Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 356)



  340. You say you visited 600 petrol stations. What percentage of the whole is that?
  (Mr Byrne) There are 700 petrol stations. We visited 600 in the last 18 months. A lot of that will be because of VAT visits, assurance visits, relatively low level visits. Some will be by the detection forces. A small number will be by the more intensive audit investigators because we are concerned about that.

  341. If this question strays into an area of sensitivity, it is entirely appropriate for you not to answer it. You talked about the petrol retailer maybe using 20 per cent illegal fuels. What evidence do you have that he or she has been coerced into doing that by paramilitary groups?
  (Mr Byrne) None. It has not been brought to anybody's attention. Paul and I discussed this earlier. We do not have any direct evidence of arm up the back coercion. It is more commercial competition.

  342. You do get people who may be paramilitaries or certainly people outside the law doing direct selling, hucksters, who can frequently be paramilitary or associated with the paramilitary. Is that correct?
  (Mr Acda) Yes.

Mr Barnes

  343. When the Chairman was discussing with you the question of staff protection, it was established that nobody had been shot, but there are other forms of intimidation. I suppose people associated with paramilitary groups can say, "We know where you live" or, "We know where your child goes to school." Have you ever stopped an operation in Northern Ireland because it was considered a risk to the personnel in pursuing the case?
  (Mr Byrne) Most of what would be going on from day to day, the routine activity by our detecting staff—they are advised to be sensitive and not to take chances so in terms of pulling an investigation or operation I have no experience.
  (Mr Acda) * * * .

  344. While there is no particular case that has been pulled, there are cases that might not have started or where the techniques that you decided to perform would be somewhat different, so I suppose the surveillance avenues you would engage in might involve somewhat different techniques.
  (Mr Acda) Some of the problems are caused by weather. Some places are best dealt with by helicopter insertions and if the weather is bad a helicopter cannot go in and the security services do not go in. That is a concern for us but it is primarily a concern for the people providing the security for us, PSNI or military.
  (Mr Byrne) It would be helpful to give examples where circumstances inhibit how we carry out operations. Paul talks about helicopter insertions, which we do principally because of speed. If we want to take out a laundering plant near the border, we know that we have a finite time in which to move in, carry out the operation and get out of the area before there is distress. In some instances, we have had to move very quickly because we know that our presence is okay for a finite time. After that, the locals who oppose us appear on the scene. In the last nine months, I have six instances here where officers have been stoned, their cars and vans have been rammed; they have had serious verbal abuse from a crowd of people at a huckster site.

  345. What security measures do you take therefore to protect officers in these circumstances?
  (Mr Byrne) Where we are talking about most of the large scale, targeted operations, we take the full advice and we follow the directions of the military, if necessary, but certainly the police service of Northern Ireland. Ronnie Flanagan said to me that his view of their role was to provide us with a safe bubble within which to operate for a period of time. They determine the length of time that we can take, for the very high scale operations. For the low scale operations, two officers carrying out routine patrols and the like, all we can do is to warn them not to take chances, to identify situations, to withdraw if they have to. They have to give extra attention to security. There is a third element to what we have to do in Northern Ireland through a range of techniques which it is not necessary for me to go into today.

* * *.

   We have arrangements with other agencies so that we are aware of that and from time to time we trigger the arrangements with the Northern Ireland Office to carry out a security check for us, either on the circumstances of an individual or on a building, if appropriate.

  346. If you have some particularly difficult areas, you are presumably using rather different surveillance techniques. You might have a bigger dossier or some background information as to where you can move in. If helicopters are being used, filming from helicopters might give background information but it would not be so necessary if it was not a difficult area. If it were moved further inland, the officers would be able to tackle movement of vehicles.
  (Mr Byrne) Yes.

Mr Bellingham

  347. On the question of charges that you bring against individuals who have been laundering fuel or money, smuggling across the border, what charges are you able to bring? What sentences do you expect to get?
  (Mr Byrne) Principally, the offences that we charge are under the Customs and Excise Management Act which covers a range but has two or three major ones to do with "knowingly concerned in the fraudulent evasion" or there is a strict liability offence. For the more important one that we naturally pursue most of the time, the offence is punishable by seven years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine or both. There are other offences. Obviously, we can move into money laundering although that has not often been done in Northern Ireland with the exception of two splendid operations at the back end of last year. That is a relatively new area. We have from time to time pursued offences under the Theft Act or conspiracy where the offences are different but due to changes in the statutes we no longer do this.

  348. Do you think these sentences provide a sufficient deterrent, in your opinion?
  (Mr Byrne) It is difficult for us to say because the kind of things which we are putting through the courts at the moment, and therefore the sentencing, are a reflection of what we were doing two years ago. The process takes a long time. Our strategy is meant to be dynamic; we are meant to be developing and the department did not have a strategy a couple of years or so ago. We had a series of activities, tactics, and that was focused pretty heavily bottom up. Therefore, I suppose typically we find through the courts that the levels of punishment are a financial penalty, £5,000 or less, quite often a suspended sentence from time to time, no more than three months' imprisonment. That is as much a reflection of the relatively low quality of operation of the people that we are putting before the courts as it is the courts' reluctance to sentence. In September of last year, we had something a little more serious and the person got 18 months. Just two weeks ago, we had somebody who got two and a half years. The potential penalty of up to seven years is enough. It depends whether the courts apply it and it is not for me to judge whether the courts get it right. It is a dangerous area for an enforcement officer to get into. The more important point is that we must use the array of penalties because taking the money off people through assessment, as well as simply confiscation, causes pain. We need to raise the cost of doing business so that people do not want to get involved in that game.

  349. Were you slightly surprised by the remarks of the Lord Chief Justice yesterday when he said that white collar crime should not attract a custodial sentence?
  (Mr Byrne) I have been in law enforcement for a long time. The people who are most deterred by the prospect of being incarcerated are those who commit white collar crime. Putting people in prison is not about vindictiveness from a law enforcement officer's point of view. The only reason that we pursue prosecutions is because we believe that will be the way which causes the greatest deterrent and the greatest impact. We do lock up 700 couriers bringing half a kilo of cocain in from the West Indies every year. I am not sure how huge a deterrent that is to some of these people to spend one or two years in prison. If you are a businessman or you are in it by way of nature and you want a reputation in your society which tends to go with being a businessman, the fact that you have spent the last 12, 18 months, two years or longer in prison, in my view, is probably much more of a deterrent for that type of crime than it is for traditional criminals.

  350. Have the courts, in your experience, been giving a higher tariff because of a defendant's paramilitary links?
  (Mr Byrne) We have no experience of that.

Mr McCabe

  351. Can I ask about the Proceeds of Crime Bill? How do you think it will be of particular benefit to you?
  (Mr Byrne) We are taking the Proceeds of Crime Bill very seriously. These are easy things to say but we have developed a strategy of our own. We think it is a structured way of determining what you are going to achieve and then driving to achieve it. We have already started to seize with two hands tackling the money. The Proceeds of Crime Bill will give us the powers to tackle cash away from the frontier. It will give us the opportunity to tackle cash and assets which are not to do with drugs, more broadly. I know in the drugs area how important it will be. It is a massive asset to us in that area. In the fiscal area we are able to go after assets. We are able to go after money because we can assess for back taxes because that is what the criminality is. Nonetheless, it will give the agencies together an opportunity to tackle the lifestyles of criminals without having to go back and prove the predicate offence. That is likely to bite quite hard in Northern Ireland. Whether it will bite through Customs or more likely through other agencies, I am not so sure.

  352. In your assessment, is there anything missing from that proposed piece of legislation as it currently stands? Is there anything you would like to have seen included that is not there?
  (Mr Byrne) No. We have been through this several times in Customs. In Customs we are probably the lead agency in looking at the potential paths of using it. The answer is, no, we are quite happy with what has been provided.

  353. What about the Assets Recovery Agency in particular; how will that impact on paramilitary activities and organised crime?
  (Mr Byrne) The Assets Recovery Agency will be the only authority, of course, which has the power to use the civil route simply because of the existence of assets. Forget the Human Rights Act, the proportionality considerations mean that organisations like Customs and the Police will not be able to take that straightforward civil route without predicate offences. We are pretty determined that it will provide a very valuable partner and we intend to make sure that, as and when it is up and running, that we provide it with a set of confiscation orders which it can pursue so they can get money into the tin box. I keep getting on to my officers and saying, "It is all very well what they have got in Confiscation Orders, how much money goes in the tin box? That is the bit which is missing from the impact. That should give the Assets Recovery Agency something very worthwhile to do. The more difficult area is this use of the civil power to tackle those with the wealthy unexplainable lifestyle. I have never understood the lack of publicity in Northern Ireland for the so called modern-day "Robin Hoods" on either side of the religious divide who have a high reputation but when you go and see where these people live without working (on the face of it) I wonder why the populace does not see through that element of the sham. We do not make enough of the fact that there are people with lavish lifestyles built on the back of fraudulent activities and smuggling where some of those people say it is paramilitary activity. There is a combination of selfish interest as well as political interest here. I believe as and when the Asset Recovery Agency completes its introductory period, takes stock and picks up its skirts, that is where it may well bite.

  354. So in terms of Confiscation Orders there will be clear, direct liaison between yourself and the Agency and you think there may be some further scope through the provisions covering criminal lifestyles? Is there any other obvious involvement that you envisage between yourselves and the Agency?
  (Mr Byrne) Yes. It is expected that at the outset it will need to recruit individuals and I think we have in Customs probably more of the trained, capable financial investigators because there are additional skills there. We will certainly be seconding officers to help them in the early days. I suspect some of our people will see a career there for themselves so it will help them to develop that expertise. We also expect them to help us develop expertise in the area because they will be the centre of excellence for training and they will take from us, we will second people to them, they will develop technical expertise, and hopefully we will receive benefit by getting the people back in.

  Mr McCabe: Thank you very much.


  355. We have come to the end of the questions we wanted to ask you about this particular inquiry. Can I abuse my privilege as Chairman and lob a little grenade on another subject for which I am afraid you are unprepared. On 1 April the Aggregates Levy comes into effect. We have formed a view in the Committee about the effect that might have in Northern Ireland and one of the problems we have foreseen and warned the Government about is the enforcement of it because it seems to us that you are going to be more interested in finding a lorry load of oils which is evading hundreds if not thousands of pounds of revenue than a lorry load of aggregates which is evading £10 or £20. Have you made any plans to enforce these measures and to counter any smuggling there might be of aggregates to the disadvantage of the Northern Ireland industry?
  (Mr Byrne) No to all of that. We have not made plans on my side of the house. I can take some solace here in the fact that my side is concerned really with the criminals, those who simply do not want to comply under any circumstances. The other side of the organisation deals with those who we call "compliance raiders", where although their willingness to comply is a little uncertain, given the right encouragement they are willing to comply. Therefore until the regulatory basis is determined and until that side of the house identifies it in a strategic way—how close the control is going to be, what is the nature of regulations and therefore what are the gaps that people will try to slip through—they will not engage with my side of the house to look at how we can deal with the problem of those who are determined to commit fraud. I think you have foreseen, rightly so, that we are set priorities in the Department. That is what development strategy is about, it is about setting priorities and determining where you are going to get most bangs for your buck and how you are going to deliver a real outcome. Frankly, until we are clear that the Aggregates Levy is going to deprive the Chancellor of large sums of money, I suspect that most of our enforcement action will be through a tight regulatory regime rather than employing the watchdogs on my right and left. I am being called back before you to talk about Northern Ireland oils generally some time in May so I will not be able to escape it. I will carry the message back and I will be briefed on the next occasion and, if you wish, we will submit something to you in the meantime.

  356. That is from the Committee's point of view a highly satisfactory answer. We are full of sympathy and we believe that things could have been otherwise if the Government had listened. It is a message that we will reinforce on your behalf. If you wish to reinforce it when you come back that will suit us even better. Thank you very much for coming. It has been an interesting afternoon. It has been very useful to us in terms of our report. We look forward to seeing you again.
  (Mr Byrne) Thank you very much, Chairman.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 2 July 2002