Ceisteanna-Questions. Oral Answers. - 48-Hour Rule Enforcement.

Mervyn Taylor

Question:

20 Mr. Taylor asked the Minister for Finance if he will outline the instructions which he proposes to give to the customs authorities to ensure continued enforcement of the 48-hour rule, for as long as he proposes that the 48-hour rule should remain in effect; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Michael Bell

Question:

32 Mr. Bell asked the Minister for Finance if he has any estimate of the damage likely to be done to employment in the Border counties as a result of the European Court ruling on the 48-hour rule; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Brendan Howlin

Question:

67 Mr. Howlin asked the Minister for Finance if he will outline the instructions, if any, he will be issuing to customs and excise staff in respect of the actions he requires them to take to ensure that persons breaking the 48-hour rule are apprehended for as long as the rule remains in force; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 20, 32 and 67 together.

The issuing of instructions to customs and excise staff is a matter for the Revenue Commissioners. However, I am advised by the commissioners that instructions were issued to customs and excise staff following the European Court's ruling on Ireland's 48-hour rule. Staff have been instructed to continue to operate and enforce the 48-hour rule restrictions until further notice.

Accordingly, travellers who have not been outside the State for 48 hours can import dutiable goods only on payment of the appropriate duty. Travellers who have been outside the State for 48 hours or more as heretofore, will, qualify for their full allowance entitlements. In the immediate aftermath of the European Court's decision customs staff were allowed to exercise some discretion — as is normal — where they were reasonably satisfied that travellers had genuinely acted on the assumption that the 48 hours restriction had been removed. This discretion no longer applies.

As the 48-hour rule continues in place for the time being, the question of damage to employment in the Border counties as a result of the European Court ruling does not arise. It is because of the serious implications for this country that the Government are actively pursuing the matter with the EC Commission with a view to obtaining a mutual agreement for modified arrangements to enable Ireland to prevent the abuses and distortions of trade which had occurred up to 1987.

Would the Minister not agree that, by allowing the present position to continue, he and the State are acting unlawfully, contrary to European law, which is binding in this country; that it is holding this country up to disrepute on the European scene; that it is particularly relevant, having regard to the fact that Ireland holds the Presidency of the EC at present, that we proceed to flagrantly flout European law, as established by the European Court?

The Deputy knows full well that, from the moment I issued my first statement and in any other statements that emanated from the Government in relation to this, they have accepted fully the court's ruling in relation to the 48-hour rule. I have also indicated that it is not unreasonable, in fact is entirely in keeping with EC practice, for the Government to take some time to consider the court's ruling in detail. As I said before, discussions have begun with the Commission and other member states with a view to obtaining a mutual agreement for modified arrangements which would enable us to prevent distortions of trade which occurred prior to 1987. Our aim is to reach an understanding with the EC as quickly as possible.Even as I speak here there is a meeting taking place in Brussels today concerning this very matter.

I might also add for the benefit of the Deputy and the House that the Commission took the view — after the introduction of this 48-hour rule — to proceed to the European Court rather than sit down to negotiate the matter, as one might reasonably expect. That matter was adverted to by the Advocate-General in his opinion some months ago in relation to it. Consequently, the Commission were not in a position to sit down and have discussions with us up to the time the court ruling was made public. However, subsequent to that ruling they sat down straightaway. Negotiations are taking place, not only with the Commission but also by way of sounding out member states as to what might be acceptable. Recognising that the Danes do have a 48-hour rule, that there is a precedent for that derogation, what we are seeking is something similar to take us to the end of 1991.

Would the Minister not agree that court rulings and orders are meant to be obeyed, not merely to be considered by the states to which they are handed down; that the judgment is now the full effective and enforceable law in this country and that, consequently, any citizen of this country stopped by a customs and excise official and interfered with in any way, could successfully bring an action against the Minister, against the customs and excise official concerned and against the State to claim damages for an unlawful act on the part of the Minister and the Revenue Commissioners?

The Deputy, who is fairly familiar with Irish and European law, apparently does not agree with the view of eminent EC lawyers who say there is plenty of evidence of circumstances obtaining in which member states are afforded reasonable time within which to consider what will be their response and what actions they will take to implement the rulings of the court. The Deputy may shake his head but those are the facts; that is the reality. Eminent European lawyers accept that to be the position but, apparently, the Deputy does not.

I do not.