Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 299 - 319)




  299. Good afternoon, gentlemen. Good to see you again; good to see one or two old friends we seem to have given a good excuse to come to London to do a day's shopping. You know what we are on about, the financing of terrorism in Northern Ireland. We had a very useful visit to Northern Ireland, Mr Byrne, which was hugely helpful. I said at the time but I will say again how very grateful we are to all of you for organising such a worthwhile and useful visit—in particular, catching a couple of bad guys while we were at the docks a la", "Here is something I prepared earlier." What are the main areas of concern that you have for Customs and Excise in Northern Ireland concerning criminal activity, association with paramilitaries and how are these reflected in your strategy?
  (Mr Byrne) Our primary concern in Northern Ireland is oils and our second one is oils as well, it is that important in Northern Ireland. Also tobacco excise duty evasion similarly. We have not yet identified anything significant in alcohol but there are also some VAT fraud areas, although not yet of any great significance, certainly not greater than the mainland.

  300. The whole of your strategy is skewed towards trying to prevent oil smuggling and laundering and illegal sales?
  (Mr Byrne) Yes. Tobacco does consume part of our interest but principally oils.

  301. To what extent do you think criminal gangs are engaged in these activities? Is the main thrust of it criminal gangs or is a lot of it private enterprise?
  (Mr Byrne) There clearly is a combination. There is a great deal of legitimate, cross-border shopping, but if we focus on the fraud side our view is that most of this is by people who are criminals. That is rather different to saying they are terrorist criminals. An awful lot is well orchestrated by people who are organising either smuggling or laundering of fuel over a long term.

  302. At one end of the scale, I suppose you have the person who goes south, fills a car, drives north, drains it off, goes south again and fills it again. That is presumably the bottom end of the scale?
  (Mr Byrne) That would be the very bottom end of the scale. There would also be companies whose lorries would be doing that and that is towards the middle of the scale. They are doing it for commercial advantage.

  303. That was the container that we saw you find in the docks and that is middle level?
  (Mr Byrne) I would think that is what we would describe as middle. It can mean quite a lot of money sometimes for companies.

  304. Where do you think the paramilitary involvement is? Upper level? Middle level? Lower level or all of it?
  (Mr Byrne) We do not look for paramilitary involvement but I have looked back over our last 18 months of activity and I have identified paramilitary links, which does not necessarily mean the direct involvement of people who are known paramilitaries, in a significant number of our large-scale fraud investigations. Putting it very crudely, there could be paramilitary links in as many as half of the serious frauds that we have identified. However, Customs has a responsibility for tackling fiscal fraud, not for taking on paramilitaries. So we do not look for paramilitaries; we look for fraudsters.

  305. I understand that but presumably you have a very close liaison with the police service in Northern Ireland and they know the individuals you have picked up and found involved in this. Do they feed back to you: "Yes, this man has known paramilitary involvement"?
  (Mr Byrne) Most of our knowledge of paramilitary involvement would come from the police service of Northern Ireland * * *.

  306. Routinely, you ask for this every time you find something?
  (Mr Byrne) Yes. We have a very close and excellent relationship with the police service in Northern Ireland, better now than it has ever been, * * * in Northern Ireland itself with the police service we have a sharing of information.

  307. Are you able to say whether the paramilitary connections are in furtherance of the paramilitary cause or are they ex-terrorists who have perhaps been in jail, have come out and are now turning to crime and are doing this because it is criminal rather than in order to support one of the paramilitary organisations?
  (Mr Byrne) We cannot, frankly, distinguish between the two. Almost certainly, people are committing the frauds that we are interested in for personal gain. They gain quite a considerable amount of personal wealth from this. At the same time, with terrorist activity, we cannot distinguish the proportion that they pass on or how they pass it on.

  308. You reckon about half has some connection or other with paramilitaries?
  (Mr Byrne) Yes. I identified before I came here 16 separate occasions over the last 15 months where we have discovered a connection between serious fraud and paramilitary activity. In about half the investigation operations carried out * * * we are either certain, or we suspect, there is either a current or a historic paramilitary link to fraud activity.

  309. What particular difficulties does the land border give you that you do not find in England, Scotland and Wales?
  (Mr Byrne) Can I start with the pure, physical thing? It is a 300 mile land boundary, and therefore it is unique for the United Kingdom law enforcement authorities, with around 400 crossing points which existed before there was a boundary there. There is a huge practical difficulty in manning that frontier and that has always been true. The political situation and the peculiar circumstances in Northern Ireland of course cause additional security problems for our officers and in some parts of Northern Ireland the general attitude of society makes it more difficult for our officers to carry out the normal functions they would carry out on the mainland.

  310. Would you enlighten us about the general attitude of society? Do you mean they are more hostile to you than they are in Dover?
  (Mr Byrne) No. In Dover, only those who are trying to commit smuggling are hostile to us. Those who we stop who are innocent are generally not hostile. They accept the fact that we are there and operating. The additional difficulty in and around some of the border areas of Northern Ireland and a little bit away from the border is not so much those who are prepared to try and drive past our road blocks, the smugglers. Of course we expect them to be hostile from time to time. What happens in Northern Ireland is when we have one or two officers out on their own conducting relatively routine, detection activity they can and have faced hostile people from the local village. Cars have been stolen; cars have been threatened; individuals have been threatened. That is not something which we find on the mainland unless we are being threatened by the smugglers.

  311. Are there particular parts where that applies? Are we talking about South Armagh? You do not go there, do you?
  (Mr Byrne) We do.

  312. Not unless you have a very heavy escort, I imagine?
  (Mr Byrne) Not always with a very heavy escort but that issue in itself is an illustration of the problem. * * * that we do not get even in the darker areas of the mainland.

  313. Have any of your officers in Northern Ireland been subjected to physical assault? Have they ever been shot at?
  (Mr Byrne) Not in recent times, as far as I know.

  314. Is this restricted to what we loosely call bandit country or does it happen all around?
  (Mr Byrne) I think it is what you would call the South Armagh types of areas.

  315. How have you had to change your strategy to counter the difficulties of the border? How do you operate differently in Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom?
  (Mr Byrne) Principally, we do not really operate at the border, except in very selective, carefully prepared operations. Exercises we sometimes call them but they are more generally directed at a particular activity which we have prior intelligence about. There is no regulatory activity of the type that we do at Dover by simply being there and checking people who fit profiles. In Northern Ireland we tend to do that well away from the border. If we are going into the border area to take overt action, it is usually very well prepared in advance. We are usually well supported by officers from the police service of Northern Ireland who will be armed as appropriate. Those are measures which they determine, not us, and from time to time we are supported by the military. That would be almost never on the mainland.

  316. One of the things I did ask when we were in Belfast was about your scanner. You have a big, mobile scanner now. Given the difficulties and the ease with which they can avoid it once they know where it is, it did seem to us that when you have to search a container, for example, at the docks, we saw three chaps on a freezing cold morning about to spend all day unloading Chinese blinds. It occurred to some of us that if you had a smaller scanner, like they have at airports, you could whistle the whole lot through and you would not have to open them all. This would be much more labour efficient than the present method of completely decanting an entire container and looking at one in seven or one in eight boxes.
  (Mr Byrne) It is only over the last 18 months to two years that we have introduced scanners in the United Kingdom. The ones that we have looked at that we felt to be sufficiently effective—and they are not always as good, even now, as we would wish—are the big ones that you have seen. We call them mobile but frankly they are mobile with a great deal of effort.

  317. In another context, I saw the one you have at Calais.
  (Mr Byrne) Moving them at five miles an hour along big roads is simply not practical over there. Those scanners are really only useful where you have sufficient throughput of containers of activity to justify putting them in place and they have to have significant manning even then. We are talking about eight people to man a scanner for a period of time. The real value for money is where you can put enough containers through to justify moving an expensive scanner in that direction. We have not found smaller scanners of any great value. We have used some at airports for small suitcases and they can work but in terms of processing the contents of a 20 or 40 foot container we are not sure that there is a practical one available at the moment.

Mr Pound

  318. A number of us came to the same conclusion as the Chairman has adumbrated. I understand your point about the cost and justification in terms of traffic but surely that is not the principal factor there because if you have three people working all day in a freezing cold environment inevitably their concentration will slip and you cannot guarantee, in the same way that you can with a scanner, that you are completing the job in the course of a day. I am not criticising your officers but why does it take eight people to operate a scanner? Is cost the only factor, because that is something surely which we could recommend on. Cost should not be a determinant in the prevention of smuggling.
  (Mr Byrne) Mike Wells knows about how many people it takes to run a scanner. Cost is not the only thing. It would be cost beneficial if it were clearly to replace manpower sufficiently to justify it being there and in effectiveness terms yes, of course. I am not convinced yet that it would process the contents of a container as well as the officers looking at it. The motivation for most of our officers in searching the inside of a container is not difficult while they are doing the searching of the container, frankly. That is usually the exciting part. By the time they have picked a container given that there are lots of containers—even in Northern Ireland there are lots of containers that move—the difficult, boring, labour intensive activity is to find the right container to pick and once they have picked a container they have high hopes—it is not random—that they are going to find something in there. I have had pleas from my staff all over the country: will I provide extra warm weather kit and in terms of preserving their motivation providing them with the right kit so that they are dressed appropriately for wet weather is probably a cheaper alternative which we must be doing. I suspect the three officers you saw in Northern Ireland were probably dressed in normal clothes.

  319. I should confirm that they were in no way complaining; nor were they showing any signs of a reduction in efficiency. If that is the exciting part of their lives, perhaps they should get out more.
  (Mr Byrne) The buzz of expecting to find something and the buzz of finding from time to time is like a drug in itself. It is really what motivates most of our front line staff. If you stand in the green channel even at somewhere like Heathrow and Dover and you are confronted with a constant stream of people coming through, I know it all looks extremely easy when they have found somebody, but the morale challenge to stopping yet another passenger and opening yet another bag, expecting that the best you are going to get is one in 20, one in 30 or one in 40—it can take a whole month before they find somebody smuggling.

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