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Westminster Hall

Thursday 30 November 2006

[Janet Anderson in the Chair]

Organised Crime (Northern Ireland)

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06 HC 886-1 and Ninth Special Report (Government Reply).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Kevin Brennan.]

2.30 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak—not for too long, I hope—about the report that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs produced in July on organised crime in Northern Ireland. I am glad to see several members of the Committee present, and glad, too, that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) is present to respond. He and I have had several amicable conversations since he assumed his new duties earlier this year, and he is a man who has dedicated himself in that short time to the affairs of the Province of Northern Ireland.

As I said in the House last week when we were debating Northern Ireland matters, the future is not what it used to be in Northern Ireland. Things really have changed a lot, even since we produced the report in July. In July, there was a general air of pessimism about the prospects for the talks succeeding and the devolved institutions being restored. Although it would be a rash man who put money on all going smoothly between now and March, nevertheless, the prospects are better than they were, and it is important to put that on record.

I should also like to put it on record that the report was unanimous. There was not a single Division in the Committee as we discussed the report. We had long discussions as it was drafted and re-drafted, but in the end, it represented the unanimous view of a Committee of 13 members, all of whom attended some or all deliberative sessions. I am particularly glad to see present the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), who has played a most important and constructive part in the affairs of the Committee for a long time. I hope that later in the debate, he has the good fortune to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I also pay tribute to the Committee members from Northern Ireland, two of whom are present. The other two, the hon. Members for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell), have sent their apologies. They are unable to attend because of unavoidable engagements in Northern Ireland. All four Committee members from Northern Ireland played a constructive part in our deliberations.

We launched the report at a press conference that was deliberately held in Armagh because it has much symbolic significance. It is the city of the two cathedrals and the ecclesiastical capital of the island of
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Ireland, and when we launched the report in July, representatives from all three Northern Ireland parties that play their full part in this Parliament were present on the platform.

The Committee decided to consider the issue of organised crime, because when we began our deliberations after the last general election, it became apparent to all that it was the most important social issue in Northern Ireland. Organised crime in the Province, as I shall seek to describe, is different from crime in the rest of the United Kingdom. In compiling our report, we took evidence publicly from a number of people, and we are grateful to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Assets Recovery Agency, HM Revenue and Customs and others who gave evidence to us.

If not uniquely, then most unusually for a Select Committee, we were also obliged to take much of our evidence in private—either in private session or in informal meetings. As the report makes claim, we are utterly convinced of the bona fides of all who met us on whatever basis, but it was significant that many people did not feel able to give either all or some of their evidence in public, so worried were they about the consequences of doing so. The Minister recognised that we had to take evidence in private, much as we regretted it. To all of those who talked to us, we are grateful.

We are grateful, too, for the co-operation that we received in the Republic of Ireland. We went to Dublin and met—within the walls of the British embassy—leaders of the Garda Siochana, the Criminal Assets Bureau and others, who were frank and helpful with what they told us, and we were grateful for that. One thing that I shall do this afternoon is to respect the confidentiality of the information that we received during our inquiry. I know that all Committee colleagues who take part in the debate will do the same. It is absolutely crucial.

Crime throughout the United Kingdom is a worry. It is a worry in your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker, and it is a worry in mine. However, in Ireland, it has another dimension: paramilitaries from both sides of the divide are behind organised crime. I hate using “loyalist” in this context, because to engage in the activities that paramilitaries engage in, seems the reverse of loyalism to me; however, one has to use the shorthand. From the loyalist side and the nationalist side, paramilitaries or former paramilitaries continue to play a part in organised crime, to intimidate individuals and to exert a malign influence over communities. When one delves into the subject, it is noticeable just how far-reaching the effect is. Without breaking any confidence, we saw the nature of counterfeit goods and how skilfully many of them were counterfeited. We met people whose lives had been made a misery by the intimidatory tactics of those who sought, under various guises, to extort money from them.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am very interested in what the right hon. Gentleman says. Does he feel that organised crime in Northern Ireland is a direct consequence of the redeployment of paramilitary forces that were formerly engaged in political crime, but now regard themselves as money-making organisations with precious little political aspiration, even by way of their own defence? Is that one reason why Northern Ireland has particular problems at this time?

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Sir Patrick Cormack: It is a worry. One witness—his evidence is on the public record—from the Federation of Small Businesses, if I remember rightly, said that he was worried that in place of terrorist organisations, two “mini mafias”, as he called them, were developing.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the evidence provided to the Committee, that we were moving from paramilitary terrorism to paramilitary crime, with the same networks and anti-surveillance tactics and the same personnel, and with expertise in terrorist activity being transferred to criminal activity?

Sir Patrick Cormack: Indeed. The hon. Gentleman, who attended almost all the Committee’s sessions and met almost all our witnesses, can doubtless expand on that. The description was absolutely right, and it is a great worry. We met people in Belfast and some came over to see us in London. For every reason, some people were not prepared to have their identities revealed. We respected that, and I shall not provide even any geographical indicator. We refer in the report to people who had had vast sums of money extorted from them—in one case, a six-figure sum over a period of little more than a year and in another, a large five-figure sum over a similar period. In some cases the villains were from the nationalist and republican side, and another case involved the loyalist side.

Sammy Wilson: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Patrick Cormack: Of course. Then it will be a dialogue.

Sammy Wilson: Is it not significant that the six-figure sum that was reported to the Committee was demanded from someone in the construction industry by the Provisional IRA, and that that was within the last year? It happened at a time when the Government had been trying to paint Sinn Fein-IRA as moving away from criminal activity.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I shall again be careful, because I do not want to do anything that could reveal the identity of the person concerned. However, it is quite clear from what we were told that the people who extorted that sum were indeed, at the very least, former Provisional IRA members. One does not necessarily know their current commitment, but that was where they came from, and they certainly used all the tactics to which reference was made by both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).

In the summary to our report, we said:

That was something else that concerned the Committee. It was clear—we heard it from some of those whom we met—that some crimes went unreported because people were fearful of the consequences of reporting them.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): May I in passing endorse the comments that the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee made about the Committee being utterly leak-proof? It has been remarkable how much confidentiality has been preserved during the investigation.

Does the hon. Gentleman feel that there are some grounds for optimism, in that the political and paramilitary criminality to which he refers, which was previously so institutionalised that people even claimed tax exemption for kickbacks, is slightly less awful than it was, because the police are able to concentrate more resources on it? I am not asking him to sing a song, but does he not admit to a little bit of optimism in the current Northern Ireland context?

Sir Patrick Cormack: I should not wish to sing a song. That would empty the Chamber pretty quickly. Yes, there is some cause for optimism, and it would be extremely blinkered to say that no progress had been made. The very opening sentence of our report says:

Of course, there is cause for optimism, though I shall return to the reasons why I have worries as well as hopes. I hope, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman does, that devolved institutions will be restored within the next few months. I pay tribute to all those who have been constructive in their dialogue over recent weeks and months, including the hon. Members from Northern Ireland who are sitting here this afternoon. I believe that we have a lot to be thankful for, and to admire, in the conduct of all those who have played throughout by the democratic rules. I have considerable respect both for the Unionist and for the nationalist politicians, as represented in this House by the SDLP, who have played by those rules.

We should remember that the debate this afternoon would be very different if five Members who were elected to this place were here and were playing a full part in the dialogue. If they were, my optimism would be unbounded. The hon. Member for Ealing, North nods assent to that.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): May I take my hon. Friend back to the point that was made about gaining the support of communities? Does he agree that support for the police in every aspect of the work that they undertake is one of the most important aspects of the report and of the current dialogue in Northern Ireland? I refer to paragraph 146 of our report, which says:

The report goes on to say in effect that giving support to those communities, and letting them go forward in the knowledge that when they report something it will be taken seriously, requires full backing from all parties.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Of course it does. I have said that many times on the Floor of the House and elsewhere, and I shall refer to that before I conclude. My hon. Friend just leaps ahead a little.

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I draw the Committee’s attention to another point made in our summary, which encapsulates the sort of crimes that we are discussing. It says that

In other words, the tentacles of the organised criminal stretch into almost every aspect of criminal activity. That is deeply worrying.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) made a fundamental point. In any country, the rule of law depends on a number of elements. First, it depends on widespread community support. One wants a population that recognises that the rule of law is essential for the proper functioning of a normal and civilised society. Vast numbers of people in Northern Ireland—the overwhelming majority—would subscribe to that without any reservation. Unfortunately, however, there are in both communities—especially in a number of republican and nationalist communities in the south—those who have not demonstrated that support. Why have those communities not demonstrated that support? Because their leaders have not done so. Community support needs proper leadership.

There is no doubt in my mind that had all the communities and political parties in Northern Ireland signed up to supporting the PSNI—a remarkable organisation that is probably the most supervised police force in the civilised world—we should not have needed to conduct our investigation and there would be absolutely no doubt about the outcome of current talks. The biggest stumbling block, to which we refer in the report and to which reference has been made many times on the Floor of the House, is that there is in Northern Ireland a powerful political party, with five Members elected to this House and a considerable number of Assembly Members, that has not yet fully signed up to the rule of law and recognised the police.

Stephen Pound: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and I do not wish to lead him into a thorny thicket of controversy, bearing it in mind that we have avoided that in the inquiry, but if the criterion that he has outlined were the sole one, the inescapable logic of his argument would be that absolutely no crime is committed by loyalists or Unionists, who do indeed support the police. By implying that it is only the absence of a specific form of stated support for the police that enables republican and loyalist criminals to continue their criminality, he is making a point that does not stand up to much scrutiny.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The hon. Gentleman is being—

Sammy Wilson: Mischievous.

Sir Patrick Cormack: He could never be mischievous. We know him too well. However, he is seeking to put words into my mouth that I did not utter. The fact of the matter is that of course there is crime—even, no doubt, in the hon. Gentleman’s
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constituency. There will be crime in Northern Ireland until the end of time, as there will be in other parts of the United Kingdom and throughout the world, because human beings are not perfect. We are all, as the hon. Gentleman knows, miserable sinners and we have in our midst people who commit crimes. The difference that became increasingly apparent during our inquiry is the organised crime and the organisation that is largely, if not entirely, controlled by those who were involved in paramilitary terrorist activity.

If all the parties in Northern Ireland signed up to the rule of law and recognised the legitimacy of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, of course crime would not vanish. No one would be so fatuous as to suggest that. However, it would create a wholly different climate. We saw that and we continue to see it. Even during the Committee’s current inquiry into community restorative justice schemes one sees—we had evidence of this only last week—that some schemes are marvellous and beyond reproach, but others are worrying, because they are seen as an alternative to policing and control is in the hands of people with dubious credentials. I circulated to the Committee, so that we would all have the benefit of reading it, an extremely penetrating but worrying article by Dr. Garret FitzGerald, a former Taoiseach, in which he made those points. I hope that the Committee will have the opportunity before long of meeting Dr. FitzGerald and discussing some of the issues with him. We need a total commitment and the report points to that.

I shall deal briefly with some specific issues and some of the points in the Government’s response. The Government’s response is positive and for that we are grateful. However, if I have a criticism—the Minister knows that it is a constructive criticism—it is that the Government do not view some of the issues with quite the sense of urgency that we would like. For example, I know that the Government hoped to table a measure on charity law by the end of November, but I do not believe that anything has been tabled and today is the last day of November. It is monstrous that in Northern Ireland the word “charity” is abused and that so many spurious charities have been used as a cover for collecting money that has been extorted by intimidation. That is a real worry.

In our report we pointed to the fact that there is a need to license taxis in Northern Ireland as they are licensed elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We have been told that they will be licensed by March next year, and perhaps the Minister will tell us whether there is any slippage on that. It is also a pity that it has taken so long for the road haulage industry to be properly organised in Northern Ireland.

The Government gave a wholly inadequate response to our recommendations on fuel, and they dismissed our constructive and sensible proposals. We acknowledged in the report that if we are to tackle fuel laundering and so on, it would be sensible if Ministers looked again at the harmonisation of tax rates. We said in paragraph 103:

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