Organised Crime


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Sammy Wilson: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. Many of the organisations involved have different objectives. One organisation sees getting back the revenue as important; another focuses on punishing someone for breaking the law; and a third sees that laws have been broken in relation to vehicles on the road, but adopts different penalties and a different approach. There are also issues such as licensing requirements. There are so many different objectives, which may have led to that situation.
I do not want to pour cold water on the efforts and improvements that have been made to date. While organised crime in the form of paramilitary activity on the terrorist side has diminished, organised crime generally has increased. It is a cancer on our society, and it leads to massive loss of revenue, whether that involves fuel duty, landfill tax, pollution or intellectual property crime. There is a knock-on effect from all those activities. Because the co-operation of so many members of the public is required in the buying of illegal goods, it encourages that criminal mentality. We need to ensure that we stamp it out and that we do so very quickly.
Dr. McCrea: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is also a tremendous loss to those who are running legitimate businesses? Those are the people with whom we should chiefly be concerned. Many are going to the wall because illegal businesses are taking revenue away from them.
Sammy Wilson: When the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee took evidence—the hon. Member for Blaydon will bear this out—frustration was expressed by people who had attended the Committee four or five years earlier, especially the petrol retailers. They did not take umbrage at being back again, but they were frustrated because they told the Committee about the issue five years earlier but the problem remains. The same is true of the Road Haulage Association, many of whose members found themselves competing against people who could cut costs because they were acting illegally. We owe it to those legitimate businesses that are trying hard to make a contribution to the economy to make a contribution ourselves to prevent damage to the environment and the maintenance of health and safety rules.
Some confusion may have arisen because of the multi-agency approach. It may be difficult to deal with some of the people involved. Indeed—dare I say it?—political considerations may have been made in relation to individuals on both the loyalist and the republican sides who are engaged in such criminal activities.
Mark Durkan: Does the hon. Gentleman recall that, earlier in this debate, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury talked about a number of paramilitary organisations that are up to their necks in crime and said that it is time to bring them down? Listening to what the hon. Gentleman has just said, I must say that many of us have a strong sense that the approach of many authorities during this process has been to bring those organisations round rather than to bring them down. Those authorities have perhaps been content to bring down crime without actually bringing down the organisations and people behind the crime.
There is certainly suspicion—the Minister needs to be aware of this—among people in Northern Ireland that a certain level of criminal activity is tolerated. Why do the various agencies not go to the farms in south Armagh where fuel laundering takes place on a regular basis? Why do they not target individuals who are known to be involved in such activities and lean on them harder? Some people might say that that would be harassment or an infringement of those individuals’ human rights, but the important thing for those who want to live law-abiding lives is that we do not tolerate criminal activity. I hope that the Minister will assure us that that is his objective.
7.8 pm
Paul Goggins: This has been an excellent debate on a topic that always inspires passion among hon. Members, whatever their constituency or political party, because we know the damage that organised crime does. Therefore, we all support the efforts of those who are on the front line of that fight.
I will try to respond to the many comments that have been made during the debate this afternoon, beginning with those made by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury. I was very grateful for the fact that today he welcomed the recent developments. The most important aspect of the announcement today, as much as its contents are important, is the way in which we have got here—the fact that the parties themselves have resolved those issues is significant. That makes a break with the past, because the parties are doing this for themselves and to serve the people of Northern Ireland. I am sure that all the main parties in this House celebrate that fact as a real step forward.
I want to respond to a number of issues raised by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury. We have responded to all the recommendations in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report on organised crime. Not all the recommendations in that report were for the Government—some were for other authorities. I committed to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that I would write on a reasonably regular basis to update the Select Committee on further action taken, and I intend to continue to do so, because the subject is something of an abiding interest.
I agree with the hon. Member for Tewkesbury that people need to speak out, come forward, point the finger, give evidence and be prepared to stand up for what is right. Until people the length and breadth of Northern Ireland are prepared to do that, there will always be some difficulties, so that is important.
We have stepped up the fight against fuel fraud. Frankly, we needed to—I believe that that is generally acknowledged. I take some heart from the early results of the fuel enforcement group, but that work needs to continue.
I am also pleased about the figures that I was able to announce recently on asset recovery. They are moving in a good, positive direction. That is what people want. The politicians want it, and the people do, too. They have an innate sense of justice and believe that those who have taken illegally should be made to pay back, and that their assets should be recovered.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that accountants and other professionals who have any cause for concern about somebody laundering money or operating illegally have a statutory obligation to report it. The regime includes suspicious activity reports, which they must make. If they knowingly do not report evidence of wrongdoing, they themselves could be subject to criminal action.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for South Antrim, who made an important point in an intervention, that the real losers from organised crime are often legitimate businesses, where people who are trying to make a living and a contribution but are being undermined by the criminals. It is important that we protect such people. Therefore, it is important that the business community is represented on the OCTF. When we do roadshows in various parts of Northern Ireland, the business community is always represented.
We had a good discussion about drugs and drug seizures, and there was a good exchange between the hon. Members for Tewkesbury and for Strangford, both of whom pointed out that we should consider not just the value of the drugs that are seized but the harm that they do. Even drugs with a small value can do a huge amount of damage to a family and community. We must never forget that, and we should try to find ways, if we can, of measuring drug seizure success by reference to harm reduction as well as cash value.
Several hon. Members mentioned the international dimension of the drugs problem. Yesterday evening, I was at a reception in Northern Ireland with the vice-president of Colombia, Francisco Santos Calderón, who has done tremendous work in this area. He said that the cocaine that originates in his country and often ends up on the streets of Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK is doing terrible damage to his people and to the environment. The amount of deforestation associated with growing coca is enormous. We have a collective international interest in tackling the problem.
On Chinese gangs, the hon. Member for East Antrim was right to say that they are in no way connected with the indigenous Chinese population and are part of international networks. I am pleased with the action that the PSNI has taken. It has demolished some 100 cannabis factories in just a few months. Indeed, one reason why we have a growing foreign national prisoner population in Maghaberry prison is because a huge number of those people have been arrested and remanded and are awaiting trial for the offences with which they have been charged. Again, that is a positive move.
In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for South Down, it is important to understand that wherever there is sufficient evidence to lead to a prosecution, people should be prosecuted. There should be no misunderstanding about that whatsoever. If there is evidence, people should be charged, prosecuted and dealt with. The beauty of the proceeds of crime legislation that we have introduced is that where we do not have sufficient evidence to prosecute, we can still get people on the lower burden of proof. We can take back the assets that they have acquired illegally, even if we cannot sustain a prosecution to lock them up in prison. It is important that we do both rather than limiting ourselves to one.
My hon. Friend talked about the merger of the ARA and SOCA, as did a number of other members of the Committee. The commitment that we made was that there would be strong leadership, that we would keep the resources at least at the same level and that SOCA would be able to set local priorities for asset recovery. I am pleased that it seems from today’s debate that progress is being made and that people have confidence that those things have been established.
The hon. Member for East Antrim underlined the global reach of SOCA, which can connect law enforcement in Northern Ireland with the gangs and networks that operate internationally. We are already seeing some signs of success in that. I reassure him that its relationship with the Criminal Assets Bureau remains strong, and indeed grows stronger through the various operations that they do together.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned loyalist paramilitary organisations and made it absolutely clear, as a number of hon. Members have in recent months, that time is running out for the decommissioning of arms by those organisations. Like him, I saw the remarks that Peter Sheridan made before his retirement, but I have seen no evidence whatever that the PSNI is holding back despite knowing where the guns are. If people are holding guns and not decommissioning them, they stand liable to have the full force of the law thrown at them. Of course, we have legislation to allow a decommissioning process to happen. He used exactly the same words that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently used, saying that if they are going to decommission, it has to be sooner rather than later. The patience of the people of Northern Ireland, let alone of people in here, will not last for ever.
There is no policy of not giving custodial sentences because the prisons are full. In fact, I have prioritised enough of the capital expenditure of the Northern Ireland Office to build 400 additional prison places, which are being built right at this moment. A number are already in place, and more are to be built. If a judge decides that somebody should go to prison for the crime that they have committed, it is important that they can send them there. There should never be any inhibition about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle asked me to go through the various paramilitary organisations and make absolutely clear the kind of criminality in which they have been involved. One or two members have done that to some extent, and I can point him to the IMC report, which goes through the matter in great detail. He is quite right, and I shall refer briefly to certain groups.
√"glaigh na h√Čireann has been involved in drug dealing, robbery, fuel laundering and smuggling, especially of tobacco. The Continuity IRA has been involved in drug dealing, robbery and tiger kidnapping, extortion, fuel laundering and smuggling. I am referring to the evidence that the IMC reported on. The INLA has been involved in drug dealing, extortion, robbery and offences against the Revenue such as fuel laundering and smuggling. The Real IRA has been involved in a wide range of serious crime; the Loyalist Volunteer Force has been involved in drug dealing; the Ulster Defence Association has been involved in drug dealing, extortion, money laundering, loan sharking and the sale of counterfeit goods; and the UDA south-east Antrim breakaway group has been involved in extortion and drugs. On the Ulster Volunteer Force, the report comments:
“Some members or former members continue to engage in a range of criminal activity though without leadership sanction.”
That is true also of PIRA, individual members of which may occasionally involve themselves in criminal activity, but not with the sanction and approval of the organisation. I hope that that satisfies my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle that we recognise the need to understand the details, and I am grateful to him for pointing that out.
As he frequently does, my hon. Friend spoke with great passion about the importance of not allowing a parallel justice system to operate in Northern Ireland. He understands the matter better than most people, and I agree with him 100 per cent. It is important that we do not accord a reputation to people who do not merit it by giving them a place in the system. He raised legitimate concerns about community-based restorative justice. Such concerns are why we have put in place the protocol and why the chief inspector of criminal justice has to approve any scheme before it can be authorised and returns to check that people are retaining the standards required.
As a number of hon. Members have said, it is important that nobody turns a blind eye to criminality in the hope that somehow it is a sticking plaster on the political process. We cannot allow that to happen, because it would be based on a false premise and would lock in criminality in a way that none of us wants to see. The important and constant message is that we have to deal with criminality. The great thing about Northern Ireland politics is that all the politicians are there now, and that is where they all stand and should stand.
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire explained why he could not be present at the end of the debate. I thank him and his Committee for their tremendous work highlighting these concerns and others in a detailed way. It is a very active Committee, which gets out and about and meets people face to face who might not come here to give evidence, but who can access the Committee with its many visits to Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the recent meeting with the Quinn family. I know that people appreciate that kind of meeting, particularly when they are in such difficult situations. He is right about improving our activity on fuel fraud. I am determined for the good start made through the enforcement group to continue. As we have said to him and to others, we are still prepared to consider whether a new offence of fuel laundering is necessary or if the present powers are sufficient—we will keep an open mind.
I genuinely and warmly thank the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley for what he said about my contribution. It is a modest contribution, certainly compared with people such as Alan McQuillan, whom he mentioned, who has done tremendous work on the front line. It is those officers and officials who really make a difference, but if, in some small way, I helped to build something on which others can build further, I would be only too happy.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that there must be no no-go areas in Northern Ireland. It is absolutely important that everybody feels safe and free wherever they go in Northern Ireland. He referred to a case in a fairly oblique way; I am aware of it and it is important when dealing with certain people that we send a signal, which is understood across the criminal networks, that we mean business and will deal with them.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned money, and the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have already made it clear in their statement that they want to discuss financial issues relating to policing and criminal justice. We will, of course, enter into those discussions with them and others.
The hon. Member for East Antrim raised several issues. The international aspect of organised crime is absolutely clear, and he made the point that SOCA can help us with that. He talked about the importance of asset recovery, which, as I said at the start, is everybody’s business. The Northern Ireland Environment Agency has accredited eight financial investigators to do that work, so everybody can and should use those powers.
I strongly agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the impact of organised crime on the environment. Illegal dumping of waste is not acceptable, whoever is behind it. Following the comments by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley on working together, I am perfectly happy to see whether there are ways in which we can bring the agencies connected with the devolved Departments together with the OCTF and do more, if we possibly can. Our environment is precious, and we cannot allow illegal dumping to blight the landscape.
The hon. Gentleman’s point about personal responsibility was very well made: we can organise crime task forces, the police and other agencies, which all do a tremendous job, but if somebody is prepared to buy something that they think is a good deal but is helping to fund drugs, guns and other criminal activity, in the end, those people are complicit in organised crime and racketeering. We all try to make that point in our different ways. If people think that they have a good deal, we make a plea for them to think twice. If fuel is 30p or 40p cheaper a litre than the standard price, people should know that something is wrong; and if someone is offered a deal in a pub or on a market that is too good to be true, they should think twice because they could be putting money into the hands of criminal gangs. It is obviously far more positive for people not to do that and, by working together in that way, we can face down organised criminal gangs. It is not easy, but nothing to do with this issue is. These gangs are cunning in mind and in the way in which they operate, and they have an international reach. If we stand together as politicians, as Government and as local communities, we can make a difference. Once again, I thank you, Mr. Atkinson, for chairing such an excellent debate.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee has considered the matter of organised crime in Northern Ireland.

Policing

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Committee do now adjourn.—[Helen Goodman.]
7.26 pm
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I would like to belatedly congratulate you on chairing the Committee, Mr. Atkinson. We have just concluded an interesting debate on organised crime in the Province and we would now like to deal with the issue of policing in Northern Ireland. This debate is related to organised crime in that it represents what I suppose we could call a mirror image of the issue. In the debate that just ended, we considered the issue of crime; in this debate, we will consider policing, which is one of the areas that will help to shape Northern Ireland’s future in the coming years.
There is no doubt that Northern Ireland has come quite a distance in recent times, yet important issues remain outstanding. To set the scene for this debate on policing, it is worth while and, indeed, essential to remind ourselves of some of those matters because each of them has an impact on this debate. I end today with the announcement that a number of issues are still outstanding as far as the Unionist community is concerned. We need to address those to get the full context of this debate on policing.
There is a need to move away from the mandatory coalition towards a voluntary coalition system. Such a move would bring many benefits. It would create an official Opposition and mean that there would be agreement in advance between the parties that form the Executive about the direction in which they are going. It would mean that no party could threaten the institutions because the options available to them would be either opposition or abstention. That would apply just as much to my party as it would to any other. Such a move could be only a good thing for the Province and the sooner it takes place, the better.
We also need to move forward in finding a resolution to the disputes over parading and in delivering a new beginning to parading in Northern Ireland. That is only sensible, given that it falls to the police to ensure public safety whenever there is a dispute. It remains a public disgrace that in my constituency, one individual—Mr. Brendan McKenna—takes part in an un-notified parade in Belfast and refuses to participate in dialogue. Yet, the Parades Commission continues to reward him by issuing the determination he wants. I have said it before and will say it again today: the Parades Commission is only feeding his refusal to engage in dialogue and bears a significant amount of blame for the continuation of protests at Drumcree in my constituency, and that makes the job of the Police Service of Northern Ireland even more difficult.
There is a way open for the commission that I put to it some time ago. I suggested that it should issue what in effect would be a post-dated determination in which it stated that if Mr. McKenna did not engage in dialogue by a certain date it would issue a determination against his position. It is reprehensible that the Parades Commission prefers to do nothing, rather than help to bring about a resolution. We need to complete the review of public administration and finally end the cultural wars that have done so much harm to the Province for so many years.
We also need to ensure that policing is able to face the challenges of the future. Of course, the issue of devolving policing and justice powers also requires completion. I am glad that in the last few hours the Sinn Fein leadership have eventually seen sense and drawn back from their previous position. That Sinn Fein have called time on their foot stamping in a situation in which there will be no Sinn Fein Minister for justice, no political interference in the appointment of judges and no date agreed to by the DUP is a long overdue acceptance of political reality by Gerry Adams. It has been a consistent DUP position, led in policy documents, election manifestos and keynote speeches, that Sinn Fein will exercise no authority in those matters for a political lifetime. That has now been agreed. We wait to see whether Gerry Adams will hold to that position or try to drag his party into yet another futile campaign aimed at resurrecting his own political career. I certainly hope that the more realistic elements in Sinn Fein will be able to keep him in line.
The PSNI are expected to police the streets with integrity and total professionalism. They have to investigate incidents, from riots to domestic violence and everything in between that human nature throws up. They are called upon to be on the streets nights and day in an attempt to safeguard the public who turn to them. The sad thing is that they are expected to do all of that while facing a budget crisis. That financial nightmare will have a severe and negative impact on policing and the confidence and safety of the public.
The Chief Constable is under immense pressure to spread the money across every area of policing, but there always has to be a contingency fund to cover the unexpected, and it is a real problem when that is not there. Two sets of people will feel that the most: the police officers on the ground and the general public. The Chief Constable cannot be expected to police every area and every issue 100 per cent. effectively unless he has the resources to do so. Almost 80 per cent. of the policing budget pays salaries. It has been suggested that the Chief Constable will soon have to find a further £26 million this year to compensate past injury claims, including those for hearing loss, and additional money to run the police academy.
The additional financial pressures facing the Chief Constable include changes to pensions and the retention of the Northern Ireland transitional allowance because of the pressures put on the NIO by the DUP, and there is also the need to tackle increased dissident republican activity, which we heard about in the previous debate.
It was recently revealed to the Policing Board that cuts to the front-line policing services and a halt to recruitment could be forced by the funding crisis. According to the Chief Constable:
“we have a substantial gap between the money available to the end of the year and the money we projected to spend...The reality is, we have a gap, it is around £24 million.”
He also conceded that any reduction in police numbers would impact on public confidence in policing. Will the Minister give us his view on that, and say whether there will be a freeze on recruitment? If so, what impact could that have on the ending of the discriminatory and sectarian 50:50 recruitment policy?
Budgetary constraints are also having a significant and adverse effect on the Historical Enquiries Team. It has recently come to light that many of the 180 members of the HET staff could temporarily lose their jobs over £1.5 million funding. That is in stark contrast to the near £200 million ploughed into the Bloody Sunday inquiry. With nearly 3,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland, those job losses must not be allowed. We have often been told by others that there should be no hierarchy of victims, yet the Government are running the risk of creating a hierarchy in which the victims of sectarian terror gangs are less considered than others. Surely, that cannot be so. Budgetary constraints mean that the Chief Constable is having to rationalise his resources, particularly the number of police stations that he can reasonably operate to provide what he considers the best possible policing service across the Province. The amount saved by closing a station is not that significant, and there is no guarantee that that money will go back into the PSNI budget for that area. Fermanagh—we heard about this in the previous debate—has lost more than 18 police-related jobs in the past year, and will lose its complement of eight full-time reserves within the next three years. At the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland there were 13 police stations in County Fermanagh. Today there are just seven bases, and there are plans to reduce that number. Those cuts are largely dictated by monetary constraints being imposed on the PSNI. It is vital, when considering station reviews, that the PSNI is clear about the impact across the whole of the community. It is vital that neither communities nor police officers are left isolated. I ask the Minister for reassurance on that.
While on the subject of manpower, I need also to point out that the full-time reserves are being phased out. However, the Chief Constable has admitted to the Policing Board that given the increase in dissident republican activity, the full-time reserve could become an additional financial pressure after 2011. I ask the Minister for his view on that also. Given that the full-time reserves may still be required to tackle the threat from dissident republican groups, will additional moneys be available if the Chief Constable says that the reserves need to stay?
There are further issues regarding dissident republican organisations. Dissident activity has resulted in serious incidents in different parts of Northern Ireland, including my constituency of Upper Bann. Those organisations have a callous disregard for life. The Chief Constable has warned that dissident republicans are out to kill his officers in the Province, even if it means killing innocent civilians with them. The notion that they have any moral position is preposterous. Those groups are trying to recruit young disfranchised people from within the nationalist community to swell their ranks. They are recruiting heavily among young people in the 18 to 25 age bracket. They are forcing police officers to leave their homes at a rate of nearly one every month. Figures released by the PSNI show that between June 2007 and June 2008, some 16 serving officers were advised to leave their homes because of a direct terrorist threat.
According to the IMC’s most recent report, republican dissidents are more active than at any time in the past four and a half years. There must be a strong security response, which means that there must be full support from the public, politicians and the Government for the police in their efforts to deal with the threat. There must be no hiding place for them. The police in Northern Ireland are not only one of the most scrutinised forces in the world; they are the most courageous. They deserve the support of all as they set about policing in the best interests of all. I hope that all will do their part to help them.
The people of Northern Ireland are crying out for proper policing. I have made the point that the police service, whether the former RUC or the PSNI, are courageous. Both men and women have laid their lives on the line for the betterment of Northern Ireland, but the people are crying out for proper policing, and we cannot have a reduction in numbers, because that would be a total travesty. The people want proper policing with proper beats on the streets, and we need that. The Government must ensure that proper resources are available for that.
7.43 pm
 
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