We want a debate between Labour and the Conservatives. Two of the debates proposed by the broadcasters would include the Liberal Democrat leader and other party

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leaders. The broadcasters have proposed a head-to-head debate as the third of three debates and we think that that makes sense. We accept that proposal.

Dr Huppert: I absolutely understand why the hon. Gentleman would like to return to two-party politics, with the two parties that get a larger share of MPs than their share of the vote. I understand why that is in his interests, but is he saying that his leader is not prepared to debate with the leader of my party head to head?

Stephen Twigg: I am not saying that at all. I am saying that we are prepared to have a debate with not only the leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party but the leaders of a number of other parties. We accept the proposals of the broadcasters. We want a head-to-head debate with the leader of the Conservative party because there are two main parties in this country that poll consistently higher than the other parties, and nobody is seriously arguing that there is a prospect of anyone other than the current Prime Minister or the leader of the Labour party being Prime Minister after 7 May. If the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) wants to intervene on me to say that there is a serious prospect of the Deputy Prime Minister moving into No. 10 on 8 May, I will give way to him one more time.

Dr Huppert: The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. It is very hard to tell what will happen. I understand that he would be concerned, given the performance by my leader in the three-way debates last time, but it is a great shame that his leader seems to be too scared to take part in such a head-to-head debate. Maybe we should have three head-to-head debates: one between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition; one between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister; and one between the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. That could be a fascinating series of debates for the public.

Stephen Twigg: If the broadcasters come forward with such a proposal, we will of course take it seriously.

Dr McCrea: Bearing in mind the shambolic nature of the proposals from the BBC, does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there are Members in this House who have no confidence whatever in the BBC or in the other broadcasters that are arranging the debates?

Stephen Twigg: I listened carefully to the right hon. Member for Belfast North when he opened the debate today, and I entirely understand the concerns that he raised. We certainly do not see the case for treating Northern Ireland any differently from Scotland or Wales. However, we strongly believe that it is for the broadcasters, not the politicians, to determine the nature of the debates. Even at this late stage, we hope that agreement can be reached.

Before I took those interventions, I was quoting my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. It could of course be said that parties in opposition will be bullish about these matters. Five years ago, when the current Prime Minister was Leader of the Opposition, he said:

“I absolutely believe in these debates and think they are great”.

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He agreed with us, saying:

“I think it is great we are having these debates and I hope they go some way to restoring the faith and trust into our politics because we badly need that once again in this country”.

I agree. In 2010, the then Leader of the Opposition was exasperated by any suggestion that the debates would not happen, saying:

“I’ve always wanted these debates to happen. I mean, they happen in every country. They even happen in Mongolia, for heaven’s sake, and it’s part of the modern age that we should be in.”

Even as recently as last year, when he was no longer Leader of the Opposition but Prime Minister, he said:

“I’ve just always believed that these need to happen. It’s good for democracy. It’s good to see”;

and only five weeks ago, he said:

“I want to go and debate”.

But when push comes to shove, the Prime Minister is running scared.

We heard from the Minister today that the Conservatives want an election debate before the election campaign and before there are any party manifestos for the party leaders to be interrogated on. The Minister also talked about Prime Minister’s questions being the forum for debate. The current Prime Minister used to argue that Prime Minister’s Question Time was not a substitute for proper television debates, but he is now attempting to use it as his way out. We know what happens at Prime Minister’s questions: the Leader of the Opposition and other MPs ask a lot of questions and the Prime Minister does not answer them. The idea that that is a debate that could be a substitute for a forum in which party manifestos could be held to account is unacceptable.

Has the Prime Minister lost his nerve, or has Lynton Crosby lost the Prime Minister’s nerve for him? This is perhaps typical of this Prime Minister. He used to hug a husky and clamour for the green vote. That has gone. He used to talk about compassionate conservatism, but that has gone. He used to talk about a new way of doing politics, including the importance of TV debates, but now he is even turning his back on that, too.

We cannot allow future Prime Ministers, of whatever party, to play games with these TV debates, and I welcome what the right hon. Member for Belfast North said about creating a set of rules. We have said that a Labour Government would put the requirement to stage a fair and impartial leaders debate on a statutory footing. The Minister has done his best to make that proposal sound incredibly Orwellian and statist, but it would simply introduce a system that would work along similar lines to the current party political broadcasts, with the Broadcasters’ Liaison Group having the power to come up with proposals for the debates.

In keeping with what the right hon. Gentleman said earlier, we believe that we shall have an opportunity in the next Parliament to get this right and to learn from what has happened during this Parliament in the lead-up to the election campaign. We suggest a deadline of 2017, midway through the next Parliament, for the proposed changes to be put in place. That would give everyone plenty of time to plan for the debates before the subsequent general election. This would be an important constitutional change, introducing a mechanism for the

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increased accountability of the Prime Minister and other party leaders. In our system, such reforms would be welcome.

Greg Clark: I am fascinated by the hon. Gentleman’s proposal. Will he tell me whether it would appear in the first Queen’s Speech of a Labour Government? Would it be such a priority for the running of the country that it would appear in a Labour Government’s first legislative programme?

Stephen Twigg: As the Minister well knows, neither he nor I can indicate what would be in either of our party’s Queen’s Speeches at any stage. We have fixed-term five-year Parliaments, so I am not going to comment on the timing. However, we welcome the opportunity to debate that important reform, and I hope that he will engage in a serious debate on it.

The Prime Minister’s politics tutor at university, Vernon Bogdanor, has welcomed our proposal, saying that

“the public are entitled to see how party leaders perform in debate, and also how the Prime Minister and alternative Prime Minister perform.”

A Prime Minister, of whatever party, should not be able to duck debates and thereby potentially cancel them for everyone. If a party representative refused to appear on BBC “Question Time” on a Thursday night, the show would go on. These debates are important for the credibility of this election. How can the Prime Minister, as leader of his party, look the British public in the eye, having been so overt in his support of debates, when he is now running away from them? Why should he have a veto on the opportunity for the public to hear from other party leaders?

Julie Hilling: Does my hon. Friend not think that it is actually slightly worse than that? The Prime Minister is saying he will debate, but he is not saying he will debate head to head. He is trying to bamboozle people by saying he will take part in that debate. He is just saying things that are not really true.

Stephen Twigg: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Our right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has been quoted as saying that he will meet the Prime Minister “any time, any place, anywhere”, and we have accepted the broadcasters’ proposals for three separate debates—

Greg Clark: What about 23 March?

Stephen Twigg: As the Minister confirms from a sedentary position, the Prime Minister will debate only with the other leaders, and only in a week before the election campaign, before the manifestos have been published. This Prime Minister is not prepared to debate head to head with the Leader of the Opposition after the manifestos have been published. That says a great deal about this Prime Minister and about the Conservative party’s approach to this election.

We on this side of the House are keen to make this happen, and we believe that there is still time for the Prime Minister to join us in accepting the proposal from the broadcasters. For the sake of democratic engagement, I really hope that he and his advisers will

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reconsider their opposition to these debates. Before the last election, the leader of the Conservative party—now the Prime Minister—said:

“I think people have the right to look at the people putting themselves forward as the next Prime Minister”

in TV debates. That could not be clearer. We agree. The public agree. Let’s get on with it.

1.59 pm

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): To paraphrase the words of the famous comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, this is another fine mess they’ve gotten us into. I refer of course to the broadcasters.

We have heard a series of proposals, and a series of responses to those proposals, and it seems to me—and, apparently, to virtually the entire population of the United Kingdom—that we have a thoroughly unsatisfactory, unfair outcome as things stand at the moment. And who knows what tomorrow may bring? Initially, the broadcasters seemed to be looking favourably at what would have been a fair debate: the potential Prime Minister coming from the largest party in the opinion polls going head to head with the other potential Prime Minister from the second largest party. For a national debate, most people would have said, “Let the debate continue.”

The broadcasters moved from that position to include a range of smaller parties, but the threshold appeared arbitrary in that they included some parties but not others. That was particularly the case when they included the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru. The defence I read after they had reached that conclusion was that Plaid Cymru and the SNP were facing the other parties in their respective jurisdictions, whereas, for example, the Democratic Unionist party in Northern Ireland was not. What the broadcasters did not deal with was the fact that in the national debate that they are currently proposing, the UK Independence party, the Greens and the Conservative party will all be facing us in Northern Ireland, yet we will not have the opportunity to respond to issues that our competition will be putting forward in that debate. The current position is therefore totally untenable.

We are seeking a resolution for the upcoming and immediate election. It needs to be reached within the next day or two, so that the parties can debate adequately and, more importantly, so that the general public can understand what the issues are, make their minds up about those putting forward the positions and determine whether how they intend to vote is affected. In the longer term—this is why we have worded the motion in the way we have—there must be no repeat of this Horlicks. That is what it is: a complete Horlicks. I have heard no reporter from any broadcaster seek to defend it, because it is indefensible.

Beyond this election we must get some independent mechanism that will use a fair rationale for arriving at a debate. It could be a series of debates, one featuring the two potential Prime Ministers and then another debate among a series of parties, either including regional parties or excluding them. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say, “We want a head to head. Then we are going to open up a regional debate, but we are only going to include some regions. We are going to include Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland.”

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This is indefensible and unjustifiable and it cannot be promoted, explained or rationalised by any sensible individual.

Given that my throat is about to give up, I shall call it a day.

2.3 pm

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I rise to support the motion, but I do so with some reservation, because although I come from a part of the UK where we are well accustomed to talks about talks, I suspect that with debates about debates there is a similar relationship between public interest in the debate and the amount of time we spend debating the debate—an inversely proportional one. The timing of this debate is particularly unfortunate, as it feels slightly self-indulgent for us to be debating who is able to debate the issues instead of using parliamentary time actually to debate some issues that matter to our constituents and which would make a difference. As Northern Ireland MPs, we get a relatively limited amount of time on the Floor of the House to be able to engage in those issues where Westminster has a direct impact on our constituencies. So it is unfortunate that we end up today in something that could be viewed by the public as slightly self-indulgent: a discussion about how parties will engage with each other in the run-up to elections.

Mr Donaldson: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Naomi Long: I want to move on, because I have said my piece on that.

How do the public view this? They will be weary of the debate around it. However, I did rise to support the motion; although I am not sure this is the right time or place, on this occasion I am not disagreeing with the proposal made. I believe there is an inherent unfairness in the way this whole situation has been handled. I agree with the motion because it is not about individual political parties or the amount of air time they get in the run-up to the election; it is about allowing members of the public to engage with the issues and to hear what those people who may beyond this general election have an influence on the formation of a Government—that could be any of us who stand for election to this place—would do in terms of the kind of Government who would be subsequently formed. So it is important that every party is treated fairly and equally.

Previously, two rationales were given to us as to why Northern Ireland was not included in those debates. The first was about the threshold at which parties “validly” could argue their position for being in those debates. The Liberal Democrats made a strong case on the last occasion, managing to find a way to be part of the debate, even though their prospects of providing a Prime Minister were very limited. That was the first point at which the normal rationale, about the parties that would provide a Prime Minister, started to break down.

We then moved beyond that to a basis of opinion polls and of elections of a different kind, whereby UKIP should also be included because of its performance. Previously, however, elections of a similar kind had been used as the basis for making those judgments. So the comparison between a European election, where

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UKIP’s policies perhaps have a particular resonance, and a general election, where wider policy may play a greater role in people making their decisions, would not have been taken into account in the same way. The inclusion of UKIP in the debate suddenly gave us another crack in the façade of the rationale as to why people were or were not included in the debate.

We moved on from that to discussing the political challenge around the debates, then demanding that the Green party ought to be included because it also ran in a national way across all of Great Britain. Of course that relates to the second logical reason for the exclusion of the Northern Ireland parties, and indeed the Scottish and Welsh parties: they did not run candidates in every part of the UK.

Mr Donaldson: It may have been a slip, but I am sure the hon. Lady did not mean to say that when we talk on a national basis, we talk about Great Britain—the nation is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Naomi Long: I think my views on that are well known. I did make the point that the Greens ran in all parts of the UK, so when I refer to the UK, that is what I am referring to.

The logical reason being given was that our Northern Ireland parties did not run candidates throughout the UK—that was the second rationale for our being excluded. However, when we remove that second rationale, no argument can be made for why a party that has one Member elected to this House in this Parliament—the Green party—ought to be in those debates, yet other parties that have eight Members, three Members and one Member are excluded. There is no logic to that. There is no rationale, and that is because this is all being done on an ad-hoc basis.

I believe that the logical reason was always there; there was a clear and concise reason and rationale for how the debates were structured, one that was clearly understood by the public, and clearly understood and respected by the political parties. However, when that was abandoned in favour of a kind of populism and things were thrown open, we opened a Pandora’s box. Wherever the line is now drawn it will feel unfair and arbitrary to some party in Parliament. Plaid Cymru could be included in the debate but the Social Democratic and Labour party excluded. Why would that be the case? It makes no logical sense whatsoever.

The problem is that, having opened Pandora’s box, no one seems clear about how to close it again. Let me make it clear that I am not standing here to make a pitch to be included in the national debate, or for the SDLP, the DUP, Plaid Cymru, or the SNP to be included in the debate. I say that not because I want to see any of our parties excluded, but because if the purpose of these debates is to engage the public and to make them interested in what the next Government and the leadership—particularly the Prime Minister—might look like, we will end up with a panel that is so large and unwieldy that any real debate, exchange of ideas, or engagement will be absolutely stifled.

What we need to do is return to a situation in which the panel size is reasonable and in which the rationale is clear, legal and justifiable. Given the mess, the time

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scale, and the challenges that could hold serious sway if they were taken up by a number of parties, my fear is that we will end up risking the situation. I say that not because of the debate we are having about the debate, but because of the unwieldiness of any subsequent panel. The number of people on the panel could outstrip the number of people who actually want to watch the debate. The biggest crime of all would be to disengage the public further. We need to stop debating the debate and to get a clear rationale, which must be fair and apply to all parts of the UK and not disadvantage those whom we represent.

2.11 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), not least because, on this occasion, I agreed with everything she said. When I say that it is important that we do not spend too much time here today debating this issue, I am not criticising the DUP for its choice of debate. Someone from the media said to me, “Is it not a bit much that Parliament is spending time debating this?” I made the point that the media are spending more time debating the matter, in between covering Jeremy Clarkson and other matters. It is a bit rich for them to criticise us for taking a bit of time in Parliament to debate the issue.

As other Members have said, the broadcasters have made a hames of the whole situation. They thought that they had to scramble together an offer, that a proposal on high from them would have to be accepted and that everyone would have to comply. Then they found themselves being played into different corners by the Prime Minister. It is the Prime Minister who has created this situation with the broadcasters.

Last week, headlines said that Downing street had issued its final offer to the broadcasters, which did not look good. We are talking here about the office of the Prime Minister. It would have been one thing for Conservative party headquarters to say it, but it was Downing street, and the letter came from the director of communications, who is on the civil service payroll. The broadcasters should not have allowed themselves to be drawn into such a situation.

This is an unseemly mess. The way in which this debacle is playing out does no one any credit—the parties, the political process and the broadcast journalists. As the hon. Lady said, I do not think that any of us would have huffed or grumbled if a clear decision had been made that the main focus of the debate should be between the parties and the party leaders who are hoping to lead or to form a Government. That would have been clear. Even the broadcasters seem to accept that one of the debates should have that sort of bespoke focus, so no one contends with that principle. Once they started drawing in others, they took inclusion to the point of ridicule. By assembling such a large number, they will create the effect of a game show. The only problem is that the viewers will not have the joy of seeing people eliminated or have the opportunity to vote people off as the exercise progresses. Instead, people will switch off.

It is nonsense to have a studio-centred Tower of Babel presented as some sort of rational political debate. But we must remember that that idea came not just

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from the broadcasters, but from the Prime Minister. I never saw him as someone who was particularly concerned about the inclusion of all parties, even the small regional parties. We are seeing a whole new side to the Prime Minister. Certainly, he seems to be keener to hear people in debates than he is to hear people in this Chamber. This is a whole new dimension to him.

Why does the Prime Minister insist that we need this wide-level debate? I know that TV screens are getting bigger and wider, but they are not wide enough to take a pan shot of the debate that the broadcasters and the Prime Minister seem to want. It is all about the clear electoral strategy of the Conservative party. The Prime Minister wants to create this idea that the only alternative to a single-party Tory Government is the Leader of the Opposition and an absolute ragbag coalition of a rabble of other parties. He wants that image around the debate precisely because it suits the Conservative election message. Some Members have said that Lord Grade’s intervention was a neutral one, coming as it did from someone who has experience in so many different media outlets. However, his intervention is informed entirely by the fact that he is on side with the Prime Minister’s agenda to use these debates to create a picture that reinforces a basic Tory message in this election campaign. The intervention was entirely biased. The broadcasters have allowed themselves to be played into this situation.

I agree with the salient point in the DUP motion that, rather than having these confused and stylised arguments and rumours between the broadcasters and the politicians, all of whom will be accused of vying for their own interests and advantage, there should be some credible and neutral authority, whether it is set up specifically for the purpose or a hybrid between the Electoral Commission and Ofcom, to make judgments about how the debate should be framed. There will be other opportunities for wide diversity in debates. Many of us—even those who were not in Scotland—were absolutely transfixed and excited by the referendum debates in Scotland. Those debates took many forms, the most powerful of which were not necessarily those that included the party leaders. Some had strong inputs from studio audiences, which included young people. Just as there was a diversity in the type and range of debate in Scotland, so too should there be here. The broadcasters and the Prime Minister should not pretend that the only way of including the small parties is in the big head-to-head debates. That is why our party is not joining the queue to say, “Oh, no, it has to be us, too. If you are going to have Plaid Cymru, you must include us.”

On the point about which other parties to include, perhaps the broadcasters should have come up with some rationale around the number of candidates who were standing. Perhaps they would have been able to draw the line in that way. If parties are putting up candidates right across the UK and backing them up with a campaign effort, perhaps some regard should be given to that, as well as to factors such as opinion polls and seats in Parliament, when considering who is eligible to take part in the debate. We were told at the time of the recent by-elections that the results could change who would have to be in a TV debate. I found it hard to believe that a single by-election result could have that effect, but apparently that was what was understood in media circles. Other rationales could credibly be used to

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frame a debate sensibly, and a range of wider broadcast opportunities could be used to allow fair access for parties of all scales.

There are parties in Northern Ireland saying that, because of their size and standing in Northern Ireland, they should be included in just the same way as parties standing in Wales and Scotland, but some of them will not even be standing in all constituencies in Northern Ireland, because there will probably be electoral pacts and other factors. It is a bit much for parties that might not even stand in all Northern Ireland constituencies to insist on equal rights in a TV debate with parties that are hoping to form the next Government.

The fact that we have all been sucked into these arguments goes back to the false calls that were initially made by the broadcasters. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) was right to criticise the broadcasters for scrambling their original proposals, and for doing so without sounding out parties or journalists, even those available to them within their own organisations. That is what created the problem. We have to find a more sensible way of doing this. Let us be clear that politics also lies behind the debacle we now have, because that debacle suits one party and one party leader, and we should not pretend otherwise.

2.21 pm

Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I was amused by the comment made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about the need for wide-screen TVs if all parties take part in the debates. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) said from a sedentary position that it would be a bit like the game show “Take Me Out”. I am not sure that I would want to take part if Sinn Fein was involved, because “take me out” might have slightly different connotations. Perhaps “Blankety Blank” would be a more appropriate name, given that Sinn Fein Members do not take their seats in this House. That is a serious point that it is worth making in this debate.

In Northern Ireland we have traditionally had debates with the local political parties that participate in elections, and that has worked reasonably well. I do not think that the DUP would have raised this matter today had it not been for the proposal, particularly from the BBC, to include parties that contest seats only in certain regions of the United Kingdom—the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru. An important principle was breached: that the main debate was about the national scene. I think that there is a lot to be said for the idea that the debate should be between the two leaders who are most likely to be Prime Minister and to lead the next Government of the United Kingdom.

If that debate is extended, especially to include parties that contest seats only in certain regions, then there is no valid reason to exclude Northern Ireland. If that occurs, the question, as others have asked, is this: why, then, would only one party from Northern Ireland be included? If we look at the political parties represented in this House, we see that the Democratic Unionist party is the fourth party in Parliament, and four of the parties that it is now proposed should take part in the national debate have fewer seats in this House than the Democratic Unionist party. That puts us in a unique position with regard to the national issue.

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My second point is that everyone out there who is commenting on the likely outcome of the general election—including, most recently, Lord Mandelson—is saying that a hung Parliament is inevitable. Therefore, with regard to the complexities of the next Parliament and the question of who will form the next Government, there is a strong possibility that the Democratic Unionist party will be a factor in determining who forms the next Government. There is no prospect of Sinn Fein being a factor, since its Members do not take their seats. Therefore, their participation in debates at the national level is, frankly, irrelevant. I mean no disrespect whatsoever to the SDLP, but I do not think that it will play a major role in determining who forms the next Government, since it is already aligned to one of the parties that could form the next Government.

Therefore, with regard to the national debate and the public interest, it could reasonably be argued that the Democratic Unionist party is the only party from Northern Ireland whose policies would be of interest to voters from other parts of the United Kingdom, since they might have a bearing on who forms the next Government.

Mr Dodds: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point about Sinn Fein, because one of the broadcasters’ arguments for including the SNP and Plaid Cymru was that they will compete against parties that could form the next Government and so could play a role in the formation of the next Government. However, they also say that if they go to Northern Ireland, they will have to include all the parties, especially Sinn Fein, because they get votes and have seats. The reality is that there is absolutely no point in listeners hearing from Sinn Fein Members because they do not come to Parliament, they will not be voting in Parliament and they have no role to play in Parliament, and that is of their own volition. It is clearly a nonsense argument that the broadcasters are using.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I have been very generous, but we must try to have shorter interventions.

Mr Donaldson: My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is interesting, is it not, that Sinn Fein declares itself to be the strong supporter of Irish freedom and independence yet wants to take part in a national debate that is relevant to the United Kingdom. The very same party is acting in a way that suggests it wants to hand back all the powers we have in our devolved Assembly and Executive to the national Parliament of the United Kingdom, and it really raises a question about their credentials as Irish republicans that they are in favour of returning to direct rule, rather than honouring the agreements that have been reached and are moving forward—but I digress.

The hon. Member for Belfast East said that we should not really be debating this issue because there are more important matters to debate. I simply point out that on every opportunity that the Democratic Unionist party has had, as the fourth party in this Parliament, to discuss matters—this is relevant to the wider issue—we have sought to focus not on issues that are relevant only to Northern Ireland, but on issues that

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are relevant on the national stage, and they are issues that are important to the people we represent. This afternoon we will debate another motion that is of national significance as well as of importance to our constituents in Northern Ireland.

We are all concerned about declining participation in the democratic process in the United Kingdom, with voter turnouts and membership of political parties going down, so this is an important issue. In fact, I would argue that few issues are more important than encouraging people to respect and participate in the democratic process, because that is about democracy itself. Indeed, one of the two gentlemen who may well be the next Prime Minister seemed to think the question of TV debates important enough to devote the entire exchange in Prime Minister’s questions to it.

Ms Ritchie: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that all this could create a certain ennui or weariness among those in the wider body politic, who are interested in what we, Parliament and Government could do for them in delivering on the issues that matter for them rather than wider issues about debates and who should take part in them? That is what people are saying to me.

Mr Donaldson: I must say that most of my constituents do not mention the TV debates to me. Nevertheless, I repeat the important point that someone mentioned earlier: the TV debates had a massive audience the last time round. We should all welcome that, and it is why it is important that we get this right.

The formula that we should be looking at, at the national level, is a debate involving the two leaders who are most likely to be the Head of the next Government of the United Kingdom. We in Northern Ireland are happy to participate in debates among the political parties at the regional level, but we are not happy with being excluded on the basis that Northern Ireland is the only region not to be represented in the proposals.

Dr McCrea: Does my right hon. Friend accept that it would be wrong for elected representatives in this House to fail to speak up for Northern Ireland, bearing in mind that they ought to be heard across the United Kingdom if the Democratic Unionist party were indeed able to assist any Government in governing the United Kingdom in future?

Mr Donaldson: I agree. I have great respect for the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), but I have to say that my father, who is one of her constituents, would be very upset if he lost out on the opportunity to see these debates in the general election, because he is an avid watcher of political affairs.

I hope that these matters can be resolved. Our motion is an attempt to push the issue forward and to get some common sense applied. I hope that common sense will be the outcome. The outcome that must not occur is one that excludes Northern Ireland but includes other regions where political parties are represented that do not participate or put up candidates in other parts of the United Kingdom. It would be deeply unfair if Northern Ireland were the only region that was excluded on that basis.

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2.32 pm

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I emphasise at the outset points that other hon. Members have made. We brought this debate forward not because we have some selfish party political interest, but because we believe that if there are to be debates about the shape of future government, and the input that parties will have, or potentially have, into future government, including in Northern Ireland, then the public should have the widest possible information about who will be involved and the ideas that will be put forward.

We recognise that even in a hung Parliament our role may be quite marginal, so we would have been quite happy for the parties that are most likely to form the Government of the United Kingdom to have their leaders debating the issues before the general public. We are not as arrogant as the BBC or some of the other broadcasters. We do not believe that we have some God-given right to be included just because we happen to have Members in the House of Commons or are putting people forward to be Members. However, once the rules were manipulated, changed, twisted and warped to include some smaller parties, but not all, we had a right to make the demands that we have made to the BBC and the other broadcasters that are included in this motion.

I do not believe that the debate about the debates has done politics any good at all. Despite what has been said, I do not see this as a problem that was made by politicians, although some people would happily point the finger at the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition. The problem was primarily caused by the broadcasters. We probably all have our own interpretations of what their motives were. Was it simply that they believed that they could imperiously wave their fingers at the politicians of this country and tell them, “We will give you broadcasting time. Here are the conditions on which you will have it, and if you do not obey the rules that we have set down, we will punish you”? Another interpretation is that they simply wanted to sex up the broadcasts, and saw that perhaps a good head-to-head row between the Prime Minister and the leader of UKIP would do the job. Alternatively, given the left-wing bias of the BBC—I have sympathy with the views of some Government Members on this—perhaps it mainly wanted someone present who would take on the Prime Minister. I have a great belief in the left-wing bias of the BBC. Indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker, were you to give me time—I know that you will not, because I would be diverging from the motion—I could wax eloquent on that matter for a long time, but I will not do so.

Ian Paisley: Does my hon. Friend agree that the left-leaning bias of the BBC with regard to these broadcasts again opens up the debate that should properly take place about whether we should be paying licence fees for such an organisation to exist?

Sammy Wilson: I will desist from getting into a discussion about licence fees, the payment of licence fees, the non-payment of licence fees, the compulsory payment of licence fees, or whatever. That is another favourite topic of mine, but it is not quite relevant to the motion before us.

Whatever the reason for it, we now have an unbecoming shambles that is not doing politics any good. Despite what is said about how rubbishy people think politicians

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are, I think there is a general desire among the public to hear debates on the issues. However, those debates have to be in a fair and properly structured format. The unbecoming shambles that we now have brings politics in this country further into disrepute.

We have put forward an unassailable case. We would prefer a much tighter arrangement for the debate, but if it is to be opened up—I add the qualifications put forward by Members from the Alliance party and the SDLP, and ourselves—there are absolutely no grounds for saying that the fourth largest party in this House, which stands only in a regional capacity but is no different in that regard from Plaid Cymru or the SNP, and has more members than many of the smaller parties that will be included, and could have the same influence as all those parties, should be excluded. That is especially the case because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said, it is not as though we operate in some kind of bubble in Northern Ireland and will not be competing against some of the parties that are represented on these Benches and that will be participating in the debates.

I will have a UKIP opponent and perhaps even have a Conservative opponent and, by proxy, I will have opposition from Labour in the form of the SDLP and from the Liberal Democrats in the form of the Alliance party. When I say “opposition” from competitors I mean it in the loosest possible sense of the word, because such opponents will be somewhere down at the bottom of the pile when it comes to counting the votes. I will also have an opponent from the Greens, but given the fact that the Greens in Northern Ireland want to prevent the good constituents of East Antrim from eating bacon butties on a Monday in order to save the planet or from seeing adverts for flying to the Mediterranean because they will put too much CO2 into the air—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I think we will both agree that this is not about debates between the party leaders, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman wants to get back to that.

Sammy Wilson: The point I am making—

Mr Deputy Speaker: Never mind what point you are making. The point is that you are offbeat. Get back to the debates.

Sammy Wilson: I am trying to explain my point, Mr Deputy Speaker. My point is that the inclusion or non-inclusion of the Greens in the debates will not make any difference because their policies are so outlandish that nobody will vote for them anyway. However, they have been included, and given that they are a small party and much smaller than our party, our argument is that we ought to be included as well.

The problem, which has of course been created by the broadcasters, is that if we end up with seven parties, as we now have, or eight or nine parties, we will not have a debate—or even a beauty contest given some of the people involved. We will have a shambles or, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, a Tower of Babel—utter confusion—with points not being properly debated.

The problem created by the broadcasters is one reason why we believe that there should be some attempt, even at this late stage, to resolve the issue either by accepting the inclusion of all parties with a sizeable representation

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and candidates standing nationally and regionally, or by finding some way to narrow the number down. We cannot have the worst of all worlds, which is including some and excluding the others.

Another part of the motion that has generated a fair range of comment is about how we proceed. The proposal for an independent body to make an adjudication may well come too late for this election, but that is not to say that it should not be considered for future elections; otherwise this shambles might be repeated. On the one hand, there are the politicians who have their agendas, but on the other hand, the broadcasters have their own agendas, as we now know. The broadcasters are no less guilty in all this than those that some of the public may see as self-seeking politicians. We therefore believe in the creation of an independent body.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), asked how independent the body should be and how it could be made independent. Such an idea has already been rejected in the House of Lords, but only because greater faith was placed in the broadcasters than should ever have been placed in them. Now we have seen that they are incapable of the degree of independence and objectivity required to ensure fair, reasonable and rational debate on the issues, we must look again at having an independent body. It should be no more difficult to create an independent body to oversee broadcasts during elections than to have an independent body for any other job for which such a body is required. The Minister’s point about how we ensure the body’s independence should not cause us a great deal of concern.

Another issue that hon. Members have raised is whether whatever is decided should be mandatory, as the Labour party wants, or voluntary. Our view is that the job of the independent body should be to set the rules. If the rules are set fairly, there will be no need for coercion. People will be able to sign up to the conditions attached to the rules, so there should not be any unseemly rows. At the end of the day, I must say that I am not attracted to making participation mandatory. Even once the rules have been set and the parties have agreed to them, there should still be a right and an opportunity for the parties—they will have to explain the circumstances to the electorate—to decide whether to participate.

Stephen Twigg: Let me make it clear that I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. We are suggesting not that participation in the debates should be mandatory, but that it should be mandatory for the debates to be held.

Sammy Wilson: We agree that, once we have a framework for the debates, people should have the right to decide whether to participate in them.

The final issue is whether the debates should be held before or during the election campaign. I do not like the argument that if the manifestos have not been published, there could not be a debate. What do debates consist of? Very often, they are as much about looking back as about looking forward. They are about looking at the parties’ record in the past, because that is sometimes a far better way of judging what they will do in the future than what might be in their manifestos, given the cynicism

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of much of the electorate about manifesto commitments. We only have to look at the Liberal Democrats to think of how they made a major commitment, but moved away from it very quickly. A debate on the basis of manifestos may not be all that productive.

I can see the argument for having a debate in the period up to an election without its sucking the lifeblood out of the election campaign. As the hon. Member for Foyle pointed out, there are many formats for debating the issues. He mentioned the variety of formats used during the Scottish referendum campaign. Whether the broadcasts are straightforward head-to-heads between the two main protagonists, panel discussions, debates involving audience participation or a range of other things, they can be done in many ways, so we are not all that worried about their timing.

I must say that I can see the Prime Minister’s point that a shambolic debate, especially with seven different parties all fighting and squabbling for a bit of time in a one-and-a-half hour debate, might not be all that edifying in an election campaign and might distract from many of the other good ways in which parties and individual candidates seek to communicate with the electorate.

One issue that the independent commission must sort out—the hon. Members for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and for Foyle made this point—is the basis on which we make judgments about the parties, which is where this debate started. Should a television debate include all parties, those that reach a certain threshold of Members of the House, or those putting forward a certain number of candidates? Do those candidates have to stand nationally? Will the debates be based on the results of the last Westminster elections or the latest opinion polls? If we are to have a fair framework those issues must be considered by an independent body.

In conclusion, we cannot afford in this election to have the same shambles as we experienced in the previous one: it is not becoming to democracy or to the parties involved, and it is distracting. I suspect that the debate about the debate will be more interesting than the debate itself, especially if we end up with a seven-party squabble on TV, or a debate where the main issue is, “Why is the Prime Minister not sitting there and why is there an empty chair?”, or whatever.

Sometimes there are things that we as politicians can be blamed for, but I do not believe that the finger of blame in this instance can be primarily pointed at us. It is unfair that all the attention is directed on the Prime Minister, because he had a reasonable case for saying that the BBC was setting rules that placed him at an unfair advantage, so why should he co-operate in its game. If we are to avoid that in future, some of the proposals in this motion should be adhered to, followed through and worked on, so that even if we do not sort it out this time, we can sort it out for the next election.

2.52 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Sam Gyimah): We have, once again, a debate about debates, and as the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), said at the outset, these things matter in a democracy. Debate and discussion is how we arrive at consensus in a democracy, and how we inform the electorate about our respective views as parties and

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what we plan to do. It is important to have this debate today, although I recognise the comments by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) that in some quarters members of the public will be wondering why we have been talking about this issue for so long.

This is an important debate and it is surprising that, 60 days from the general election, the main opposition party in this House is more content talking about debates than about any other issue. What about the deficit, the fantastic employment figures, the fact that unemployment is down and wages are going up? Labour is willing to talk not about those things but about a debate—[Interruption.] As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) said from a sedentary position, Labour did not initiate this debate today, but the Leader of the Opposition chose to focus on the TV debates in Prime Minister’s Question Time. He had the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister six important questions, but he focused on that debate, which is surprising.

I understand why Labour Members want the public to see more of the Leader of the Opposition before the election. I want that too. What is surprising, however, is the usual hue and cry that we have heard from the Labour party: “Let’s have legislation, legislation, legislation.” My right hon. Friend was right to ask whether, if we make debates compulsory, we will make watching them compulsory too. I dare say that Labour is staking a lot on having the Leader of the Opposition in the television debates. The understanding is that somehow after five years in this House, and four hours of debating at Prime Minister’s Question Time, an hour in the TV studios will make the British public finally see him as a future Prime Minister, but I think Labour is staking a lot on that idea.

Stephen Twigg: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Gyimah: I have a short amount of time so I cannot take interventions.

All I am waiting for from Labour is a judge-led inquiry into the debates. The crux of Labour’s argument this afternoon—I will come on to the substance of the debates in a moment—is that we need a head-to-head debate, but the moment that idea was introduced we realised some of the problems with it. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) immediately asked, “Why don’t we have a head to head between the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition?”

Stephen Twigg rose

Mr Gyimah: I will carry on with my speech. The important point, while we discuss a head to head, is to remember that we are a parliamentary democracy and do not have a presidential system. People in this country vote for a party, and the leader of the party that is able to form a Government becomes Prime Minister. For me, the emphasis on the head to head is somehow misplaced, and the discussion about how the smaller parties can be incorporated and involved in that TV debate is important and powerful.

The Democratic Unionist party has more seats than four of the parties that it is proposed to include in the seven-way debate, and more votes than one of them. That raises a question about the influence and power of broadcasters to decide who is involved in debates and

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who is not. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) made a powerful and eloquent case, forensically analysing that issue. He spoke about the BBC’s handling of the matter, and the questions that it raises about the BBC’s impartiality. His central point was that the BBC cannot pick and choose which parties matter for the election, and he rejected the idea that any broadcaster should do that. Three years ago the Prime Minister proposed that we should hold debates and that they should be as inclusive as possible, but that was disregarded. He also said that it would be helpful for the debates not to be held in the short campaigning period, because we do not want them to be the only focus during the campaign. The broadcasters rejected that out of hand, and as a result there has been a lot of discussion that could have been avoided.

The Prime Minister did respond to the Leader of the Opposition saying that he would debate with my right hon. Friend “any time, anywhere”, but it turns out that the Leader of the Opposition meant, “any time, anywhere, but not the week commencing the 23rd”.

Stephen Twigg: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Let me be absolutely clear: it is any time, any place, anywhere. Only two people can seriously be Prime Minister after the election, so we want that head-to-head debate. Why is the Prime Minister running scared of it?

Mr Gyimah: A key point that the hon. Gentleman made at the beginning of his speech today was that voter turnout is low and we need to engage and involve the public. One of the biggest features of British politics in this Parliament is the support going to the smaller parties. Why should not we have a debate that includes those smaller parties? That was the Prime Minister’s focus.

A point was also made about the timing of the debate and holding it before the short campaigning period. I understand the concern that if so many parties are involved in the debate, as the hon. Member for Belfast East said, it might resemble the television programme “Take Me Out”, but at least we would be giving the public a say and hearing from smaller parties, who would be put on the spot about the policies they are advocating. I believe that is as important as focusing on the policies of the main parties.

I want to make a quick point on the BBC and impartiality, and on consultation with the DUP. There is no specific requirement for the BBC to consult, but it would be for the BBC Trust to judge whether, by not consulting, editorial impartiality guidelines had been breached. It is worth putting that clearly on the record.

The DUP made a clear call. It wants an independent body to be in charge. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office raised a number of questions that need to be answered. How would it be established and funded? Which debates would it produce? Whom would it invite, and how would it stand up to challenge? How would it succeed in convening the parties, and how would it secure the distribution of the debates among broadcasters? It is an interesting suggestion, but it is obviously not a matter for the Government. Those are some of the questions that rightly need to be answered.

The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) talked about an unseemly mess that does not credit anyone. If the Prime Minister’s formula from three years ago had

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been followed, that unseemly mess could have been avoided. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is no clear rationale for what the broadcasters advocate in terms of which parties are included and which are not.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) said that voter turnout makes the debates important. He made a powerful point that it is deeply unfair if Northern Ireland is excluded on that basis.

I always enjoy listening to the mellifluous tone of the oratory of the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). He dwelt on the inconsistency of the approach to the different parties and said that the problem was caused by the broadcasters. I was surprised by his suggestion of the Green party’s campaigning approach in East Antrim—it is stopping people eating bacon butties to save the planet. I believe that was a caricature of Green party policy rather than its actual policy.

The hon. Gentleman made an insightful comment that elections are as much about track record as about what the party promises for the future. For most voters, track record gives credibility to what a party promises for the future. For that reason, it is possible to have debates before manifestos are pledged. In fact, we know where a lot of the main parties stand on some of the big issues, such as the deficit and the economy. We have debated those issues a number of times in the House. We can have debates before the short campaign.

This is obviously not a matter of Government policy. There have been a number of debates within today’s wide-ranging discussion. Several different party views were represented. That attests to the reasons why this is not an easy problem to address, but it was a worthwhile discussion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House recognises the potential value of broadcast general election debates between party leaders; notes however that neither the broadcasters nor politicians can escape the charge of self-interest in their organisation, and that they should best be left to an independent body to arrange; further notes that the broadcast debate formats proposed for 2015 have been inconsistently and incompetently formulated so far; further notes that there exists a substantial danger as a result that these debates will now not happen; and believes that the point of any debates which do happen must be to benefit those who watch them, not those who appear in them or broadcast them.

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Cross-border Crime

3.3 pm

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I beg to move,

That this House notes with concern the continued prevalence of serious organised criminal activity in Northern Ireland on a cross-border basis in relation to fuel smuggling, fuel laundering and the counterfeiting of consumer goods; recognises that this has had a significant and detrimental impact on HM Treasury; regrets the lack of prosecutions in relation to this activity; and calls on the Government to ensure greater co-operation between HM Revenue and Customs, the National Crime Agency and the PSNI so that this criminal activity can be eradicated.

It is a great pleasure to move the motion tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends.

According to the Home Secretary, organised crime costs the UK at least £24 billion a year. In Northern Ireland, police assessments indicate that there are more than 140 organised criminal gangs in operation. We are all acutely aware of the audacious attempts by such gangs to carry out all sorts of crimes, including the laundering and selling of illegal fuel, and the counterfeiting of consumer goods.

Although the criminals respect neither borders nor victims in their illegal pursuits, Northern Ireland is unique within the United Kingdom in that it shares a land border with a foreign country. The findings of a recent British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly report show that law enforcement agencies in both jurisdictions work together; that illicit trade and smuggling are some of the largest challenges faced by cross-border agencies; and that the number of border area fuel laundering plants, and the number of filling stations selling illicit fuel, is alarming. The report called for a cross-border approach with a permanent multi-agency taskforce to deal with illegal activity and to tackle tobacco fraud, and for legal changes to prevent filling stations prosecuted in connection with illegal fuel from reopening within months of conviction.

I echo the comments made by Fine Gael TD Patrick O’Donovan when he spoke in a debate at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly on the report. He said that authorities were turning a blind eye to illegal activity in the border area, motivated by an “appeasement” process of replacing the cowardly butchery wing of the IRA with the racketeering wing, in what has effectively been considered a bandit area, which has helped to support claims that the Real IRA is the ninth richest terror group in the world.

Fuel laundering is currently worth around £400 million a year in lost tax revenues in Great Britain, and £80 million in Northern Ireland, where the problem is particularly acute. According to Mr Pat Curtis, a senior official at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, organised crime gangs have established sophisticated laundering plants to remove the giveaway dye, sourcing chemicals from China and using the internet to improve their techniques.

Figures for 2012-13 indicate that the illicit market is worth 13% of the total. HMRC is responsible for investigating fuel fraud, including fuel laundering—as part of that work, it cleans any sites it uncovers—but in 2012 the Northern Ireland Environment Agency commenced a fly-tipping pilot in partnership with local councils. Between June 2012 and January 2015, Antrim

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borough council, which is in my constituency, had one fly-tipping incident. The cost incurred by NIEA was £346.76. In the same period and in stark contrast, Armagh city and district council had 114 incidents at a cost of £266,743.65, and Newry and Mourne district council had 198 incidents at a cost of £585,333.94. Those figures are startling.

In 2013-14, some 38 fuel laundering plants were dismantled in Northern Ireland compared with 13 plants in 2003-04. Although a fuel laundering plant is detected every 10 days in Northern Ireland, and despite the fact that this criminality is filling terrorists’ coffers and bankrolling the IRA and Real IRA, no one has been jailed for fuel fraud since 2002. Such statistics are preposterous, and the Northern Ireland public have a right to know whether that is the price of keeping republicans bought off for the sake of the peace process, or whether fuel launderers are tipped off ahead of raids.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): One challenge is that the nature of the fuel laundering process means that people do not need to be present. Part of the difficulty is catching the right evidence. The Northern Ireland Department of Justice is trying to ensure that evasion of the duty becomes a criminal offence so that people can be put in jail for it. That is much easier to prosecute.

Dr McCrea: I thank the hon. Lady for that helpful comment. I trust that that will be a warning to those participating in that illegal activity.

Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I am sure my hon. Friend will mention this, but does he recognise that the criminality extends to drugs, cigarettes, alcohol and many other things in addition to fuel laundering? Does he also recognise that it is not the sole preserve of republican paramilitary organisations, but that some of the loyalist paramilitary organisations have moved into organised crime, and are corrupting our young people in many communities in Northern Ireland?

Dr McCrea: I concur. This is not an issue for just one community. However, there is an area of the Province along the border that lends itself greatly to cross-border crime, and republicans are up to their neck in that.

There is a query about whether fuel launderers are tipped off ahead of raids. After the 2013 major cross-border police raid on Thomas “Slab” Murphy as part of Operation Loft, the authorities at the time believed that the IRA chief of staff and his associates had been tipped off just hours before, as salvaged from the embers were the burnt remains of laptops, documents and computer discs. The status quo approach to tackling fuel smuggling and laundering is untenable. When the operators of filling stations are successfully prosecuted—this is not really happening at the moment—for selling illegal, laundered fuel, provision should be made in legislation to ensure that these outlets cannot simply be reopened again after a few weeks, as happens at the moment. The community is sickened by this.

The challenges we face are grave. We must take them head on and the Government ought to take them head on. These fraudsters must be stopped and the criminals must be put behind bars. However, a number of questions

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must be asked regarding Government proposals that are supposed to tackle this problem. Why are the Government continuing to designate the Dow fuel marker in legislation, when they knew a year ago that it was not fit for purpose? Why do the Government not support their own British science company, when its fuel markers are the only IMS-proven—invitation to make submissions—indelible markers recommended? Why did Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs director, Mike Norgrove, give evidence to the 2012 Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry that he would travel anywhere in the world to find a solution for fuel fraud, when he personally turned down an invitation a year earlier by the same British science company that saved the Brazilian Government billions of US dollars and reduced fuel fraud to less than 1% by 2012? Why would any Government allow billion-pound fraud to continue, when a British science forensic solution already exists? Even more troubling to me, however, is that I am told that a Treasury Minister wrote to the NIAC Chairman asking him to keep the Dow launderability confidential. We must do all within our power to stop illegally traded fuel raking in massive profits for the criminal gangs mentioned today.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does my hon. Friend agree that, apart from the loss of revenue to the Exchequer and the financing of criminal gangs, immense problems are being caused to the environment as a result of toxic chemicals being poured into water courses?

Dr McCrea: Concern for the environment was also mentioned by a Minister of the Irish Republic recently. The House should be taking this matter very seriously, because damage is being done and we cannot turn a blind eye. The concern that many of us have is that the Government could do more. I cannot understand why those involved in this activity have not been brought before the courts. That is totally unacceptable. The last time anyone was brought before the courts was 2002, even though there are those who are known to have committed this crime.

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman think the problem might be that HMRC has the lead duty to investigate fuel laundering? Perhaps, given that this involves serious organised crimes, the Police Service of Northern Ireland ought to have lead responsibility in Northern Ireland. Perhaps it would be more effective at bringing prosecutions.

Dr McCrea: I believe there are many agencies—when I am winding up I shall draw attention to this—that could work together to resolve this situation. I also accept what my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) said. We must turn our attention to the cross-border drugs and alcohol problem.

I turn now to another serious organised criminal cross-border activity: the counterfeiting of consumer goods. Although smokers have been warned of the serious health threats posed by illicit tobacco, the current price of duty-paid tobacco makes cheaper tobacco more readily available to the young and the vulnerable. For example, a notorious black market cigarette brand, Jin Ling, which is known to contain asbestos, was recently found on sale in Belfast. Smuggling black market cigarettes

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is extremely lucrative for organised gangs, which can make huge profits and which cost the UK £2 billion a year in lost taxes.

Last month, almost 1 tonne of raw leaf tobacco and 10,000 suspected illicit cigarettes were seized in raids by customs officers at a farm in south Armagh. HMRC said they were worth an estimated £236,000 in lost duty and taxes. In separate searches on the same day, 10,000 illegal cigarettes were recovered. A number of private and business addresses in County Down were inspected. A vehicle and the cigarettes were removed, worth an estimated £2,800 in lost duty and taxes. It is truly remarkable that no arrests have yet been made in relation to either operation. The question we have to ask is: why?

It is believed by many in the Province that the authorities are turning a blind eye, because this is a way to keep some paramilitary groupings sweet. Those groupings are able to fill the coffers of their organisations and even stand in elections against those who seek to do things in a legal and proper fashion. Although earlier this month five people from County Tyrone and County Down were arrested as part of an investigation into a suspected tobacco fraud worth £110 million, the situation highlights Northern Ireland as an attractive region for international crime gangs owing to the inertia in past months of parties failing to support the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland. It is through these statistics that we are now clearly seeing the out-workings of not having the NCA in operation over the past year-and-a-half. It is no accident that these quantities of illegal substances are being smuggled across the border into Northern Ireland. These gangs know only too well that at present if the gang leaders are caught, some of their assets cannot be taken from them. For the past 18 months, we have been a soft touch for smugglers and criminal gangs. Although the NCA is now expected to be operational in Northern Ireland by May, it is largely a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Nothing surprises us about the intransigence of Sinn Fein and their hostility to the introduction of the NCA. They have a vested interest in seeking to hinder investigations into the skulduggery of their republican mates. However, others have dithered in their support for the NCA and have denied the Exchequer millions of pounds in lost revenue that could have ultimately benefited the people of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive. The difficulties of policing the area along the border are well documented. As recently as last month, a south Armagh man was injured in an explosion while taking down a poster, put up by republican criminal gangs, which claimed that a second individual was a security forces informer or “tout”. However, while it is clear that there are tensions within republicanism, there remains a prevalence of fear in the community about co-operating with the police to bring those behind such threats and attacks to justice.

In conclusion, the motion calls on the Government to ensure greater co-operation between HMRC, the National Crime Agency and the PSNI in combining their investigative prowess to eradicate the scourge of criminal activity from our society.

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3.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr Andrew Murrison): I am very grateful for this timely debate. The motion, tabled in the name of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and his DUP colleagues, is a good one and we support it. I am conscious that many in this House have given a great deal of attention over the years to the various issues under discussion. For example, I am happy to acknowledge the work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in its 2012 report on fuel laundering and smuggling. I also pay tribute to the work of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, whose committee report, “Cross-border Police Cooperation and Illicit Trade”, which was published last month, the Government are studying closely. I also congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) on presenting his remarks in typically robust fashion. I will try to address the points he has raised as far as I can.

The motion lists a schedule of serious criminal activity, but before I address each of them in turn I want to put on the record the fact that crime rates overall in Northern Ireland are low and that Northern Ireland is a safe place to be. I say that because it is important to pay tribute to the various agencies that operate in Northern Ireland for the work they do in ensuring that safety, and to give a message to those who are looking at Northern Ireland as a good place to invest and a good place to be. Many of us grew up in the 1970s and ’80s and, although we did not live in Northern Ireland, every night we saw images on our television screens that portrayed a very different Northern Ireland. That is, mercifully, a thing of the past and, in order to foster the economic security that goes hand in hand with security, we need to give the right message to those who may be seeking to invest in Northern Ireland. I know that the hon. Gentleman feels as strongly as I do about that.

The DUP is right, however, to bring the issues under discussion to the attention of the House. Northern Ireland has particular issues regarding criminality. It is a very particular place and the challenges are peculiar to Northern Ireland, and we cannot ignore them. We owe it to people in Northern Ireland to address them to the best of our ability.

The hon. Gentleman effectively described the situation of fuel laundering, which is a clear and present danger that is particular to Northern Ireland, given that it has the United Kingdom’s only land border. Fuel laundering and fuel smuggling come at a great cost to the Exchequer, honest businesses and the environment. The hon. Gentleman also touched on the possible cost to security. The Government take the problem of oils fraud and crime very seriously indeed. The hon. Gentleman should be assured of that and I hope to be able to give him some examples of the efforts we have made to drive it down. Moreover, with the assistance of the agency to which he referred, I hope we will have further successes in the months and years ahead.

Fuel duty plays an important role in a range of Government objectives—social, environmental and fiscal. Fuel duty is also the fifth largest revenue stream for the Government at around £27 billion a year. Clearly, we cannot ignore it. The rates of fuel duty for all of the UK are set by the Chancellor, taking a wide range of factors into consideration. To support motorists and businesses, the Government cut fuel duty in March 2011 and have

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cancelled all subsequent planned increases until the end of the Parliament, a point I touched on during Northern Ireland questions earlier today.

The Government have a comprehensive strategy in place to tackle fuel fraud and crime. The oils anti-fraud strategy was originally launched in 2002, as the hon. Gentleman has said, and has driven down the estimated illicit market considerably in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Indeed, the latest tax gap figures published by HMRC indicate that the estimated illicit market share for diesel for Northern Ireland has fallen from 26% to 13%. By any measure, that is quite an achievement. The strategy was aimed at making it much harder for fraudsters to obtain rebated fuels, and to track and analyse the supplies of them, including a requirement for all dealers to register and submit returns. The registered dealers in controlled oil scheme has been a key weapon in our fight back against fuel fraud.

In Northern Ireland, the Government have close and productive co-operation with the Northern Ireland Executive and with the authorities in the Republic. Co-operation and intelligence sharing through the Organised Crime Task Force and the cross-border fuel fraud enforcement group has been invaluable in applying multi-agency pressure to tackle oils fraud, including fuel smuggling and laundering.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): On combating fuel fraud, will the Minister confirm that the new fuel marker that is about to be introduced in Northern Ireland has no roadside test capability whatsoever and that, therefore, the Government are about to put in a marker that cannot be tested on our roadsides?

Dr Murrison: The road marker has been a long time in the making. It has been trialled both in the UK and in the Republic and both countries are happy with it. I am assured that it will be robust and that it is extremely difficult to remove.

Ian Paisley: I will have an argument with the Minister about its capability in a moment, but I am asking a specific question about roadside testing. We cannot combat crime if we are not able to stop someone who has the fuel and test it at the roadside. One of the requirements of the IMS test was to have roadside capability, so will the Minister confirm that the Dow marker has no roadside capability?

Dr Murrison: What I can confirm is that the marker is capable of being discovered; otherwise, frankly, there would be no point in having it, would there? What would be the point of going to the expense of putting in a marker if it was not possible for criminal justice agencies to determine whether the material was illicit or not? [Interruption.] Perhaps I will be able to come back to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks later, but if I cannot deal with them satisfactorily perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who will be in the hot seat shortly, will be able to shed some further light to his satisfaction.

In the financial year 2013-2014 alone, HMRC dismantled 38 laundering plants, closed 79 huckster sites and seized more than 500,000 litres of illicit fuel in Northern Ireland. I accept that the hon. Member for South Antrim

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is frustrated by the failure to eradicate this particular form of criminality, but that is quite an achievement and it represents considerable downward pressure on organised crime in Northern Ireland. Although we are all impatient for more, we sometimes have to celebrate successes as well as take note of failures.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): The Minister refers to progress, but what about the issue mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) about the lack of prosecutions and of people being put through the courts and convicted? A lot of people in Northern Ireland, and, indeed, anyone watching the debate, would find it incomprehensible given the scale of the illegal activity that so few people are brought before the courts.

Dr Murrison: There have been prosecutions and perhaps I can enlighten the right hon. Gentleman about them later in my speech. Clearly, we all want to see prosecutions for criminal activity and the hon. Member for South Antrim rightly highlighted the introduction of the NCA into Northern Ireland, which everybody in this House would welcome, I hope. We are doing that to drive down further organised criminal activity in Northern Ireland and to get the convictions that the right hon. Gentleman seeks.

Dr McCrea: Does the Minister not realise that the community finds it absolutely abhorrent that filling stations that sell illegal fuel are not only not prosecuted but open the following week to sell fuel again? In many cases, the community has seen such filling stations closed down on a number of occasions without any court case following.

Dr Murrison: I would certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration if there has been criminality without prosecution. Of course, these matters do not rest with me but when crime exists we want it to be expunged and dealt with. I would start to part company with the hon. Gentleman, however, on the suggestion that there has been some complicity or a deal done. I have seen no evidence to suggest that that is the case. I can understand his suspicion, of course, but I would like to downplay some of his suggestions that in some way agencies have been allowing things to go on or have not been prosecuting or pursuing cases when, of course, the law would require them to do so. That is a very serious charge and were there to be substance in it I would expect it to be reported to the appropriate authorities and investigated.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I join the Minister and others in welcoming the fact that the NCA will now have a remit in Northern Ireland. I congratulate the DUP and all those who pressed the Government and other bodies to ensure that that happened. Given that the NCA now has this much wider remit, as the Select Committee on Home Affairs has recommended in the past, will it receive any additional resources to deal with these issues?

Dr Murrison: Part of the difficulty, of course, has been that the PSNI has had to deal with a lot of these matters itself. The Chief Constable will say that he is well resourced, but he has been subject to considerable

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restraints, as have all police forces in the United Kingdom in recent years. That inevitably has an impact on what he can do. The fact that the NCA has not been able to operate at anything like its fullest extent in Northern Ireland has meant that there has been a deficit in policing in Northern Ireland. That is now, mercifully, being remedied so that the people of Northern Ireland can benefit from the full entirety of policing to which they are entitled. That will clearly have resource implications, which I hope will be beneficial, for the PSNI.

On the question of concerns about the lack of custodial sentences, after running a consultation in summer 2013 the Northern Ireland Department of Justice implemented legislative change in December of that year allowing the referral of unduly lenient excise fraud sentences to the Court of Appeal. The consultation and the resulting measure had the Government’s full support, of course. I can report to the House that in the period 2013-14 six individuals were prosecuted for fuel fraud in Northern Ireland. I accept that that is nothing like enough, given the extent of the problem, but it gives the lie to the suggestion that there have been no prosecutions as there clearly have. However, I would share the assertion made by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) that there need to be more. I hope that the introduction of the NCA will play a part in that.

On the specific issue of fuel laundering—

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr Murrison: I will in a minute.

Hon. Members might be aware that the UK has worked closely with Ireland to identify a new fuel marker. It will come in in May and represents a significant improvement on the current fuel marker. It gives much more protection against fraud.

Ian Paisley: Will the Minister give way?

Dr Murrison: I think that we have exhausted this particular point, and I did say that I would come back to the hon. Gentleman. However, I said that I would give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills).

Nigel Mills: While we are talking about the lack of prosecutions, the sentences that are given out are somewhat more lenient than we might hope for an offence of such seriousness. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a problem in that a lot of people perceive fuel laundering and illegal sales of tobacco to be victimless crimes whereas—this is certainly the case in Northern Ireland—they are serious organised crime offences that fund other serious activity and should be treated with that seriousness by the public, by all the authorities and by those who give out the sentences when people are caught?

Dr Murrison: I agree it is not a victimless crime, as is clear from the figures I have trotted out—there is the cost to the Treasury alone. All of us who rely on the largesse of the public services we enjoy are victims of this crime, so I would certainly agree with my hon. Friend. On the leniency of sentences, I will be interested to see what the Court of Appeal decides.

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David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I think the Minister said—I stand to be corrected on the exact wording—that the Government were confident that the marker would work, but a test carried out in Bellingham with Queen’s university and others, to which HMRC had to be dragged kicking and squealing, along with the Irish Revenue, proved that the Dow marker could effectively be removed by simple distillation. We must have confidence in the marker, but this one cannot do it.

Dr Murrison: I am certainly not going to assert that any marker or anything added to a substance is incapable of being removed, but clearly it is perfectly possible to launder fuel at the moment—it happens all the while—and although the pattern of fuel laundering is changing, as was touched upon by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), nevertheless it remains and brings with it financial and environmental costs, and costs in terms of criminality, security and all the rest of it. I am advised that the new marker, which we will introduce in May, is an improvement on what we currently have.

David Simpson indicated dissent.

Dr Murrison: I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman does not agree, and I am sorry if I cannot give him an absolute assurance that any substance we add could never be removed, but he will have to accept that it is an improvement on what is happening at the moment, which is patently inadequate.

David Simpson indicated dissent.

Dr Murrison: Well, I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks when he makes his contribution.

Mention has been made of fraud and tobacco—topical given the deferred Division at lunchtime. To be clear, our aim is to maintain the downward pressure on the illicit market in cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco. HMRC’s anti-smuggling strategy is effective and has been adapted continuously to deal with changes in criminal behaviour. Since HMRC first launched its strategy to tackle tobacco smuggling, the illicit cigarette market has reduced by half and the illicit hand-rolling tobacco market by a third, which is substantial.

The motion refers to greater co-operation between the PSNI, the NCA and HMRC on combating serious criminal activity. This cuts to the heart of today’s debate and the point on which we pin so many of our hopes for the future. Extensive multi-agency cross-border co-operation is a key element of the operational response to fuel fraud. HMRC chairs a multi-agency cross-border fuel fraud group that meets quarterly and has representatives from HMRC, the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment, the NCA, the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and their Republic of Ireland equivalents. This group shares intelligence and information on operational activity, as well as co-ordinating joint operations. The joint UK-Irish project that identified the new fuel marker is a prime example of that co-operation, notwithstanding the remarks from hon. Gentlemen this afternoon.

I am delighted that the House has agreed legislation to extend fully the remit of the NCA in Northern Ireland. This follows the vote in its support last month in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Serious and organised

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crime groups do not operate in isolated pockets of each region, and nor do they respect borders or force boundaries. The PSNI estimates that there are between 140 and 160 organised crime groups active in Northern Ireland and 800 active criminals. Nearly one third of these groups are assessed as having links to international criminality, and another third are linked to criminality in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

Since it was created just over a year ago, the NCA has begun to make a real impact on the threat to the UK from serious and organised crime, but until now the fight against such offences in Northern Ireland has been inhibited. There have been a number of significant PSNI investigations that the NCA would have been better placed to lead, given that key criminals and their associated infrastructure have been based outside Northern Ireland. It has also been difficult for PSNI to access the specialist resource and capability that the NCA holds. Northern Ireland has been left at a greater risk from child sexual exploitation, cybercrime and economic crime because the specialist resources that the NCA has developed have not been available.

Civil recovery has been affected. Since June 2013, civil recovery investigations are down by more than 50% and property-freezing orders by more than 70%. This is worrying, because denying criminals the proceeds of crime is one of the most effective ways we have of disrupting their activities. However, the NCA will soon be able to deal with serious and organised criminals—no matter where they are—and I am confident that the people of Northern Ireland will now have the same protection against serious and organised crime as those in the rest of the UK. That is surely their right.

As I have said, we do not doubt the seriousness of these types of criminal activity and the harm they cause to society and security. We and devolved colleagues are, as I have outlined, working in co-operation with partners elsewhere to address these problems vigorously. There is often close co-operation with counterparts across the border, and I would say that it is increasing, but we need at all times to ensure that the fullest pressure is maintained on the perpetrators, wherever they may be, and the Government will seek to go on doing just that.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I now have to announce the result of the deferred Division on the question relating to the draft Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015. The Ayes were 367 and the Noes were 113, so the Ayes have it.

[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]

3.41 pm

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): I first pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) for bringing home both the scale and seriousness of the threat in Northern Ireland. I welcome the initiative of the Democratic Unionist party in bringing this motion before us, because the DUP is absolutely right to bring home the scale of the problem, and to argue for determined action to deal with what is a serious threat, involving effective co-ordination of all

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the agencies concerned within Northern Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

The motion is right, too, to argue for vigorous enforcement of the law in circumstances where, to be frank, enforcement in the past has sometimes been lamentable. In particular, for vigorous enforcement of the law, it is necessary to make an example of the worst culprits and to go after their ill-gotten gains, sending an unmistakeable message that crime will never pay. Sadly, at the moment, it too often does, which is wrong and must be put right.

David Ford, the Northern Ireland Justice Minister who chairs the Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland has said, as the Minister mentioned, that there are between 140 and 160 gangs operating in Northern Ireland. Criminal gangs in Northern Ireland are not just involved in what one might call “traditional criminal activity”, but are now turning to computer-based cybercrime and operating in rural areas. A report released last November on “Serious and Organised Crime” in Northern Ireland states that

“serious and organised crime ranks among the most serious risks of harm to the community in NI”.

It went on to say:

“Organised crime also has very significant consequences with the impact of, for example, drug dealing, robbery and fraud and other insidious forms of organised criminality. It has significant consequences for individual communities and for society as a whole. Both serious and organised crime…has a detrimental impact on public finances.”

That is absolutely right, because the consequences of serious and organised crime can include, with particular respect to the drug trade, the ruining of lives. Those who commit fraud and online crime and prey on the vulnerable may leave them bankrupt and destitute. There is also the impact on the taxpayer. The Minister mentioned the overall tax take of £27 billion from fuel duties, but too many people in Northern Ireland who are operating across the border get away with paying no duty at all.

The Northern Ireland Omnibus Survey, which measures perceptions, found that nearly two thirds of respondents believed that the problem of organised crime was widespread in Northern Ireland. Indeed, having recently reported its findings in Dublin, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly expressed alarm at the extent and scale of the fuel-laundering business along the border. On a fact-finding visit, members of the group witnessed no fewer than 12 diesel-laundering fronts in operation on the border area between south Armagh and the Republic. As a result, they made several recommendations with the aim of curbing the lucrative black market that currently exists. They urged, for instance, that

“every possible effort must be made by law enforcement authorities in their collaborative efforts to shut down these operations, despite the difficulties in policing some of these areas.”

In the context of fuel laundering and the avoidance of fuel duty, may I press the Minister further on the issue of the Dow Chemical Company? I should like to know how confident the Government are about that issue, because some serious questions have been posed to us. It was proved to HMRC and the Republic’s revenue authorities that the Dow marker was defective, in what we understand to have been a private test. Is

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that true? Both sides said that they would carry out a scaled-up version of the test. That has now happened, and a report is available. The report states that the Dow marker can be removed completely, and cost-effectively, in a scaled-up field test. Is that true? We are told that Ministers may not know exactly what is happening. We do not know; is that true? What does the Minister know, and what would he be prepared to tell Parliament?

Instead of opting for the immovable British marker that came top in the test but was more expensive, the Government are sticking to a flawed marker which may well not work. That cannot be right in the context of combating fuel laundering, and it also cannot be right for a good British product to be turned down in favour of an alternative that is flawed.

I have had sight of a letter to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) from the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), the present Education Secretary, who was then in the Treasury, which deals with the question of whether the test is defective. In the letter, the right hon. Lady wrote that she was aware that the hon. Gentleman was focusing on the issue of the marker, and that his Committee was discussing it. She also wrote:

“I would be grateful if you could otherwise treat the contents as confidential as any information regarding theoretical weaknesses could alert fraudsters.”

Are there weaknesses, theoretical or otherwise? I think that the Government need to tell Parliament, because if we are finally and fully to combat the menace of fuel laundering, we need to be absolutely confident that what we have works.

It is clear that more needs to be done to combat such illicit activity. In fact, the report “Serious and Organised Crime: An inspection on how the Criminal Justice System deals with Serious and Organised Crime in Northern Ireland”, to which I referred earlier, recommended that

“The OCTF should develop a new jointly agreed strategy with clear outcomes focused on co-ordinated joint enforcement operations and linked to explicit underlying harm reduction strategies.”

The setting of such an objective is welcome, not least because crime groups are highly mobile and flexible, operating across national and international borders and criminal sectors. If there is a gap in our defences, including in respect of asset recovery and coverage, it affects everyone. These problems are not confined to Northern Ireland and can bleed through to Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and beyond, and vice versa. In some cases, the root cause is yet more nefarious than mere profit, because historically some of the gangs concerned have had strong links to both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups. Dissident republican groups, which continue to be a threat to the peace process and to the stability of Northern Ireland, are heavily dependent on organised crime. Members of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, too, have been known to be involved in extortion, loan sharking, robbery, drugs, burglary, theft and money laundering, and the list goes on.

With reference to the powerful speech from the hon. Member for South Antrim, we are rightly concerned about the link between organised crime and dissident republican groups because that puts peace and stability

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in Northern Ireland at risk, but the problems of organised crime being linked to paramilitaries is not exclusive to the republican community.

I pay tribute to the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, George Hamilton, for all the work that he has been doing to address these issues. However, the motion from the Democratic Unionists is right to say that we need to be more vigorous in our approach at the next stages, with strengthened and more effective co-ordination between all relevant bodies to enhance law enforcement and bring more people to justice in order to stamp out fuel and drug smuggling for criminal profit and, in some cases, terrorist ends.

On the extension of the National Crime Agency to Northern Ireland, we warmly welcome the fact that the impasse has finally been broken, the law has been changed and we will see the extension of the NCA’s coverage to Northern Ireland. It is an objective that we have supported for some time. We have encouraged parties to come together in Northern Ireland and agree that objective. It is not right that there were some who dragged their heels, but at last the remit of the NCA has been extended, which is to be welcomed. Wherever racketeering and exploitation take place, action should be taken to tackle those serious crimes.

I welcome the fact that in this place there was cross-Chamber agreement, with all parties coming together to say that the extension of the NCA to Northern Ireland was a sensible measure, not before its time. At the next stage, co-ordinated action is crucial, as the motion calls for. The point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) about the effective resourcing of that was well made. In circumstances where the lack of prosecutions is lamentable, the enforcement of the law and—I stress this again—a much more vigorous approach are needed to pursue the ill-gotten gains of those involved in serious and organised crime. Although the extension of the NCA to Northern Ireland is a welcome step, it needs to take a much more vigorous approach to going after those who benefit from the proceeds of crime. During the passage of the recent Serious Crime Bill we sought to strengthen the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and some progress was made, which we welcome, but there is enormous room for improvement in future.

Recently I heard Keith Bristow, head of the NCA, saying that the agency had seized only £22.5 million in criminal assets in its first year, and he went on to say that more than £1.3 billion of the £1.46 billion owed by convicted criminals to the taxpayer is unlikely ever to be recovered. As with so many other issues, this is an issue where, here in Britain but also in Northern Ireland, we must be more vigorous in our approach to recovering those ill-gotten gains and starving criminals in Northern Ireland of their resources.

This is a welcome debate at a crucial moment. There is a determination across communities in Northern Ireland, as here in Britain, more seriously to tackle serious and organised crime, but it is not enough that we simply pass motions in this House or elsewhere; it is about what is done to see the law implemented. There must be effective action against that which remains a serious threat. Tackling serious and organised crime is important no matter where we turn in the UK, but it is all the more important in Northern Ireland because of the tremendous progress that has been made in terms of

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the peace process. It remains in some respects fragile, and there are those who challenge it, but the last thing we want is that those who challenge it, particularly republican paramilitaries, being able to benefit from serious and organised crime to fund their nefarious activities. We strongly support the motion.

3.56 pm

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): It is a great privilege to speak in this timely debate. We have debated this subject before. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has done a report on it, and it has been ongoing for some time. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) used the word “Horlicks”—and that is exactly what this is. It is costing the Exchequer hundreds of millions of pounds. I predict that the Government will introduce this Dow marker, and it will not reduce the problem. That is my prediction, because the tests we have witnessed and those that have been carried out show that it does not work.

I will be brief as I know other Members wish to speak, but I need to put a number of questions to the Minister. Can the Minister or his officials tell us why Dow Chemical Company was not thrown out of the IMS—invitation to make submissions—tendering process for the marker under European law, when in 2013 it was fined $1.1 billion for fraud? It was fined $1.1 billion, yet it is part of the tendering process, and we are about to introduce a dye that comes from that company.

The Minister was asked a question earlier to which we did not get an answer, but perhaps his officials or the representation from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs today can provide the answer: why was this technology awarded to Dow with no roadside test when the other, British recommended company had a roadside test?

A number of years ago—maybe 10—I was asked to pay a visit to South Armagh by a political activist who lives there. He rang me and said, “David, you have raised issues of fuel smuggling. Would you like to see some of them?” I spent the day going around 15 distilleries and seeing their fuel laundering equipment—or whatever the terminology is—and got within 100 metres of Slab Murphy’s house and his laundering facilities. We moved back up the road a mile, on a hill, and the lorries were freely going in and out of Slab Murphy’s facilities, with nothing being done about it—absolutely nothing.

Right up to the present day, no one has been imprisoned for this. The Minister corrected one of my colleagues on the subject of prosecutions, but this is costing the Government and the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds. We spoke earlier about the budgets. There is no money in the budgets, and I understand that there are to be further cuts after the general election to try to clear the deficit. There will be issues if that is the case, because we are suffering and the amount being lost to the Revenue every year could be used to build several hospitals.

Dr McCrea: Is my hon. Friend talking about the same Slab Murphy whom Gerry Adams described as a decent businessman?

David Simpson: Yes, absolutely.

After we had seen the activity I have just described, we reported it to what was then the RUC, and several moves were made to close some of the laundering

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facilities. These activities are unfair to the ordinary everyday workers and businessmen in Northern Ireland who are doing their best to pay their taxes and keep their businesses going. They are completely above board, yet other individuals are profiting from their activities. That is totally wrong, and it has been going on for far too long.

Whether the Minister has been furnished with all the information or not, the information I am giving him is factual, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) will certainly be able to give him a lot more when he winds up the debate. This issue needs to be got right. It has gone on for far too long and it has become a laughing stock. At the beginning of the debate, it was suggested that this arrangement might have been a pay-off for the republicans. When we were talking about the National Crime Agency earlier today, someone in the House remembered that the deal involved 2p to the pound. I would hate to think that any Government had done any kind of deal with republicans and criminals or given them 2p to the pound to keep their mouths shut. It would be a travesty if that were the case. There is something rotten about this whole process and system. There is something wrong and we need to get to the bottom of it.

Dr McCrea: This might be a laughing stock, but it is certainly no joke. This is a very serious matter. Did my hon. Friend hear the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) say that the British-Irish grouping went out on a fact-finding mission and saw 12 of these facilities in operation? If they could see 12 of them operating on that one day, where was HMRC and where were the authorities at the time?

David Simpson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask that question. Someone was sleeping on their watch, if indeed they were watching at all.

I have another question for the Minister. Why would the Government not support their own world-leading British science company when its fuel markers are the only IMS-proven indelible markers that are recommended? I want to ask him a further question. Given that the IMS is a joint UK-Republic of Ireland process, why was a single Dow marker IMS awarded when the Government knew that they needed a minimum of two indelible markers? I have asked a series of questions. I do not expect to get the answers today, but it is important that we try to get to the bottom of this.

Dr Murrison: Perhaps I can write to the hon. Gentleman with a fuller account if he wants me to. This whole debate appears to be revolving around the Dow marker. That is fine, but hon. Members need to understand that the tendering operation was free and open. The Government are bound by rules in that respect, so there was no shady deal in which a British company was disadvantaged or in which Dow was given preference. That would have been madness. The alleged laundering method does not appear to be a viable large-scale proposition. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks that a marker exists that can never be removed. The experiences in the laboratory and in the field are very different, as I think he will probably, on quiet reflection, understand.

On the other point about markers and whether we would be able to detect at the roadside whether something was illicit or not, clearly we are not going to remove the

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marker we already have until we are completely happy with the new one and it is proven. So the hon. Gentleman can be assured that the two will run in parallel and, thus, there will be no disadvantage. I am hopeful that the new marker will be an advantage, but certainly we will be running the two in parallel. I hope that gives him some reassurance.

David Simpson: Not really, but I will say something about the process. My understanding is that a year ago the Dow marker was tested and found not to work, yet a year down the road we are introducing it. I cannot understand that. If something does not work, why are we spending millions of pounds on introducing it? We are trying to get to the bottom of this and we need the proper marker introduced.

Jack Dromey: The Minister said he is “hopeful” that it will work, but I am not sure that will inspire confidence. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when the Minister said that the Government were bound to accept the bid—suggesting that because it was a cheaper bid they were bound to accept it—that was not a correct reading of, among other things, European procurement rules, because ultimately what is procured has to work?

David Simpson: We do not necessarily have to take the cheapest option—it has to work.

Dr Murrison: I understand that 23 markers from 12 companies were assessed side by side, and clearly the one that worked was chosen. I hope that is helpful.

David Simpson: As I have said, time will tell. I think this is going to be an expensive exercise that will be proven in time to be not as effective as the Minister has been led to believe.

Dr McCrea: If we are introducing something, surely it must work—millions of pounds will otherwise be lost to the Exchequer. If those millions of pounds are not needed here, I assure hon. Members that they would be very welcome in the coffers of the Northern Ireland Executive, given the deficit we face. Surely this has to work and we have to be sure that it works. We are not doing this on a trial-and-error basis; we have to be sure that we have something that works.

David Simpson: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, because he is correct about that. The matter is too serious for the marker not to work. This situation has been ongoing, and the amount of money that has been lost and wasted over the past 10 to 15 years—or longer—is just horrific. It could have done a lot to help many vulnerable people, not only in Northern Ireland, but on the mainland. We are where we are and time will tell, but I know my colleague will have a few other statistics and figures to give in his winding-up speech.

4.8 pm

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) for bringing this motion to the House today. This important

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issue is often overlooked because in many ways it is a hidden crime, and, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) said, it is often viewed as a victimless crime. It is anything but. It is important that as well as trying to combat it through the various agencies that have a role in addressing organised crime, we communicate carefully with the public about their role in combating it and about the risk it poses to them. People often simply see cheaper goods and that is the only aspect they see of organised crime; they do not see the risks to them, the other criminality that goes with it, the danger, or the money taken from revenue that would otherwise be invested in services.

Obviously this is a complex area. Others have mentioned how difficult it has been to secure convictions, and I shall move on to discuss that. First, however, I pay tribute to the law-enforcement agencies for the work they are doing on both sides of the border. A complex collection of agencies has to deal with this complex area of crime. We have the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Garda Siochana and the National Crime Agency. We welcome the fact that we now have the additional resource of the NCA, because while we focus on one border, criminals operate across many borders, so having that national organisation involved is hugely important. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Revenue commissioners and Border Force work closely together in order to share intelligence, to disrupt those who try to perpetrate crimes and to ensure that they are eventually brought before the courts. When people are brought before the courts for participation in organised crime or for benefiting from taking goods that are clearly only available as a result of organised crime, the penalties should be a deterrent.

The impact of fuel laundering has been discussed at considerable length. The scale of the problem in Northern Ireland is undeniable. Fuel laundering is not just a cross-border issue: the uncollected revenue from fraudulent diesel in Northern Ireland was estimated by HMRC to be £80 million in 2012-13, which is 13% of the overall market share in Northern Ireland. That is a significant sum of money, especially when we compare it with the GB figure for illicit market share, which was about 2% in the same year. That gives us a clear indication of the scale of the problem, but it is not just a Northern Ireland issue, because that revenue is being denied to the UK as a whole. There is a genuine interest here in Parliament to address the issue robustly, because it is Great Britain’s schools and hospitals as well as our schools and hospitals that lose out as a result of the revenue not being collected.

The nature of fuel laundering means that sites themselves are not regularly attended, which can make it difficult to establish a clear link to the perpetrators. In Northern Ireland, we often say that everyone knows who does things, but knowing and proving are two different things when it comes to the law. Part of the strategy is to disrupt those who are involved in illegal activity, and part of it is to try to catch them. Trying to balance those two things can be very difficult. It is often hard to make that clear link to the perpetrators. It requires the seizure of records and the scene of crime work, which is complex and slow. Prosecutions in this field often do not come to court for many years after the breaking up of the illegal fuel laundering plant.

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There has been an increase in the number of fuel laundering plants dismantled—the number has risen quite quickly over the past few years. There has also been an increase in the number of convictions, but the problem is that not one person has received a custodial sentence of more than 10 years, which seems ludicrous given the impact that the crime has on society.

The challenge in making arrests and obtaining the evidence is something of which the Department of Justice and my colleague David Ford are fully aware. As the Minister rightly said, the Department of Justice has introduced legislation adding the evasion of duty in relation to fuel and tobacco to the list of offences that can be referred by the Director of Public Prosecutions from the Crown court to the Court of Appeal when a sentence is considered to be unduly lenient. That does not resolve the issue entirely, but it does mean that there is a fall-back position when judges are seen not to have taken seriously enough someone who is brought before them in connection with these crimes.

Dr McCrea: Does the hon. Lady accept that there is another difficulty? In the instance I mentioned, laptops and documents were destroyed or burned before HMRC arrived at the scene. The concern was that there had been a tip-off.

Naomi Long: There is no doubt that that is a concern, and it has been a concern for some time. There is evidence that when HMRC or the PSNI has turned up on site, people have scattered and taken with them some of the critical evidence, which suggests that they were aware that those organisations were coming. Obviously, we can look at that in two ways. The first is that someone could be tipping off those launderers. The alternative is that these are complex organisations that have their own intelligence. They are observing the movements of the police, HMRC and others in the area and may well become aware that operations are moving against them. In some ways, we need the intelligence on the legal side of the fence to be much more robust than the intelligence on the other side. We should not rule out the possibility that the criminals themselves are gathering intelligence about what is happening in their neighbourhoods that helps them to evade capture.

I want to move on to the wider issue of the impact of this crime. I have referred to the fact that this is not a victimless crime, and it is worth talking now about some of the victims.

Dr Murrison: The point about intelligence is well made. It is important not to provide organised criminals with information if we can possibly avoid it, which recalls the letter from my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) to the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I have not seen the letter so cannot comment on it in any detail, but I think it is probably wise not to put such a letter in the public domain if it would give succour to organised criminals. We must be careful not to display our tactics and what we do to those who might wish to make use of them in a way that is contrary to national security or good order.

Naomi Long: I understand the Minister’s point, but there is a wider point about how Members can raise their concerns about these issues. They have done so via correspondence and in private evidence sessions, as the

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Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has done here with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and in other places. It appears not to have been taken seriously. That is the concern expressed by Members on this side of the Chamber. I certainly would not wish to put anything into the public domain that would give any succour or encouragement to any criminal; neither would I want to rely on a marker if there was evidence that it could be easily removed.

We also need to acknowledge that this is a multi-billion pound business for the people involved. Whatever marker is used, they will invest in the technology that will allow them to evade it. All that we are trying to do—all that we can ever do in these circumstances—is stay ahead in the game. We need to be realistic about the fact that when it comes to protecting the public, what we are trying to do is stay ahead of the criminals in the technology we use: they will no doubt be chasing that technology as soon as it is included as a marker.

As I said, I want to move on to the wider issue of the impact on the victims. I have already mentioned that this is not a victimless crime. I want to talk about the wider impact of fuel smuggling and fuel laundering and the wider counterfeiting of consumer goods. The motion ranges slightly wider than fuel, although fuel obviously exercises us all because of its significance. There are two separate but linked issues. The illicit and counterfeit goods themselves have an element of risk attached to them. They defraud the public. People often purchase inferior goods in the belief that they are getting the real thing, and that in itself can be extremely dangerous.

For example, when fuel is stretched rather than laundered or smuggled, it can seriously damage vehicles. Often the people who purchase it are unaware that it has been stretched. There are two classes of people in that regard: those who know that they are buying fuel at a ridiculously low price and that they are risking their vehicles; and those who stop at what looks like a reasonable petrol station and purchase fuel, only to find out subsequently that it has damaged their vehicles because it was illicit. That is a different issue, but it causes real damage to vehicles, and is the public need to be made aware of that. Frankly, it may well provide a bigger deterrent against buying laundered fuel than almost anything else we could say to motorists.

Counterfeiting also places the public at risk in other ways. Reference has already been made to the discovery that some counterfeit cigarettes contain asbestos. Counterfeit cigarettes sold in Northern Ireland in the past have been found to contain arsenic. The people who make these products do not really care what goes into them or what impact they might have on health. When people purchase counterfeit and illicit goods, they are placing themselves at considerable risk. Another example is that of products made of flammable materials being brought into the household. People might think that those products meet the regular standards, unaware that they are actually bringing materials into their home that could put their family at serious risk.

I also want to highlight the conditions of those involved in counterfeiting these goods, because often they are being held against their will in other countries, having been trafficked as slaves in order to produce them. The abuse often reaches much further than consumers and the public here in Britain; it also affects those producing the goods further afield.

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As the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) rightly, if rather surprisingly, said, significant environmental damage is caused when people get involved in fuel laundering. The mess that is left around the countryside in Northern Ireland not only costs millions of pounds to clean up but will take many years to be ameliorated. It will leave an almost indelible mark on parts of our countryside, on our water supply, and on many other things, so these illicit and counterfeit goods have a significant impact on the public.

The other aspect is smuggled goods—the stuff that is brought in through smuggling routes. Those who open up those routes do so not for one particular set of goods; once they are available they will use them for anything. When they have good routes for smuggling fuel, consumer goods or cigarettes, we can be sure that they will use the same routes for smuggling people and drugs—and all human misery is there. It is about opening up routes around the world so they can smuggle goods, and they do not care whether it is people or goods being trafficked.

In all cases, whether counterfeiting and laundering or smuggled goods, people are evading their tax and Revenue payments. That brings us back to the issue of robbing public services. Those who purchase cheap cigarettes or cheap petrol and diesel, and thereby counterfeit goods, may think that it makes no difference. However, when they turn up at the hospital and face long waiting times for accident and emergency services, or cannot get a bed and are lying on a trolley for 48 hours, they should realise that those problems are due to money not going to the Revenue. We have to be honest with the public and say: “You are only stealing from yourself when you purchase goods in this way; you are not doing anything to help your own situation.” We need to try to disabuse people of the notion that this is a victimless crime.

In Northern Ireland, as several hon. Members have said, this has a more sinister element in that much of the money raised in this way is being funnelled into further illegal activity and, in particular, paramilitary activity. That should be a matter of concern to us all. We want a stable and peaceful future, but most of all we want a safe and secure future for the people we represent. We need to say to people: “When you purchase smuggled goods at the petrol pump or elsewhere, bear in mind the fact that you are putting money in the pockets of people who are quite happy to set out with murder in mind and take lives for political gain. Those are the people who benefit from this.” It is not only republicans but loyalists who are willing, through organised crime, to work in drug smuggling, drug dealing, counterfeiting, and all the other things. Criminals will work together where there is money to be made. That will be more important to them than any political objectives they may claim to have, and much more important than the lives and the security of the people in their communities.

It is important in this debate that we spend a little time considering the fact that this is not a victimless crime but a complex and difficult one that requires a multi-agency approach. I have no doubt that the agencies are pushing very hard to bring it to an end, but we need to secure public support. With that support, it will be much easier to find those who are behind these smuggling rings, hold them to account in the courts, and see them

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serve jail time for what they are doing. I commend the hon. Member for South Antrim for bringing this motion to the House.

4.23 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): It is a pleasure again to follow the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), as in the previous debate. Again, much of what I say will find agreement with what she has said, and indeed with what some other hon. Members have said. I might need to take up some other points that were directed particularly at the SDLP.

I am glad to endorse the motion and commend my colleagues—right hon. and hon. Members from the DUP—for introducing it. It is important that we now harness every single effort that we possibly can to combat organised crime in all its forms and at all its levels, conscious of all its effects and impacts.

As other hon. Members have said, some people perhaps labour under a false impression that fuel laundering or smuggling is a victimless crime, but it is not. It robs revenue from hard-pressed public services. Such scams are not against big business and the taxman, but against neighbours, the community and consumers, as well as against public services and the revenue on which those services depend. In that sense, we are all victims of these crimes.

Nobody should have any fancy notions about the rackets and scams happening in this part of the 21st century being in any way connected with little family, folklore stories of people smuggling butter during the war years. They are nothing like that, and should not be seen in such a way. This is ruthless big business, and people are in it not just for their own mercenary motives, but with lethal menace. They go about their business in that way, and people who dare to interfere with them, are suspected of cutting across them or make a tip-off about their rip-offs face very serious consequences. That is why people who are conscious of, or surmise that, things are going on, first, find that it is very difficult to say anything, and secondly, find it hard to believe that more is not being done by the authorities who know about it, seem to know about it or should know about it.

Other hon. Members have mentioned cases in which action has been taken, but such action has been taken at a time or in a way that means people have removed themselves from a property and destroyed the evidence there before the authorities arrive. That raises all sorts of questions about how such situations arise.

There is a sense of scandal in many quarters about the fact that, as we moved on from the paramilitarism in all the forms we knew during the troubles, there was basically an acceptance that it was okay for some paramilitaries to privatise themselves into various criminal activities so long as someone within their broad political community could vouch for their staying on the right side of the argument over the peace process. The authorities were told to be careful about interfering with or coming down too heavily on some of those people because it might upset the balance of opinion or of favour within their republican base. That sense of scandal is one reason why the authorities need to be seen to be acting with full intelligence and full vigour, and why people want to see the courts follow through on prosecutions brought by policing authorities and HMRC, with

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convictions and credible, meaningful sentences. Rightly or wrongly, there is currently the sense that in that regard something does not add up or some connection is not being made.

Hon. Members have touched on the environmental impact of some of these crimes. Just as the criminal activity—the sourcing, processing and transfer for sale of the materials—is of a cross-border nature, so too have been the hazardous environmental impacts. Materials have been dumped into watercourses and have found their way into various counties and communities, as well as into waterways contributing to the public water supplies, on both sides of the border. That shows that the people committing these crimes are not just content with acting against the authorities or big businesses, but are prepared fundamentally to risk the health and well-being of neighbours and communities.

Hon. Members have mentioned the delegated legislation Committee that met in the House this week to discuss providing for the NCA to have full powers in Northern Ireland, and that is something I welcome and that we have worked for. When the legislation was first introduced in the Chamber in 2012, we made it clear that our concern was not opposition in principle to the role of the NCA, but a requirement that the NCA should meet the Patten threshold. We set those terms and they have been reached. I acknowledge the role of the Home Secretary and her ministerial colleagues in the Home Office, as well as that of the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland, the NCA, its director, and the PSNI leadership, in helping to tease through those issues. The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee said that a circumstance has been arrived at that means Northern Ireland has a scheme of accountability and insight for the work of the NCA that he would like for parts of Great Britain as well. We have arrived at something stronger.

It must also be noted that the legislation does not only give the Policing Board Patten-style oversight and accountability in terms of the work of the NCA. It does not only vest particular responsibility in the Chief Constable, or only ensure that the ombudsman’s reach on issues arising with the NCA entirely matches the reach that it has for the PSNI. It also gives the Policing Board responsibility for encouraging public co-operation and support for the work of the NCA, which is hugely important. People need to understand what the work and role of the NCA will be so that they cannot misrepresent it in some sinister way, as some may try to do in the aftermath of the debate last month in the Assembly and the legislation passing through this House. That must be clearly understood, and I am sure that Members of all parties—certainly all those represented in this House—who are on the Policing Board will want it to discharge that role of assisting in full public co-operation with the NCA, as well as all the other vital roles that will fall to the Policing Board under these arrangements.

As we have heard, this debate is not just about fuel crime because there is also the issue of counterfeit goods. Again, criminals are using significant networks to make real profit for themselves at the expense of consumers. Those consumers are not buying quality or reliable products; they are buying products that are not only substandard but can be dangerous and risky in many ways. All of a sudden the House supports the

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added profile coming from organisations such as the Trading Standards Institute, again to help make people aware of the situation. It is important that some of these messages do not always appear to come from traditional law enforcement mechanisms but come from other civil purpose agencies as well, so that perhaps people will listen to them differently and hear—or at least credit—a warning that they do not hear from somebody else. We need to see that issue cracked, and action against it.

There is also significant waste crime in Northern Ireland and, of course, in the island of Ireland. Some of that waste crime has been cross-border in character, but not all of it. There have been debates about the NCA, and whether delays in passing legislation on that issue mean that all the work of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and other policing responsibilities that still fell to the police during that period will stop. One point that has been made is on waste dumps. One significant illegal waste dump was found in recent years in my constituency. It clearly represented an illegal business on the scale of millions of pounds. It emerged because of a random activity by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. It was not known to anybody in policing, anybody in HMRC or anybody in SOCA. Nobody knew it. Everybody knows that it was essentially sourced and directed not from my constituency but from South Armagh. It seems strange that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency happened to stumble on it. It was not because of a tip-off or anything else—it was pursuing another matter and it came to its notice. Given the provenance and the scale of the business, it is hard to believe that nobody knew it was going on.

That brings us back to the concern that other hon. Members have reflected. There is a sense that a blind eye is being turned, and that there is some sort of set-aside deal going on, where people are saying, “You can have those rackets up to that point so long as you don’t transgress in other matters.” The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) mentioned the 2p in the pound. I would certainly refer to deals done between SOCA and people it was meant to be pursuing in respect of criminal assets. Those deals were for pennies in the pound. The story is that such deals were brought before the High Court. What choice would the High Court have but to say, “Here is an agreement between SOCA and somebody it is pursuing”? Of course the High Court would accept that agreement. Word has it that that sort of agreement not only applies to the individual in that case, but has the status of a group deal—it becomes the going rate for offers to join in on those terms.

That is one of the issues that the Social Democratic and Labour party was at pains to ensure could be addressed in future. We want oversight and accountability mechanisms that apply to the NCA. Many of the questions asked in the debate could be framed, raised and properly addressed in the Policing Board’s engagement with the Chief Constable, and with the director of the NCA, whenever they hear NCA reports and plans, and whenever they monitor the effectiveness of the NCA’s work. That all goes to the Policing Board under the arrangements. It would be right and proper to pursue that.