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Session 2003 - 04
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Northen Ireland Grand Committee Debates

Proposal for a Draft Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2004

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Northern Ireland Grand Committee

Thursday 20 May 2004


[Mr. James Cran in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Petrol Fraud

2.30 pm

1. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): What the latest annual assessment is of the amount of smuggled and laundered petrol which has been sold in Northern Ireland. [173489]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): Her Majesty's Customs and Excise assessment cannot distinguish between the legitimate cross-border shopping of petrol and all forms of petrol fraud in Northern Ireland. However, its latest estimate for 2002 of the revenue loss in the Northern Ireland petrol sector from all forms of petrol fraud and the legitimate cross-border purchase of petrol was £115 million.

Mr. Barnes: That is a considerable amount of money. Will my hon. Friend impress on the Treasury the fact that there is a land border between a section of the United Kingdom and a foreign country? That means cross-border shopping, which the Minister described, as anyone who lives 30 to 40 miles from the border finds it easy to fill up with petrol on the other side of the border. It also means smuggled petrol, which has otherwise been bought legitimately in Ireland, as well as laundered petrol. Surely duty harmonisation would be an advantage? Such harmonisation was argued for on the island of Ireland, and the duty was increased in the Republic of Ireland and reduced in Northern Ireland to make it no longer worth the while of criminals to be involved in this type of activity. The Treasury realised that something needed to be done about an aggregates tax, so can the same thing happen in the case of petrol duty?

Mr. Pearson: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about the aggregates tax. That is a separate issue, but it is an example of an area in which the Treasury has responded. I do not believe that the UK's taxation policy should be determined by the behaviour of criminals, which is what people who smuggle fuel are. It is important that we bear down on, and arrest wherever possible, those who smuggle fuel. In recent years, the number of customs officers devoted to that task has increased from 25 to 160, and there have been some significant successes. Simply changing, or trying to harmonise, rates is not the right response to criminal behaviour. The right response is to tackle it and to bring to justice the people who are committing illegal acts.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): The Minister will know of Thomas ''Slab'' Murphy, who

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some journalists say is the IRA's chief of staff. He will also know that Mr. Murphy is heavily involved in fuel smuggling, to the extent that he charges other fuel smugglers for the right to use the road past his farm over the border. He will also know that one of the watchtowers retained by the authorities in south Armagh is there for the specific purpose of observing what Mr. Murphy does. How come neither the police nor Customs and Excise—or anyone else—seems to be able to inhibit his activities, which, according to press reports at the weekend, have resulted in Mr. Murphy having a personal fortune of between £35 million and £40 million? Until the authorities manage to do something about that scandal, racketeering in general is unlikely to improve.

Mr. Pearson: Like the right hon. Gentleman, I have read the press reports and seen the stories about Mr. Murphy's activities, although it would be wrong to single out individuals. The Government expect the police to act if they have sufficient evidence. No one who breaks the law should be above the law. The law of the land should be enforced. That is what the Government believe, and the police are very aware of our views on this matter.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Will the Minister say how many times this man has been brought in by the police and questioned about his activities? Is he not merely above the law but so much above it that he is not even questioned about his activities?

Mr. Pearson: I do not have any figures to hand, so I cannot reply to the hon. Gentleman. However, I can tell him categorically that no one is above the law of this land, whether they be in Northern Ireland or anywhere else in the UK. If the police have sufficient evidence against an individual, they will make an arrest and bring a prosecution.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I congratulate the Minister on the work of the Assets Recovery Agency and the Organised Crime Task Force.

My question follows on from the issues raised by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). I recently visited the Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell, in Dublin, who gave an assurance that, through the Criminal Assets Bureau, the Irish authorities are going to look at Thomas ''Slab'' Murphy in detail to see what steps can be taken south of the border to address that particular problem. Will the Minister assure us that the Organised Crime Task Force and the Assets Recovery Agency will focus on him in conjunction with their colleagues in Customs and Excise? I believe that he and his operations are funding the IRA and Sinn Fein's political activities to the tune of up to £20 million a year.

Mr. Pearson: I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that the police, Customs authorities and all those involved as partners of the Organised Crime Task Force are totally committed to rooting out crime, wherever it is and whoever is involved. We will do all

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we can to ensure that those engaged in criminal acts are brought to justice. There can be no exceptions to that.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): The Minister has rightly pointed out that it is for the police to take a robust line against the smuggling of petrol. What are the latest initiatives being used by the Police Service of Northern Ireland to deal with that serious problem?

Mr. Pearson: The hon. Lady is probably aware that in the last 12 months for which figures are available, some 21 laundering plants have been broken up by Customs, and more than 1,500 vehicles have been seized.

Customs and the police have adopted a range of methods by which to obtain information and take action against those engaged in criminal behaviour, and there are real signs of success. After several years of falling levels of legitimate fuel in Northern Ireland, those levels have increased by 7 per cent. in the past two years. That is a good indicator that the illegal market is shrinking and that the Government's actions are succeeding.

Political Parties (Paramilitary Links)

2. David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): If he will make a statement on the relationship between political parties which have Members of the Legislative Assembly at Stormont and organisations involved in terrorist and criminal activities (a) in Northern Ireland, (b) in Great Britain, (c) in the Republic of Ireland and (d) internationally. [173490]

Mr. Pearson: The Independent Monitoring Commission's first report, which was published on 20 April, indicated that two parties represented in the Assembly—Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist party—have links with paramilitary groups. It is clear from the report that senior politicians are in a position to exercise significant influence over their activities.

In its report of 11 May, the Organised Crime Task Force stated that the Ulster Volunteer Force and the IRA were engaged in serious and organised criminal activities both inside and outside Northern Ireland. Clearly that is not acceptable. It is time for all paramilitary and criminal activity to be brought to an end.

David Burnside: I thank the Minister for that answer. It is surely a sad state of affairs that it takes the media—I refer specifically to the BBC 3 programme on the criminal rich list, and to The Sunday Times—to show the courage to take on the republican criminals in Northern Ireland. They have shown more courage than Her Majesty's Government.

The Minister knows from security information that Thomas ''Slab'' Murphy is the chief of staff for the Provisional IRA, and that the president of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, and its chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, sit beside him on the army council of the Provisional IRA, which the IMC report said was inextricably linked with the continuation of criminal violence. Will the Minister give a commitment that he will have urgent talks with the Chief Constable of the PSNI and the head of the prosecution service in Northern Ireland, to ensure that no protection or

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immunity is given to republican or so-called loyalist criminals in investigations or prosecutions?

Mr. Pearson: I reject the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the media show more courage than the police and Customs officers. Indeed, I pay tribute to them, and to officers in the Organised Crime Task Force, for their work in bringing people to justice.

I have regular meetings with the Chief Constable, and I assure the Committee that no person or organisation engaged in criminal activity is off limits. The Government are totally committed to seeing an end to all paramilitary activity; and we are totally committed to tackling organised crime, whoever commits it.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Can the Minister explain the marked difference in strategy employed against terrorists in Northern Ireland and international terrorists, and why two such violently different strategies are being employed simultaneously, presumably with an equal expectation of success?

Mr. Pearson: I do not believe that there are two totally different strategies. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that, for a number of years, we have taken a range of measures to tackle terrorism in Northern Ireland. We shall continue to do so. It is important that all paramilitary activity should cease.

The IMC report, of which the hon. Gentleman will be fully aware, indicates that the level of activity is still unacceptable. The Government know that it is unacceptable, and we will do all that we can to bring paramilitarism to an end. We will continue to press all paramilitary organisations, and all those political parties that have some influence over them, to ensure that that comes about.


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