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30 Nov 2006 : Column 155WH—continued

I hope that the Minister will outline the extent to which the problem is being tackled, given that it is four months since the report was published. One would imagine that any response would be well under way, and we should like to see the outcome of that.

In discussing the impact of organised crime on the economy, the Minister also said that he would invite the managing director of the Construction Employers Federation Ltd to discuss with him the nature and extent of such activity. I should also like the Minister to outline, if he is able, what that amounted to and what positive plan of action he has.

In conclusion, I draw attention to something that several hon. Members referred to. To expand upon what Val Smith said, organised crime in Northern Ireland appears, in certain respects, to have been getting worse in recent years. However, there are members of organisations in Northern Ireland in both the republican movement and loyalist movements, but particularly the republican movement, who want to be involved in the Government there. That is precisely why my party and I have insisted not only that all prospective participants in any future Government in Northern Ireland must indicate that they support the police, the rule of law and the courts, but that those who previously did not support police officers—indeed, they engaged in shooting them rather than supporting them—must prove over a long period that their change of attitude is deep-seated, and not just grounded in a desire to get into power.

That is why we need to see the report in the context of a changing political environment in Northern Ireland and why we need to keep the matter under review throughout the next period, whether it be of three months, six months or a year. We need constantly to monitor those who say that they are moving away from criminal activity. Whether that work is done through the Independent Monitoring Commission, the ARA, the police or other bodies, we need to monitor how such people are behaving, rather than simply accept a verbal statement to the effect that they now support the law that they broke so frequently and for so long.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): My hon. Friend makes a vital point about the need to test people who even today still refuse to give the slightest endorsement to the Police Authority for Northern Ireland in tackling crime. Does he agree that such organisations, including the republican movement, still have in their possession millions of pounds of illegally gained assets? The retention of those assets constitutes ongoing criminal activity. Does he therefore agree that, to prove their bona fides, people in the republican movement in particular who want to be part of the Government in Northern Ireland will have to get a move on in giving up those assets and encouraging others to do so?

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Mr. Campbell: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is essential that we see evidence of intent. We have heard much about people’s intention to move away from criminality, but we have seen very little by way of evidence. I commend my hon. Friend’s comments and agree with them. We are entering a period in which we must test people to see the extent of their commitment to the rule of law. That commitment must be not merely verbal—something that can be said today and unsaid tomorrow. It has to be grounded in the reality of Northern Ireland.

Sammy Wilson: Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that the Government are not only not seeking an assurance that a commitment will be given and acted on, but are not yet even pushing republicans to give a verbal commitment to supporting the police, let alone evidence that that verbal commitment means something?

Mr. Campbell: I am somewhat disappointed that only earlier this week did my hon. Friend and colleague the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland indicate that he would like a Sinn Fein annual conference to commend the issue of support for the rule of law. That ought to have happened six months ago. Better late than never, however. It ought now to be a case of getting on with it.

To conclude, the report is a welcome addition not only to the debate in Northern Ireland but to the collective concentration of minds in the Government and society in Northern Ireland to ensure that, however difficult the road back to peaceful and democratic rule, we must, in so far as we can, rid the Province of the mafia-like grip that has begun to extend throughout parts of the community with the support of those who would like their political representatives to be in places of power. We need a change of attitude and mindset, and the report could add considerably to that. If the Government follow it up and its recommendations are taken up and closely monitored in the coming period, it will have proved to have been a significant report in Northern Ireland’s history.

3.42 pm

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I welcome the report and how the Committee decided to launch it. In his speech, the Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), said that the future in Northern Ireland is not what it used to be. The Committee of this Westminster Parliament was able to launch a report on organised crime in Armagh, the seat of much of the organised crime that it describes. There are fuel laundering plants there, and one of the biggest markets of counterfeit goods was recently closed down at Jonesborough in County Armagh. Many of the godfathers of the mafia gangs that run organised crime scams are located in south Armagh. The fact that the Committee was able to go to south Armagh and launch its report there was therefore very significant. Only 10 years ago, a Committee of the House of Commons would certainly not have launched a report of that nature at that location.

Having said that, the report highlights the fact that there is still a massive terrorist problem. We have to be
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careful not to divorce organised crime from the terrorist activities and organisations of the past. As I pointed out in an intervention, one of the descriptions given of organised crime in Northern Ireland was that terrorist crime had turned into paramilitary crime. We have to bear it in mind that many of the gangs are run by people who were previously engaged in terrorist activity. All the evidence that we were given by the police and others was that those people use the same skills, weaponry, tactics, personnel and intimidation methods as they used in their terrorist activity.

Organised crime is an extension of the terrorist campaign of the past; we cannot divorce the two. Many would say that the terrorist gangs have simply moved over to criminal activity. Paragraphs 77 to 81 of the report contain many of the comments made by people who gave evidence. Tom Wilson of the Freight Transport Association said that in the past 10 years there had been considerable organised crime activity—in fact,

Val Smith said that current levels of criminality were higher and

The Confederation of British Industry said that racketeering and extortion were continuing

and that fuel smuggling, fuel laundering and counterfeiting “continued to get worse”. The head of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs said that counterfeit alcohol was being produced on an alarming scale. Hugh Orde said that Northern Ireland was a “major player” in intellectual property crime and that last year the PSNI had

across the United Kingdom.

The problem has got worse: terrorist gangs are moving into criminal activity and that affects Northern Ireland’s economy because it affects businesses. Business leaders gave us a lot of information about that. Crime put their costs up, they had higher insurance costs, and it affected their employees. One of our most poignant visits was to Val Smith’s transport company, where we interviewed drivers, some of whom had been held up at gunpoint; the families of some of them had been held up at gunpoint. One driver described being held up and his life being threatened on five occasions. As Val Smith pointed out, that has an immense impact on the morale of employees and their ability to carry out their work. The criminality affects where businesses can locate. During some deliveries of alcohol and tobacco, scout cars had to be sent ahead of lorries to ensure that the routes were clear and that any patterns of behaviour showing that a hold-up was likely could be identified. Sometimes former policemen were employed for that task.

Businesses had and have to work in that climate, and it is important that we tackle organised crime, if only for businesses. However, such crime affects communities as well. Again, we received evidence about the activities of paramilitary groups—they are all at it, loyalists and republicans. They may simply be
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touting drugs to young people in their communities. That causes social problems: it trickles down into petty crime, which affects pensioners, shops and householders who are burgled as people seek to finance their drug habits—habits made possible through the organised crime gangs who supply the drugs.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Perhaps we should put on record that we even had disturbing evidence that paramilitaries from both sides were co-operating on the drugs front. That is in the report.

Sammy Wilson: Absolutely; the hon. Gentleman has stolen my next point. There is no loyalty when it comes to such crime. Even people who say that they are sworn enemies collude and split the proceeds of crime. They bring in illegal supplies in bulk, split them among themselves, and then use their own arms supply networks to distribute them.

Mr. Dodds: I represent an inner-city Belfast constituency, and my hon. Friend represents Belfast in another place. I know that he is all too aware of the problems that afflict the communities. He mentioned that all the groups are involved, whether republican or loyalist.

I am deeply impressed by the Committee’s report. It is an immensely powerful and significant piece of work, and I pay tribute to everybody involved in it. As I was not on the Committee and did not hear all the evidence, can my hon. Friend say whether there was any indication that any of the groups are beginning to desist from such activity, or was there evidence that this is a continuing problem and that it would take some time to get rid of it?

Sammy Wilson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The Chief Constable said that the crime would continue. He believed that the police could eventually defeat it, but made it clear to us that it continued to be carried out by loyalist and republican groups that in the past were engaged in terrorist activity. Indeed, as I pointed out in an intervention, the evidence was that even up until this year, five-figure sums were given to some of the groups that said that they were not involved in such activities. Six-figure sums were given to the Provisional IRA. It is clear that such groups continue to engage in criminal activity.

The political spokesmen for many of the terrorist groups complain vociferously about deprivation in working-class Catholic or Protestant areas, yet the groups with which they are associated, which they defend, whose members they argue should get out of jail—many of them have gone back to criminal activity—are the very groups that are responsible for much of the economic deprivation, either by destroying the livelihood and lives of young people by pulling them into the drug culture or criminality, or by chasing businesses away. I took a TV crew along one small section of road in my council area of East Belfast, and some of the shopkeepers came out and bravely took part in interviews. They said that no sooner had they opened their doors than demands came in for amounts ranging from £1,500 down to £100. Some of those who gave evidence to the police and got people put away ended up having to flee their own houses. That kind of
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thing chases business away, and then the political representatives complain about the resulting economic deprivation.

Another effect of such activities is clearly stated in the report. Both of my colleagues made this point, and I cannot emphasise it enough: this type of crime will have an impact on political progress in Northern Ireland. Paragraph 21 states:

I sat in the Northern Ireland Assembly from 1998 to 2002 or 2003—whenever it was—and watched political representatives there who had one foot in Stormont and the other foot in all kinds of terrorist activity, including a spy room in the room underneath my room in Stormont. The thing that caused that Assembly to stumble from one crisis to another was the crime and terrorism associated with one of the parties whose representatives sat in Stormont and were even in government. It is important not just to give the impression that there has been a divorce between the IRA and Sinn Fein, but that the crime and any stigma that comes from it is no longer associated with a political party. The only way that that can happen is for those Sinn Fein leaders who have the ability to exercise some control to make it clear to those who follow them, those who support them and those for whom they speak that such criminal activity must stop.

The report outlines several things that must be done to fight organised crime. I shall take them in a certain order. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) is gone. Organised crime is embedded in paramilitary organisations, many of which, unfortunately, are held in esteem in the communities in which they operate. Some of the individuals are seen as heroes, and some of the organisations are seen as defenders. The first prerequisite for fighting organised crime is that the political leaders of communities make it clear that there is no justification for crime or for sheltering criminals, and that communities must work with the statutory authorities, whether they be the police, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Assets Recovery Agency or whoever happens to deal with a criminal activity.

As the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) pointed out in a telling intervention, the report emphasises in several places—I believe in three or four different paragraphs—the importance of the need not only for community support but for leadership to persuade communities to work with statutory agencies. In paragraph 145, the Committee states that it is under no illusions about

The next paragraph—paragraph 146—tells us one of the things that must be done if we are to get community support. Paragraph 146 states that

That is crucial, and the Committee recognised it as such, not because some Northern Ireland political representatives asked for it to be included, but because the overwhelming evidence that we received from law
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enforcement agencies, citizens and business people was that that had to be done. Although the recommendations gave the Minister at least four opportunities to make some comment on the need for political parties to support the police, there is not one endorsement of that position in his response to the report. I find that disappointing and I hope that he will address it when he comes to sum up at the end of the debate.

There is a feeling in Northern Ireland and among many of my colleagues that from the time the Secretary of State stood in the House and said in response to questions from spokesmen for the Conservative party and my party that he did not want to make support for the police a new precondition in any talks, the wrong signal went out to Sinn Fein that somehow or other the Government would fudge the issue of support for the police. Even when we discussed the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Bill and the spokesman for the Conservative party tried on three occasions to get the Secretary of State to say when he believed it would be essential for Sinn Fein to hold a party conference, he could not even pin him down to something as woolly as before or after the election in March. What kind of signal does that send out to the representatives of one of the largest paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland who are engaged in organised crime?

I want to see political movement in Northern Ireland and the establishment of an Assembly. As a Member who feels increasingly frustrated that the Government, with their large majority, can push legislation in Northern Ireland through fairly rapidly and with the minimum of debate when they want to, I would rather see a lot of that transferred to a devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland. My party is on record as saying that it is committed to working towards that goal and wants to achieve it as soon as possible. It will not be achieved, and even the most enthusiastic supporter of devolution will not move rapidly towards that position, if the requirement of political support for the police is not addressed. As was pointed out by one of my colleagues, who have either become bored or have been chased away—they have gone, anyway—that means not only a verbal commitment but a testing period.

Not only must there be support for the police, but the police must have the ability and the tools with which to do the job. The Committee made its recommendation based on the comments of people who gave evidence that they feel at times or in some areas that the police may have been under-resourced when it came to the tools that they needed to carry out their job. I note that in the Minister’s response all we are told is that the financial commitment to the police will be about £800 million until 2008 and that after that the comprehensive spending review kicks in.

That masks the fact—I have some knowledge of this because I was chairman of the finance committee of the Northern Ireland Policing Board until I came off it a few months ago—that the police are staring at a huge financial deficit after 2008 with the comprehensive spending review, the Gershon efficiencies and the cuts that there will be in police expenditure. The extent of that meant that there was talk that the PSNI might have to divest itself of nearly 2,000 personnel and to come down to the levels given by Patten for a situation where Northern Ireland has as much normality as other parts of the United Kingdom. Of course, we
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know that with the dissident threat and the additional security problems that face Northern Ireland there is not that level of normality.

When I read the Minister’s conclusion on that recommendation I felt that he was not so much handing us an assurance as reinforcing the problems that many of us see down the road for policing in Northern Ireland. We need to be careful of saying that we want to build up confidence in the police service and asking politicians to build it up when, at the same time, the police are finding that they have less authority to carry on with the job that they are required to do, because then all that we will have is disappointment.

First, there must be confidence in the police so that people will come forward with evidence. Secondly, the police must have the tools and resources to do the job. When they catch the criminals, there must be proper sentencing. Examples must be made of those criminals. The evidence that we were given on sentencing was not merely a populist view from people who do not know, although it could be argued that some of those who gave evidence about sentencing might not be as well informed as professionals.

We heard such comments as

from Tom Wilson of the Freight Transport Association. The former chairman of the Road Haulage Association referred to “derisory sentences”. Officers for HMRC

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