Organised Crime

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Paul Goggins: I certainly agree that where there is evidence that is sufficient to convict someone of a criminal offence, it should be brought into court and those people should be dealt with severely for the harm that they do. I hope the hon. Gentleman will be encouraged to know about the new cross-border fuel enforcement group that I established within the OCTF, which brings together law enforcement not just from Northern Ireland, but from the Republic of Ireland. It is bringing together not just one agency, but all agencies. HMRC can come in and do its work, but other agencies can come in as well.
Where there is evidence, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that people will be prosecuted and will be brought to court and dealt with. The presence within the new fuel enforcement group of representatives of the Criminal Assets Bureau and the revenue commissioners from the Republic will add enormous strength. That activity is certainly one that has to be dealt with. Of course we know that fuel smuggling can have a range of impacts, but the crucial one is the money raised, whether it is used on terrorist activity or other forms of criminality, and it is very important that is dealt with.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The Minister has rightly emphasised the role of HMRC in a number of recent successful actions. Has he any concerns that the proposed reduction in the number of officers and staff in Revenue and Customs, particularly outside the greater Belfast area, will have an impact on the very necessary work he has just described?
Paul Goggins: I have no fear that HMRC cannot do its job properly. Yesterday evening I was with John Whiting, who leads on that work in relation to HMRC in Northern Ireland. He is committed to ensuring that it plays its full part in enforcing the law in that respect, and making sure that those who might seek to use the border or the area around it to their advantage in such activity will find that there is no hiding place and that law enforcement north and south will co-operate. I do not share the fears that my hon. Friend raised, but obviously I continue to consider these issues. If at any stage he has particular concerns, I would be happy to listen.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): The Minister must acknowledge that although there have been significant press headlines about those arrested or brought in for questioning, we do not seem to see any speed in getting them into court and thus giving confidence to the community. That would show that criminality will not pay.
Paul Goggins: I warmly agree with the hon. Gentleman. Justice delayed is justice denied for many people. When the evidence exists, it is important that those cases are expedited. In another sphere of my responsibilities we have introduced a delay action team to make sure that the whole court process is speeded up because it takes too long to bring people to justice. That means people spending too long on remand when they should be subject to a sentence and engaging properly in the regime of the prison. I agree that it is important that we speed up the court process, and am committed to ensuring that that happens.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim about the speeding up of cases, can the Minister give us any detail of the famous Slab Murphy case and where that case is in the judicial system?
Paul Goggins: I cannot comment specifically on that case, but I can say that my favourite headline of the year was printed recently in The Sun. The hon. Gentleman may have seen it. It read: “CAB nab Slab”. I thought that was a good headline. Whoever is involved in unlawful activity that relates to organised crime in Northern Ireland needs to know that the agencies operating within the Organised Crime Task Force will deal with them, whoever they are. Crucially, because of the cross-border work, wherever they are they will be brought to justice. I am not able to comment further in relation to specific cases.
Paramilitaries have traditionally used extortion rackets to raise funds in Northern Ireland, frequently targeting the construction industry. Recently, there has been a move away from this type of extortion to more conventional blackmail. Cases reported to the PSNI extortion unit tend to involve paramilitaries attempting to extort money from members of their own community, specifically in parts of Belfast.
Another scourge of the legitimate business community is the sale of counterfeit good across Northern Ireland. People frequently see this as a victimless crime, which I am clear it is not. They think they have a bargain and that no harm has been done. The reality is that the apparent bargain in the market, pub or wherever people are buying those items is funding the criminal lifestyle of the gangster and funding their criminal activity. A great deal of harm is being done.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): It is not just that. Very often those counterfeit goods are intrinsically dangerous. Some of the counterfeit so-called tobacco products and particularly some of the alcohol are potentially lethal.
Paul Goggins: I agree. The laundered fuel can be damaging to car engines and can poison the environment when the by-products are released. Some of the electrical goods we have seen counterfeited are very dangerous. Counterfeit cigarettes and alcohol can do a great deal of additional harm, over and above any harm that the lawful products might do. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I understand that the police would be acting on information regarding items seized at markets. We have seen high-profile cases being highlighted on various occasions. Does the Minister agree that the police could be more systematic by means of comprehensive, consistent raids on areas where those items are frequently on sale? All of us have constituents who say that there are marketplaces where the sale of such garments and other items is a weekly occurrence. Although the one-off activities are welcome, they could be much more comprehensive and consistent.
Paul Goggins: I take note of the hon. Gentleman’s comments and am grateful for them. I agree that it is important that the police base their operations on good intelligence and that their focus is on sustained operations, because the last thing we want to see is a simple displacement of activity, or indeed the re-emergence of activity after a one-off occurrence. It is important that the community works alongside the police, refusing to buy the counterfeit goods and pointing in the direction of those who are pedalling them, because far from being a bargain, they are bad news and bring harm to communities.
Immigration crime is an increasing problem, including the first signs in Northern Ireland of human trafficking. Trafficking is a brutal and horrible crime against vulnerable individuals and is nothing less than modern-day slavery. I regret to say that Northern Ireland, in common with most developed countries, is not immune to human trafficking, and during the recent UK-wide operation, Pentameter 2, the PSNI discovered five adult female victims of human trafficking in Northern Ireland. Four were victims of sexual exploitation and one was the victim of labour exploitation.
Human trafficking is an example of global organised crime. The UK is committed to ratifying the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings in December 2008, which will put in place obligations to treat those who appear to be victims of human trafficking in a victim-centred way outside the immigration process. The PSNI recently established a dedicated human trafficking unit, and my Department is working with it and the devolved Administration to put in place a victim-led response to human trafficking in line with our commitments and obligations under the Council of Europe convention.
Organised crime is about making money by any illegal means. It is brutal, causes harm and is never victimless. One of the best ways to tackle organised crime is to remove the profits from the gangsters and so strip them of their lavish lifestyles that are funded off the backs of others. I want to see assets converted into real cash, half of which can go back to the front-line law enforcement agencies to help continue the fight against crime.
This year I set challenging asset recovery targets for the law enforcement agencies operating in Northern Ireland. The key figure is the money that comes back net of all the costs. We often hear about the value of goods that are restrained or frozen, but people want to know how much those assets are actually worth and how much goes back into front-line services at the end of the process.
I have set a target for the actual value of the assets that come back at the end of the process of between £6.2 million and £10 million for this financial year, rising to between £7.8 million and £12.5 million for the next financial year. The first quarter results, which show a £2 million cash value for assets recovered, is ahead of the curve. I want to keep it that way, because I hope that we will be able not only to put half the money back into front-line services, but consider putting some of that resource into community projects to help people in communities that have suffered the most harm as a result of organised crime.
I recently had the pleasure of opening the annual cross-border seminar on organised crime in Enniskillen, which is now an annual event that brings together law enforcement officers from both sides of the border. I can report that co-operation on organised crime north and south is excellent and getting stronger. There was a real desire within the conference to share resources and intelligence and to frustrate and bring organised criminals to justice.
I will end my remarks with a superb example of international co-operation. Members of the Committee may already have heard of operation Eclat, which was a collaboration between the PSNI, HMRC, SOCA, An Garda Siochana, the revenue commissioners in the south and, crucially, the Dutch police. That complex operation succeeded in breaking up a brutal Irish-based organised gang. Eight arrests were made—one in Northern Ireland, three in the Republic of Ireland and four in Holland. In total, the operation removed from the streets 270 weapons and assorted ammunition, heroin with a street value of £3.5 million and more than €420,000. Operation Eclat was a brilliantly conceived and executed intelligence-led operation across three jurisdictions, and that is the way forward. Organised crime is international, and we must adopt an international approach in response.
Paul Goggins: Indeed. That is what I have tried to make clear. Some people are engaged in organised criminal activity because they are still part of an illegal paramilitary organisation, some are acting as individuals, and some are part of loose criminal networks that have no particular connection with paramilitaries. We have learned that the networks of those who engage in organised crime are constantly changing shape—allegiances and alliances change. Those people are looking for any opportunity to make money, but always, while the making of money lines their pockets, it causes real harm and hurt to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and people across the whole of Northern Ireland.
The answer is strong partnership, and we have that with the Organised Crime Task Force. I very much look forward to this debate.
5.16 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I formally welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Atkinson. I join the Minister in welcoming the statement made this morning, which will restore the Executive and lead to the devolution of policing and justice. I congratulate the Minister on the work that he has done in that respect. I know that he has worked hard to bring about these new situations.
I welcome the debate, which is on a topical issue. It is good that so many Members from Northern Ireland are here to discuss it, but regrettable that many more Members are not here. The issue is important, and is one that the Westminster Parliament has to deal with at present.
Organised crime in Northern Ireland is distinct from that in other parts of the UK because of the unique political and social evolution of the Province. The existence of paramilitary groups and their involvement over the past four decades continues to pose a complex and ongoing challenge to law enforcement agencies and other authorities in Northern Ireland. Despite the good news we hear, it is impossible to turn a blind eye to the steady stream of paramilitary crime. As we know, there has been the odd murder and several attempted murders, principally through attacks on police officers, and there is fuel smuggling, drug crime and so on.
Although it is right to say that some paramilitaries retain their political aims, others have moved away from politics and increasingly exist solely as criminal gangs. Sometimes individuals act without the authority of their respective organisations, but as the political process has progressed, there has been a widely recognised shift by groups from paramilitary activity with political aims to paramilitary crime.
None the less, dissident republicans continue to grow in number and have a stated aim of killing police officers. Loyalist paramilitary organisations retain their weapons, and only last week the Ulster Defence Association sent out a chilling warning. Although I recognise that some organisations and individuals in those organisations may have changed their objectives, some have not and may still be using criminality as a means of funding their political ambitions.
Of course, crime exists in every part of the country, but the unique nature of crime in Northern Ireland means that the police and other agencies have had to face significant challenges. The Police Service of Northern Ireland and other crime prevention authorities have had to work together and adapt to tackle organised crime. Once again, I pay tribute to the work carried out by those organisations. They have had to deal not only with the usual or ordinary threats but increasingly with the new threats that have emerged—for example, from the use of the internet to commit crime and, as the Minister said, from drug factories.
We welcome this morning’s statement that policing and justice will at some point be devolved; I am not aware when that will be exactly and I am not sure that anybody else is either. Until then, the Government must continue to act and come down hard on organised crime. It is, of course, important to have communication between the various authorities that exist to prevent crime. The Government, authorities and communities need to work together to prevent crime. The paramilitaries use bullying tactics and intimidation; they have held communities in fear and can still do so. It is important that people feel able to speak out. In the past, I know that has been fraught with difficulties and the understandable reluctance of many people to speak out has made it difficult to bring criminals to justice. However, now that the situation has moved on, I hope that we can continue to make progress in community involvement and outreach. The Organised Crime Task Force, comprising various bodies, was set up as a multi-agency partnership to tackle crime. I would like to hear a little more from the Minister about his assessment of the success of that organisation.
One concern highlighted in the 2005-06 report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which was so ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, was that information and evidence regarding illegal activity was not reaching Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Will the Minister say a little more about whether he believes that those links have been improved?
Another concern expressed was about the involvement of working professionals in businesses, such as accountants, in permitting fraud to take place. In the United Kingdom those professionals are legally obliged to report criminal activity and I wonder if the Minister could say whether he feels that such reporting is happening in Northern Ireland, because HMRC has an important role to play in tackling organised crime and it should be used to its full potential.
The PSNI is the key agency in the Organised Crime Task Force. Last year, when the policing budget was announced there was some concern that £3.5 billion over three years would not be enough. The police budget is indeed stretched—we heard a little more about that subject earlier today.
We also heard about the Saville inquiry. It will not reach its conclusions for many months yet, but to date it has cost £181 million. In fact, that figure might be a month or so out of date, so the total is probably more than that. When money is getting tight, does the Minister share our concerns—I think I know the answer to my question and that he does share them—that public inquiries and historic inquiries risk becoming an almost permanent drain on resources? That money could be spent, as I think he has already indicated, on tackling the sort of crime that we are discussing today.
I want to touch on the impact of organised crime on Northern Ireland’s economy, causing a loss that runs into hundreds of millions of pounds. During the years of the troubles businesses were hard hit and, as a result, many people in Northern Ireland are poorer than they ought to be. We need to bring about a shift in Northern Ireland from public sector activity to private sector activity to redress that imbalance, and criminality must not be allowed to impede the process.
The key threats from organised crime have been outlined: paramilitary involvement, criminal finance, excise and tax fraud, drugs, counterfeiting, technology-enabled offences, armed robbery, extortion and immigration offences. The Minister touched on those threats. Introducing the issue of immigration crime was important and I am glad that he mentioned it, because it is significant both in terms of the social evils it causes and the knock-on effects it can have.
The border with the Republic of Ireland adds another dimension to organised crime. The border is a hot spot for criminal activity and its porous nature has caused problems in the past with regard to countering terrorist activities. Some changes in dealing with organised crime were implemented following the 2005-06 Select Committee report, including closer collaboration between Northern Ireland and the Republic over cross-border crime. The annual cross-border seminar also provides a forum for discussion. We are now two years on from that report. How far has the Minister been able to go in implementing the recommendations? There are continuing problems with fuel smuggling, which has been going on far too long, and with drugs. The Minister touched on the emergence of drug factories.
Returning to the paramilitaries and their involvement in organised crime, the Independent Monitoring Commission plays a valuable role in providing insight into the activities of those groups, as the Minister said. Its 20th report, which came out last week, indicated, like previous reports, that the paramilitaries are heavily involved in organised crime. The report cites the main activities of each group. I will not take up the Committee’s time by running through each and every group, even though my researcher provided very good analysis of what was said about each one. Suffice it to say, the comments on each are of concern to the Committee.
Whether they are republican or loyalist, paramilitary groups are engaged in all kinds of crime. Those crimes affect businesses and communities very badly. It is difficult for businesses to operate in such a climate; they lose out on profits as a direct consequence of smuggling, they are forced to pay higher insurance costs because of the risk of armed robbery and there are risks to employees, who are open to the threat of extortion and, as the Minister said, to blackmail. Sadly, the paramilitaries are, in their own way, innovative and resourceful. Following decades of terrorism they are, again in their own way, well trained, resourced and skilled, which is a dangerous combination when they put their minds to organised crime. Furthermore, while they were paramilitaries with political aims, they were to some extent admired by their own communities, where they were championing their cause, so their roots go deep into those communities, which is a problem.
The Minister touched on one or two statistics about drugs. In 2007-08, law enforcement agencies in Northern Ireland seized more than £4 million-worth of drugs, including 10.8 kg of cocaine worth £648,000 and 10 kg of cannabis resin, to name but two. We are all familiar with the problems that drug-related crimes cause families and communities. Not only is it illegal to deal in drugs, of course, but the people who take drugs then commit further crimes and make the situation far worse.
Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the figures do not reflect the true cost to society when one considers the damage to young people who take drugs and who are encouraged to take drugs by the paramilitaries? It is a huge amount of money and cannot be calculated at all.
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Prepared 19 November 2008