Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320
WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH 2002
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 * * *
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
(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 restrictionand I do
not see any way around itis 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
(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.
* * * .
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
(Mr Byrne) Fiscal crime is not extraditable at the
moment. If the intended European arrest warrant is brought inand
there was encouraging news shortly before Christmasthat
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 timethis is key
to all the things we are trying to dois 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.
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
(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