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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1504 - iv
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Northern Ireland Affairs Committee
Fuel Laundering and Smuggling
Wednesday 7 December 2011
Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris OBE, Detective Chief Superintendent Roy McCOMB and Bob Lauder
Evidence heard in Public Questions 152-240
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
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Taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee
on Wednesday 7 December 2011
Mr Laurence Robertson (Chair)
Mr David Anderson
Mr Joe Benton
Lady Sylvia Hermon
Dr Alasdair McDonnell
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris OBE, Crime Operations Department, Police Service of Northern Ireland, Detective Chief Superintendent Roy McComb, Head of Organised Crime Branch, PSNI, and Bob Lauder, Deputy Director, Scotland and Northern Ireland Network, Operational Delivery Group, SOCA, gave evidence.
Q152 Chair: Before we start, I need to declare a sort of nondeclarable interest, if that makes sense. Earlier today I was entertained by the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association, which hopefully will not impair my judgment too much.
Naomi Long: Or your lungs.
Oliver Colvile: Chairman, I also declare an interest, in that I went to the cricket with the Japanese tobacco manufacturers during the course of August.
Chair: I have been similarly entertained. I think we have declared those earlier, but I wanted to make today’s clear.
Thank you very much for joining us. As you know, we are conducting an inquiry into the smuggling and laundering of fuel, tobacco and whatever else is smuggled and laundered. We are very grateful to you for coming to see us today. Perhaps I could ask you to introduce yourselves very briefly and tell us what you do.
Drew Harris: My name is Drew Harris; I am Assistant Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and I have responsibility for crime operations, which includes Organised Crime Branch, headed by Detective Chief Superintendent Roy McComb, who is to my right. I am also responsible for major crime investigation, intelligence surveillance and forensics.
Bob Lauder: I am Bob Lauder. I am the Deputy Director for Operational Delivery for SOCA, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and my particular responsibilities are delivery of SOCA’s services in operational delivery in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Roy McComb: I am Roy McComb. As Mr Harris said, I am a Detective Chief Superintendent. I am the Head of Organised Crime Branch, part of the Crime Operations Department that Mr Harris leads, and I have daytoday responsibility for organised crime in Northern Ireland.
Q153 Chair: Thank you very much. It might be useful if you could explain the role of the Organised Crime Task Force, particularly with respect to laundering and smuggling. I think that would be very useful to the Committee.
Drew Harris: As you know, the Organised Crime Branch is a multiagency group that brings together all the relevant parties that we feel have an input around organised crime. My major role has to do with an enforcement group relating to the law enforcement agencies, and the tasking process we have each month in respect of the organised crime gangs we are targeting. At any one time, there are between 160 and 180 identified organised crime groups within Northern Ireland, and we have a tasking process to prioritise the investigative work against them. Either ourselves, HMRC or SOCA would take the lead. It provides a vehicle to share specifically intelligence and information, but also evidence and investigative leads. That is our main gain from the OCTF, in terms of law enforcement activity. The second big gain is in relation to cross-border liaison. It gives a focal point for the Minister to take a lead and then provide a focal point for cross-border co-operation with Dublin. We have just had a very successful cross-border organised crime conference, which is an annual event in which we meet with our partners and work up action plans for the year ahead. I would point to those two elements as being very important for my specific role.
Q154 Oliver Colvile: The evidence from PSNI was that the OCTF meets to assess emerging trends in areas of activity that would benefit from a multi-agency tactical approach. Does the OCTF get the right level of support from all the relevant Government Departments in Northern Ireland-for example, from DETI on petrol retail licensing, and from DOE on regulation of road haulage and the illegal dumping of fuel residues-or does the perception remain that fuel fraud is solely the responsibility of a law enforcement agency such as yourselves or HMRC?
Drew Harris: Since justice has been devolved, and with our own Minister now in the Executive, there has been a real difference, in terms of liaison with the rest of the Executive Departments. I would say that the Executive and the Public Accounts Committee are also beating the drum around organised crime and have brought forward recommendations in respect of policies and practices by other Departments, being, in effect, looked at to make sure that they are fraud-proof going forward. On the organised crime that you would see to do with environmental crime, or where criminal gangs are, say, abstracting electricity, there is a growing recognition that you need expertise from other Departments. Regarding the mass-growing of herbal cannabis, where someone is abstracting electricity, you need other Departments to assist you-you would have trading standards to assist in the examination of shop-type premises-and we have been successful in respect of that. We have also had success with the Department of Environment around fly-tipping and illegal waste dumping. Through the Department of Justice, I think we do have greater access now to the rest of the Executive, in that we are now entirely lodged in there, in effect.
Q155 Oliver Colvile: Does anybody want to add to that?
Roy McComb: The structure of the Organised Crime Task Force includes the Stakeholder Group, which the Minister chairs, and the Strategy Group, which is chaired by the Department of Justice, of which we are all representatives. Then there are nine sub-groups that work on particular themes. Certainly, since justice has been devolved to Northern Ireland, the sub-committees, most of which are chaired by the PSNI, are seeing a greater involvement of local staff and representatives from local government departments. In the last 12 or 18 months, there certainly has been an increase in engagement with the devolved Administrations. As an example, there is a drugs expert working group. Clearly, drugs are not just about enforcement but prevention, and because of that relationship, we have been able to engage with representatives of the Department of Health. There is very much an engagement with the local administration on those sub-committees that do most of the ground work.
Q156 Oliver Colvile: Have you been able to draw enough in the way of resources from other Departments in order to be able to do this?
Roy McComb: It is developing. I am not sure we are quite there yet. There is greater engagement and throughput needed from the Administrations, but it is very much a positive trend at this point. The closer we can get to all the devolved Departments and the greater involvement we can get, the better response we will have in dealing with some of the crimes that we are dealing with. Are we yet at a completed stage? No, I suspect we are not. I think we would like to push on a little bit further.
Q157 Lady Hermon: You are all very welcome here this afternoon. I wonder if I could just take you back to clarify one small point. ACC Harris, you identified between 160 and 180 organised crime gangs operating in Northern Ireland at the present time. Are you able to tell the Committee what percentage of those organised crime gangs would have links with dissident republicans or loyalists and, of those, what percentage would be involved in fuel smuggling? Is it a particularly attractive industry for one paramilitary group as opposed to another?
Roy McComb: We keep those very much on a watching brief, because we recognise that paramilitaries have what you would loosely call a different skill base that they can bring to organised crime. They bring a level of secrecy and-again, I do not want to glamorise it-professionalism to their activities, which makes it all the more difficult to tackle them. We have said in evidence to the local Justice Committee that a very healthy minority of crimes are linked to paramilitary groups. For the most part, they are carrying out their business for personal as opposed to organisational gain, but we are not closing our eyes to the real likelihood that some money that is gathered by organised crime gangs is going to assist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland on both sides.
Q158 Lady Hermon: In this Committee we are looking at fuel smuggling in particular; is there any paramilitary group that is particularly involved in fuel smuggling or laundering?
Drew Harris: You would look towards the Real IRA in particular in respect of fuel laundering and smuggling. This has evolved. Initially this developed as a means of making money for the organisation, and then costs were taken from it, and it now has moved from costs to salaries, and living style is now extracted from it. The terrorist campaigns that are waged are waged with a minimum of cash. Improvised explosive devices are cheap to make, and thousands of pounds are not required to sustain the present ongoing terrorist campaign. Undoubtedly, there is a connection particularly between the Real IRA-and some of the unaffiliated groups as well-and smuggling activity. Also, the Real IRA would take, in effect, a protection fee or tax from other criminal enterprises, such as drug dealing, and we have some initial reporting of them taking a protection fee from prostitution, particularly where there is human trafficking involved.
Roy McComb: In effect, it is criminal taxation by criminals; because it is criminals being taxed, we do not get reports of it. We uncover it by way of our own investigations or by intelligence, but there is a healthy activity in different parts of the country where criminals are taking significant sums of money from other criminals who are involved in other crimes. It is a bad-on-bad criminality.
Q159 Naomi Long: In your response, you referenced the issue of human trafficking. Obviously one of the concerns that we have in terms of the public perception is that laundering and evading of duty and so on is not a victimless crime. Is there evidence that the issue of human trafficking is heavily tied up with the criminal networks who are also involved in, for example, fuel laundering and smuggling? I think that it is quite important to be able to connect those two issues in the minds of the public as well, so they understand what they may be funding by purchasing, for example, petrol from a disreputable dealer.
Roy McComb: There is a very loose connection between people who are involved in human trafficking and other criminality. The one thing that is very obvious is that those people who are able to traffic victims into Northern Ireland have established a route, and they are confident enough that they can bring the people who are being trafficked into Northern Ireland. Like anything that is being smuggled, once you have established a route that you are confident you can use, in essence it does not much matter what the commodity is. Whether it is people, firearms, cigarettes or fuel, if the route is secure, then anything can be smuggled. Our assessment is that there is not necessarily a nexus between those involved in the organised crime of human trafficking and those involved in the organised crime of fuel smuggling. Those two, I think, are distinct, and there are different crime gangs involved in human trafficking.
Chair: We may come back to that subject a little later.
Q160 Mr Anderson: Mr Harris, in your evidence you said: "efforts have been made to increase the sharing of information between jurisdictions with the aim of frustrating, dismantling and disrupting" organised crime groups. Should the aim not be to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate people?
Drew Harris: Yes it is, absolutely. That is what we are about: a criminal justice response to this. We have had a lot of success. Every week we are having success against major crime gangs. We share information and intelligence with, for example, An Garda Síochána. I have seen, in other evidence, issues around cross-border jurisdiction; I have not come across those. We have a good relationship where we run parallel and joint investigations with our colleagues in the Guards, and then we are able to share evidence to allow for a successful prosecution in whichever jurisdiction facilitates the best approach, in terms of taking out the most of a crime gang. Often, we will have assisted the Guards in terms of surveillance or a covert operation, after which we have passed the bad guys over to them, for them to carry out the executive action of an arrest or strike. That is the type of operation that is consistently ongoing. Roy has some of the figures around arrests and charges.
Roy McComb: The language "frustrate, disrupt and dismantle" is simply how we would identify the success we have against crime gangs. Every part of it includes a criminal justice approach. We are in the business of locking up bad guys; it is as simple as that. "Frustrate, disrupt, dismantle" is simply the language we use to identify how we measure success where an identified crime gang is the subject of an investigation. I would not want there to be any confusion around it. It is nothing less than arresting and charging people. That is absolutely what we are about.
I will give you some figures. In the reporting year 2010, April to April, we arrested 215 members of organised crime gangs throughout Northern Ireland. For the same period up to the end of November, it was 140. That is just what my branch had responsibility for; it does not include the whole of Northern Ireland. For the year 2010, we either frustrated, disrupted or dismantled 73 crime gangs; for the year to date-2011-it is 43 crime gangs, so it is very much on par for the same reporting period. When it comes to one crime gang being dismantled, as against another crime gang, it is very much a professional judgment as to which caused the most harm. My branch is in the business of tacking those organised crime gangs that are involved in the more serious end of the business, and other colleagues within the PSNI do other crime gangs.
Q161 Mr Anderson: What would be the figure for people who have been subsequently prosecuted?
Roy McComb: Of the people that we have arrested-we have 215 for year 2010-I do not have the figures for how many were charged, but it would be a very high percentage, because due to the nature of how we conduct our business, a large number of those people would be hands-on. Whatever criminality they are involved in, we are catching them with their hands in the cookie jar. I do not have the figures, and I am happy to come back to you.
Q162 Mr Anderson: Can you get them for us?
Roy McComb: Absolutely.
Q163 Mr Anderson: Also, what sort of terms are they getting?
Roy McComb: That is a different piece of work and, of course, it is not within our gift to identify who gets what.
Q164 Mr Anderson: Can anybody give us that?
Roy McComb: We can certainly provide you with something, but that might take a little bit longer to do. I can certainly quickly give you the figures for the people who have been charged out of that list.
Drew Harris: Some of the people in that overall group would get very significant terms of imprisonment, because there are a lot of crimes of violence in there around armed robbery and cash in transit. Last year, 25 people were charged with cash in transit/armed robbery type offences. We would expect them to get significant custodial sentences. A lot of them are carrying long records of violence. That is as opposed to sentencing in respect of laundering fuel, for instance.
Roy McComb: Another cautionary note is that a large number of cases from 2010 to date will not have gone through the court system.
Q165 Mr Anderson: The last time we reported on this was back in 2006, when we said that while we recognised there had been a lot of disruption and gangs being broken up, a lot remained to be done. Have you got any evidence to show that, since 2006, there has been improvement?
Drew Harris: I would point towards a couple of areas of criminality: tiger kidnap, where an individual is targeted because of their access to cash, and then their family is threatened; and cash-in-transit robberies. In 2002, we had about 140 to 150 incidents in that one year-almost three a week. This year, we are probably looking at 22 to 25 incidents. We have really smashed those gangs. They realise that it is a high-risk activity to undertake those sorts of crimes. It is similar with tiger kidnaps: it has moved some of the organised crime groups from that more high-risk violent behaviour into what is perceived as low-risk, high-yield behaviour, around trafficking, counterfeiting and laundering. Undoubtedly, there has been a change in the criminal careers that people are undertaking.
Q166 Mr Anderson: Is there actually a way to measure the success? Does the OCFT track trends? Do they keep records? I know the present Government do not like targets-some would say results-but some of us do. Is it getting better? I am not being critical, but when we discussed this five years ago, everyone was aware of how hard you were working-in particular, cross-border activity is second to none-but it is about whether things are improving. If they are not, are there reasons that we can act on to try and help you?
Roy McComb: I recently presented to Minister Ford at the OCTF’s stakeholders’ meeting, and I drew an analogy with the first year of the OCTF 10 or 11 years ago; by comparison, this year, there were 100 more crime gangs and more types of criminality. In the 10 years since the creation of the Organised Crime Task Force, the types of criminality have been added to. For instance, 10 years ago, internet-type crime would have been virtually non-existent. Clearly, as the world has moved on, the types of criminality have changed. However, the assessment by the Police Service and other law enforcement colleagues about what constitutes a crime gang has become far more professional. If you take the figures on a one-dimensional level, the estimate is that there are 100 more crime gangs. It would be dishonest of me to say that that means it is an unreliable figure. Those are the figures based on what the annual reports say between 2002 and 2011: there are 100 more crime gangs that we are working against. We have a greater sense of what the threat from organised crime in Northern Ireland is, and I think we have a very clear way of dealing with it. Those figures are there for your attention.
Q167 Ian Paisley: Can you be very specific, and would you be able to supply us with figures that will tell us how many of the 215 arrested during 2010, and the 140 arrested during 2011, were arrested specifically for fuel laundering or smuggling? Of the 73 crime gangs that you frustrated or disrupted in 2010, how many were specifically fuel laundering?
Roy McComb: The answer is zero, because the responsibility for that rests with HMRC. These are crime gangs that we are not leading on the responsibility for capturing. These are crime gangs outwith those involved in fuel smuggling, which is the principal responsibility of HMRC.
Q168 Ian Paisley: Of the 215 that were arrested, none were to do with fuel?
Drew Harris: No, the offences were around robbery, drugs, and human trafficking.
Roy McComb: The figures for fuel smuggling would be held principally by HMRC. The PSNI may have played a role.
Q169 Ian Paisley: Certainly the picture we got from HMRC in terms of their ability to disrupt, arrest, and successfully prosecute was not a happy one. That is the kindest thing I could say about it. While this is very helpful, it only adds to my concern that this fuel crime is more serious than a lot of people out there probably credit.
Roy McComb: All I can say is that the figures we have are for those crime gangs that we have primacy and responsibility for tackling. We do not have that responsibility for fuel frauds.
Q170 Kate Hoey: Who could give us those precise figures for fuel arrests?
Roy McComb: We couldn’t. We would not necessarily have those figures. The organisation may have played a role in supporting HMRC, which has primacy in this matter, but in terms of being able to account for what arrests and seizures there have been, that is outwith the PSNI’s responsibility.
Q171 Kate Hoey: I must be missing something; so it is not a criminal offence to be involved in fuel laundering and smuggling?
Roy McComb: That is not what I am saying. I am saying that the responsibility for tackling that sits with another law enforcement agency, which is HMRC. Any figures for the arrests and seizures arising from those investigations would be for HMRC to capture. Those figures are outwith that.
Q172 Ian Paisley: Mr Lauder from SOCA, are you able to give us those figures? I do not want to put you on the spot, but we have not been able, in my view, to get those figures from HMRC. There is this huge grey mist that appears when we start to try to drill down and talk about whom you are putting out of business and whom you are not.
Bob Lauder: My position is broadly the same as that of my colleagues from PSNI. We do lend operational and technical assistance to those investigations undertaken by HMRC. The holder of those statistics, by default, is HMRC, because it is a fiscal fraud, which is a reserved matter for HMRC, and therefore while we recognise that those organised crime gangs who engage in this are multifunctional and can move about and do other things-we recognise that it is serious organised crime, and we assist and will take referrals in terms of civil recovery processes and tax in some of those cases-actual arrests for the crimes of fuel laundering or smuggling will be prosecuted by HMRC.
Q173 Ian Paisley: Would you be surprised if they could not give us those figures? I am not trying to set you up here-that is a first, Alasdair, I know. Whenever we took evidence from HMRC, we tried to get down to numbers and to say, "How many hundreds of millions is this worth?" They could only talk about the holistic figure for fraud, and crime that included laundering, smuggling, whether of CDs or counterfeit clothing, and cross-border shopping, which they introduced into the equation as well. I am surprised that they cannot give us a figure. What you are telling me is that they should be able to get a figure; would I be right in taking that from what you are saying?
Bob Lauder: Every Department will have their own systems for recording their own statistics, and I would be disingenuous if I was to try and illuminate how the Treasury do that, because that is the Treasury’s business. I certainly know that we have been involved in operational activity-
Nigel Mills: That is a politician’s answer.
Ian Paisley: You should be over on this side; you are good.
Chair: We are re-interviewing HMRC next week. Whether the people coming could actually help on that, I am not quite sure.
Q174 Kate Hoey: I will tell you what I do not understand, Chairman: don’t they go to court eventually, these people, and therefore aren’t the police involved at some stage?
Bob Lauder: No.
Q175 Kate Hoey: Absolutely no involvement whatsoever?
Roy McComb: HMRC are a law enforcement agency.
Q176 Kate Hoey: There must be records in the courts of who has been convicted of fuel fraud?
Bob Lauder: Yes.
Q177 Chair: Do HMRC go to the DPP to get the prosecution?
Roy McComb: Yes.
Drew Harris: Yes.
Bob Lauder: Yes.
Q178 Chair: So the DPP would have an idea?
Bob Lauder: They will know how many cases they have referred to the DPP, and therefore they should be aware of the prosecutions.
Drew Harris: There was analysis of the results from prosecution, and I think it dates back about four years; it was after the last Committee’s report. It sets out the prosecutions over a five-year period, so that takes you right back to 2002.
Chair: We will try to pursue that.
Drew Harris: That is the only thing I have seen.
Q179 Kris Hopkins: Thank you for coming today. Speaking as a citizen of the country, I am sure there are lots of other people out there frustrated. I talked to my local police about trying to get them to articulate how successful they have been at something. Public confidence in our police forces and judicial system is constantly undermined. I do appreciate that it is somebody else’s job, but if I were head of serious crime, I would have a big chart on the wall that said "Drug dealers: 25 captured, down for 10 years each, total of 427 years. Fuel smuggling: such and such". We have actually only just found out that there was no fuel crime associated with the 215. That did not come out in the early questioning. I used to stack shelves at Sainsbury’s, but I can grasp lots of different areas of life and collate those into an image and then be proud or disgusted of either my actions or whatever is going on at the moment. Do you not think there is a deficit that ought to be addressed, if I am trying to articulate to the public, "Actually, it is not my job to understand how many years they went down for; that is somebody else’s Department," when I am responsible for serious crime in a community? You are coming to speak to a Committee today. You need to be able to give the public absolute confidence that you are on top of your job and understand the different players in the game. I can tell you that if you say, "Mr X went down for 10 years," that is another criminal off the ground and you have just given confidence to the public who have been ripped off.
Drew Harris: I can go through my notorious criminals and list the sentences that they received. Some of them received very substantial sentences and unfortunately are back out again. In the last year in particular, the revolving door has been to our deficit, in terms of very serious criminals who have come back out on to the street again. I do appreciate the point you are making. Northern Ireland is a small place and, when you work at it as hard and as long as we have done, you do know all the various individuals and the crime groups. We believe that we are making definite progress in some areas. Other areas are undoubtedly growth areas in organised crime. The difference between, perhaps, 2005 and now is less paramilitary involvement and more international involvement. We can see that Ireland is an attractive place. It is seen as an affluent place to do crime business, and we are getting more and more crime imported into the island of Ireland. The whole cross-border debate has to move on a step. If we cannot actually manage information, intelligence and evidence across the border, we are just a really easy target for international crime groups. In some ways we may be viewed as that already. They have already recognised a porous land border, and that is a weakness that we in law enforcement have to eradicate. We have a huge challenge on the island of Ireland as whole, particularly around organised crime and serious harm, be it drugs or human trafficking in all its guises.
Q180 Naomi Long: I want to row back slightly to the figures that you presented for the diversity in the range of crime and the number of criminal gangs operating. Do you have any read-out as to why that is happening? Is it a break-up of larger criminal empires? You referred to paramilitary organisations; is it a break-up of that into smaller groupings that are involved more for personal gain? You mentioned the international dimension; is it linked to the recession, for example? Are people now more likely to purchase counterfeit goods and so on? What is your read-out on the dynamic, the trend, and where those additional groups have come from? Are there things that you think would help to contain that growth?
Roy McComb: You have to bear in mind that in 2002 the environment in Northern Ireland, including the paramilitary influence, was perhaps stronger and greater. You now have crime gangs that are far more fluid, and willing and able to break up and form alliances that suit their tactical needs at certain times. We do have evidence that crime gangs break up and form new alliances whenever certain skills that they need are not within their existing crime gang. They form a new alliance with people who do have those skills; they carry out the level of criminality, and then they reform with their original group. The network of crime gangs is very much a fluid enterprise. They do not always get along. Sometimes they break up for their own reasons, and not just because of law enforcement.
There is also that international dimension. There is no doubt that in the last 10 years Northern Ireland has seen a greater influx of non-indigenous criminals. We have our own level of criminality, but in the last few years crime gangs have moved into Northern Ireland, and some of them have been involved in quite high-profile investigations, human trafficking and cannabis cultivation being just two of the areas. As well as dealing with our indigenous criminals, we are very much looking at crime gangs across Europe and Asia, which is a context we did not have in 2002. That is a development that, as law enforcement, we have to try to get ahead of. There is a language and culture barrier that we might be on the back foot on.
Q181 Lady Hermon: What are the nationalities of the international gangsters who come to Northern Ireland?
Roy McComb: Chinese, Eastern European, more broadly European-Hungarian, Czech, Lithuanian, Russian-and broadly Asian. Hong Kong would still be a large part of the Chinese influence. We are seeing the internationalisation of organised crime in Northern Ireland.
Q182 Lady Hermon: Which of those nationalities would rank top?
Roy McComb: We do not rank them in terms of which crime gang is top because of ethnicity; we rank them in terms of their criminality. If they are involved in those two examples-human trafficking and drugs importation-clearly human trafficking, or as we call it, human exploitation, would rank highest, because there is a victim at every step of the way. In terms of the more recent developments, we have seen Asian crime gangs be replaced by European crime gangs involved in the trafficking of people, mostly women, into Northern Ireland for the sex trade.
Q183 Nigel Mills: I am going to take you back to the impact of the devolution of policing and justice and how it has affected your work. You were broadly positive about links with the Northern Ireland Executive. Can I bring your attention to links with UK-wide bodies, and whether that devolution has helped those relations, or whether it has made it more difficult liaising with SOCA?
Drew Harris: I will speak first of all about our relationship to GB. We would rely on SOCA an awful lot for that. That is a continuing and deep relationship that we would have with SOCA. We share intelligence and our investigatory leads and decide on the most appropriate way. The good thing for us around SOCA is that SOCA has both a national and an international reach. In the end, we are the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and we need that assistance and facilitation when we are taking forward an investigation. That works well. On the other hand, we have to keep on fighting for our place in the wider debate. We are connected mostly into the England and Wales scene. Sometimes one can be disappointed that Northern Ireland, or the Police Service of Northern Ireland, is not getting a look-in, in terms of Home Office material. For instance, we did not get a mention at all in the strategic review of policing that was recently published, and that is around the mutual aid arrangements. That was a bit disappointing, and it is being looked at to be rectified, because we are very deeply involved in mutual aid arrangements with the rest of our colleagues in the UK. Devolution particularly helped with north-south relationships. In the week of David Ford’s appointment, in a very public show of support, Dublin’s Justice Minister and the Garda Commissioner came north. The relationship has huge political support and impetus from both those Ministers. As we are a unitary service-we are not a Home Office service but are part of ACPO-we constantly have to make sure our voice is at the table.
Bob Lauder: From a UK organisation’s perspective-from SOCA’s perspective-we have from the very beginning of SOCA in 2006 built what the organisation believes to be a very strong relationship with the devolved administration in Scotland, the Scottish police forces and PSNI in Northern Ireland. We work alongside PSNI, whom we rely upon heavily. It is our intention to major on collaboration to achieve success. A reference was made earlier to why we had another 100-odd crime gangs identified. That is because there is a better understanding of how serious organised crime and crime gangs work, and better ability to identify them. As a result of the provisions for SOCA in sections 33 to 35, we have an amazing ability to exchange intelligence information with a whole range of partners. In terms of devolution and how that has affected the relationship between SOCA, the OCTF and the Department of Justice, I think it has done nothing to detract from it. I would hope that it lends support as we move forward to the National Crime Agency. Serious organised crime for me is a worldwide scourge, and it hits equally hard no matter where you are. I deal with the devolved Administration in Scotland as I do now with the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland, and I have had nothing but support from the Department of Justice. I make myself available to present before the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the Justice Committee and the OCTF at both stakeholder and strategic level. I feel it is a very important relationship.
Q184 Nigel Mills: For comparison purposes, how many organised crime gangs are there in Scotland?
Bob Lauder: 363.
Q185 Nigel Mills: That is many more. Do you find it is a sensible split to have your role cover Northern Ireland and Scotland, or would it be easier and more effective if you had someone in your organisation with sole responsibility?
Bob Lauder: It allows for a broad appreciation of how we are able to brigade together the analysis of serious organised crime in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Mr Harris made the point that there has to be greater unity, in terms of ACPOS figures, ACPO figures and strategies-how we deal with that and continue to disrupt right across the United Kingdom-because it is very important that that is held up. I do not think there is any demerit-possibly because I am Celtic-in travelling that journey, and I am able to apportion my time between both jurisdictions in a reasonable fashion.
Q186 Kris Hopkins: This is not meant to be a dig but a sensible question. When you have such good relationships in certain areas of activity across geographical areas like Northern Ireland and Scotland, do you not think there is a deficit there when you have not apparently got a sensible relationship with the Revenue in Northern Ireland, and are not able to understand their activities, though you are also based in Northern Ireland? Is it not ironic that you can have a really good relationship and understand the activities in Scotland and Northern Ireland, whereas the Revenue, which might be round the corner, and their activities, you have not quite sussed out yet?
Roy McComb: I do not agree with that. The relationship between HMRC and the PSNI is first rate.
Q187 Kris Hopkins: But you do not know what they have done.
Roy McComb: That is not my responsibility.
Q188 Kris Hopkins: That is what I am pointing out.
Roy McComb: Sorry, there is a disagreement here in terms of the figures that they can produce. I cannot produce figures for any other organisation; I can produce figures for what the PSNI has done in respect of organised crime, but the responsibility for holding certain figures on crime types that they lead on is clearly a matter for HMRC. That is not to say the relationship is poor; in fact, the relationship could not be better. We have joint operations and investigations in certain areas in respect of matters in which we have a vested interest. There are people who are involved in crimes for which they have primacy, but which are very heavily linked to particular republican crime gangs. Clearly, in terms of the financing of terrorism, we would have the primacy around that, but the principal criminal activity is the one led by HMRC. There is a joint relationship there that happens on a routine basis. Every month, HMRC sit at both my tactical meeting and Mr Harris’s tactical meeting, and they go to the various meetings that the OCTF host. There is a very positive relationship, so I am afraid I cannot agree with you on the premise there.
Q189 Lady Hermon: I wonder if I might just carry on, Mr Lauder, with a few basic questions about SOCA. Could you let the Committee know how large the SOCA team is in Northern Ireland? How many do you actually have working with you?
Bob Lauder: In Northern Ireland probably about 85 people.
Q190 Lady Hermon: Is that a reduction on your predecessor, the Assets Recovery Agency?
Bob Lauder: No, it is not.
Q191 Lady Hermon: So it is still about 85. Do you think that, in the media in Northern Ireland, you get enough coverage for the work that you do-the outcomes and the achievements that you have at SOCA? Is the policy to keep a rather low profile?
Bob Lauder: In the early days of SOCA, which would cover the period just subsequent to the amalgamation of ARA’s assets into SOCA, we had a very distinct media policy, where we were following the guidance given by the chair and the director general that we should not be seen to be standing on the steps of the High Court claiming justice or victory. That led to a lack of understanding by other organisations and the public of what SOCA did. That policy has changed, and we are now far more prepared to share the workings that we have engaged in with the media. I think that is a good thing. It is a good thing that people will be able to understand what we are about, and that we will probably be able to redress some of the lack of public confidence.
In Northern Ireland in particular, we know that ARA had a very high media profile, and it was not an area in which we thought we would best major if we pursued that, because we would prefer to be accurate in terms of how we dealt with assets that we recovered, so that we had an accurate figure and did not appear to be misleading anyone. If we seize or freeze certain assets, the residual value of those when it comes to the conclusion of any proceedings may appear to be much less than was initially broadcast. I can understand the public perception that that the media were there and are no longer there. As for the feeling that we are not doing anything, it is quite the reverse. We are, in terms of that particular discipline within SOCA, pursuing the criminal assets identified in the referrals that are made to us.
Q192 Lady Hermon: Maybe I wrongly picked up what you hinted at earlier, but do you have any concerns about the impact of the National Crime Agency, this new organisation that the Home Secretary has invented? Do you have concerns about how that might impact on your work in Northern Ireland?
Bob Lauder: I am hugely optimistic about that, because the UK Human Trafficking Centre now sits within SOCA. It is a crime that has come very much to prominence across all of the UK recently. In terms of the building blocks of the NCA, the organised crime command really demands services that SOCA presently has stewardship of to make it worthwhile and meaningful. Therefore it should continue, but it should be able to aggregate much more readily different disciplines from the cyber unit, CEOP-online child protection-and the economic crime command. I believe all these things will lend to the value that we can bring to the fight against serious organised crime in Northern Ireland. The detail-you will be more aware of this than I am-is not clear at the moment, but I think that will become much more visible in the next few months.
Q193 Lady Hermon: Yes, but you are generally optimistic?
Bob Lauder: Yes indeed.
Q194 Lady Hermon: That is very good. May I turn now to ACC Harris? How do you actually measure how effective the Organised Crime Task Force is? Mr Anderson has an affinity with targets; does the Organised Crime Task Force say "Right, in fuel smuggling and human trafficking, do we have a target?" How do you measure your effectiveness?
Drew Harris: The targets that OCTF have primarily looked at are around seizures of cash and confiscation of assets. That is an amalgamation of the work of four or five separate agencies-SOCA, HMRC, the Court Service, the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland and ourselves-so that is true collaborative work that we all do towards one end figure. The rest of the targets are then within each individual organisation’s business plans, so there was no desire to duplicate, for instance, the policing plan targets; our "frustrate, dismantle, disrupt" target is a Northern Ireland Policing Board policing plan target, which has now been with us for seven or eight years and gives an idea of activity that we have against criminal gangs. Then we would report separately on what each organisation has done, say, around seizures.
There are also the crime types. I have already pointed towards armed robbery and tiger kidnapping, but each six months we have what is known as a strategic threat assessment, written from information from all the agencies. OCTF funds an analyst for this purpose, full-time. That strategic threat assessment sets out the next six months of work, where we see the emerging threats, and where we have done poorly or well. That then gives us the focus for the next six months of operational activity. It is a very operational document, as opposed to a state-of-the-nation report as produced by OCTF. Organised crime keeps on evolving and moving in front of us. It is all about the money. I think it is correct that OCTF should focus upon the money. That has brought up several factors around each of the agencies, and has put the focus on what each of the five agencies has done or is doing in respect of seizing criminal assets. That has been very positive in itself. It has also brought a focus on things like the money service bureaux dotted along the border, and such hubs of activity as Aughnacloy and Meigh, where huge amounts of cash are moved through money service bureaux. A lot of combined work between ourselves, SOCA and the HMRC has been put into that, because that does seem to be a real route by which huge amounts of money are laundered. Certainly that is an area of development-legislative development as well.
Q195 Mr Benton: I want to go back, because the question I was going to pose earlier was referred to by my colleague, Kris Hopkins. I have to admit that I am still confused. Without wanting to appear to be attacking the velocity of the OCTF, I want to pose a question. If I, as a dutiful citizen of Belfast or anywhere in Northern Ireland, pick up on what I consider to be a suspicion of fuel laundering or whatever, I take it my initial reaction to that would be to report it to the police authorities. Can you tell me-I do apologise for the confusion in my mind, because I am genuinely confused-how it is assimilated from there on? Where does it go? I make the complaint to the police. I realise that, at that stage, there is no outcome and we do not know who is responsible, but coming back to a point mentioned by another colleague, I am reporting to the police fundamentally because I think it is a crime. How, in effective co-operation, does the operation work from there?
Drew Harris: We have a regional intelligence unit on which each of the agencies is represented. That is a hub where all that sort of information would come in. It would depend on how that was received; for instance, if it was received in a confidential manner, we would deal with it appropriately as a piece of confidential information or intelligence and share it with the appropriate agency, which would be HMRC. In and around that, we would also provide what commentary we could in respect of that. If individuals were named, we might provide an antecedent history, an up-to-date intelligence picture, and what we think they have been up to. Similarly, we can also ask HMRC, or indeed SOCA, what their views of these people are. We each have different accesses to information. SOCA and HMRC have access to a wider group set of information than we do, so the purpose of aggregating this information is to give us far greater insight into criminal gangs and their methodology. That simple report can add to an overall picture of criminality. It could be something like a huckster diesel spot that is being used-a temporary facility in a yard somewhere. It is the specific responsibility of HMRC, but we would wish to add to that and ensure that enforcement action was rapid, and we would support HMRC in doing that. We are very much active in supporting HMRC, in terms of providing uniformed police officers and intelligence to support their operations.
Q196 Kris Hopkins: In previous evidence, before my time-I have only been on the Committee a couple of weeks-we have been told that laundering plants have been found in Great Britain. Can you tell me when you first found out about that, and if you have an assessment of how big the problem is across Great Britain in general?
Bob Lauder: I think that a number of years ago, there was discovery of a number of fuel laundering plants in the north-east of England. Some of the residual waste from that was discovered in Scotland. I am not sure of the detail, because I am not part of the Revenue, but I think it caused them to reconsider greatly what the activity was, and to examine that. The present profile-unless my colleagues from PSNI know differently-is very obscure. It certainly is a focus in Northern Ireland, but as for how much goes on in the rest of Great Britain, I am afraid that, from my perspective, I am not somebody who has that detail.
Roy McComb: There was one incident we are aware of in the Lanarkshire area of Scotland in November 2010, in which a laundering plant that was identical to the type that we would find in Northern Ireland was uncovered, and the assessment that we became aware of was that this is likely to be evidence of the skill type being crossed over. As to whether it was an indigenous Scottish crime gang or a Northern Irish crime gang operating in Scotland, I do not have that information, but certainly the ability to launder the fuel had been passed over to Scotland, proving that connectivity between countries.
Drew Harris: There is also a very real threat around curtain-sided lorries with the terrible plastic tanks in them carrying fuel on to civilian and public transport ferries to cross the north channel. We have put in place specific tactics to deal with that. If we could cover that in the private session, it might give you some reassurance about what we are doing specifically to make sure that does not happen, because there is a huge risk to a ferry if one of these lorries caught fire. That does happen; these lorries do catch fire transporting fuel around Northern Ireland. It has always been a major concern of ours that a curtain-sided lorry with plastic fuel tanks would ignite onboard a ferry.
Q197 Kris Hopkins: In very simplistic terms, if there was a link to an activity that was about Northern Irish terrorism of some form, I am sure somebody would pick up the phone and have a chat with people like you because of the geography and the history. On this issue of fuel laundering, bearing in mind all the work that has been undertaken previously, would West Yorkshire Police or Lincolnshire Police pick the phone up and have a conversation with you because of the previous lead you have had on this? Is there a clear knowledge across police forces that you are the people to talk to on this?
Roy McComb: If I were sitting in some of the locations you talked about and came across something that was a fuel laundering plant, I doubt that I would intuitively want to pick up the phone and speak to us. Their first point of call would probably be to HMRC and, because of the structures that HMRC has in terms of the geographical coverage, I would be reasonably confident that, if there was a Northern Irish connection, that call would come back to us. If it is crime gangs purely doing this type of crime, then HMRC are going to lead on that. If it is a crime gang using this type of crime to facilitate some other criminality, principally around terrorism, then very clearly we would be involved in that. Those conversations do happen because of the structures and the engagement we have in Northern Ireland.
Q198 David Simpson: I will come in on a subject that has been raised six times, I think, today. That shows one of two things: either there is a big interest in it, or I was too quick off the mark in mentioning it before anybody else did. I refer to human trafficking. I want to widen this out a little bit. I sit on the all-party parliamentary group here, and I work with organisations in Northern Ireland in relation to human trafficking. We are having an event in February at which Peter Bone, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group, will be addressing four or five different organisations within the Province, and the PSNI will be involved as well. You may have answered one or two of the points; you mentioned to Sylvia different nationalities, in relation to who would be more prominent within the crime organisations, but as far as human trafficking is concerned, what nationality would be most prominent within that? Again, I think you touched on the issue that maybe the linkages there were more international. There is a concern from SOCA’s point of view, if they are taking the senior role in relation to human trafficking, once trafficking is identified and there is a raid on a certain house or whatever.
I think we have to point out that this whole issue of human trafficking is gathering momentum. They tell us that across the globe it is as big, if not bigger, than the drugs trade. It is a major issue. I had a debate on child slavery recently in Westminster Hall. When we read press reports of children as young as 10 years of age being sold on the streets of the United Kingdom for as high as £16,000 a time, there is something wrong with society. We need to see some kind of clampdown on this. This has grown in Northern Ireland. 12 months ago when I spoke to the PSNI it was not really an issue; it was maybe tweeting at the edges. It seems to be an issue now. Whilst there is a lot in that, I am trying to get a handle on the routes that they are using coming in. You may not be able to give us that in an open session, but maybe in the private session you can.
Roy McComb: There is no doubt that the public understanding of what human trafficking or human exploitation looks like is greater, and that is principally because of the work that the PSNI has done to raise the profile. We welcome anybody’s involvement in the conversation on eradicating this. Principally, what we are seeing at the moment is people being brought into Northern Ireland for the purposes of the sex trade. We are trying to change the mindset of people; I suspect there will always be that sex trade-that desire for prostitution-but the vast majority of people that we are seeing being brought in against their will are being trafficked to feed an appetite for the sex trade in Northern Ireland. That is not just in Belfast; it is across all six counties in Northern Ireland. I have to say, as a citizen of Northern Ireland, that I am appalled at it. This is slavery. There is no other way of putting it.
David Simpson: Absolutely.
Roy McComb: We are trying to get people who are going to buy sexual services from somebody in a brothel to look at this, and think, "This is highly unlikely to be somebody who is there because when they grew up, their career path mapped them out to be a prostitute." Whether they are there of their own volition, in the broader sense, because of social circumstances, or, more likely than not, because they have been trafficked, we need to get people to be realistic in Northern Ireland that they are going in, and they are part of the problem. In essence, what we are trying to do in changing the mindset is, instead of the police service or law enforcement attacking the supply side of the market, to address the demand side. That is about education and people getting to grips with the fact that, when they go into a brothel, they are effectively involved in criminal activities. Most of the time, if they go into a brothel or house where a girl has been trafficked, in effect they can be as guilty of rape as if it were somebody being grabbed off the street. We need to get people to be real that that is what they are involved in; they are not going into premises to be involved in any consensual activity. We have raised the profile of what trafficking looks like. There is more work to be done, because it is not just about the sex trade; it is about the labour exploitation market as well. It is about people involved in industries that we are all familiar with in Northern Ireland. Whether it is fishing, agriculture, working in restaurants, the service industries, or whatever, there are people being brought in to service those needs, and I think we need a greater sense of what that looks like.
In terms of routes, we do have an almost non-existent identifiable border crossing from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland. It is very difficult. If you join the Westlink at York Street, the first time you hit traffic lights is Drumcondra Road in Dublin. If you can identify where the border is there, then fair play to you. Crime gangs are coming from the Czech Republic, from Hungary, and from China. The border does not exist. If they can get people into Northern Ireland through Irish ports, Northern Irish ports, or other British ports they will do so. Northern Ireland is both a destination and a transit route for people who are victims of trafficking.
Q199 David Simpson: Someone said that SOCA was maybe taking the lead in relation to the trafficking side. A question to all three: if the PSNI, SOCA or anyone raids premises and finds 15 or 20 ladies or even young men, what happens to those people?
Roy McComb: The PSNI leads on the investigation of human trafficking in Northern Ireland. SOCA identify people who may be the victims of trafficking. We put them through a screening process. The screening process requires almost a competent authority to make a decision as to whether they are in fact the victims of crime or not, and the competent authority is SOCA in respect of UK citizens and people who are victims from EU countries. Outside of those UK/EU areas, it is the UK Border Agency. Bob is the SOCA lead. SOCA will give a designation as to how long somebody would stay in the country for what we call a period of reflection. A victim of trafficking is allowed to stay in the United Kingdom for 45 days, in which time they will reflect on the circumstances, principally to get them through the initial trauma of being trafficked, but also to allow them to assess whether they want to be involved in a criminal justice investigation. Within Northern Ireland, the PSNI will lead on that, but this is very much a collaborative arrangement with SOCA, the UK Human Trafficking Centre and other agencies in Northern Ireland, including those who help the welfare of the victims.
Q200 Naomi Long: I want very briefly to look at two issues in relation to trafficking. One is an experience that was brought to my attention around what happens to people when they are returned home after they have been trafficked. Some people will be familiar with the situation that emerged in Belfast a few years ago, when some very vulnerable people were actually under threat. When there was further police investigation, there was some evidence that trafficking may have been involved. Some of those people were returned to their home country by choice, but a number of them reappeared in Belfast again, having been re-trafficked. Is there some kind of further investigation that happens at that point? Some were able to return through legal means, because they had work visas and were able to come back for that reason; that was fine. But others clearly had been returned through the same route by which they had originally been brought to the city. They were incredibly vulnerable individuals, both in their home country and in Northern Ireland. Is there any protection or co-ordination internationally with Governments when people are repatriated to ensure that that re-trafficking situation does not emerge again with very vulnerable groups?
Bob Lauder: There is a fairly significant interaction with the authorities in Eastern European and wider European countries. Unfortunately, some of these people come from a very deprived background, and when they go back into that, they become vulnerable to these same gangs. Vulnerable people do end up re-trafficked. While Great Britain abolished slavery in 1807-we celebrated the 200th anniversary-I do not think anybody now could realistically expect that that is a reality, because this is slavery. We do have campaigns in conjunction with foreign countries to increase awareness in those countries of the vulnerabilities of human trafficking. Those are media campaigns and leafleting campaigns. We have already had two major campaigns in the UK, Pentameter 1 and 2, to raise awareness. While trafficking does come from Europe, Eastern Europe and the wider international community, those same offences take place domestically, because people are trafficked between Belfast and Manchester, London, Aberdeen and Glasgow for the same sexual deviants, and not only for the sex trade but for domestic servitude and a whole range of areas. There is an awakening that we need to be more collaborative in fighting this, because it is the awareness that will bring further intelligence allowing us hopefully to be more effective. It is a very unfortunate circumstance of which we are aware. We do engage with foreign Governments to raise awareness in other countries.
Roy McComb: The reach of organised crime gangs bringing victims into Northern Ireland is global. We do have some involvement, although limited at this point, from South America as well as Asia and the main parts of Europe, Eastern Europe especially. This is not a Northern Irish problem; it happens in Northern Ireland but it is a global problem, and it requires those global partnerships. The reach of the PSNI is only limited. I do want to emphasise that we, as a decent society, should get angry about this. If you could hear the stories that we hear from the victims of these traffickers-these are horror stories. We have a tendency to gloss over this, simply calling it "trafficking", as if it is a box to put people in. The stories that you would hear, and the hurt they have gone through, would make you weep.
Q201 Naomi Long: I am aware, from those experiences that I have dealt with on a number of occasions, of the trauma that it causes people, and I am also aware of the various manipulations that people use to entrap people into allowing themselves to be trafficked. In some cases, they remove all their documentation, so that they have no alternatives. They are afraid of criminal investigation into themselves, so they do not feel they can speak out. It is an abuse.
You mentioned the permeability of the border, and obviously there is a free travel area and so on within the island of Ireland, but I wanted to flag one thing up. A number of constituents have raised with me recently the fact that when they have travelled by bus to the Republic of Ireland, the bus has been pulled in at the Irish Republic side of the border by the Garda, and people’s travel documents and so on have been inspected to make sure that everybody is who they say they are, and that they have the correct documentation. That does not happen on the reverse journey back to Northern Ireland. Now, I am not suggesting that everybody is being trafficked by Ulsterbus, just in case people are getting the wrong idea, but are there checks that can be made without jeopardising the valuable cross-border movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic? Are there checks that can be made that would make the border more secure, protecting people from trafficking and tackling issues around smuggling?
Drew Harris: Our partner, the UK Border Agency, does operations on the trains and the buses coming north. The Guards also have responsibility for immigration. It is a Garda operation, but that is under their complete envelope of responsibilities. The UK Border Agency would take the lead for us. We assist them in terms of checkpoints and stops, and that does happen. I know the frequency would be different. Certainly I have heard the anecdote about people going south being stopped, but "You are never stopped coming north"; however, UKBA have significantly increased their resources in Northern Ireland. There is not that much international flight traffic into Northern Ireland, so they do expend a lot of their effort on either the ports or the major arterial routes.
Naomi Long: That is actually very useful, because it helps me to respond to those constituents who have been concerned about it. It has also maybe put in perspective the kind of different approaches being taken. That is very helpful. Thank you.
Q202 Lady Hermon: I have a very quick point. I suppose we ought to know, but what is the maximum penalty at the present time in Northern Ireland for human trafficking? Is there an effort being made to increase it?
Drew Harris: 15 years’ imprisonment is the maximum penalty. It is viewed as a very serious offence. In Northern Ireland, we are yet to have a prosecution right through to fruition. We have a number of investigations and files with the Public Prosecution Service. We have been involved in two prosecutions, one in Wales and one in Scotland. I have to say that we were not particularly content with the penalties that were imposed there. A lot of the financial penalties, in terms of stripping away criminal assets, were good, but I do not think that the custodial sentences, which were in the line of two years, really reflected the depth of the criminality that had been involved in what you would recognise as the complete exploitation of people in the sex trade.
Q203 Lady Hermon: So have we had any successful prosecutions in Northern Ireland?
Drew Harris: No, we have not as yet. They are in the process of going through the PPS onwards towards prosecution. As Mr Simpson commented, three or four years ago we did not have this as an issue. It has now started to appear. Over the last two years we have recovered 71 individuals whom we suspect have been trafficked. We had a very significant crime gang broken up in September for trafficking from Eastern Europe, but we expect it could be 18 months from now-it could be next year-before we would actually have them through the door of the court.
Q204 Jack Lopresti: Welcome. Thank you for coming. Going back to fuel smuggling, given the sheer scale of it, it is quite clear that the general public are willing, consciously or unconsciously, to buy illicit fuel. Do you think there is a real perception of the seriousness of the crime, as far as funding organised crime and paramilitary groups, and depriving the Estate of income and Revenue tax, is concerned?
Drew Harris: Actually, I think most customers are being deceived, and are in effect paying the full mark-up for laundered fuel. There are risks with using laundered fuel, in terms of damage to your engines. Obviously, if you use a huckster site you are not paying the full price for the fuel, and you know that you are engaging in using illegal fuel. By and large, with fuel, I think people are concerned that they are buying an inferior product. That would be the anecdote. But they are being deceived in terms of what they are getting.
Q205 Jack Lopresti: So you are saying that the majority of people are doing it by default-by deception-rather than making the decision to buy illicit fuel?
Drew Harris: Yes.
Q206 Jack Lopresti: Do you have any idea of the breakdown between deception and people who are willingly buying it? There must be a reasonable proportion of people who are buying it willingly. Do they tend to be businesses or individuals?
Roy McComb: A lot of the illegal fuel being laundered in Northern Ireland is being brought into those huckster sites, so when you are buying, it is pretty obvious from the location at times, even if the price is close to top whack.
Q207 Jack Lopresti: So that would suggest that there is complicity, rather than ignorance.
Roy McComb: Each of us likes to have a bargain, and if you are paying for quite an expensive commodity such as fuel and getting that a couple of pence per litre cheaper, it is incredibly tempting to buy that. What I would like to see, if I had responsibility for this, is a change in the way we approach some of the public appeals. I just do not think the idea of saying "The Revenue has lost x millions" works. I do not think the people who are willing to take money out of somebody else’s pockets care about the Revenue, and I think there are some people in Northern Ireland who would have a particular bent really to not care about the Treasury.
Q208 Jack Lopresti: There is almost something old-school romantic about smuggling.
Roy McComb: There is a sort of Irish principle of smuggling anything that you can. A good approach might be to say, "When the Treasury loses money, do not be a bit concerned when your local GP’s practice closes. Do not be worried when the road that you are driving on is not fixed next time, or when there is no salt when winter comes; the money that the local Executive should have is no longer there because you are buying fuel." That connection between what people are doing and the impact on the local community has yet to be made.
Q209 Jack Lopresti: I would say that it is more powerful to say where the revenue is going-to funding these pretty despicable individuals. The Government’s money is one thing, but if it is funding some pretty disgusting acts and terrorism and all the rest of it, I think that would be more powerful.
Roy McComb: That is true, but I still think there is complacency in some areas where people are willing to buy some commodity. Bearing in mind that the "commodities" we are talking about here are fuel on the one hand and trafficked women on the other, there is still that laxity about the rights and wrongs in buying a commodity, and that is where we are keen to change the mindset in the Northern Irish community, so that you realise that you are now part of the problem, whether it is fuel, a DVD or a girl you are buying.
Q210 Jack Lopresti: Or tobacco.
Roy McComb: Or tobacco. You are part of the problem. We need to get people to the other side of that equation.
Q211 Jack Lopresti: You need to get it in their mind that they are accomplices to the end result, rather than getting a good bargain.
Roy McComb: Indeed.
Q212 Jack Lopresti: So what are you doing to close down these illicit fuel stations, and how much success are you having?
Roy McComb: Again, probably we would try to make it clear that while we have a buy-in because of the involvement with other crimes, the lead agency would be HMRC. There are some areas of Northern Ireland where HMRC will close down the site, and in effect they can do it without there being any PSNI involvement. I would be simply guessing the number or figures that there might be. There are other areas of Northern Ireland where the PSNI would provide a physical presence to support the closure of those sites.
Drew Harris: We would support HMRC in areas such as South Armagh. Indeed, last year we had an officer critically injured when he was run over by a fuel lorry trying to escape the site; he was only saved from being completely crushed by his body armour. Whenever you tackle these sites, HMRC do require our support, because there is a degree of risk and violence involved. They will resort to very serious violence if needs be.
Q213 Ian Paisley: I agree with you, Roy, that there is this element of complacency-"So what?"-and it is perceived to be a victimless crime. Is there not an element of complacency as well in thinking that if we change the advert and pull on people’s heartstrings, we will reduce the crime? Would we and the police not be far better really pushing HMRC to deploy some of the new technologies, even on a trial basis? Should we not push them and say, "Try this"? If there is an effective marker out there-and if we can get our hands on it-that not only marks the fuel, but identifies and has sufficient evidence attached to it to allow you to take a person to court and jail them, that would be a far better effort made. I sympathise with HMRC on the fact that people are in the field and they are under pressure, but I get this nag that at the end of the day these people are ultimately being complacent, because they are using old methods when there is something more effective out there that they should be pushed to use.
Roy McComb: I suppose the very real, practical and tactical benefit of the Organised Crime Task Force is that we do have that ability to pick up the phone and say, "Look, I think there are things we can do to help you". I had a conversation just this morning with a senior member of HMRC about some of the matters that we have a mutual interest in, and there are certain crime tactics that we can bring to the table, but actually, because of the relationships that we have and through the auspices of the Organised Crime Task Force, they can access those. Surveillance is one of them. I can talk in very general terms. The use of surveillance within Northern Ireland is a very expensive but very, very fruitful tactic. They do call upon the PSNI to provide surveillance in certain areas where their own capability is diminished or non-existent, so they do have access to tools that we have access to, where the case merits it.
Drew Harris: We have invested in new technologies, and maybe I will cover some of them in the private session. Those technologies are available to them, and they are of very specific and tactical use to them around this problem. I can go into some of the detail.
Q214 Ian Paisley: That is about identifying and snooping on certain individuals.
Drew Harris: Yes.
Q215 Ian Paisley: What I am talking about, because I do not want to take you down an avenue that would be wrong, is a marker in fuel that cannot be adulterated or removed. That apparently exists; it has apparently been tested in Brazil and is available. HMRC have been pushed since 2009, I think we heard in evidence, to use it and there appears to be, for want of a better word, thumb-twiddling when it comes to deploying that new technology.
Drew Harris: The only comment I will make about that is that we do have discussions around markers, making markers more "sticky"-that is the expression that they have used to me-and the addition of a further compound to make them more difficult again.
Q216 Ian Paisley: That is what they call Orange II.
Drew Harris: That might be it.
Q217 Ian Paisley: It is completely useless; that is what we have been told in evidence.
Drew Harris: Right. The other thing to point out about this is that whereas this started very crudely with fuller’s earth, it has moved on, and proper chemical engineers have got involved in these processes to try to defeat the dyeing and marking process, because there is so much money in it. I think we will constantly be in a technological race, but we are all in a technological race around crime, and we recognise that.
Q218 Naomi Long: On that specific point, you have said that, because it is worth so much money to the criminal gangs, they are willing to invest in the chemical engineers to make sure that they can continue to launder the fuel. It must therefore also be worth the same amount to HMRC, in terms of being able to get the revenue in, and therefore there should be at least comparable investment in new technology, because otherwise it does not make sense. There have to be engineering and chemical-based solutions to some of these problems and investment in that technology. It will always be a race of technology, but you want to feel that the state is ahead, with all its resources, rather than the organised crime gangs. I suppose that is the concern the Committee would have, having listened to some of the evidence: we are still adding dye to fuel as a method of tagging it when everybody knows how to remove it. Why are we still doing that, and not finding other ways that we can fingerprint not just the fuel itself, but batches of fuel, and identify different sources of fuel so that the routes can be traced? All of that is scientifically possible; it is about whether or not people are wiling to invest the resources in it. It is possibly not a question for you, but it may be something that you can raise to press the issue, because it would certainly help your evidence chain and identify how further to break up and frustrate some of the gangs.
Roy McComb: There is certainly a parallel in the world of new drugs that are coming on to the market-legal highs, as they are euphemistically called. Historically, something could be a legal high for 12 or 18 months before it was deemed to be a controlled drug. The Government have taken a different view, which is to put in temporary banning orders on new drugs to allow them to be legally classified. That is a change of approach that may be, in the world of fuel smuggling, a way of looking at that, in terms of legislation.
Q219 Naomi Long: I have a couple of other questions leading on again from evidence that HMRC have given us. They had mentioned that there are very good relationships in terms of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and the general work that is done in this area, but one thing they did highlight was that there can be delays in prosecuting offenders. I know there have been some issues raised as to how many offenders are prosecuted, but they did raise that there were delays in that when it required evidence to be passed from the Republic and so on, in terms of having to go through a mandatory process to request that. What other impediments are you aware of that would get in the way of really effective cross-border co-operation? Are there other things that you feel stand in your way in terms of being able to deliver?
Drew Harris: The international letter of request process is in effect a prosecutor and inter-judicial process. Only two weeks ago the PPS and the Director of Public Prosecutions in Dublin signed a memorandum of understanding to short-circuit that process. Similarly, we have shared memoranda of understanding with An Garda Síochána around that. We have been operating this in practice for the last 18 months to two years. It came out of the joint investigation we ran into the Quinn murder in South Armagh/North Louth five years ago. As a result of that, all those problems were made manifest in that murder investigation. We have moved on that, and it has just been finalised. We have managed that relationship, and we and AGS have taken it forward. It would be for HMRC to take that issue forward with the Revenue Commissioners, because it can fit under a treaty agreement that is signed by both Governments to improve cross-border law enforcement activity. There is a legislative vehicle to tag it to. The hard work has really been done, in terms of the prosecution authorities. Their agreement is in place, and it is easy for the law enforcement agencies to come in behind that. That really should short-circuit those processes. Our concern is this: if there is a serious sexual assault in Dundalk, but the perpetrator and his car turn up in Newry, how do you fast-track that? Under an international letter of request process that could take seven or eight months. We want to get that down to days, as opposed to weeks and months.
Roy McComb: In very practical terms, there is a police-to-police relationship, so in a cross-border matter those conversations happen as quickly as they can be managed. A phone call to an opposite number in the Garda or to us makes things happen, but in terms of having things on a legal footing to be able to present to court, it does require that longer chain to take place.
Q220 Naomi Long: Operations in the border areas are still obviously one of the areas of focus when it comes to fuel laundering; do you and your counterparts in the Garda have the resources necessary to pursue effectively all the operations that you would wish to in those locations?
Drew Harris: Yes, I would say that we are well resourced, and we have received additional specific resources to help us there. On top of that, we have also received additional security funding. The Commissioner of the Guards has made clear his commitment to policing the border, in terms of managing not just the terrorist threat but the threat from organised crime. The border can create a real hurdle for us in terms of law enforcement activity, and both organisations are very anxious to make sure that does not happen. We are very aware of the fear of crime that there is if people wonder, in effect, whether we can raid across the border, in either direction. Both organisations are very anxious about that.
Q221 Naomi Long: I have one final question. Obviously there were proposals announced recently around reducing the number of police stations across Northern Ireland. Would you see that having any impact on the work that you do tackling organised crime?
Drew Harris: We would hope that it would not. We want to put things in place to ensure that we have the resources out on the ground. The closure of police stations is linked to the £135 million-worth of cuts we have to make, but over the last two years we have also brought an additional 700 officers out of back-room bureaucratic functions and on to the ground. The Chief Constable is very committed to driving that forward. In terms of organised crime, we do depend a lot on information from the public and district officers, so we are very committed to the "Policing with the Community" strategy that we have, and to making sure that we have as positive a relationship with all the communities in Northern Ireland as we can manage.
Q222 Naomi Long: One of the concerns is that in more rural areas people may become more car-based, rather than there being the foot patrols that maintain that link with people in the community, and they will therefore not be able to pick up the casual intelligence that police officers can do when they are on foot. Is that something that the police are looking at, in collaboration with the consideration that they are giving to the reduction in the number of stations, to ensure that foot patrols and so on continue, and that those relationships and conversations are therefore still able to happen?
Drew Harris: To put it very simply, it is more effective for us to close a station and to have an officer out on the ground than to keep a station at the cost of an officer, or two or three officers, and keep somebody in that station.
Q223 Naomi Long: I understand, but the issue is if the officer is out on the ground talking to people, that is building relationships, gathering intelligence. If he is behind the wheel of a vehicle simply driving around, there is a disconnect that does not necessarily feel the full benefit of the planned changes. I suppose it is that specific issue: ensuring the people who would normally report to their local station and then go out on the beat, or whatever it might be, are still on foot in those communities, building those relationships and being able to gather that sort of intelligence about what is going on in the community and know what is happening.
Drew Harris: That is down to the policing style that we would wish to adopt in our neighbourhood policing teams, which are specifically the group who have had the increase in numbers so that we can manage those day-to-day interactions, and be visible out on the ground to the public.
Q224 Ian Paisley: The paedophile and sex offender, Mr Adams, appeared to use the extradition process to his advantage and string it out for as long as possible. Did you receive all the co-operation there that you would have expected, or was that paedophile assisted by lackadaisicalness on the other side of the border?
Drew Harris: No, extradition is a judicial process and goes through a judicial route in whichever country it involves. It involves the Public Prosecution Service for ourselves and, in that case, obviously the DPP in Dublin. That one ran its course in a time scale that one would have anticipated, particularly where the individual was so bitterly fighting their extradition. It is a legal judicial process.
Q225 Ian Paisley: A minefield for lawyers, I suppose, and for you.
Drew Harris: On an extradition, we have to be ready for the prosecution. In presenting a file to the PPS we must be certain of our case and that the case is court-ready, in effect. It is not as straightforward as: "We want to extradite that person". We need to present a case that matches the prosecution test.
Q226 Ian Paisley: Regarding the issue of sentencing, could you give voice to any frustration you might have with regard to how sentencing for some of the serious and organised crime we have spoken about today, in all its forms, is carried out in Northern Ireland vis-à-vis sentencing in the rest of the UK? Do you see it as similar? Are there major flaws, and how can we improve on those?
Drew Harris: There was work done that showed that custodial sentences were by and large the norm in England and Wales, as opposed to suspended sentences being by and large the norm in Northern Ireland. That was about four years ago.
Q227 Ian Paisley: That means you are more likely to get a suspended sentence for serious and organised crime in Northern Ireland.
Drew Harris: For fuel laundering, yes. Our frustration there is that we do not think that reflects the amount of harm that is done and the amount of money that is made, and what then happens to that money. It undermines lawful business activity and robs people of amenities through lost taxation. It creates fertile ground for other criminality to flourish.
Q228 Ian Paisley: You will know that a really nasty Spanish criminal tried to murder one of your officers in Northern Ireland about a year or so ago by dropping a breeze-block on her head. The perception was that the sentence that nasty and horrible individual got was not really sufficient. Yet we have seen rioting situations here on the mainland where individuals who probably never threw a stone but tapped some letters and words into a keyboard ended up getting a sentence of similar length to that particular individual. As a citizen of this country, that disgusts me. Does it anger you that there appears to be double-sentencing, or a lack of joined-up sentencing, across the whole of the UK on these issues?
Drew Harris: You can see some very stark differences, particularly around public order, but that goes back to the different legislation there is in England and Wales in comparison with Northern Ireland on public order and the disposals that are available to the courts. This issue was raised in 2002 and 2003 in terms of rioting in Belfast compared to the Bradford riots of 2002. In Northern Ireland the maximum sentences were doubled, but they still remain far removed from the maximum sentences available here.
Q229 Ian Paisley: Is there anything you would suggest to us that we in turn could suggest? We will try and change that, in terms of sentencing.
Drew Harris: One area of frustration I would flag up is around human trafficking. It is just the one area in terms of organised crime. Roy talked about rape, and then there is also an absolute offence of buying sexual services from an individual who is being exploited. That is a summary offence, with a maximum fine of £1,000, and there is nothing in between.
Q230 Naomi Long: Is that not technically rape?
Roy McComb: If you have a victim of trafficking, they are not there because they want to be there. It would follow, in my logic-maybe I am alone in this-that if they are involved in something that they do not want to be involved in, then they have not given their consent; and sex without consent is rape.
Q231 Ian Paisley: What would they get here?
Drew Harris: It is the same legislation. We mirror each other, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I do think there is a gap between such a serious offence as rape, and therefore the criminal standards of proof and the prosecution test you have to meet, and an absolute offence. We will pursue men for those prosecutions; that is part of the operation around individuals who have been subject to human exploitation in the sex trade. We will report them to the Public Prosecution Service, but there is a bit of frustration at the level of the offences.
Q232 Ian Paisley: Would you be able to provide us with a paper setting out areas where you would like to see sentencing addressed, and where you think there is an anomaly, even if it is just headlines, so that we in turn could consider whether there is an area on which we could go back to the judiciary? The Lord Chief Justice has a consultation ongoing about sentencing and guidance on sentencing.
Chair: If that was with particular reference to the inquiry we are carrying out, it would be useful.
Roy McComb: Might we broaden that? Without being overtly critical, I think what frustrates us even more is the process before somebody gets sentenced. The frustration we have is that we have not been able to get people sentenced for human trafficking, and that is not because we have not tried. We have a case that is over three years old and, in that time period, one of our investigations has been completed. It has been an investigation within Northern Ireland and into Scotland. It has been transferred to Scotland for very proper legal reasons and it has been through the courts, flash to bang, in 12 months. We have one very similar case that is over three years and will not see a court this side of 2011. The process is as frustrating as the sentencing. We cannot give you any figures in respect of sentencing for human trafficking because it has not happened, but we can talk to you about the frustration of getting people broadly into the justice system.
Q233 Ian Paisley: If there are headline acts or issues, please send them to us. We could probably be here all day talking about this one, but if you could give us headlines, it may be something that we as a Committee-again if it relevant, Chairman, as a basis to this report-could actually put in the report, and perhaps we could help address what is a really frustrating set of circumstances. Finally, you will have noted yesterday in the Republic of Ireland’s budget that they have put up VAT and the price of fuel. I know from what you have said that HMRC takes primacy on this stuff, but could I urge you to tell HMRC to steel themselves for a fuel smugglers’ bonanza when that kicks in, if they are not already alerted to the fact?
Drew Harris: We did specifically cover that two weeks ago at the cross-border conference, because the budget was heavily trailed, so we had an expectation of this coming down the line. It applies also to cigarettes and alcohol, where there is also a lot of money to be made and there is real risk of personal harm through the products people are using.
Q234 Kris Hopkins: As somebody who attended-on behalf of the Government, by the way, not as a rioter-a few riots in Belfast in the late ’80s-
Jack Lopresti: Attended; that is an interesting turn of phrase.
Roy McComb: Do I need to caution you at this point?
Q235 Kris Hopkins: For the record perhaps I should explain a little bit; I did say "on behalf of the Government". As a former leader of Bradford Council, strangely enough, I witnessed the violence that the rioters smashing up our city caused: there was £25 million of damage and over 300 police officers seriously injured. Rightly, the justice system applied very stern sentences, which individuals tried to appeal. Those were rejected, and they went to prison. I did follow what happened and made the comparison between colleagues I knew who were there and injured in the late ’80s and some of the pathetic sentences that went with, and still does go with, that activity. There is a double standard that needs to be addressed. I have two questions: what effect do you think it has on public confidence when you have such pathetic sentencing, and what effect does it have on police morale when, for all their actions trying to protect public order and property, such sentencing is passed down?
Drew Harris: In the first place, it is very hard on police morale and it does sap our morale that year in and year out we find ourselves in pretty much the same places, with some little variation, in serious public disorder, but because of our ability to cope with that, protect ourselves and act in full accordance with the law and ECHR, whilst minimising risk to our officers and to those participating, it is somehow seen as okay and manageable. There is almost a societal acceptance that we will have this type of serious disorder-because it is very serious. It is only because we are so professional and well equipped in dealing with it that we do not have people either killed or very seriously injured. We constantly have officers who are injured and, in effect, whose police careers are finished. That is a regular feature of every summer for us, and it does sap people. We do not get a lot of community support, in terms of what has happened to our officers. Nor do we get a lot of support through the criminal justice system, it has to be said. We do find that very discouraging, but at the same time, officers will always step forward and do their best.
Q236 Dr McDonnell: Regarding you giving us a note on various things, we do have contact from time to time with the Garda Commissioner; is there anything about north-south co-operation that is flawed or could be better in a strategic sense? I am not talking of a detailed sense.
Drew Harris: The comment I would make there, Sir, is that we had a very good and productive one-to-one relationship down through the years, and it has just moved on another notch with the appointment of Mr Ford. Dublin-Belfast political co-operation now has further driven that relationship, and so there is no particular area I would point to. We have a cross-border policing strategy that we will report on in April of next year to both Ministers.
Q237 Dr McDonnell: Thank you. We have talked about a lot today, and I do not want to delay proceedings unduly. The criminal proceedings are the most desirable outcome, but you have other sanctions available to you, such as confiscation of assets and of property. That can be effective. Have you tried that much-either SOCA or the police? What options do you have there? For instance, if you find a diesel laundering plant in a farmyard, are you at liberty to confiscate the farm or the farmyard?
Roy McComb: The short answer is that the Organised Crime Branch takes a very universal approach. Every investigation we have has embedded within it a financial investigation. Every time we tackle an organised crime gang we are looking at their money, because organised crime is about making money. We therefore are able to draw upon all of the tactics and the powers available to us through legislation, principally the Proceeds of Crime Act. We actively pursue both restraint and confiscation in respect of any crime gangs that we are able to bring to justice. Where we have insufficient evidence, we do have the option to go for a civil recovery of proceedings. That is led by SOCA, but through our relationship we are able seamlessly to transfer our information to SOCA in Belfast, and then they pick up the civil recovery.
A couple of years ago, I think the Audit Office reflected the fact that the PSNI had provided the majority of investigations to the Assets Recovery Agency-it was far in excess of what any other law enforcement throughout the United Kingdom had been able to do-and that had led to the highest number of recoveries throughout the United Kingdom. We are very much alive to the fact that the tools available to us through the Proceeds of Crime Act, especially, are being used regularly. This year alone, I think 25 civil recovery referrals have been made to the local SOCA office. We pursue criminally: that is always our default position. When we are not able to succeed criminally we pursue civilly, and that relationship, with SOCA being embedded in Northern Ireland, I think works very well.
Q238 Dr McDonnell: Can you understand in the public’s mind the comparison between some poor farmer having half a tank of red diesel in a vehicle that is seized by HMRC, and some so-and-so who has a major industry going somewhere, and who seems not to be getting the same intensity of punishment? That is really the point I am getting at. If you were to seize more assets from time to time-maybe it is more HMRC that I am talking about than yourselves-it might win some public support.
Bob Lauder: We do pursue to the nth degree those recoveries that we can achieve. As I discussed earlier with Lady Hermon, perhaps the media coverage of what we are doing has not been as strong, and that is maybe an area that SOCA should look at. About a third of all cases dealt with by SOCA for civil recovery sit within that office in Northern Ireland, and that is because we do not have high limits; we are flexible. If there is a legal opportunity to pursue recovery of assets, then we will do that, and we will take very seriously all those referrals that come through the door. As with everything else, we have to assess the viability of that, but where it is at all possible, SOCA will pursue through civil recovery or tax assessment any assets held by those people who are engaged in criminal activity.
Q239 Dr McDonnell: Thank you. How do you feel SOCA is doing compared to its predecessor, the Assets Recovery Agency? We talked many months ago about the local affection there was for the Assets Recovery Agency; do you feel you have upped the ante on the criminal?
Bob Lauder: I think we are doing as well, if not better. We have taken steps to rationalise the process. We no longer engage in the practice of appointing interim receivers. We have brought the cost down, and we have been more effective. Some people had the perception that, because it was serious organised crime, we would have a high de minimis level. We have not applied that. We have tried very hard to make sure there is no diminution of effort put in.
Dr McDonnell: Just very quickly, do you expect your operations to be modified much with the creation of the National Crime Agency, or do you see that being a strengthening? [Interruption.]
Q240 Chair: Just before you answer, are you able to stay for a few minutes for a private session if we come back? There will be a fifteen-minute delay; that is the only thing. Is that running it too close?
Drew Harris: It leaves me a little bit tight.
Chair: I think we had better finish, then. Can I thank you very much for your very helpful advice and evidence? Thank you for coming.