Organised Crime

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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): The total allocation for the Police Service of Northern Ireland is in excess of £1.1 billion for each of the three years covered by the 2007 comprehensive spending review. That is a good settlement within a tough spending round and will support effective policing across the whole of Northern Ireland.
Mr. McGrady: I thank the Minister for his reply, but does he share my concern about the budget forecast for 2008-09, where there is a projected shortfall of some £43 million? That should not be laid at the door of the PSNI in terms of inefficiency or poor management because it has already cut £14 million from its necessary services. Will the Minister acknowledge that part of the problem is legislation legitimately imposing additional financial burdens on the PSNI—such as the Northern Ireland civil service equal pay awards, the police pension reviews and the transitional allowances reviews? On top of that, there has been an influx of damage claims to the PSNI for things such as loss of hearing during service. Those factors are not the fault of the PSNI and if the shortfall is not delivered, there will be a cutback on essential front-line services.
Paul Goggins: It is important to recognise at the outset that the settlement achieved for policing in Northern Ireland was a good one. Indeed, when the Policing Board first came to the Northern Ireland Office with a bid for funding under CSR 07, we were pretty confident that we could meet all the demands it was asking for. Sometime later, it revised upwards the estimate of what it needed by some £350 million. We still came within £88 million of achieving everything for which it had asked.
In saying that it was a good settlement, of course I recognise that pressures build up within a particular year and over time. There will be pressures that were unforeseen—whether they come from legislation or through legal challenge and so on. The issues that the hon. Gentleman raises about hearing loss and other matters must, of course, be dealt with. The correct place for those to initially be dealt with is within the Policing Board in close consultation with the Chief Constable. Throughout my time in this job, I have always said that, in the end, we must have a tripartite approach to handling police finances and that the Northern Ireland Office should be fully engaged in that. I can assure the Committee that we are fully engaged in trying to deal with these issues because it is essential that the Chief Constable can deploy his resources to protect the public.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I acknowledge what the Minister has said about the context and so on for setting the PSNI budget over the next three years. Nevertheless, does he accept that the Chief Constable has gone on the record as saying that, if the gap in funding is not met, that could affect front-line services and lead to a halt in recruitment? Does he think it acceptable that there could be a halt in the recruitment of new PSNI and other officers at a time when the threat from dissident terrorists is growing and when many other problems face us in relation to serious organised crime, which we will debate shortly?
Paul Goggins: Of course, it is essential that the Chief Constable can deploy resources to ensure that we deal with the threat from dissident terrorists. I speak regularly with the Chief Constable and know how determined he is to protect his officers, especially when they are the main target of dissident activity. We have based the budget that we provided to the Policing Board and the PSNI on having 7,500 regular police officers. Clearly, any decision to stop recruitment would be a major step away from that original framework. It is important that the Chief Constable, with the Policing Board, can discuss all those issues candidly and that the Northern Ireland Office is involved in those discussions. Where we can, we should take action to help us to resolve the issues. The priority has to be to enable the Chief Constable to do his job properly in protecting the people of Northern Ireland.

PSNI (Resources)

4. Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): What steps he plans to take to ensure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has sufficient resources to combat the threat from dissident republican terrorist organisations. [235737]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): Although the recent increase in dissident activity has placed a strain on the PSNI, the Chief Constable has been able to prioritise resources to deal with the threat posed by dissident republicans.
Mrs. Robinson: In light of the Minister’s remarks to the hon. Member for South Down and his comments about the Government’s willingness to provide practical assistance, it is essential that sufficient moneys be allocated to the police to allow them to do their work on the ground. Does the Minister agree that the shortfall of £130 million over the next three years causes the Chief Constable great problems? Does he also agree that the lack of sufficient resources, by which I mean the £130 million, rather than political activity, is providing dissidents with the room to develop and expand their operations?
Paul Goggins: One difficulty with these kinds of exchanges is that the figures quoted for what the Chief Constable believes might be needed at different times change constantly. Obviously, the budget contains pressures as well as easements, but it is under constant review by the Policing Board, officials in my Department and so on. We will continue to do everything that we can to close down any gaps in funding. Sometimes that can be done by finding more efficient ways of doing things, but sometimes priorities must be set. The hon. Lady is quite right that an absolute priority in Northern Ireland at the moment is to ensure that we can withstand the attempts by dissident elements to derail the politics and cause harm, especially to police officers.
I visited Lisnaskea recently and met front-line officers in an area particularly targeted by dissidents where three officers came under severe attack. In Newtownbutler, a short distance away, a booby trap device went off that could have caused dreadful harm. It is important, therefore, that those police are deployed and that they have the necessary back-up. The Chief Constable also has at his disposal help from the intelligence services and other specialist help, and we will do all that we can to ensure that he can do his job in tackling the threat from those dissident elements.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I pay tribute to the police officers who have worked so very hard for so many years to counter the terrible threat posed by terrorism. I find it completely unacceptable that some organisations, and individuals within them, have the stated aim of murdering police officers. Will the Minister confirm that but for intelligence, excellent police work and good fortune—it must be said—as many as two dozen police officers could have been murdered over recent months? Does that not fill him with a terrible feeling of foreboding, because while everybody else in Northern Ireland is doing their utmost to move forward, some in the Province are determined not only to derail the political process, but to kill police officers simply because they are doing their job?
Paul Goggins: I warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s strong words of condemnation of those who seek to carry out such activity. He is right that there has been a combination of good work and good fortune. I constantly ask myself whether there is anything more that I can do, as Minister with responsibility for security, to assist the Chief Constable, and whether there is anything that any of us can do to face down the threat that still exists.
What matters is that all the politicians are now in exactly the same place in condemning such dissident activity. We have heard this week the strongest possible condemnation from Cardinal Sean Brady, which is very welcome. He made it absolutely clear that there is no space for these people in any civilised society. I believe that as the politics progresses and confidence in the political process grows, the small amount of oxygen that feeds dissident groups will disappear, and they will be snuffed out and dealt with.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Acknowledging the serious threat that dissident republicans pose and the intensification of their activity, and bearing in mind that close to where I live, in Pomeroy, Coagh, Ballinderry and Cookstown, there seems to have been a continuous spread in recent days of attacks on individuals and property, what assurance can the Minister give the people of Northern Ireland that terrorists who are seeking to bring the Province into the path of bloodshed will be crushed, and that the people will be protected? Will he also tell us when he expects to cut the first sod of the new police academy in Cookstown?
Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman has not given me the opportunity to say “Londonderry” in my answer, but I shall say it up front.
On the police college, which will be combined with the fire and rescue college and prison college, the plans are being worked on even as we speak. I hope in the very near future to unveil the next phase of that work, and we will certainly want to involve the hon. Gentleman in that.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that even in the past few days, Cookstown has been the target of those who would seek to cause real harm to people in his constituency. Help is immediately available from specialist officers who can work with the Police Service of Northern Ireland to deal with such emergency situations. Ultimately, we need people who know who the people involved are to come forward, report their activities to the police and be prepared to give evidence to the courts. That is the further step that needs to happen to build confidence. When that happens, those people can be brought to court and to justice and sentenced to the long-term imprisonment that their behaviour merits.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does the Minister agree that it is important to have not only the right financial resources in the fight against terrorism, but the right human resources? Does he therefore share my surprise that a constituent of mine who had served with distinction in the Royal Irish Regiment, who had applied to join the police and passed all the necessary tests and medical tests, was sent a letter telling him that he was not eligible and that the police would not accept him because he had on his shoulder a tattoo of the Royal Irish Regiment badge, which contravened the policy of having a neutral working environment? Will he investigate with the Chief Constable that kind of absurd political correctness?
Paul Goggins: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not comment specifically on that without knowing more about the details. I will of course examine the case that he has raised, and I am happy to meet him to discuss it.

Organised Crime

[Relevant Documents: Third Report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, on Organised Crime in Northern Ireland, HC 886-1, and the Government’s response thereto, HC 1642, Session 2005-06.]
4.54 pm
The Chairman: We now move on to the main debate. I remind the Committee that it can continue for up to two and a half hours. I give my usual health warning that I have no power to impose a time limit on any speaker, but I hope that those who speak will bear in mind that others wish to speak and allow them time before the end of the debate.
4.55 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the matter of organised crime in Northern Ireland.
I warmly welcome the debate, which provides the Committee with an opportunity to focus on the actions that we are taking in seeking to tackle organised crime in Northern Ireland. First, I am sure that all members of the Committee would wish to join me in expressing gratitude to those officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the other agencies that work on the front line of our efforts to reduce the harm caused by organised crime. Organised criminals are ruthless in their pursuit of money by any means, and it takes courage and commitment to track them down, bring them before the courts and remove their assets.
Over the years, paramilitary groups have been involved in organised crime in Northern Ireland, both to fund their activities and, in some cases, to line the pockets of individual members. The move that some groups have made away from organised crime, while highly significant, has not been total. The 20th Independent Monitoring Commission report published last week acknowledges that there are members and former members of paramilitary groups who are still actively involved in organised crime, either to fund terrorist activity or for personal gain. The report notes that PIRA has maintained an exclusively politically path, with no leadership sanction of any violence or crime, but the same cannot be said for other paramilitary groups.
Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): The Government consistently quote the IMC report. Does the Government information, not the IMC’s, show that PIRA has been involved in crime and organised crime?
Paul Goggins: I frequently quote the IMC because it is independent and therefore has a level of authority that people might believe, even if they do not believe the politicians. All the intelligence that I see, all the information that I have, is absolutely four-square with the IMC’s findings and reports. I see nothing that is inconsistent with them.
The IMC reports that dissident republicans are involved in a range of organised crime, including drug dealing, armed robbery, fuel laundering and smuggling, tobacco and alcohol smuggling, tiger kidnapping and extortion. Loyalist paramilitaries are also involved in organised crime, including for personal gain. The range of their criminal activity includes drug dealing, extortion, money laundering, loan sharking and the sale of counterfeit goods.
On top of the locally organised criminality, Northern Ireland is not immune to the effects of global organised crime, which are also seen elsewhere in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland. Global criminal networks have introduced the relatively new phenomenon of cannabis factories, the horror that is human trafficking for sexual and labour exploitation, and a rise in internet-based crime and financial fraud, which can be organised by criminals in any part of the world who have access to a PC.
Organised crime takes many forms, and is constantly changing to evade the law and exploit new opportunities and technological advances. Therefore, our response must be firm and robust. The Northern Ireland Office established the Organised Crime Task Force in 2000, with the objective of developing a strong partnership between law enforcement and other agencies and organisations from the public and private sectors to work together to defeat organised crime.
The OCTF, which I chair, provides strategic direction and a forum for the Government to engage directly with the enforcement agencies and the business community to agree priorities, share information and work together. The OCTF is becoming increasingly successful as those partnerships deepen and translate into effective enforcement, as I have seen in my time as Minister with responsibility for security in Northern Ireland. Those strategic relationships are now becoming effective at the operational as well as the policy level, and we are beginning to see the pay-off.
Today, Belfast is hosting the Association of Chief Police Officers drugs conference. The most recent OCTF assessments indicate an increased threat from drugs, particularly class A drugs, including cocaine. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has seen an increase in the number of people attempting to smuggle cocaine into Northern Ireland by ingesting small packages of the drug. In June, for example, a man arriving in Northern Ireland was found to have ingested 1 kilo of cocaine, which forensic tests later confirmed to be around 90 per cent. plus pure. It is important to note that Northern Ireland does not at this stage have the same drug problem as other parts of the United Kingdom. Use of crack cocaine and crystal methylamphetamine is low in Northern Ireland, unlike other parts of the UK where both these highly addictive drugs have had catastrophic effects on users and communities, but it is vital that we work together to make sure that we further reduce the impact of drugs in Northern Ireland.
PSNI, together with other agencies, is increasingly adopting intelligence-led operations to identify those who organise the trafficking of drugs in order to prevent drugs from reaching our shores. One recent example was the SOCA-led multi-agency seizure of some 1.7 tonnes of cocaine off the Cork coast. The potential harm of that and other shipments that have been seized is incalculable and is an excellent example of international co-operation.
Cross-border fuel fraud continues to be a problem. I am aware of the keen interest shown by members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee whose chairman, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, is with us this afternoon. Fuel fraud includes smuggling from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, the laundering of rebated diesel, and stretching fuel by mixing cheaper fuel such as kerosene with higher grade oils. I remain determined to tackle the issue head on. There have been some successes recently. In July and August alone, HMRC seized more than 117,000 litres of illegal fuel, some 88 vehicles and more than £25,000 in cash. Crucially, it made a number of significant arrests as well.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The Minister is right that in the recent raids by HMRC and PSNI, one of the significant factors is that people were caught this time. It was not just physical assets that were seized. Does he agree that the practice of HMRC seeking simply to recover the tax that has been lost and not pushing for prison sentences for those who are engaged in such activities ensures that it is a fairly low risk activity? HMRC should not be concerned only about the lost revenue, but should push more vigorously for prison sentences so that those involved are put out of circulation.
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