Draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's comments. I believe that the drugs problem relates to a demand-led industry. Does he agree with my supposition? What can we do to reduce demand, which will not be affected by simply restricting supply?

David Burnside: Arguments about demand can be approached in different ways. Pricing is one way of affecting demand. Some argue that legalisation of certain soft drugs will destroy supply. I am not in that camp, but the argument is worthy of debate. I believe that we can put people out of business by taking out the dealers. Stopping the supply will stop dealers. According to the police, supply—

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I am sure that hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland will know the places in their constituencies where drugs can be purchased. I could take the Committee to a pub in east Belfast where everyone knows that paramilitary organisations sell drugs. If everyone in the area knows, so do the police. Will the hon. Gentleman give us his opinion of why, when the police must be aware that drugs are being sold on the premises, no prosecutions are brought against members of that paramilitary organisation? Is there are view on the part of the Government and those in the police service that they are better doing that than being involved in other paramilitary activity?

David Burnside: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The behind-the-scenes approval of paramilitaries for the ''political'' process, or peace process, as it is more widely known, is because that is being allowed. In the example that I gave of the Official IRA in South Down, that is being allowed to take place. Many people in South Down wonder why the police do not act against the Official IRA, which is supposedly on a longer ceasefire than the so-called tactical presence ceasefire of the Provisional IRA. What approval do the police give? Sheehy and officers like him do their lot, but recently, since the beginning of the peace process, a blind eye seems to have been turned to such paramilitary activity.

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Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Let me add to the observations of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). The strong suspicions of elected representatives lead them to believe that a blind eye is turned because of the amount of touting carried out by drug peddlers for the police. The sooner action is taken to eliminate contact, the better. We should be able to gather intelligence without using that source.

David Burnside: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The drugs problem requires a high profile initiative. I have made suggestions to the Minister, which would have all-party support. The leader of my party has raised the subject of allowing phone tap information to be admissible in court. We have support from the DUP and the SDLP, but I do not expect any support from the front organisations of terrorism, Sinn Fein or the loyalist paramilitaries. I would not expect or want it. We must deal with the paramilitaries and the drug dealers. We need all-party support, which exists among the democratic parties in Northern Ireland, for legislation to put the drug dealers out of business.

4.46 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): Mr. McWilliam, it is a pleasure to be called by you as Chairman. It is some time since I arrived as a new Member and you were chairing the Committee examining the Finance Bill, back in the dark and dismal days when our party was in opposition.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) on securing this timely debate. He has argued forcefully, coherently and cogently, and raised many issues that I hope to deal with in my response. I also hope to deal with the points of other hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman majored on the scale of the drugs trade problem in Northern Ireland, and I will not spend too long reiterating his points.

I will not major on the evils of the drugs trade in Northern Ireland. Those who trade in drugs trade in human misery and deserve absolute condemnation. I want to focus on the scale and the scope of the problem, on how Government and the agencies are tackling the drugs trade, the role of the paramilitaries in peddling drugs and the wider strategic issues.

Given the scale of the problem in the rest of the United Kingdom, it is easy to be complacent about the drugs situation in Northern Ireland. Mercifully, the problems that we face there are less acute—particularly compared with those that I have experienced as a Liverpool MP—but therein lies the challenge. We must prevent the growth of the drugs trade, especially in hard drugs, and make in-roads into the supply chain.

In Northern Ireland, the drugs problem is compounded by the involvement of the paramilitaries. It is compounded by the fear and intimidation they can bring to bear within a community, and by the paramilitary apparatus that is readily transferable to the organised crime field.

Mr. Peter Robinson: The Minister is approaching the key issue. Drugs sold in Northern Ireland bring double death. Drugs trade profits are ploughed back

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into paramilitary organisations, crimes against society and destruction in the Province. The Government have to pay for resulting compensation.

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but we must retain a balanced view. The threat assessment that the hon. Member for South Antrim referred to earlier stated that half the organised crime groups have paramilitary links, but half do not. In spite of the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that this was not a true and honest assessment and that there were paramilitaries who stepped back from these organisations, there are people who have no involvement with paramilitaries at all. The drug and organised crime scene in Northern Ireland is ever changing, constantly adapting itself to the way in which the law enforcement agencies respond to the challenge. We must always bear that in mind and ensure that we never give refuge to those engaged in that wicked trade.

We must also continue to have a holistic approach to the drugs problem. We must take positive action in the fields of treatment, education and rehabilitation—the kind of projects to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We are constantly increasing our knowledge and understanding of the scale and scope of the drugs problem. The organised crime task force, which I chair, met yesterday. It is providing a focus for a better understanding of the challenge facing the law enforcement agencies. The task force is also fostering a multi-agency approach for tackling drugs-related criminality.

Each illicit drug carries with it its own peculiar characteristics and affects society in different ways, but there are common factors such as crime for profit, and willingness by those importing and supplying to protect their market through violent means. The organised crime task force yesterday considered a paper from the police service in Northern Ireland, which is the lead agency on tackling the drugs supply. The paper develops yet further our understanding of the problem and it makes a number of recommendations for improving the collective response.

The hon. Members for Belfast, East and for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) expressed doubts about how these organisations operate and the police response to them. The police will act on information if it is provided to them. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. The police will give no room to people who are actively engaged in dealing in drugs. It is important to remember when we criticise the police service in Northern Ireland that this is an organisation that deserves our absolute respect. Since August 1998, it has intercepted 28 bombs in Northern Ireland, using intelligence gathered in the way that the hon. Gentleman was doubtful about. That includes discoveries as well as interceptions. It manages to continue to protect our society in Northern Ireland and to engage with criminal organisations involved in drug dealing in a way that is worthy of our admiration and respect.

Much of the detail of the report we considered yesterday is sensitive and could compromise intelligence flows and operations if disclosed

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prematurely, but I can give a flavour of some of the main findings and the action to be taken. A number of key criminals are involved in trafficking drugs into Northern Ireland and a larger number of individuals distribute drugs within Northern Ireland. Many are major organised crime figures. We face problems from a trade in heroin—the hon. Member for South Antrim is right—cocaine, crack cocaine, ecstasy, cannabis and amphetamines. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, our drugs market is dominated by the trade in ecstasy and cannabis. An emerging problem is the increase in prescription drug misuse.

Those involved in both paramilitary activity and the illicit drugs trade are predominately loyalists, but drug-dealing is by no means an exclusive preserve of the loyalist paramilitaries. Republican paramilitaries are involved to an extent. The hon. Member for South Antrim is right. There are also organised crime gangs peddling drugs who have no connection with paramilitary activity. I recognise fully the terrible impact of paramilitary involvement in organised crime, including drugs, but the operational agencies must not focus solely on that at the expense of breaking links in the drugs supply chain. Yesterday, the task force agreed on several recommendations for improving our collective response. They include formalising the links between agencies with a role to play in tackling drugs; developing intelligence links between the agencies; strengthening our links with Europol, bearing in mind the international drugs trade connections; strengthening links with the Garda; and examining the effectiveness of existing legislation, to which the hon. Member for South Antrim referred.

 
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Prepared 13 December 2001