Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 445 - 459)




  445. Minister, it is nice to see you and Mr Watkins and Mr White here as well. One of the questions we were asking the Home Office officials, to which we got no answer at all, was about the allocation of resources for the proposed Assets Recovery Agency to be devoted to Northern Ireland. Are you satisfied that what they are going to give you is appropriate and adequate?
  (Jane Kennedy) First of all, it is a real pleasure to be here especially as this is the day after the tenth anniversary of my election to Parliament, so it is a double pleasure to be back here.

  446. Oh, to be that young again! Put that on the record please.
  (Jane Kennedy) Chairman, I am aware that the detail of the numbers of officers, the size of the office and so on has yet to be determined, it is still in its development stage, but the fact that there will be an Assistant Director of the ARA in Northern Ireland and that there will be a physical presence gives me a great deal of encouragement and leads me to have confidence that the Home Office will in fact give the ARA as it develops the resources, particularly bearing in mind the nature of the work and task that they will face in Northern Ireland. At this stage the details are still being worked out. It is too early to say the numbers that will be involved. The Assets Recovery Agency will be coming into Northern Ireland into an area where there has been a significant amount of co-operation between the agencies already. They will want to mesh in with that so the establishment of the new office there with the important aims and objectives that it has will take some time before we see how big it is going to be. It is certainly of great interest to me that it has the resources that it needs to carry out its functions.

  447. These resources will all be Home Office or will some of the resources come from the Northern Ireland Office?
  (Jane Kennedy) The resources for the ARA will be Home Office resources.

  448. That of course is the problem, is it not? I do not want to get you into intra-governmental difficulties. The Home Office did not resile from the suggestion that you will probably get about four staff. They said it was not finally decided but given, for example, the Criminal Assets Bureau in Dublin has got 44 staff for their three million people, four staff for 1.5 million does not seem many. I trust that you will be battling hard to get more than that?
  (Jane Kennedy) Certainly it will be necessary for the ARA office in Northern Ireland to have the resources that it needs. It is the first I have heard of that figure of four.

  449. Mr White heard me put it to the head of the Home Office department, Mr Stadlen, who did not disagree. He said that it is not finally decided but if that is how the 100 staff will be split up, Northern Ireland would get four.
  (Jane Kennedy) I would just say this. I would expect the ARA to develop over time, as I assume the Criminal Assets Bureau in Dublin developed—

  450. Yes it did.
  (Jane Kennedy) I would not want to respond to the figure of four. I would have to take that away and consider it.

  451. I am sure you have noted it with interest. As I say, I do not want to make internecine difficulties between you and the Home Office but one of the problems, of course, is that this is something that is crucial to your own efforts to combat organised serious financial crime and yet you do not have a handle on any of the resources or the budget that is going towards it.
  (Jane Kennedy) We have close working relationships between officials. I know that Mr White has been involved with the Home Office in developing the project and making sure that the Northern Ireland interests have be taken into account by the Home Office. As I say, it still has not yet been finally determined but in fact the Director of the ARA with his annual plan and his set of priorities will have to take into account the work, for example, of the Organised Crime Task Force, and clearly resources are an issue that we debate constantly within government.

  452. Again Mr White heard all this but I want to rehearse it because it seemed to us so extraordinary. When they arrived at their figure of 100 staff to start with, I asked the question, "In your consultations with the Northern Ireland Office did you come away with the impression that they have a greater or a lesser or much the same problem as, for example, Scotland or England?" and they did not know the answer to that.
  (Jane Kennedy) They did not have an answer?

  453. I would have thought you would have told them very robustly the problems of the land borders and the problems of smuggling and all the other problems you know you have got that we know about and sympathise with you about and it would have been made abundantly clear to them that the problem is far greater proportionately in Northern Ireland than the rest of the United Kingdom.
  (Jane Kennedy) It is hard to account for the comments of an official in a department that is not my own.

  454. I know it is. We are trying to help, let me make that quite clear.
  (Jane Kennedy) I hear the assistance that you are offering.

  455. We are the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, we are not the Home Office Committee, and we are entirely on your side. We are very concerned that they do not seem to have got the message that the problem is significantly different in Northern Ireland. Mind you, we have found this in other matters, have we not? I am just wondering whether you put your case robustly enough, which is a matter for you to decide. All I think I can tell you, and Mr White will confirm this, is that the message does not seem to have got across.
  (Jane Kennedy) The figures you have put to me are the first figures I have heard. I have had discussions with Home Office Ministers about various aspects of the Proceeds of Crime Bill, although I certainly would obviously return to the issue of resources, as I will do from time to time with most of my ministerial colleagues.

  456. Okay. Does anybody have a question on that particular subject?
  (Jane Kennedy) I am entirely in your hands but I had thought I would say a few words to perhaps put my evidence in context.

  457. Of course you can and we will listen with interest. I am very sorry, it is just that was all fresh in our minds after that session.
  (Jane Kennedy) I am grateful for the chance to hear it first hand while it is still fresh. It is certainly of interest.

  458. You can read the transcript. We will make sure you get it.
  (Jane Kennedy) From the outset I share the objectives you clearly have in mind in conducting this inquiry—trying to establish the sources of funding of terrorist organisations and shine a light on the illegal activities in which paramilitaries are engaged in order to raise funds. As the Security Minister but also as Chair of the Organised Crime Task Force, I devote all of my time and energy to tackling the influence of the paramilitaries wherever it surfaces, whether it is the organised criminality that you would associate with the drugs trade or the cross-border smuggling or the serious public disorder in North Belfast or, indeed, attacks of dissident Republicans. So whilst the focus of your inquiry is rightly on the financing of terrorism, I hope you will not mind me pointing out that the lines between terrorism and organised crime in Northern Ireland are blurred and have become increasingly blurred over the years, and approaching either problem in isolation runs the risk of overlooking the common ground that exists between the two. Both terrorist cells and organised gangs depend on a group of individuals who operate in secrecy with the same need to launder the proceeds of their activities regardless of whether that is for the personal financial gain of the individuals or to finance their terrorist activities. This was the reasoning, Chairman, which lay behind the establishment of the Organised Crime Task Force in September 2000. The feuding between the Loyalist paramilitary groups that took place during that summer had raised the profile of racketeering in general but even before that there was increasing disquiet amongst ordinary, law-abiding people at criminal figures living extravagantly beyond their apparent means, Johnny Adair being the most visible example of that but there were many others. The Task Force was therefore established to tackle gangsterism as we saw it across the board. The principle behind the Task Force is to attack the criminal element of organised crime whatever its source and whoever is involved in it. Using an analogy that was recently quoted to me by a senior military officer—I spend a lot of time with military officers.

  Chairman: That is why you are getting so much better at your job!

  Mr Pound: Your private life is your own business!

  459. I could not resist that one.
  (Jane Kennedy) To use an example, you might see it as being like going for the wagon trains behind the enemy lines in order to deprive the enemy of essential provisions at the front. The Task Force is an integral part of our overall commitment, expressed in the Belfast Agreement, "to secure lasting peace and a safe and prosperous society in Northern Ireland". One destructive legacy of the Troubles is that the terrorist godfathers have been able to use the organisational networks that are in place, combined with the fear that they engender within their communities to line their own pockets, for whatever purpose. Keeping control of the communities in order to make money has become an end in itself. Having said that, not all aspects of organised crime in Northern Ireland are linked to the paramilitary organisations. Last year the Task Force identified 78 organised crime groups involving about 400 individuals and about half of the groups had links to paramilitary organisations. A similar picture is emerging in this year's threat assessment which we intend to publish on 16 May. We may want to talk about ways in which we can share that with the Committee while you are considering your report. I do not yet have the full findings of the year two threat assessment and indeed some of the detailed figures are still changing, but I can tell you that the emerging results look encouraging with respect to the impact that the Task Force has made. I hope you do not think I am just putting a spin on that report. I hope you will see when the report comes out that it will confirm that. I think the success of the Task Force has been its ability to support organisations and agencies by enabling them to take the lead in tackling organised crime. The Task Force has done it by bringing the agencies together in a way which, whilst at the same time is respecting their necessary independence and their autonomy, has enhanced their effectiveness by enabling them to share information. I hope that you have heard that from the other witnesses that you have called before you. This process has added value to their existing work because it has enabled the agencies to reach agreement at a senior level and to commit resources and to assist each other. I believe that success is all the more impressive when one considers that both the Police Service in Northern Ireland and Customs & Excise are undergoing a colossal process of change. This has enabled both organisations to think about their own response to organised crime. Both have put in place new arrangements for managing their own response. The crucial difference for both agencies is that they have restructured with closer co-operation between them in mind. The Task Force has enabled that to happen but it has also a role to play in co-ordinating and focusing the efforts of the agencies and to lend assistance wherever the agencies themselves believe that that will help. So, for example, Paul Boateng and I will shortly help Customs to launch a multi-agency expert group to tackle the problems of road fuel duty evasion. As I am sure you are aware, there is a substantial loss of revenue to the Exchequer which was estimated at around £380 million in the year 2000. That revenue loss results from both legitimate cross-border shopping but also from fraud. It is envisaged that the expert group will be chaired by Customs and attended by senior representatives of both the PSNI, trading standards officers, the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency, and indeed local authorities. So very quickly, Mr Chairman, looking to the future, I would like to assure you and members of the Committee that we are in this for the long haul. We see the Task Force as a permanent feature of life in Northern Ireland. We know that it can take years to dismantle an organised crime group or in fact to prosecute a key individual within such a group. That does not mean we have to wait for years to see a result. The disruption of an organised crime network and the removal of profit incentives and the staying ahead of emerging crime trends all help to undermine organised crime. I believe that the first year's results when you see them will demonstrate that a co-ordinated, multi-agency approach, supported by strong political will, is the right way to tackle this problem. In this respect the creation of the new Assets Recovery Agency, which we were just discussing, with new powers to pursue and recover assets resulting from criminal activities should prove a formidable addition to the arsenal, given the resources.

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