Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)

FREIGHT TRANSPORT ASSOCIATION AND ROAD HAULAGE ASSOCIATION NORTHERN IRELAND

1 FEBRUARY 2006

  Q80  Dr McDonnell: How bad does it have to get before the Government say "We need money for things in Northern Ireland and here is £350 million a year" or whatever that figure is? How long are they prepared to let this go on?

  Mrs Smith: Some time ago when I was National Chairman of the Road Haulage Association I wrote a letter to the Treasury and I asked the Treasury to look at the harmonisation of fuel on the island of Ireland to try to take away the monies that were going in to fuel organised crime. My suggestion to him then was: "You are going to get your £350 million back into the Exchequer and the resources that you are currently wasting chasing around after these fuel tankers that are crossing the border—and remember there are probably more fuel tankers in Northern Ireland operating illegally than legally—you can put those resources to the ports for instance and you can try to stop us exporting the problems that we have to the UK and you can use your resources better elsewhere." The return letter I got from Mr Healey said that because of European legislation that was something that the British Government could not do. I still believe that it is a possibility and I think the European Union would probably look quite favourably on something that is going to help Northern Ireland out of its present problems. I think that one of the Scottish MPs has actually brought to Parliament that he would like to see some dispensation on fuel duties for the highlands and islands and he has gone back to France who I think have managed to give something for some area in France. I am saying I think these things are possible. The Government paid to bring across a professor from the United States to give them advice on how to defeat organised crime in Northern Ireland but they do not listen to what he has to say. They are really only tipping the iceberg with the measures that they are taking at the minute.

  Q81  Sammy Wilson: Is there not a difficulty with what you are suggesting insofar as Northern Ireland is 22 miles from Scotland; hauliers in Scotland would then say the differential in fuel rates give hauliers in Northern Ireland an unfair competitive advantage to them? At what point do you stop this rolling across? You have made a fairly important point but I just want to know how you answer it?

  Mrs Smith: For a start you put a timescale on it. You give a timescale so that the Government could put the money it is saving into other resources—in defences, the PSNI and the Organised Crime Task Force—to try to defeat organised crime. At the minute there is smuggling going on to the UK mainland. There is an accident waiting to happen. Hauliers are coming over from the UK who never came into Northern Ireland or Southern Ireland before, they are bringing loads in because they know they can pick up cheap fuel in Southern Ireland and they are not just taking out cheap fuel in their tanks, they are taking cheap fuel out in the trailers they are bringing out as well. At some stage there is an accident going to happen. There is something going to happen to one of these ferries; there is the possibility of one of these ferries going to the bottom of the Irish Sea. It is happening all the time but at least if you can put all your resources onto the ports you can catch what is going on and what is being exported out of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland into the UK and stop that happening. Hauliers are buying their fuel in Southern Ireland now. They are doing it legally but they are doing it to survive. Every country knows that Northern Ireland needs it haulage industry; that is how it moves its goods. We have to support our haulage industry and at the minute if our haulage industry was not buying its fuel in Southern Ireland we would not be competitive.

  Q82  Sammy Wilson: You have talked about how long it takes to get a case to court and the lack of action by HM Revenue and Customs, is there any indication that that is because the officers cannot operate in areas where much of this fuel laundering is occurring due to threats and therefore need police back up and that is not available to them?

  Mr Wilson: I have not heard that personally as a reason but I do believe that is probably correct. Therein lies the question: how good is the communication between Revenue and Customs and PSNI? I am not sure personally; I just do not know if they were really well coordinated collectively together whether they would have more results. Another point mentioned earlier, we talked about the increase in crime I think with the peace process coming along there is much less evidence of troops and police on the ground on a daily basis. It used to be that on every corner you saw the armed forces and thankfully now that is not the case but that makes it so much easier for these guys to operate.

  Q83  Chairman: You heard the evidence we had earlier this afternoon and the gentleman from the Federation of Small Businesses said that he felt that there were two mafias operating in Northern Ireland. Did you hear that evidence?

  Mr Wilson: Yes.

  Q84  Chairman: One from each side of the sectarian divide. Do you believe that is the case as well? If it is, what is their involvement in the subject we are currently addressing?

  Mr Wilson: Personally I do not have the experience to comment on that. I read what I see in the papers and there have been some high profile cases of people who appear to have been living a very high lifestyle having come from very meagre upbringings and they have come to the attention of the authorities or come to the attention of other people who did not want them to stay around for much longer.

  Q85  Sammy Wilson: There are parts of Northern Ireland where currently it is well-known that cigarettes, for example, are not taken over the border they are shipped to Liverpool and then back. Maybe you could tell us the difficulties in putting high value loads across the border.

  Mrs Smith: The hijacking that took place on the border was my company and it was my security officer who found our vehicle because the police would not go into the area where the stolen vehicle was taken. Our company no longer transports the goods across the border but the goods are not taken via the UK to Dublin. That is still happening because the threat is still felt to be such that it is not safe to take those cigarettes across the border.

  Q86  Sammy Wilson: You mentioned that you recovered the load that was stolen in west Belfast. What kind of cost does that impose on a company like your own to put those security measures in place?

  Mrs Smith: Absolutely huge. We are spending phenomenal amounts of money. We have to track all our vehicles. We have to have our own control room.

  Q87  Chairman: How many vehicles do you have?

  Mrs Smith: We have over 50 vehicles in Northern Ireland; we also operate in Southern Ireland as well so I have experience of what goes on on both sides on the border. We have to track all our vehicles, we have to monitor them from our own control room and we also have two full time people out on the road doing ad hoc tracking for vehicles. In certain areas, as I say, we would not send a vehicle in to deliver cigarettes in particular without a helper on the vehicle.

  Q88  Chairman: Could you just answer my earlier question about paramilitary involvement?

  Mrs Smith: If I told you that my vehicles get hit all over Northern Ireland, it is not just in one particular area, but there are certain areas in Northern Ireland where it is much more difficult to deliver in and the drivers themselves know when they are picking up tails and when they know there are people watching them. It is very organised; you have to see these things to believe them. It is from both sides of the community.

  Q89  Mr Fraser: Going back to the point you were just making, Mrs Smith, in 2003 you had a security seminar and there was a DC Kerr who admitted that the road haulage industry was not at the top of police priorities despite its obvious links to organised crime. At that time certain initiatives were set up, one of which you perhaps alluded to just now, the National Stolen Lorry Load Help Desk and the other one was TruckPol.

  Mrs Smith: They are here in the UK, not in Northern Ireland.

  Q90  Mr Fraser: When one looks at how such things have been set up, how would you use such a group or organisation or entity like that to help yourselves in Northern Ireland if you could?

  Mrs Smith: We do have links with other haulage companies. We have an association where we do speak to one another and we do have meetings with the police. People who are involved in the distribution of high value goods and the warehousing of high value goods would have regular meetings with the police. We do have some communication happening there.

  Q91  Mr Fraser: Is it effective?

  Mrs Smith: I know that the people I speak to work tirelessly to try to defeat organised crime but the resources are limited and the problem we have now in Northern Ireland is that we do not believe the PSNI have the resources to do the job and defeat organised crime.

  Q92  Mr Fraser: Another point with regard to evidence given by your organisation to the Transport Select Committee in November 2005 was about the automated facility to notify Truck Watch within minutes of a stolen report. Are you aware of that?

  Mrs Smith: Yes.

  Q93  Mr Fraser: They then go on the police national computer. What representations have been made by yourselves?

  Mrs Smith: Because we are a high value goods company we do have links into the police control room so when this happened a couple of weeks ago our control room contacted the police control room in Northern Ireland and it was my control room that led the police to where the vehicle was.

  Q94  Mr Fraser: Am I correct in saying that this scheme is presently stalled?

  Mrs Smith: In Northern Ireland or in the UK?

  Q95  Mr Fraser: Generally in the UK, but do you know any more than that?

  Mrs Smith: I could not bring you up to date. I can certainly get some more information; I can get someone from the RHA who is involved in what you are asking and get them to update you on it. I know in Northern Ireland we have worked very hard. No matter how much effort we have put into the high value goods haulage that I represent we are still not winning. Organised crime is still there and it is still defeating us. If you go back to what happened in Northern Ireland in 2004 where you had the Northern Bank robbery, prior to that two other companies took substantial hits from the organised crime gang and in fact it was stated publicly that the gang who hit those two companies—one of which was my own—actually robbed the Northern Bank. Not one person has been apprehended for the robbery on our premises and not one case that was stolen has been found.

  Q96  Chairman: What did they do and what did they take?

  Mrs Smith: It was a type of kidnap and they held one of my staff and his family hostage. He was made to do certain things and they eventually came to the depot and he loaded a trailer of cigarettes. Over £2.5 million of cigarettes were stolen. Not one case, not one packet has been recovered and not one person has been apprehended. You are asking here, what do we need to do in Northern Ireland? If we do not apprehend the criminals and if we do not bring them to the courts and if we do not put them away we are never going to win in Northern Ireland.

  Q97  Chairman: A moment ago you were blaming lack of police resources. Is it just a question of resources or do you have the impression that the police are not interested in this aspect of things?

  Mrs Smith: It is obviously in the interests of the police in Northern Ireland to cease organised crime. They want to do that. I would believe they do not have the resources having unfortunately experienced serious robberies and serious hijackings. I can see that they do not have the resources to be able to do anything about it.

  Q98  Chairman: Have any of the people who have perpetrated crimes against your company been apprehended?

  Mrs Smith: No.

  Q99  Chairman: Not one?

  Mrs Smith: No.


 
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