Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 339)



  320. It is very similar to my search for Labour voters. One in 30 would be a result.
  (Mr Wells) We have normally two or three people doing the marshalling. These are expensive pieces of kit and we are not keen for people in lorries to drive into them. We have to have people, as we stack lorries, to check with the drivers beforehand that they understand the process. In a number of places we are concerned about clandestine immigrants as well so we have to try to make sure that we take all possible precautions to ensure that there is nobody inside the vehicle before we put it through the scanner. You have to have somebody who drives the scanner. We have to have at least one, probably two, people on any shift who do image interpretation. The interpretation of these images is a rather complex business. It is not like looking through a sheet of glass. It is quite a complex business to make sense of the image that one sees. It is all about interpreting shades of grey essentially in the image. Staring at one of those screens for a long time can be quite demoralising, just as Terry was saying about opening boxes. When we turn out containers following that activity, we have to have staff on hand to be able to do that turn out. That would be another three staff, maybe typical of what you saw at Belfast docks. Obviously, the team who are operating the scanner cannot stop to do the turn out on each occasion that there is the possibility that there may be something unusual in the box. You have a team therefore of about eight who would be operating any one scanner to make it operate effectively. Although the scanners have been very effective and we have found many millions of cigarettes already with our scanners, it is true that image interpretation is quite a skilled activity and, for every scanner image that we pull out that causes us to make a selection and carry out a turn out and make a detection of cigarettes, there are a number more where we would carry out a turn out where there would prove to be some innocent explanation because the cargo has been stacked in a slightly unusual way and therefore it is not a straightforward matter of saying that, every time one carries out a scan, you always get a hit or a clear run. There are many that fall in this grey area.
  (Mr Byrne) The scanner is by no means 100% reliable. We get down time with scanners. We have some operational difficulties we are putting right at the moment. We do have a procurement programme for the coming year. We will be buying a number more which will give us more flexibility to move them round, but it would be dangerous at this stage to rely wholly upon the scanner technology * * * .

Mr Tynan

  321. You made the point about lorries and you were saying that is in the middle level. How would you determine that and how would you deal with that? If you have a company running lorries backwards and forwards across, how would you find that out and what would you do if you found out a company was taking lorries across on a regular basis in order to participate in smuggling of fuel?
  (Mr Byrne) Lorries going across, filling their tanks and coming back again is perfectly legitimate. Some companies will adapt their tank so that it brings back double or triple the load. They will bring it back and then they will decant and use it for other trips. That is illegal. Some will use their lorries simply to smuggle fuel. That puts them in the camp of the smuggler and that is big. They will convert the back of the lorry. We are dealing with those who decant. That is a criminal offence. We are dependent upon getting the right information. We are depending sometimes on audit checks by our own officers, routine things which happen when people do VAT visits. These tend to come to light because on some occasions, one way or another, our various checks have identified one lorry doing something strange. Customs is a trifle ruthless when it gets hold of a piece of string. It does not stop pulling it. Once we have a suspicion of what is happening, finding it and proving it, which means checking lorry tachographs, checking how far they travel, how many lorries, where they purchase their fuel from, proving the innocent as well as the guilty activities. It is an extensive investigation technique.

  322. I was thinking of companies deliberately sending their lorries over on a regular basis, picking up fuel and bringing it back. Could I move on to information and intelligence? How easy is it for you to exchange information with other agencies?
  (Mr Byrne) We do not have a great deal of difficulty. I suppose it is because of the law enforcement culture which is in Customs and Excise and has been for a very long time. The common law power which allows agencies to share information based upon the public interest is case specific. There is a set of judgments around each time you do it, but because we have exercised that for a long period of time most of the time we do not have huge difficulties. We have relationships with the police and so on but there are some statutory gateways which make life a little more comfortable. You are a little less worried that you might get the judgment wrong. The Anti-Terrorist Crime and Security Bill has put on a statutory footing the common law power that I am talking about. Customs has had a tradition of sharing information and getting it right. It is a matter of proportionality; it is case specific; we are prepared to justify and defend why we have shared information. We have found that most of the agencies are pretty good. The police are our main counterpart. What inhibits the information flow is not a statutory bar or a legislative difficulty. There are cultural issues about protecting your job, but heavens, I have that between two of my different teams. That is the reality of life. We have not faced quite the difficulties which some organisations seem to have found.

  323. There are no real restrictions in law as regards the information you can share?
  (Mr Byrne) The biggest restriction—and I do not see any way around it—is giving other organisations access to our databases. Another agency cannot come in on a fishing expedition, as defence lawyers call it, and they cannot trawl through our databases to find, analyse, manipulate the information to see whether it will help them. If they have a specific interest in Terry Byrne, there is no great difficulty. They ask and, assuming we are satisfied that there is a good reason for it, we will provide, and we will provide on a voluntary basis. The statutory bar is to the sharing of bulk data.

  324. Is there any way that exchange of information could be made easier for you, if there was different legislation? Is there anything you can think of that we could use in order to make it easier for Customs?
  (Mr Byrne) No. We have been round this one several times. Some people thought that the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act would make use of this. It has enshrined in statute the common law power. What it has led to is a series of protocols we have had to sign with all the kinds of people we shared with before so, under the law, we are saying these are the arrangements that are in place. In sharing with other agencies, there is not a great difficulty in the statute. Maybe there are cultural issues, but they will be gradually overcome. * * * .


  325. Do you have any problem with the Inland Revenue if you need to exchange information with them?
  (Mr Byrne) No. We have a statutory gateway with the Inland Revenue stretching back to the 1972 Act and that has been there for a long period of time. Why I am reasonably familiar with the difficulties of access to bulk data is we have had to work to a situation where we now have to recognise that Customs and Excise having officers with free access to Inland Revenue databases, which would be quite interesting and useful at times, is not acceptable in the law. I do not think the law can be changed in that respect because we have looked at it, because of the implications of the Human Rights Act, the ECHR, because it requires proportionality. Data protection needs to be observed.

  326. How often have you had to use your northern strike force or forces from outside to provide resources for you in Northern Ireland? We heard of one pretty spectacular case but how often is this something you find you need to do?
  (Mr Acda) There is an element of the northern strike force embedded into detection work in Northern Ireland. They are there almost constantly.

  327. Although they are not part of the complement of Northern Ireland Customs.
  (Mr Acda) Indeed. The operational manager rotates them so we do not have the same 25 people there. Every ten days they get changed over. They are there pretty constantly.

  328. You have a supplement of 25 at any one time?
  (Mr Acda) Yes. He also can call on assistance from detection staff, uniformed staff, in Scotland who have come into Belfast International Airport to man the controls for two or three days and then returned to Scotland.

  329. That is on a routine basis as well?
  (Mr Acda) On a monthly basis, yes.

  330. You are almost permanently reinforced?
  (Mr Acda) Yes. I prefer to say we are moving our people flexibly to where we perceive a risk.

  331. This is not a criticism. If it is 25 all the time, does it make sense to have them coming from Scotland rather than being on the strength of the Northern Ireland Customs?
  (Mr Byrne) Yes, I think it does. We have a brigaded force around various parts of the country. We have a national strike force of 120 people and we have now regional strike forces which we can combine to use in a variety of places. The fact that it is 25 gives us the opportunity to change faces, to refresh the people, to carry out specialist operations, which is not necessarily quite the same as covert but similar to covert operations. These people are very heavily engaged in what I describe as red meat activity. A constant diet of red meat activity can be quite wearing.

  332. More so in Northern Ireland than the rest of the United Kingdom?
  (Mr Byrne) Absolutely.

  333. Because of the oil?
  (Mr Byrne) They go there principally because of the oil but it is the environment in which they are working. It is the fact that it is not difficult to find detections. We find this in other parts of the country. If you are at Dover, it is not very hard to find detections these days, but they are constantly having aggravation in their faces and we have to be prepared to move them around and sometimes take them out of the front line. * * * .

Mr Beggs

  334. Working across the border, what is the nature and extent of your work with organisations?
  (Mr Byrne) The people we work with across the other side are the Garda. We also work with the Revenue on the other side. It has been rare so far but occasionally with the Criminal Assets Bureau. I would describe the relationship as good. * * * .

  335. What more could be done to improve co-operation on organised crime between the jurisdictions?
  (Mr Byrne) I am not sure that is a good territory for Customs. That is more something which the police service of Northern Ireland would be looking at rather than us. * * * .

  336. What action will need to be taken to enable extradition between the two jurisdictions in respect of fiscal crime?
  (Mr Byrne) Fiscal crime is not extraditable at the moment. If the intended European arrest warrant is brought in—and there was encouraging news shortly before Christmas—that will avoid the difficulties of extradition. It certainly includes fraud. I think the plans are for the United Kingdom to implement in United Kingdom law by 2003. It allows for the extradition of own nationals and we believe that should provide us with the opportunity to cover our area.

  337. What difference has the organised crime task force made to your work in Northern Ireland and how has it contributed to your recent successes?
  (Mr Byrne) The organised crime task force started off at a strategic high level. The bit which is working extremely well for us and has made a difference is the co-ordinating group that is run by a detective inspector at the moment. We put against that him and his deputy. We have two intelligence officers who liaise with them and with the police service of Northern Ireland. That has made a noticeable difference in being able to co-ordinate joint activity and has directly contributed to the successes at the back end of last year. That is the bit which has kicked off at the moment. The difference which we believe the organised crime task force can now make for the coming time—this is key to all the things we are trying to do—is to encourage us to stimulate other agencies to actively participate in joint operational activity. We believe the organised crime task force has an important role to play in provoking, stimulating and encouraging.

  338. Which other organisations would you like to see brought into the organised crime task force and what knowledge would they bring to the task force?
  (Mr Byrne) The Inland Revenue is just signing up. The agencies that could make a considerable difference to our overall effectiveness in tackling the oils problem in particular would be Trading Standards, environment, health and safety, local authorities generally. The part of the business that can cause us a great deal of difficulty because of sheer numbers more than anything else are the petrol filling stations. Whilst we have some powers which bite, they can be resource intensive and the penalties we can apply are not always appropriate. They can either be resource intensive to prove or establish or limited in impact. A lot of these filling stations do not properly observe health and safety requirements or environmental checks. If you are laundering fuel, it is probably a bit difficult to demonstrate that you have met the Trading Standards rules. The local authorities do have the power, which we do not, to close garages down for those purposes. If we could get that activity driven more positively at operational level, that could make a significant difference.

Mr Pound

  339. I was reading a translation of Robbie Burns's poems the other day, translated into English. He was an excise man and he had considerable success in intercepting kegs of brandy. One of the points he made was that it was almost impossible to do his job because nobody believed that paying excise duty was right. My great, great grandfather, who allegedly operated a potheen still in Skibbereen, used to make the same point. Bearing in mind you are doing an almost impossible job in an area which is garlanded with romantic nonsense but operated by some of the nastiest hoodlums you have ever come across in your life, who still lay claim to this romantic past, how do you go about getting the vital information you need from the community? Do you get that, because all these problems could be addressed in five minutes if Joe and Jane Public came forward. Do you get it and how do you go about seeking that information?
  (Mr Byrne) It is a difficult message on the mainland as well as in Northern Ireland to persuade those people who are buying cheap cigarettes, fuel and alcohol that they should not do that because it is depriving us of hospitals and the like. It is a public message. A lot of people support that message when we put it out, so a publicity campaign is something we have to keep doing. There are a number of publicity campaigns which have worked over the years, rather than law enforcement, in my view. Reducing the level of smoking is probably one of the most telling ones. It would be reasonable for me to be cynical and say that that is not going to deliver an early result. We have been making the point in Northern Ireland that you cannot look at oils fraud in total isolation from the community in which it is existing. If you want a civic society in Northern Ireland, stopping people from establishing and maintaining power bases, whether it is for political motives or for personal profit and gain and local power does not really matter. All of that is part and parcel of exactly the same approach. There are a number of people in Northern Ireland who support our message. Maybe some of them support it for personal motives but an awful lot of businesses are saying to us, "Please, you have to get a good grip of this situation because we are being forced by sheer commercial competition to adopt some malpractices." When we look across the range of 700 petrol filling stations in Northern Ireland, we visited 600 in the last 18 months in one way or another and they are not all selling illicit fuel 100 per cent of the time. Some are; others are selling 20 per cent illicit fuel with the main bit because it is a way of staying in business. There are a lot of people who want us to be more effective. I also took time to check out the level of information that we get from the public. We have a hotline which has a national application. It is disappointing in Northern Ireland that probably per capita the number of calls we get is roughly half what it is on the United Kingdom mainland. There may be other reasons for that than people not sympathetic to our cause but it is significant. However, when I then looked at the source of information which triggers all of our detection and investigation activity, nearly 50 per cent of the bits of information we get comes from a citizen. Quite often it comes anonymously. Sometimes it comes from our hotline. Other times it comes from informants. The other bits come from the police force or from our own work. There are a lot of people who do want to tell us. Let us hope that most of it is for pure motives.

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