Financial Investigations (Northern Ireland)

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Mr. Beggs: Does my hon. Friend agree that that will be time consuming? If it is to be effective, it should not be another imposition, another task required of police officers and customs officials. Substantial additional funding must be made available fully to finance the additional costs that will arise.

Mr. Ross: My hon. Friend makes a sound point, especially with regard to the Revenue. The extra revenue generated by stopping the smuggling will more than pay for an army of investigative officers. I hope that the Minister heard what my hon. Friend has said and that he will speak to his friends in the Treasury. He may be going over barren ground again, like the rest of us, but it is a serious matter that has led to the control of legitimate businesses passing into the hands of terrorist organisations through front organisations. We want to see that reversed, but it will be difficult to achieve.

Article 6 is likely to provoke the most debate and deliberation, and understandably so. I shall give it rather more attention. It requires a solicitor to confirm whether a named individual was his client in respect of certain types of non-contentious business, examples of which are land, business, investment or savings transactions. If so, the solicitor will be required to reveal certain details about the client and the transactions. That will have profound implications for the confidential relationship between a solicitor and his client. I sometimes think that that relationship is akin to the power that we have to speak without fear of retribution within the confines of the House. That power is important and necessary for citizens and for the legal profession. I hope that the Minister will consider that point, because, previously, legal professional privilege ensured that anything that a client said to his solicitor was strictly confidential.

Solicitor-client confidentiality was protected by law, but this article diminishes that protection, and should apply only where there is the most serious need. The Law Society has expressed grave concern about the provision, backed by valid arguments. The Law Commission sees legal professional privilege as a cornerstone of democratic justice, just as we regard the right to free speech as a cornerstone of democracy in this nation. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission also questions this encroachment on the previously sacrosanct relationship between solicitor and client—not that I usually have much time for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

During debates in the Assembly, the Secretary of State was pressed to consult the legal profession. Has that consultation taken place or when will it take place? Was a satisfactory compromise reached between the need to prosecute criminals and the right to confidentiality or is there still a large gap between the positions of the Government and the legal profession? In Northern Ireland, we are often told that a gap has been closed when it is evident to the rest of us that it is as wide as the grand canyon.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary has welcomed the measure as a means of preventing the perpetrators of crime from benefiting from their activities. In recent years, the often unwitting assistance of professional advisers has made legally obtained money extremely difficult to identify and retrieve. The law needs to be changed to tackle that effectively, and the order is part of that change.

The objective of this article is to prevent those who are involved in money laundering from misusing the services of a solicitor. If there is evidence that a solicitor's services have been used improperly, it is only right that such evidence should be made available to the authorities. However, there is a conflict of rights; the right of society to fight crime successfully is pitted against an individual's right to privacy in his legal affairs. It is a serious issue. In discussing the provisions, we must remember that we are not dealing with minor financial irregularities, but, in some cases, with enormous sums of money—money that has come from activities that damage our societies and many individuals in society, money from drug trafficking, armed robbery and all manner of organised crime, orchestrated by paramilitary groupings and others.

As the Minister and everyone else knows, there are people in Northern Ireland who are driving around in cars worth £20,000, live in luxury and go on two or three foreign holidays every year, but whom we are supposed to believe live on unemployment benefit, which they collect every week. That is happening now and we need to ask serious questions about it. Those people who are apparently living above the standard that one might expect of those receiving social security benefits can be investigated, but only by way of a slow, tortuous process. In addition, the various officers involved in the social security benefit system are dispersed throughout the United Kingdom. A police officer investigating someone in my town of Dungiven might have to go to Newcastle or somewhere else in Great Britain, as well as visiting various bodies in Northern Ireland. I do not know why that is necessary. We should have an arrangement that enables all the information to be brought up on one computer screen in a central office in Belfast. That should be addressed by the social security benefit system.

That process is not only slow and tortuous, but individuals sometimes have to be observed by Government agents working for the social security fraud squad. That is not an entirely safe employment in Northern Ireland. In fact, it is a very dangerous employment there, particularly because of the involvement of terrorist organisations in benefit fraud. As the Minister knows, those organisations are sometimes also involved in drugs, and the sentences handed down when such people are brought to book should reflect all these matters and be a real deterrent to those who get involved in social security benefit fraud. Such fraud is part and parcel of the misappropriation of funds and of criminal activity as a whole in Northern Ireland.

As I have said, we need look no further than the state of the farming community. Families who have worked honestly for years, indeed for a lifetime, are struggling to pay bills, particularly in areas affected by foot and mouth disease, which now seems to be coming home to roost in Northern Ireland, and perhaps in the rest of Ireland as well. By contrast, the organised criminal element and the paramilitary element, who, through drug dealing, smuggling or theft, contaminate, corrupt and corrode our communities, are richly rewarded for doing so.

It is through such illegal activities that terrorism is financed, although individuals also engage in them for their own private gain. Terrorists are able to appear as wealthy, law-abiding citizens, running legitimate businesses. There is a huge criminal conspiracy in Northern Ireland, its tentacles reaching into every level of society and every corner of the Province. Very often, folk are unable to work out how Joe or Liam Bloggs has managed to get so much money, have a high standard of living and run a successful business when two years before he did not have a halfpenny.

The money does not come out of thin air—it comes from somewhere, and often its only source is criminal activity. Of course, there are some people who win the lottery or the pools, or do particularly well in business, but the locals often wonder how on earth certain people can be so prosperous for so long.

There is no good reason—good, bad or indifferent—why any individual or group should be allowed to profit from illegal activities. Legislation must be effectively enforced, but before that can happen, the legislation must be drafted to ensure that when it is applied, it is effective. Too many high lifestyles in Northern Ireland are being supported by illegally obtained money. That must be stamped out and the order goes a little further down that road.

I appreciate that the Government want to tread cautiously because of the conflict—it is at the heart of the matter—between freedom, the necessity of privacy and the need to investigate crime and prosecute those who are engaged in it in a proper manner that will give confidence to people. To be kind to the Minister, I must say that we wish him, and those who have to apply the legislation, well.

3.12 pm

Mr. Ingram: I thank the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) for his contribution, and for his overall acceptance of the order. He raised several important points that are worthy of response, and I will try to deal with all of them.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the way in which the order has been dealt with relative to the Secretary of State's relationship with the Northern Ireland Assembly. Under section 85(5) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Secretary of State is obliged to refer the proposal to the Assembly. However, the Assembly can choose whether or not to report to the Secretary of State after a referral. The Secretary of State can also require a report. On this occasion, he did not require a report, but we were happy to receive the one that the Assembly chose to prepare. I mentioned, in my opening remarks, how that will help the Secretary of State and me in the final drafting of the order.

The hon. Gentleman raised matters relating to terrorism and organised crime and the relationship between such activities. He commented that the order does not mention terrorism. He is right, but it does not exclude the pursuit of organised crime perpetrated by those engaged in terrorist paramilitary activity. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the RUC has helpfully produced an overall threat analysis of organised criminal activity in Northern Ireland. It is not yet in the public domain, but will be published shortly. Also, as I said, I chair an organised crime task force that brings together all the agencies—the RUC, Customs and Excise, the National Criminal Intelligence Service and others. I propose to publish an overview of what we have learnt from that analysis.

All that will increase our understanding of the extent, nature and depth of organised crime in Northern Ireland society. That understanding will not be perfect, but we are learning all the time; the more we explore, probe and learn, the better we are able to engage the threat as it manifests itself.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of fuel smuggling, which is a serious problem. Sometimes there are joint initiatives between the RUC and Customs and Excise. Sometimes those agencies act separately, but in the main, Customs and Excise lead, because of the Revenue implications. Last year, 13 fuel laundering plants that were capable of producing 40 million litres of fuel a year were shut down. That is a considerable achievement on the part of Customs and Excise. To date, in the financial year 2000-01, 1.3 million litres of illicit fuel have been seized. Not just fuel but other contraband goods such as cigarettes are smuggled—50 million cigarettes have also been seized as a consequence of joint RUC and Customs and Excise activity.

 
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