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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): This yearfor the first time in five yearslegal deliveries of oil products in Northern Ireland have risen, which, in large part, is thanks to the successful disruption of fuel smuggling rings. Since April last year, Customs has seized more than 63 million smuggled cigarettes in Northern Ireland. Clearly, there is much more to do, as the Select Committee report has shown, but I congratulate my partners engaged in the organised crime taskforce on their efforts and their success to date.
Mr. Turner: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, and I am sure that we are all gratified by the progress that is being made. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems in the Northern Ireland context is that much of the smuggling contributes to the funds of paramilitary organisations on both sides of the sectarian divide? Is she satisfied that the legal process in Northern Ireland gives proper recognition to that when it takes account of the people who carry out that smuggling?
Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The organised crime taskforce was established because we recognise the links that exist between those engaged in organised crime and paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. Of the more than 70 different organised crime networks, we acknowledge that probably half have links to paramilitaries. That is precisely the reason why, through the organised crime taskforce, we have adopted a multi-agency approach to tackling anyone engaged in organised crime. By doing so, we know that we will catch in the net those who would use the proceeds of that activity for terrorist purposes. We find it easier to bring those individuals to justice through the operations of the organised crime taskforce. The effect is the same.
Mr. Harris: Would my hon. Friend agree that, for many terrorists, the accumulation of personal wealth comes before the political aims of a united Ireland or of maintenance of the union? Will she reassure the House that the Proceeds of Crime Bill will be used with enthusiasm and vigour to confiscate the property of gangsters who, even now, are buying up Southfork-style homes in Northern Ireland? Some are even applying for planning permission for swimming pools next door, without there being any evidence that they have the legitimate income to do so.
Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friend is right. Later this year, the Assets Recovery Agency, a statutory body, will be an important extra weapon in the armoury that we will be able to deploy against organised criminals. As he rightly points out, to the great irritation of the ordinary, decent people of Northern Ireland, these criminals flaunt in the face of everyone else the assets and wealth that they have gained through their activities.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The Government lose about £400 million a year as a result of petrol and diesel smuggling across the border. What do they intend to do to enforce law-abiding practice, and is the Minister willing to accept representations from those who represent
Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman is right. In the United Kingdom context, the problem of fuel smuggling and laundering is unique to Northern Ireland because of the long land border and the problem of policing areas such as South Armagh. Many resources are being deployed to tackle the problem, and there have been many successes, including recent successes in which significant smuggling and fuel laundering plans and networks have been disrupted. I commend the work of Customs and Excise officers, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the other agencies who work under the umbrella of the organised crime taskforce. They are having a real impactso much so that, as I said earlier, we are beginning to see an increase in the amount of legal fuel being delivered to the Province.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Will the Minister comment on the difference in fuel duties north and south of the border in Ireland and on the impact that the fuel duty differential has on the proprietors of filling stations in Northern Ireland?
Jane Kennedy: There is no doubt that there is an impact. The fuel price differential is one of the factors that encourages those who would engage in criminal activity to smuggle fuel. However, those individuals would smuggle something else or engage in another form of criminal activity in other circumstances. The tax differential is a factor, but not the only one. The Government need to bring together all the law enforcement agencies and make sure that their policies, procedures and energies are directed towards tackling the individuals engaged in such activities and towards disrupting and interrupting whatever criminal activity they carry out. That is the taskforce's focus, and that is why we are having the success that we are.
Mr. John Hume (Foyle): Given that the petrol industry is the biggest cross-border industry, will the Minister and the Secretary of State strongly support the proposals that I have put to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to save the petrol industry? The tax on fuel has closed petrol stations in Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Newry and Armagh, and instead of bringing the Government extra money, the tax has lost them £400 million a year because fuel is being bought on the other side of the border. Will the Minister therefore ask the Chancellor to act strongly on my proposals to restore the petrol industry in the border counties of Northern Ireland? [Interruption.]
Jane Kennedy: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Tax and taxation policy are matters for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. We have regular discussions and constantly monitor the situation, particularly the impact that the duty has on legitimate businesses. Indeed, I have met representatives of the fuel retail industry in Northern Ireland. Tax evasion is not the only issue; many other factors are involved. Criminals are taking through the
Again, we return to the link between organised crime and paramilitaries and to the need for the law enforcement agencies to co-ordinate their efforts to beat these criminals and to achieve the success that they are achieving in the organised crime taskforce. It is a long haul, but we will get to the end of the road.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): In Northern Ireland there are an estimated 5,000 voluntary and community groups. Some £200 million of public money is invested each year in grants to these bodies, which includes European funding. For this financial year, the Northern Ireland Office has earmarked more than £1 million for Victim Support Northern Ireland, £400,000 for the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and nearly £300,000 for Extern, which focuses its work on young offenders.
Norman Lamb: One of the great values of the voluntary sector in Northern Ireland is that it is one way of keeping the lines of communication open between the communities. Given the importance of the voluntary sector to the peace process, will the Minister agree to meet representatives of the sector to discuss their role fully?
Jane Kennedy: I, or perhaps more appropriately my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, will be happy to meet representatives of voluntary organisations. Such meetings have taken place and I am sure that a request will be received sympathetically.
Lady Hermon (North Down): What aid have the Government given to women's voluntary organisations such as the Women's Support Network, which does such great work in both communities, especially among working-class women in Belfast?
Jane Kennedy: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met representatives of women's organisations as recently as, I think, the night before last. Representations are received regularly. I cannot give the hon. Lady the exact figures, but I undertake to get those to her in the next few days.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): There are significant residual problems of violence in terms of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland and we will continue to work to ensure that these are eliminated. We have, however, come a long way in counteracting violence and we maintain a security presence commensurate with the level of threat.
Mr. O'Brien: While I recognise the depressing and deteriorating level of violence in Northern Ireland, as shown in the answers given by the Secretary of State this afternoon, does he agree that the best way to demonstrate his and the Government's good faith and belief that no violence will be tolerated in Northern Ireland is for him and the Prime Minister to rule out once and for ever an amnesty for Northern Ireland paramilitaries on the run?
Dr. Reid: We said publicly at Weston Park that there is an issue to resolve. We are intent on doing that, but we have not decided how to resolve it. As far as the general situation is concerned, there is no doubt that violence is intolerable, and we have made it plain that there is no acceptable level of violence in a modern democratic society. We will continue to make that plain, but no one should forget just how far we have come in the past 10 years. There have been enormous improvements in the economy, in the standard of living, and in security in Northern Ireland in terms of the number of people maimed, injured and murdered. That is not to say that we are the least bit complacent. There is a very long way to go.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Following talks at Hillsborough last week, the Prime Minister undertook to introduce proposals to sustain the peace process before the House rises on 24 July. Will the Secretary of State, with the Prime Minister sitting alongside him, confirm that those will be announced in an oral statement to the House?
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): The Secretary of State said that there is a residual security problem, yet the number of regular police officers with the Police Service of Northern Ireland has gone down to 6,952, several hundred below the number recommended by Chris Patten for normal circumstances. Will the Secretary of State now give a commitment to the retention of the full-time police reserves for the foreseeable future, because it is clear that they are indispensable?
Dr. Reid: First, the hon. Gentleman is incorrect; Patten envisaged that number not in normal circumstances, but in more benign circumstances than we have at present. I agree that we are below the level that we should have by several hundred, as he pointed out, which is precisely why we are recruiting about 50 per cent. more a year than was envisaged in the Patten proposals.
On the full-time reserves, I had a meeting on the matteryet another meetingwith the Police Federation yesterday. I am well aware of the valuable role played by the reserves in the present situation and historically, and I have no hesitation in paying tribute to them. However, the new policing board is looking at human resources,