Organised Crime

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Mark Durkan: May I join the right hon. Gentleman in commending the contribution of Alan McQuillan, as the head of the ARA and previously as a senior police officer?
We are trying to take forward the agenda for devolution and trying to ensure that we do not lose any pace or any of the success that has already been achieved in tackling organised crime, for which the Minister has rightly been paid credit. It is important that as we work out the details and modalities of devolution, we ensure that new structures do not mean any loss of positive cross-border interface with the Criminal Assets Bureau in the south, or across other agencies that will remain the responsibility of the Government here at Westminster. Someone such as Alan McQuillan could give good advice to parties in that regard.
Mr. Donaldson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, and I take on board what he says about Alan McQuillan’s expertise. Although we as a party will not rush to establish cross-border agencies when we believe that there is no need for them, we value the co-operation between the Garda and the PSNI, between the Criminal Assets Bureau and SOCA, and indeed the OCTF. We recognise that that is valued co-operation. It is working because much recent success has resulted from joint operations, and that is good. Where there is scope for practical co-operation and it brings benefits on both sides of the border, we have no difficulty with it, and we will support and seek to build on that to ensure that criminal elements do not have the opportunity to use either side of the border as a safe haven to continue with criminal activities.
The OCTF’s 2007 annual report has an interesting map of Northern Ireland inside it, and one has only to glance at it to see where the hot spot of laundering plants is. There is a big red blob in south Armagh, and it is clear that that is one area where there is continuing and significant criminality. It is important to focus on such activity and that the available assets and resources are given to the various agencies to enable them to continue their work in those areas. Let us make it clear that there should be no no-go areas in Northern Ireland when it comes to dealing with organised crime. I am not suggesting that that is the case, and I am aware of a number of ongoing operations and investigations in south Armagh. Significant progress is being made in one particular case, and if we can get it over the line it would send a powerful message to the criminal elements in south Armagh that the days of running and hiding are over, that it is time to co-operate and to come forward to resolve issues, and that if they do not do so the long arm of the law will definitely pursue them until there is a positive result.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury resisted the temptation to go through the report in detail. The recent report of the IMC was published just last week, and I shall have to resist the temptation also. This is worth emphasising, and adds to what the hon. Gentleman said. The report highlights the fact that all the main paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland, with the probable exception of PIRA, are still heavily engaged in organised crime—the Continuity IRA, the Irish National Liberation Army, and the so-called Real IRA. That is clear from the IMC’s report. The acronyms in Northern Ireland are proliferating and developing all the time, and two new organisations on the Republican side are involved in organised crime. I am afraid that my Irish is not terribly good, but the first is √"glaigh na h√Čireann, which is Irish for the Irish Republican Army—[Interruption.] Not a bad effort. Another emerging organisation is the Irish Republican Liberation Army, which is also now involved in organised crime.
The picture is no better on the loyalist side with the Loyalist Volunteer Force, the Ulster Defence Association, the south-east Antrim breakaway group of the Ulster Defence Association, and the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando. According to the IMC report, there is ongoing criminal activity by all those groups, although we must acknowledge where progress is. The report indicates that there is diminishing criminality from the UVF and that it tends to be from individuals acting without the sanction of the leadership, which is good. We need to see more of that and more progress.
Much attention has focused on decommissioning, particularly on the loyalist side, where there has not been much progress, but for us the continuing criminality and its impact on communities is equally important. The hon. Member for South Down emphasised that clearly. Every day of every week the paramilitaries are out in local communities, peddling drugs and involved in extortion and racketeering. At a time when the construction industry is struggling, they still seek to extort money from developers and construction companies. They are involved in human trafficking, smuggling and the sale of counterfeit goods.
At every level of criminality the paramilitaries are involved. They are a cancer in our society, destroying lives in local communities. Their influence is still present and we need to tackle it. That is a challenge for the Northern Ireland Administration, and whenever the confidence is sufficient to allow the devolution of policing and justice, that will be one of the major issues to tackle. Paramilitarism and the associated terrorist and criminal activities is a legacy of the past that cannot be part of the future. The organised crime that goes with it has to be brought to an end and we have to focus on that.
I am also bound to say that there is evidence of international criminal involvement in Northern Ireland, as the Minister will be aware. Even in Dunmurry in my constituency we have recently had evidence that Chinese triads are involved in organised crime. We have evidence of eastern Europeans being involved in human trafficking, particularly for the sex trade in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland. Organised crime is there, and no doubt the perpetrators co-operate with local paramilitary elements, whether at leadership level or the individual level. We need to be aware that the problem not only is within our own frontier, but has international dimensions.
My final point is about resourcing, which was raised earlier during the questions to the Minister. There is no doubt that the Chief Constable has made it clear that at times he struggles to find the resources to deal with front-line policing in Northern Ireland. That relates not only to patrolling on the beat in the streets and policing neighbourhoods and communities, but to the PSNI’s vital contribution to tackling organised crime, and we need to get that right. The Minister will be aware that a key element of any settlement that will arise in the event of the devolution of policing and justice powers will be the need to deal with the budgetary issues, which will have to take account of the fight against organised crime.
That is a legacy issue, but it is also clear that some of the paramilitary elements are trying to move beyond their corporate involvement and get involved personally. Some of them have a lot invested in their criminality, and we need to make it clear that that kind of activity and behaviour is unacceptable. Those people, exploiting situations and continuing to engage in crime, are a blight on our community. We support what the Minister and the agencies are seeking to do in Northern Ireland and hope that that work will continue and be successful.
6.44 pm
Sammy Wilson: The figures that several hon. Members have quoted show that, despite the excellent efforts by a wide range of agencies in Northern Ireland, many issues remain to be tackled.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley has mentioned, the increasingly international aspect of organised crime in Northern Ireland needs to be recognised. The hon. Members for South Down and for South Staffordshire have raised concerns about the move towards SOCA and away from the ARA. It makes sense to deal with the increasingly international aspect of organised crime in Northern Ireland through a UK-wide agency, rather than through an agency unique to, and separate within, Northern Ireland.
We have heard how drugs to the value of £15 million were recently seized in Northern Ireland. Seventy illegal Chinese immigrants were involved. I am the president of the Chinese chamber of commerce in Northern Ireland, and I wish to make it clear that the settled Chinese community in Northern Ireland had nothing to do with that. It abhors how its name has been dragged through the mud by people who have come in illegally and then used their position in Northern Ireland for criminal purposes.
It is important to get an assurance from the Minister that while we recognise the need for a body that looks at not only crime in Northern Ireland, but international links and people from other parts of the United Kingdom and further abroad, it is important that that body focuses on criminals in Northern Ireland and seizes assets.
Despite what has been said about the ARA, the proceeds from the agency’s activities have diminished over the past few years. I do not know whether that is because it went for the easy targets first and consequently found it more difficult towards the end, or whether it was because of the wind-down of the organisation, but I hope that that trend has not continued. Perhaps the Minister will reassure us about that when he talks about the assets that have been seized by SOCA and the activity that it has engaged in.
My second point—this has not been mentioned so far—is that crimes such as fuel laundering and illegal dumping have a massive impact on the environment in Northern Ireland, often in parts of Northern Ireland where the environment is most sensitive. One third of illegal dumping occurs in councils that border the Irish Republic, and some of that is a result of authorities in the Republic being happy to dispose of waste using the cheapest option, sometimes perhaps without asking too many questions about how operators can dump waste for the price offered.
The Minister needs to take up that issue. Some of those dumps have been used to deposit waste from high-profile councils in the Republic. Efforts need to be made not only to stop that dumping, but to make it clear to those who have been prepared to use operators that have dumped in that way that they must have the waste removed. That is one way of getting the message over. If a private company, a local authority or a public body in the Irish Republic dumps waste in Northern Ireland and the authorities trace it back to them, there should be financial penalties for not only those who dumped the waste, but those who allowed it to happen. That is one way in which we can make people look more closely at contracts.
Mark Durkan: Is the hon. Gentleman making not only an excellent case for proper pursuit by all the investigating authorities, but a strong case for a coherent all-Ireland waste management strategy?
Sammy Wilson: The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my next point. Members on this side of the Committee have already made it clear that where areas of co-operation benefit both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Where problems cross the border and need to be dealt with on a cross-border basis, we would be totally remiss not to deal with them in that way. I look forward to the opportunities that may arise as a result of today’s announcement. There will be opportunities for Ministers from Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic formally to sit down and talk about such issues and try to find a way around them. Where the problem crosses the border, the problem has to be dealt with on a cross-border basis.
Dr. McCrea: When the waste comes from the Irish Republic, even as good neighbours, we do not need an organisation to deal with it. The waste should not be in Northern Ireland. It should not have been sent from the local authorities in the Irish Republic, and therefore ratepayers in Northern Ireland should not pay for its removal.
Sammy Wilson: My hon. Friend has pointed out why we need formal ways to ensure that, where there are obligations on operators or authorities in the Irish Republic when waste has been dumped illegally—it is often dumped on the most sensitive sites without any control on how it may impact on river basins, waterways, the water table, wildlife and so on—we should have mechanisms for dealing with it. That involves not only stopping it but, if it does happen, making the polluter pay, so that the cost is not imposed on the environment or taxpayers of Northern Ireland. I accept that the Minister has introduced additional powers which now allow vehicles to be seized and impounded, which is one way of ensuring that those who operate that kind of illegal activity are hit in the pocket.
Mr. McGrady: On green pollution from the south to the north of Ireland, as Minister for the Environment, is he not aware of the current negotiations and the fact the Government of the Republic of Ireland already pay for the extradition of waste from pits, where it has been proven to come from the Republic of Ireland? Very often the transgressors are Northern Ireland residents who are getting the money for haulage and then dumping.
Sammy Wilson: I am aware of that. Unfortunately, about 20 sites have been identified, but discussions about the repatriation of waste are taking place on only two of them. None of that has started yet, and there are still discussions about how to do it. It is important that we pursue that matter between Governments more vigorously.
The other aspect we have dealt with today is fuel smuggling, a crime in which many people in Northern Ireland are complicit. People say that they want to remain within the law, yet they still buy diesel for 15p or 30p a litre less than the standard price. In doing so, they not only support and finance further organised crime, but contribute to damage to the environment. The acid must disposed of after it has been used, but putting it into waterways and so on causes massive pollution. It is very hard to trace and sometimes takes years to deal with. In fact, some water treatment plants have been totally destroyed, including one at Aughnacloy, where acid from a nearby fuel laundering plant went through it about a year ago.
Dr. McCrea: Does my hon. Friend accept that the courts have a major part to play? When people are brought before them, rather than giving them a slap on the wrist, they should be handing out custodial sentences.
Sammy Wilson: My hon. Friend has anticipated my next comment. Those who pursue such criminals have a duty to ensure that they are taken to court. Amazingly, people convicted of fuel laundering are less likely to go to jail than those convicted in any other area of organised crime, such as intellectual fraud, drugs, illegal dumping and so on. That is despite the fact that fuel laundering constitutes a multi-million pound business that results in the loss of £200 million to £300 million in revenue a year, which poses a question for HMRC. Fuel laundering plants are concentrated in particular areas. The knowledge of the authorities is such that in the 1980s an order was passed in Parliament banning lorries from going down a certain road to a farm in south Armagh, because it was known that the person who lived there was laundering fuel.
The Minister can confirm this, but I think that only one person has ever gone to jail for fuel laundering, and more people go to jail for illegal dumping, intellectual fraud and drugs. HMRC does not pursue those involved in that multi-million pound crime—that, at least, is the impression of those in the Republic—and only goes as far as recovering lost revenue. It is important that a message goes out and that the Minister takes the message to the OCTF that we expect much more of HMRC. I do not know whether I missed part of the answer when my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann asked about the number of lorries and amount of fuel seized and the number of people arrested and prosecuted. Recently in the House, he was given the figures for lorries seized and fuel recovered, but no figures were given—presumably because there were none—for the people who were arrested or prosecuted. How can fuel and lorries be seized without anyone being taken in those raids and prosecuted through the system? It sends out the wrong message. As the hon. Member for South Down has pointed out, the crime is so lucrative. If a few lorries or a plant are lost, or if some of the assets are taken and frozen, the crime is so lucrative that people can be back in business the next day—they buy another couple of lorries and away they go.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): My hon. Friend is making an eloquent case. Does he agree that one of the issues is the plethora of organisations dealing with that issue? He has mentioned HMRC, but there are also trading standards and councils when it comes to licensing, and there is the PSNI. To what extent is that division of responsibilities a problem? I know what has happened to try to bring greater cohesion and co-operation, but to what extent is that a major contributory factor?
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Prepared 19 November 2008