from the fact that we were the land bridge between Europe and Ireland. That is the way we started to close down our borders and we actually had some significant successes there, not only in terms of seizures but also in terms of disrupting activity and preventing terrorist activity here in Great Britain during those times. From there we have seen this market develop and the whole market has developed from the supply through the processing to distribution. Again, we engage all the agencies in developing the intelligence, working with each other and usually choosing the most appropriate agency to follow through the disruption, the seizure or an investigation and prosecution. This is really day to day work. We find probably 80 or 90 per cent of our intelligence in relation to the activity of certainly dissident Irish terrorism here in on the British mainland will touch on some of this contraband or smuggling activity.

  107. I appreciate that one of the problems of dealing with contraband, drugs and such like, is that different bodies have their own views and their own interests. There are those who want to try to trace it to where it is going with the possibility of it being lost, as has happened before, and sometimes others want to get the credit for seizure when another agency has actually given it guidance. Is that continuing or is there greater co-operation now, or is there nervousness? Or, if I may put it another way, the police's first obligation is to protect and preserve life. Does that come in very fast whereas, if it were to be left for a little while, we might have more success in getting to the root of the matter?
  (Mr Veness) There is always more that one can achieve and if one has different cap badges serving different organisations one inevitably is going to get different priorities, different performance indicators, and they play both a benign and sometimes a less helpful role. The advantage that we have, although we would rather we did not have it in relation to terrorism, is that the penalty of not getting this right is the loss of life of members of the public. The agencies are seized of what they can contribute to that endeavour. If we get it wrong then this degree of activity is going to fund real bomb-making. Indeed, it is the same activity in terms of the logistic routes. There is true meeting of minds at the most senior level. The heads of the component elements of Customs and Excise, for example, and the relative directors of the security service, get together and we are behind these concerted endeavours. If there is the opportunity to make a decision between playing it long and playing it short, ie, interdiction at an early stage, it will be driven by a judgement on how we can make the optimum impact on the terrorist organisation. If it is around playing it long in order to build up the information, the awkward bit of senior decision making that comes into this is the unwelcome one that we could not afford, in playing it long, to allow a bomb or the constituents of a bomb to run in a risky sense. Speaking personally, those are the real two o'clock in the morning, wake-with-a-start moments when you have reflected on those. There has to be a judgement that is decided on the grounds of public safety. In many ways, whilst there are similarities in allowing some kilos of heroin or allowing other material to run, we have seen the Real IRA on several of the recent attacks on the mainland actually purchase the vehicle on the day of the attack, so they are putting together the vehicle, the bomb, the explosive and the timer power unit all in the space of a few hours and putting it down. There is a need for high speed and accurate decision making. Taking your point, sir, of course it is right to let it run if we can and if that is bigger than the performance measure of an individual organisation, then so be it. We have got this question mark hanging over that decision making process.

  108. I appreciate the problem, bearing in mind that at least one large lorry has got lost somewhere along the road in the past. Can I ask, since you did not mention it, what is the role of Europol with you in coming to some of these decisions, especially with material coming from the continent?
  (Mr Veness) There are two ways in which Europol can assist us. From my desk at Scotland Yard the operational asset that Europol gives my colleagues and I is that there are liaison officers from the 15 states of Europe who effectively are working on one corridor. In a drug sense, if we have got a movement that is, say, coming out of North Africa into Spain, traversing France up into the Low Countries and then coming into Felixstowe, we have got the ability to achieve operational co-ordination very quickly and, even more importantly, where we have got the clash between the common law and the Napoleonic system, to engage with magistrates if that is necessary, particularly in those states where that applies. Of course that has all leapt on since the Justice and Home Affairs meeting last autumn where there has been an added mandate for Europe, particularly in the light of the events of 11 September. We have all now as European states contributed extra liaison officers whose sole purpose is to track terrorist movement. That is giving us an extra dimension. It would be entirely accurate to report, and you will probably not find it unexpected, sir, that the focus of the officers that we have sent there in the period a few months before Christmas and after has been at this stage on international terrorism and the various links around Europe associated with al-Qaeda. However, I am confident that the role of Europol will develop as I have discussed with you already and, in relation to class A drugs, it will be of assistance when time permits in this arena as well.

  109. How far can you monitor and how do you monitor activity? What guidelines have you about intelligence that tells you of heightened activity? Are there any sort of patterns that have been observed that can help you as you come to decisions?
  (Mr Veness) Our major allies are the Police Services of the island of Ireland.

  The Committee suspended from 4.38 pm to 4.48 pm for a division in the House.


  110. Perhaps you could carry on, Mr Veness, answering the Reverend Martin Smyth's question.
  (Mr Veness) Clearly the multi-agency dimension is the critical one. I think there are further opportunities in terms of bringing together the energies and the skills that rest within diverse organisations. The mistake is to assume that any one organisation has a mastery of any one of those. I am sure there is a lot of scope for more umbrella networking opportunities.

  111. No patterns have come up? At home, for example, some of us begin to predict when we would expect certain things to happen.
  (Mr Veness) I acknowledge entirely the sheer scale of activity, particularly within the Province compared with Great Britain. Fortuitously, the scale of our activity is very modest on any comparison whatsoever. When I mentioned complexity, it is the challenge of putting a mainland operation together, moving the explosive, marrying it up with the timer power unit, conducting the reconnaissance where there may be varying levels of heightened police security. Our opportunities when we have been very close, ie, we have been behind following the particular group, are that they are a combination of the challenges of putting the operation together rather than being able to neatly align that with a particular occasion. But of course you are right, sir. In respect of key events, and we have seen that particularly in Real IRA activity where significant developments in the peace process at Easter have been chosen as opportunities, we must be at heightened alert. It is a regrettable fact that we have been in a period of consistent heightened alert since June 2000 in respect of the Real IRA so that has not allowed respite. In that period there have been these episodic eight attacks of Real IRA on the mainland, some aligned with predictable periods, some not. There are a couple within there that are not. The attacks on the Hendon post office do not appear to have that thread of logic.

Mr Clarke

  112. Following on from your last comments, of course the complexities of trying to stop the sources of funding that will enable that terrorist activity to take place are more complex because, whilst we may pre-guess certain periods in the year, such as Easter, where there could be heightened risk of attack, as far as sourcing and funding the materials for that attack, that could happen at any time.
  (Mr Veness) Yes.

  113. That brings me to ask you a question in respect of your operations throughout the year with regard to stop and search. I wondered first off if you could tell me whether or not your stop and search operations are of a continuous nature or whether or not they are targeted at particular times or particular ports or a particular issue that may or may not come off.
  (Mr Veness) In broad terms what we seek to achieve are rings of concentric security so that it is not as if there is one barrier or hurdle to get across; there is a string. For example, if somebody is bringing in a lorry load of material in which there are secreted home-made explosives, we seek to create a barrier at the ports, a barrier in respect of movement on either the motorway or a major road, and also a barrier as one gets to a likely area for putting that explosive together with a vehicle, some form of agricultural outhouse, and then a barrier around the target areas themselves. We seek to operate that in a series of lines of defence. We seek to make those as unpredictable as possible so that the terrorist does not have the benefit of knowing which particular area it is. Will it be Caernarfon or Holyhead? Where is the multi-agency activity going to be? What we do know is that the ability of the haulage trade to pick up where we are active is phenomenal and is at least the equivalent of our own process of feedback in that regard. It is a question of trying to drive that through intelligence as far as we can. As Reverend Martin Smyth was indicating, the best sources of intelligence that target our operations come from the Police Service of Northern Ireland and Garda Si«ocha«na for the very definition of the point of origin. We have the advantage of the powers that are available under section 44(1) and (2) of the Terrorism Act which allow us to operate with a heightened degree of terrorist focused stop and search, so we will seek to utilise the specific powers that are given to us under the Terrorism Act rather than a general application of stop and search in a broad criminal sense. We will be doing that if we have evidence that that is appropriate. Those are powers that, for example, if I as a chief officer sign them, they need to be ratified by the Home Secretary in person, so there is a serious degree of supervision of the judgement that I am making, for example, in invoking the powers under section 44(1) and (2). It will be those powers or specific powers that our colleagues in Customs and Excise would be operating under rather than blanket stop and search powers.

  114. Moving that on to look at the multi-agency arrangements that would be required between yourselves and the Customs and Excise, and indeed others, to form a successful operation, given that the evidence is on a confidential basis, could you talk about the level of resources that are needed to carry out that work and whether or not that level of resources is made available both towards yourselves and towards your partners throughout the year?
  (Mr Veness) It is a very significant challenge. For example, it could not be more acute than it is at the moment because if, for example, an al-Qaeda attack or an attack by one of the associated international terrorist groups were to take place here with, as we have seen, macro casualty implications the consequences would be devastating, so we must at the moment be focusing on that particular threat as well as having always a vigilant eye to what may be emanating from the island of Ireland. The most likely probability we think here in London this afternoon in terms of statistical probability would be a Real IRA attack, but if it were an international terrorist attack the difference would be that the impact that that could potentially make in terms of death and public harm would be, one hopes, markedly different, so these are not easy judgements. As you know, we are in vigorous debate about trying to do both of those. To be frank, sitting here this afternoon, the events of 11 September have meant that we can no longer without extra resourcing address the twin challenges of continuing dissident IRA activity, for example, in the major cities of the United Kingdom and a greatly enhanced international terrorist threat. We are moving resources one from the other, and indeed not only one from the other but we are moving them from crime that affects people in their homes, in their families and in their high streets as well.

  115. That is very helpful. Whilst I would not expect you to answer for colleagues within Customs and Excise, would you say that the pressures on them are equally severe?
  (Mr Veness) Absolutely, yes. You are absolutely right in terms of have they got class A drugs, cocaine and heroin. They have got people smuggling drugs, but there is also the whole issue of exploitation, of child prostitution, etc. All those cases are eminently worthy of significant public resources and choices have to be made. From an entirely selfish counter-terrorist perspective I would value the advantages of, for example, impacting upon dissident Irish Republican activity on the mainland as being an even more prioritised activity within Customs and Excise. It has a practical implication because there are levels at which one would tend to kick in in terms of activity, we would suggest. Indeed, whenever we raise it our Customs colleagues are enormously supportive, helpful and understanding, but they have got a great many other things on their plate as well.

  Mr Clarke: That is understood. Thank you.

Mr Bailey

  116. Looking at the legal weapons that you have at your disposal for combatting terrorism and cross-border activities, you have already mentioned that you use the Terrorism Act. What sort of offences would you look for in using that act as a basis for taking action against those people?
  (Mr Veness) We are fortunate in that there has been a significant degree of government commitment to terrorist law. I need not remind anybody here that only in recent weeks we have had the opportunity to contribute to the new act of December of last year, so this is a vibrant and continuing debate which we warmly welcome in the law enforcement community. Primarily in direct answer to your question, the Terrorism Act 2000 gives us the fund-raising provision, the use and possession of funds, laundering provisions, and indeed some very salutary periods of imprisonment and indeed forfeiture provisions that augment those thereafter. There are robust powers within there. Within the new Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act of December 2001 we have got the provisions for seizure of cash and disposal of assets which helpfully now is on the balance of probabilities. There are real opportunities for us to move against those organisations, including the preparation and instigation of acts of terrorism which is probably the charge that we would most commonly use in relation to the actual mainstream terrorist activity.


  117. Have you used any of these powers yet or are you in the process of doing so?
  (Mr Veness) The Terrorism Act 2000 we use every day. I have referred to the search powers which in my judgement are indispensable and on which we regularly make applications to the Home Secretary. The provisions that we have historically enjoyed under the Terrorism Act, particularly for the extended detention of prisoners, are absolutely indispensable from a terrorist investigation. We just would not reach first base on in respect of the forensic—

  118. You have misunderstood me. I meant do you use any of the new ones to seize and confiscate?
  (Mr Veness) Yes. With regard to the specific offences, not in relation to Irish Republican terrorism, we have ongoing investigations in respect of international terrorism. Of course, it was only just before Christmas, the 19th, that we had the opportunity to pursue them.

Mr Bailey

  119. In effect you have mentioned some offences for which you find this legislation very helpful. If you could look at the range of offences on which you work with the Customs in combatting, many of which are relevant to RIRA activity and other terrorist acts, are there any gaps, do you think, in the existing legislation that should be filled to enable you to do your work more effectively?
  (Mr Veness) If I were to point to one in particular it would be in relation to penalties, particularly on the powers that are available to our colleagues in Customs and Excise. The example that I would use is that if one were engaged in the importation of class A drugs, then one would be looking at potentially ten to 14 years as the risk that the criminal is running. For most of the excise evasion offences that have these deadly consequences, amongst which is the hydrocarbon for the home-made explosive, we are talking just in terms of a Customs prosecution, of a probable ceiling of seven years. As seen from the terrorist perspective, and you can see it every day in terms of common criminality, they would rather take a risk at this end of the market in terms of excise evasion than run the risk of the other offences that we have historically (and I think now slightly out of date) regarded as the focus for the most serious crimes. To be frank, the criminal mind has moved ahead by seeing the opportunity that is presented by this particular form of criminality.

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