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We recognise that levels of taxation are not within the remit of this Committee, and we understand that the harmonisation of tax rates between one region of a Member State and another Member of the European Union is no easy matter. However, we must put it on record that it was a widely shared opinion of witnesses in public sessions, and amongst those we met informally, that if the United Kingdom and the Republic of
Ireland could agree a common regime for fuel duty in Northern Ireland and the Republic, they would deliver a fatal blow to those involved in this area of organised crime.
We urge the Government to give further, urgent consideration to the desirability of introducing a differential rate of fuel duty in Northern Ireland. I know that that would not be easy, but it could be done. I was disappointed and the Committee was disappointed that the Government dismissed that proposal out of hand.
Stephen Pound: The hon. Gentleman is being extremely generous, as ever, and I am grateful to him. I shall not seek again to put words into his mouth, but I am sure that he, like me, is a passionate pro-European who looks forward to monetary and fiscal harmonisation throughout the whole of Europe, as we all do. Is he aware that at an earlier inquiry into the aggregates levy in Northern Ireland we took a great deal of evidence from quarrying interests and, as a result, were able to obtain an arrangement with Her Majestys Treasury whereby the aggregates levy was not enforced? The difficulty with fuel and fuel oils is the scale of the problem, not a lack of willingness on the part of the Government in these dark days before full fiscal harmonisation throughout Europe. The sheer scale is so large that the Government would find it almost impossible to enter into an arrangement that pertains in some other European countries.
Sir Patrick Cormack: Spoken like a true Parliamentary Private Secretary, but the hon. Gentleman signed up to that recommendation in our reporthe agreed with it. We were unanimous and there was no vote on it, so he is committed to it. I have made the point and he has underlined it in his own inimitable way. He is a PPS, but on the Committee he must speak with that fearless objectivity demanded of every member of every Select Committee, and he is very capable of doing so. I do not want to make fun at his expense, but he intervened.
The issue is important and I am sorry that the Government did not recognise the importance that the Committee invested in it. However, we are grateful for their general response. For many years, there has been a broadly bipartisan policy on the issue. The very processes that we hope are coming to a successful conclusion were begun during the premierships of Mrs. Thatcher and John Major and were developed by the present Prime Minister. We wish them success. Success will not bring an end to crime; it will not even end organised crime, but it will bring a real reduction in organised crime. If there is true success, we will create in Northern Ireland communities in which the rule of law is accepted, the police have a writ that runs throughout the whole of the Province, and all politicians are committed to upholding the rule of law and supporting the police. I very much hope that that happens during the next few months, and if our report makes some small contribution to that I shall be well satisfied.
Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab):
I thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for
South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), on how he presented the case this afternoon and on how he steered the ship throughout the inquirywith a light hand on the tiller but a full press of sail at all times. We made quite good progress.
I shall respond to a couple of minor points, although, to be honest, most of the report speaks for itself. The key aspects for many of us fell into two categories. The first was a feeling of absolute amazement at the deeply institutional and entrenched nature of gangsterism in so many aspects of life in Northern Ireland. Many of us will have read the letter that Her Majestys Paymaster General sent to the Committee in March 2006. It referred to payoffs being deducted when computing the profits of a trade, and actually admitted that protection money could be tax-deductible. My hon. Friend the Minister looks as amazed as I was at the fact that it could qualify as a deduction for tax purposes to pay graft to a bunch of gangsters who have threatened to blow up ones building site. That that should happen in the United Kingdom or in any civilised society is extraordinary.
We discovered over and over again that there was an institutional depth to the sort of commercial gangsterismit is almost terrorism by another namethat was taking place. We were led down some strange byways as we realised the extent of the criminality. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire referred to intellectual copyright. Many of us viewed with horror not just the contents of many of the illegal videos on sale throughout Northern Ireland but the increasing extent of such dangerous and lethal objects as cigarettes that appeared to have been rolled from the sweepings of a factory floor in Riga or Vilnius, drenched in mercury and sulphuric acid, packed into a container, sent halfway around the world and then flogged on the back streets of Belfast.
As an ex-smoker, I am completely objective about such things. That anyone would buy a cigarette is fairly amazing; that anyone would buy a cigarette of such dubious provenance is even more horrific. But the fact is that people do. It is so institutionalised that I could go into many shops, as I did in those carefree libertarian days when I was a slave to the weed, to buy a few cigarettes and be asked if I wanted any cheapies. It took me a while to understand. I thought it was a form of parrot food, but it turned out to be reduced-rate cigarettes sold from behind the counter. That practice is widely institutionalised. Our recommendations speak for themselves.
At the core of the matter is the role of paramilitary organisations in criminality. The key question is whether some are pursuing their previous activitieswe can dignify them by calling them a struggle; we can call them any name at allunder another flag, by another name and for another purpose, using the structures and organisations that they built up during the 30 years of the troubles to enrich themselves and fill their boots now, in a time of comparative peace.
Many of us went to Northern Ireland, visited many people and looked into the eyes of the victims of such heinous crime and trade. What we realised quickly was that for organised crime to exist, not just in Northern Ireland but in parts of this capital city and in many countries, there are certain prerequisites. When a gang
preys on people with such a degree of success, certain common factors come into it. Very often, there is a political, ethnic or religious linkage between such groups. One need only look at the north London Kurdish-Turkish heroin smuggling gangs recently exposed in the papers, whose godfathers received two huge prison sentences. That is a group of people with an ethnic, religious and political linkage. In Northern Ireland, for a range of reasonswe can go back centuries if necessarysome people perceive themselves as belonging to a particular group or organisation. The fightthe struggle, as some would call itbetween those opposing groups has taken place over many years and in many different forms.
I did not see a continuity of the struggle between Unionism and republicanism in the open-air markets, the back streets, the shebeens and the hucksters stalls that we visited. What I saw was a business that cannot be dignified by association with a political ideal. Some would say that some of the activities of paramilitary groups during the past 30 years should not be dignified by reference to political idealism. I happen to believe that for all the manifold faults and criminality of many people, there was in many cases an element of political idealism. We can argue about wrong and right later, but it was there.
Stephen Pound: May I, on recommencing, Mrs. Anderson, abase myself before the House and grovel in the most obsequious way, as only a new Labour PPS can manage? I unfortunately misheard a statement earlier with a reference to you as Madam Deputy Speaker. As far I am concerned that nomenclature is entirely appropriate, if a trifle modest for one of your skills and talents, but I was incorrect when I referred to you in that way, and I apologise. I apologise, tooit is a strange sort of apology, but it will have to be sofor references to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire as if he were a member of the Privy Council. Many of us feel that his membership of the Privy Council is long overdue. However, having consulted the list today I see that although the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Ed Balls)or, as we must now call him, the right hon. Member for Normantonhas been elevated to the Privy Council, as yet South Staffordshire does not feature in the list. It can only be a matter of time.
Sir Patrick Cormack: That is a point; it has taken 36 years, which is quite a long time. I should like briefly to add my apologies to those of the hon. Gentleman for inadvertentlyalthough, again, highly appropriatelyaddressing Mrs. Anderson as Madam Deputy Speaker. Not being a frequenter of Westminster Hall I had not realised that the rules had changed.
Janet Anderson (in the Chair): I thank the hon. Gentlemen for their apologies. I was very grateful to be elevated to the dizzy heights of Madam Deputy Speaker, but they are correct to say that for the purpose of this debate I am merely Mrs. Anderson.
My third apology is necessary because I have just been told that there is a severe deficit of Parliamentary Private Secretaries in the building, and I am required to attend an Adjournment debate before too long, which means that I may have to leave before I hear everything that hon. Gentlemen from the Democratic Unionist party have to say. I shall try to live with that, and assure them that I shall study their words later.
The main point of the report before the House is to provide a template for the future direction of the Government. It is intended not to dictate to the Government what they should do, but to suggest what action it would be appropriate to take. It is also the function of the Committeeand one that it has exercised with great skill, excluding my own small part in itto delineate the scale of the problem. That it has done. If the House were inclined to indulge me I could list the responses that the Government have made to the recommendations. There are many mattersparticularly cabs, charities and the licensing of doorkeepers and door security staffon which the Government have responded quickly, with respect to legislation. The Minister will have the same list that I do.
Sammy Wilson: I am somewhat bemused by the hon. Gentlemans statement about the Government responding quickly to some of the recommendations in the report. Given that the licensing regime for the road haulage industry is not due to come in until summer 2008; that the legislation on charities was to be laid before the House before the end of November, which has not happened; and that the licensing regime for petrol retailing is only the subject of consultation at present, and is perhaps another year and a half away, the Governments response is hardly swift, is it?
Stephen Pound: The hon. Gentleman, as ever, brings his fine forensic skills and veritable verbal scalpel to the verbiage that I have offered the House, but if I may say so he is being a little unfair. To consider the particular issue of charities, the Minister of State launched the draft Charities (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 for consultation on 17 July. I think that that is pretty rapid. There was a deal of controversy about the role of independent public sector inspectors general, but the Government should not act precipitately, and they acted thoughtfully and with care. Despite that they introduced the order in July.
The Committee accepted that there had been a delay in introducing a road haulage licensing system, and expressed disappointment, particularly bearing it in mind that the licensing regime that we want has been in place in England and Wales since 2000. However, the Government said at the time, and the Minister can no doubt confirm, that that legislation to bring the road haulage licensing system into line with that in Great Britain will be launched for consultation in autumn 2007. I appreciate the feelings of the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) about the fact that the
system will not be ready until 2008, but these things have to be done with a certain amount of care. We all have experience of legislation that has been rushed through, and we have all suffered from it. This Government are not as other Governments. We do not act precipitately. We weigh the facts slowly and carefully, chewing them over, and masticating at length. Only when we have finally digested the proposals do we come forward with a legislative document, which will doubtless be welcomed by all hon. Members present.
The Committee raised concerns about illegal dumping, and on 21 July the Government responded by introducing the draft Waste (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. I could go on, but I suspect that that might try your patience, Mrs. Anderson, and that of other hon. Members. Overall the Committee has done a thorough, extensive and workmanlike job. It has drilled down deeply, as well as looking widely. As I said, it has produced a document that will stand the test of time, and which I suspect will come to be seen as the first point of reference for future discussions of the role of paramilitary organisations in crime, particularly in extortion.
Everyone would like the Government to do more immediately. There are some things that they can do, and others that they cannot. However, there are many things, particularly in relation to the Organised Crime Task Force, on which action has been taken. I want to end by saying that the impression that I have gained is not just of the United Kingdom Government acting; the Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, has mentioned the fact that our inquiry extended into Ireland, and that we had discussions in Dublin with An Garda Siochana and other groups.
I was mightily impressed by the cross-border co-operation between the PSNI and An Garda Siochana, and I think that one of the extremely positive factors to have emerged from the report is the complete commitment on both sides of the border to the eradication of that degree of criminality. It is a degree of criminality that may, politically, be difficult to prosecute in the Republic of Ireland; however, that is being done with enthusiasm. It is not for us to praise the Government of the Republic of Ireland, but it is appropriate to mention that the political direction that has been given, and the actions of An Garda Siochana, have been extremely impressive.
A great many recommendations have emerged from the Committees work, and all, with one exception, I think, are being addressed. That is a tribute to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire and his Committee members, but above all it is a tribute to the way in which the House operates through its Select Committee system. I commend the report to the House and, to continue the maritime metaphor that was used earlier, I launch it as a proud, well built, sturdy barque that might be launched on storm-tossed seas, but which has the strength to travel far and has, if I may say so, a happy crew.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP):
I rise to speak on the Committees substantial report but, try as I might, I shall have difficulty following the
eloquence of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound). However, I shall endeavour to stick to the substance of the report.
Organised crime is big business in Northern Ireland. I join other hon. Members in commending the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and the staff who assisted in producing such a comprehensive report. We took a considerable amount of time travelling around Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, taking evidence and gathering information. As the hon. Gentleman said, some of that information had to be given in confidence, because of the nature of the evidence and the potential threat against those who imparted it to us.
Organised crime is big business, whether it is run by criminal gangs or by paramilitary groups. During the course of our investigation, a number of people outlined specific details in their allegations against named republican groups and named loyalist groups. Ironically, the groups that they named are supposedly committed to a peaceful outcome to Northern Irelands problems, yet it appears that many of their members are still deeply involved in such activities as running protection rackets.
The extent of the problem is outlined in the report, from which I shall take two quotations. The director of the Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland, Mr. Nigel Smyth, told us that extortion and racketeering were continuing
at a very high level,
and that counterfeiting was continuing to get worse. Mrs. Val Smith, who is a former national chairman of the Road Haulage Association in Northern Ireland, said that current levels of criminality were
worse than...during the troubles.
It is undoubtedly true that good progress has been made in dealing with some of the problems. No one should seek either to minimise or to undermine that. The Assets Recovery Agency has been hitting some of the individuals involved hard. That is good and should be welcomed, but there must be no room for any complacency or easing up of the campaign to hit those individuals where it hurts. Some announcements have been made in the past few weeks about action against one individual in south Armagh. That is good, but such action is long overdue, because that individual is believed to have a multi-million pound racketeering empire at his beck and call. Whether he is pursued for £5 million or £10 million, the final amount will be a drop in the ocean unless he is pursued rigorously, as all the others who are involved in such activities should be pursued.
I am of the opinion, which I hope other hon. Members present share, that there is an innovative and chameleon-like quality to some of those groups. They can adapt and alter their illegal practices and modus operandi to take advantage of any loosening of the system and to drive a coach and horses through any attempt to crack down on their activities. The work is work in progress, to quote some of the people in Northern Ireland who have been quoted on other issues.
I should like to discuss the Ministers response to our report, which we completed and launched in the summer. In responding to what the report said about the impact of organised crime on the economy in Northern Ireland, he said:
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