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30 Nov 2006 : Column 174WH—continued

Mr. Laurence Robertson: It is right to say that criminal activity must be stopped. The point that my hon. Friends and I were trying to make, however, is that there are easy targets for the criminals, because tax is so
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high and so different from the tax on the continent. It is a couple of years since I was energy spokesman for my party, but I think that petrol in this country starts off as the cheapest in the European Union but ends up the dearest after tax. That may be slightly out of date information, but the position will not have changed much. Criminals should not be allowed to get away with it—there are easy net gains for them in those areas.

Paul Goggins: Of course, part of the rationale for the tax increases is environmental protection. That is part of Government strategy, and if it is linked with the determination, for which there is a coherent argument, to apply the same duty rates in different parts of the United Kingdom, that leads us to the conclusion that we have drawn. The Committee has made a legitimate argument, but in the end it is for Government to reflect on that argument. Although we have taken the recommendation seriously, we have come to a different conclusion.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned extortion, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North. The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk was right to mention the figure of 10 per cent. of incidents reported. Some would argue that that is a generous assessment of the level of extortion that is reported and dealt with. He is also right, however, to underline the fact that in those cases in which a report is made, investigation takes place and a prosecution occurs, there is a 100 per cent. success rate for prosecution. The record shows further that there are no recriminations against those who gave evidence. Fear of recrimination is probably one of the reasons why people are reluctant to come forward, but in fact it does not occur in cases that have been proved. The hon. Gentleman rightly asked what we are doing to encourage people to report extortion. We have established an extortion helpline and we are widely advertising the contact number for it.

The construction industry has been mentioned this afternoon. I have had a very detailed and constructive meeting with the Construction Employers Federation in which we dealt with many of the problems that employers are facing. The federation was invited to give information and further evidence whenever it feels the need to do so. We also had a very focused discussion of the problems at the most recent meeting of the Organised Crime Task Force stakeholder group, in which people from the business community gave us evidence and further information.

We are trying to build confidence within the industry to report extortion whenever it is threatened, so that it can be thoroughly investigated. We want to develop the independent private sector inspector general—IPSIG—model, although hon. Members may be pleased to learn that we are giving it a different title: construction contract monitors. As far as we can see, there will be a £1 billion programme of public investment in construction in the years ahead in Northern Ireland. That is a huge amount of money, and it is incumbent on us to ensure that it is absolutely free of extortion and of filtering out of taxpayers’ money to fund criminal activity. The public sector has an important role, and we hope that the private sector will be able to make use of the model too.

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As I emphasised in my discussions with the Construction Employers Federation, ultimately we must move to a regulated and properly licensed private security industry, so that if companies feel the need to protect a building site or an asset, they pay a legitimate fee to a legitimate company, and do not have to hide away secret payments to extortionists, which is completely unacceptable. That is why the licensing arrangements proposed in the Bill introduced this week are so very important.

The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk asked about tiger kidnaps. They have increased since 2005, and they are now running at roughly the same level as in 2004. The PSNI takes them very seriously indeed. Forums have been held involving people from banks and post offices to make them aware of the risks and to identify the risks that can be dealt with if staff know the correct procedures to follow. The PSNI’s view is clear: it is important to obtain better intelligence in order to deal with the problem effectively, and it will continue its activities in those areas.

The need to develop a greater public understanding of the damage done by organised crime has also been highlighted this afternoon. We are pursuing that objective vigorously through messages about the damage to people’s health that illicit cigarettes and alcohol can do, and about the damage to car engines from illicit fuel. Communities are undermined by drugs and by the connection between organised crime and paramilitary activity. All those arguments must be made and must be made up front—there is no dodging that.

We are working to strengthen our media strategy and to focus it more strongly, because it is important that we get the message across effectively. On 11 December I shall launch an initiative with a group of 150 school students in the Coleraine area. There will be a roadshow to explain to them the impact of organised crime on their lives, and to explain that DVDs and certain items of clothing may not be legitimate. If it works, as we hope it will, it is a programme that we can roll out across Northern Ireland so that we can educate young people as well as adults about the dangers that lurk in illicit activities. Another event is planned for January with the chamber of commerce.

A great deal of work is going on to try to spread the word and to instil greater confidence in the minds of ordinary citizens, as well as in the minds of companies. It is important that all of us engage together in the fight against organised crime. A short time ago I invited Sir Stephen Lander, the chairman of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, to a launch in Northern Ireland. He undertook a review of the suspicious activity reports that lawyers and accountant have a responsibility to make when they think that money laundering is occurring. The launch was very well attended, and it was clear to me that people do indeed want to play their part in the fight against crime.

During our discussion today, a great deal has rightly been said about progress since the report was published in July and about the moves towards devolved government in Northern Ireland. I want to reaffirm a point made during the debate and elsewhere about the conditions for the process moving forward. It is clear that two important elements underpin the process: first, a willingness on behalf of all parties and communities to share power, and secondly, a willingness on behalf of all
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parties and communities to support the police and the rule of law. It is unthinkable that any Government could be established that is not founded on those principles, and it is clear that both must be in place to establish stable, long-term, democratic government in Northern Ireland. We cannot have a casual on-off switch. Those are long-term, not short-term, commitments, and they must be strong and able to withstand the test of time. No ounce of energy will be spared by Ministers or anyone associated with the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that we work towards a lasting settlement with both those elements firmly in place.

The hon. Member for East Antrim asked about police resources. He probably knows more than most about those resources in Northern Ireland because of his involvement with the Northern Ireland Policing Board. He knows that there is to be a comprehensive spending review in 2007 and that there will be discussions about long-term funding. He also knows the commitment that we have made to maintain the number of police officers in Northern Ireland at the current level until at least 2010. We must do that to fulfil the Patten commitment on the representation of the Catholic community in the police force. We are making huge progress in that area. The police force of 7,500 officers, which is the current full strength, will remain in place until 2010, and we will provide the money to ensure that.

The hon. Gentleman expressed frustration about sentencing. That frustration is not confined to Northern Ireland—we all hear messages about sentencing in our constituencies. People are outraged by criminal activity and they want punishment that fits the crime. When they feel that it does not do so, they say so. Politicians cannot intervene in individual cases because that is a matter for the process of law, and for judges and the courts. However, when there is organised criminal activity and violence is used, the courts can take account of that when sentencing.

I make an offer to the Chairman of the Committee to provide more information, but when we have examined sentencing trends and patterns, we see a situation in Northern Ireland that is broadly comparable with that in England and Wales. I am happy to share that information and we will monitor the situation. Sentencing is important, which is why we have continued to strengthen the law in a number of ways, not least the law covering organised crime, to ensure that punishment fits the crime.

In conclusion, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire said, wisely, that we will never end criminality, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, but that we should be firm in our resolution to break the link between paramilitary activity and criminality, to make it extremely difficult for organised crime to operate in Northern Ireland, and to make it clear to those engaged in it that they stand to lose more than they will gain if they persist in their endeavours. I assure the House that there will be no letting up in our efforts.

I again thank the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for its encouragement and the wise words that it sent to the Northern Ireland Office.

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5.14 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack: I thank all who have taken part in this debate, which has been a useful exercise. I am grateful to every hon. Member who spoke, including the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), and the Minister. We have had a useful exchange of views and an extremely robust expression of opinion from my hon. Friend, as I shall call him, the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) who made some valid and telling points, as did my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) and the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), who had to return to his constituency before the debate came to a close.

I admire the way in which the Minister has got to grips with the issues since taking office relatively recently. He and I have a good personal relationship, which I value. He knows that the Select Committee is the creature not of Government, but of Parliament, and that it is our duty to hold him and his colleagues to account. He also knows that there are some differences between us, albeit not on the substance or the necessity of dealing with crime; perhaps we differ slightly in our sense of urgency. I know that in Northern Ireland the consultation process tends to be longer than elsewhere and that that tends to create delay, but it is crucial that there is no further delay on the charities issue, for example. There has already been slippage and an order should have been tabled by today. Indeed, that was promised in writing for today, but it has not happened. We sincerely hope that the Minister’s commitment to produce an order before Christmas will materialise, because that is essential.

We shall continue to differ respectfully on the fuel issue. I listened carefully to what the Minister said, but I was not convinced. Where I can willingly join forces with him is in congratulating the Police Service of Northern Ireland on many things, particularly the recent drugs haul to which he referred. I also congratulate the Minister on the recent roadshow initiative. I hope that it works well and that the Select Committee will be able to co-operate with him on future roadshows. If we could bring home to the young people of Northern Ireland the appalling dangers, aside from the criminality, of buying noxious substances, whether to smoke them or to drink them, that would be a significant achievement.

I want to finish on a note that concerns us all. The Minister quoted from the IMC’s report and referred to the favourable comments about the Provisional IRA, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating and it must deliver. Time is running out in the Government’s timetable. On 30 January, the Assembly, such as it is at the moment, will be dissolved, an election campaign will begin, and it is proposed to have elections on 7 March. If Sinn Fein is to have credibility as a democratic party, it must have begun to show that it has truly signed up to the concept of the rule of law and that it has truly and absolutely foresworn criminality in all its forms and the ill-gotten gains that criminality has produced.

It is not just the Minister’s order on charities that I hope we shall have before Christmas; I hope that we shall also have a signing up by Sinn Fein so that we can enter the new year with all political parties absolutely
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committed to the rule of law, and utterly and totally committed to supporting the PSNI. Then, perhaps, we can begin 2007 with a month of demonstration of good intent, which would be an excellent backdrop for a cleanly fought election campaign—I hope that that is what we shall have—and the proper restoration of an Assembly and devolved government. It is up to Sinn Fein to listen to what has been said today and to read our report, to which the Minister made kind reference.
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Then, perhaps, that spirit of togetherness to which my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk referred will indeed prevail.

I thank the Minister again for what he said. I hope that we can work constructively together in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Five o’clock.

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