Priority Questions

Garda Strength

Niall Collins

Question:

1. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Justice and Equality her views on the fact that the number of gardaí has fallen below 13,000; the optimum level of membership of An Garda Síochána in order to police the country effectively; the further recruitment planned; the further plans she has to expand and integrate the Garda Reserve into the mainstream body of An Garda Síochána; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7168/15]

I have tabled this question to ask the Minister for Justice and Equality about further recruitment to An Garda Síochána, given that recruitment has recommenced. The number of gardaí in the force has fallen significantly below 13,000. Will the Minister outline her plans to integrate the Garda Reserve into the force?

The Deputy's party when in government introduced a moratorium. I am pleased that the Government has been able to reopen Templemore training college and restart recruitment. There are now 300 recruits in the college in Templemore. This has proved possible because of the improved economic situation and been welcomed by everybody.

The strength of An Garda Síochána on 31 December 2014, the latest date for which figures are readily available, was 12,799. There were also 1,124 Garda Reserve members, with a further 48 in training. In addition, there was a significant increase in the number of civilian staff, as recommended in every report that has analysed the future role of An Garda Síochána. The reports state there are tasks which are appropriate to civilians. Just three weeks ago, 42 more civilians started work at Dublin Airport, replacing gardaí who did the job previously.

I am pleased to add that my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, agreed to the resumption of Garda recruitment and, as I said, we now have 300 student gardaí in training. Sufficient gardaí are needed to support the delivery of the policing service which the public expects and deserves. This does mean that an appropriate level of Garda recruitment is needed, not simply to counter the effect of ongoing retirements but also to bring to An Garda Síochána the energy and vitality of young recruits that are so important in the often physically demanding work of policing. I remain in discussions with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, on the exact timing of future intakes of Garda recruits.

The Deputy asked about Garda strength. Clearly, many factors impact on the appropriate optimum Garda strength. They include the availability of a modern ICT infrastructure, an issue with which we are dealing effectively, and changes in organisation and work practices to maximise efficiency. A key objective must be to ensure the best use of Garda resources, with which I am sure the Deputy would agree. It has featured strongly in reports we have recently received from the Garda Inspectorate analysing the exact use of gardaí and where they should be allocated. The Garda Commissioner and management staff are examining these recommendations very carefully.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

As Deputies will be aware, this is against the wider backdrop of a significant programme of Garda reform already under way, including the forthcoming policing authority, and I look forward to their input into these issues in due course.

I fully support the important role of the Garda Reserve in the delivery of the policing service. We are fortunate that over 1,000 members of the public, from all walks of life, have volunteered to help An Garda Síochána in protecting the community. We owe them a debt of gratitude. I certainly want to see the most made of their talents and commitment and I am pleased that the Garda Commissioner is finalising arrangements to extend the powers and functions of Reserve members in order that they can make a greater contribution to policing.

I am trying to establish what is the official number the Government wants to achieve for the strength of the force. Is it 13,000, 13,500 or somewhere in between? Is it the figure of 12,799? One must factor in the fact that most days up to 500 members of the force could be out sick. I received that information from the Minister in a reply to a parliamentary question. In addition, a further 110 members are on incentivised career breaks. The most significant resource An Garda Síochána needs is manpower. If it is deficient in manpower, it puts the entire system under pressure. Some 113,500 bench warrants are outstanding. The force falls behind in doing that type of work and significant issues can arise as a result. I am, therefore, trying to establish what the Minister's number is for the Garda force. What should the minimum level be? The Garda Commissioner, Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan, stated she wanted to maintain it at 13,000, but it has now dipped below that figure. Will the Government nail its colours to the mast in that regard?

I have given the Deputy the current figure of 12,799. To put it in perspective, in 2006 Garda strength was just under 13,000. It is interesting to note that, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the average number in the force was between 10,500 and 11,000, at a time when there was no Garda Reserve. I certainly believe the members of An Garda Síochána can carry out their duties; it is an extremely capable and talented force. The Garda Commissioner has said front-line Garda services will continue to be prioritised. She has also said the crackdown on organised gangland crime and keeping communities safe are absolute priorities. She has spoken about a figure of 13,000 and I am confident that this number will be maintained.

In order for Garda management to conduct manpower planning and comply with the annual policing plan, it is critically important for it to know with certainty what is the total number of gardaí. Unfortunately, it seems to be a variable factor, which is something the Minister needs to consider. What is her position on further recruitment to the Garda Reserve? Many people are willing to give of their time to the Garda Reserve to augment An Garda Síochána. In general, however, members of the Garda Reserve do not see enough opportunities for progression into the main force. The numbers in training in the college in Templemore who came from the Garda Reserve are quite small relative to the total intake. The Minister's predecessor, Deputy Alan Shatter, stated a review of the Garda Reserve had been undertaken in 2011 with a view to increasing its powers and duties. Has any progress been made in that regard? I would be grateful if the Minister could address these three issues concerning the Garda Reserve.

As the Deputy rightly indicates, there is huge interest in the Garda Reserve which has tallied with the new and ongoing recruitment. In fact, 23 members of the first group who entered the college in Templemore had been members of the Garda Reserve. Some 17 former members of the Garda Reserve were in the second batch of 100 new recruits, while 13 former members were in the third batch of 100 new recruits. Recruitment has been ongoing but slowed somewhat in 2014.

In view of the recruitment to An Garda Síochána, the Public Appointments Service focused on that. For the information of Deputy Collins who has an interest in this area, this is expected to change in 2015. There will be further, more accelerated recruitment to the Garda Reserve. It is also expected that new powers will be rolled out to the Garda Reserve shortly, and I will keep the Deputy informed as that progresses.

White Collar Crime

Pádraig MacLochlainn

Question:

2. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Minister for Justice and Equality her views on the strategy of An Garda Síochána, working in partnership with other State agencies, and the resources available to them; if she will tackle white collar crime, in view of the recent revelations that 350 Irish persons held 892 of the controversial HSBC accounts in Geneva, worth a total of €3.1 billion. [7170/15]

This question relates to a statement in the strategy of An Garda Síochána on white collar crime and follows the revelations that 350 Irish persons held 892 accounts in HSBC Geneva, at this stage, a notorious bank, worth a total of €3.1 billion.

In so far as the specific circumstances referred to by the Deputy are concerned, I understand that these have been the subject of investigation by the Revenue Commissioners following receipt and assessment of information in regard to those accounts. While the Deputy will appreciate that I have no role in regard to the Revenue Commissioners, it may be helpful to inform the House that information was sought and obtained from the French authorities in regard to bank accounts, purported to be held with HSBC Bank Geneva, that had been linked to Irish nationals or to addresses in Ireland. To date, Revenue has initiated 33 investigations as a direct result of the data received. As a result of these investigations, 20 settlement payments were made. The total amount recovered to date is €4.5 million, while a further €174,000 has been received as payments on account in two ongoing investigations.

On the basis of the data provided and the subsequent investigations that were conducted Revenue also took action, in any cases where sufficient admissible evidence was available, to bring a criminal prosecution in regard to any identified tax offences. To date, three persons have been convicted of such offences.

In so far as my Department's remit is concerned, the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation, GBFI, is charged with investigating serious and complex fraud matters and has resources and expertise to carry out this function. I have said to Deputy Mac Lochlainn previously that the Garda Commissioner has informed me of the extra resources that she is putting into this area, and we have discussed that here previously. The GBFI works closely with the Director of Corporate Enforcement, the Central Bank, the Revenue Commissioners and the Competition Authority, and GBFI staff are seconded to both the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, ODCE, and the Competition Authority. It is a close working relationship.

The Criminal Justice Act 2011 provided for new procedures to facilitate Garda access to essential information and documentation that they may need to help in the investigation of such crimes. I am continuing to keep these provisions under review, in consultation with my colleagues.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I am also in ongoing contact with the Garda Commissioner in regard to the arrangements in place to investigate serious crime of this nature. To this end, tackling white collar crime is identified as one of the policing priorities I have set for An Garda Síochána for 2015, and this is reflected in the recently published Garda Policing Plan. The plan also rightly addresses the improvement of crime management and investigation techniques, in the context of an overall programme of modernisation within An Garda Síochána. The Deputy will be aware from our previous discussions that the Commissioner already had underway a comprehensive review and strategic realignment of An Garda Síochána's capacity to deal with emerging and complex crimes, such as those coming under the GBFI's responsibility. This review is ongoing and the recommendations of the Garda Síochána Inspectorate in regard to crime investigation generally are also of relevance in this respect. I look forward to the outcome of this process and will, of course, continue to engage further with the Commissioner on how complex white collar crime can best be tackled.

The Minister will recall that I raised this with her not long after her appointment, in June 2014. It followed the alarming comments of Mr. Remy Farrell SC at the Bar Council's annual conference where he outlined his concerns.

If I might backtrack, I re-read an article by Dr. Elaine Byrne last night. With Ansbacher, there were 289 cases of illegality and not one person has been prosecuted. Following the DIRT inquiry involving 3,675 bogus accounts, how many prosecutions have there been? Following the bank crisis that left the State under the troika and the collapse of Anglo Irish Bank, how many have been held accountable for all of that? Now, there is this HSBC story. It was a fluke that this came to our attention. It fell into our hands through a whistleblower, documents showed up in France and we pursued them.

The concern in all of this is cutbacks. If one looks at the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB,-----

I am sorry, Deputy.

I will deal with it in a supplementary.

The question Deputy Mac Lochlainn raised with me relates to the HSBC and I have given him the figures of the investigations that were carried out. Criminal investigations, where there was evidence in regard to fraud or a criminal matter, have been pursued, and I have given him the results of that.

The Deputy makes the broader point on tackling white collar crime, which is the key point on which he is focusing. Last year, as I told the Deputy previously, the Commissioner ordered a comprehensive review - really, a strategic realignment - of Garda capacity in this area and capability to deal with these emerging and complex crimes. She is also generally looking at the Garda Inspectorate reports on the management of investigations.

I want to reassure Deputy Mac Lochlainn. The personnel strength of the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation is approximately 70. All of the members of An Garda Síochána working in this area have the relevant expertise and are working closely with international colleagues, in Interpol and Europol, and are exchanging information and pursuing any instances where there is a crime, and bringing forward prosecutions wherever the evidence is there. It is one of the policing priorities for this year that have been identified in the policing plan.

Returning to the occasion to which I referred, Mr. Farrell SC stated that the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation had been swamped since 2011 and that of the cases it had reached only one in ten ended in prosecution. Mr. Ian Drennan, at the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, has spoken about having only one forensic accountant when there was need for at least five. There are serious problems, not only in An Garda Síochána but across all of the different agencies. For instance, the CAB's budget was cut by 15% over the period 2008-12. The Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation was cut by 21% over the period 2008-11 while that of the ODCE was cut by 12%. The Government is tying the hands of those who need to be dealing with white collar crime.

I repeat that this type of behaviour brought the State to collapse. It is not the behaviour of those who have not paid their small fines or television licences, who we imprison regularly. It is the behaviour of those who brought us to collapse who know that they will not be imprisoned and will not face fines.

I am aware there was a review. There needs to be an urgent independent reappraisal and analysis of all of the different agencies tasked with it. These include the CAB, the ODCE, the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation, the Central Bank, Revenue, the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, NBCI and the Competition Authority. All of them need to be working together. I believe the Garda should have the overall management of that process so that it can, for the first time in the history of the State, properly deal with white collar crime and send a clear signal to those involved in it.

That this is a priority area in the policing plan for this year illustrates the seriousness with which this issue is being taken.

Deputy Mac Lochlainn makes a point about resources. I am pleased that this year we have been able to increase the resources to An Garda Síochána for the first time in a number of years and that we are working on the ICT issues, which are essential in order to deal with the type of complex crime which he describes. Progress is being made on all of those fronts.

I assure Deputy Mac Lochlainn that there has been a strategic review within An Garda Síochána to bring the relevant resources, such as he describes, together. There is an increasing focus, as there needs to be, on inter-agency work. We have the legislation in place.

Prosecutions are being brought, there is no question of that. I have given the Deputy the figures on the case to which he referred. I fully support Deputy Mac Lochlainn's point on the need for white collar crime to be a priority area and it is being treated as such.

Garda Station Closures

Shane Ross

Question:

3. Deputy Shane Ross asked the Minister for Justice and Equality her plans to improve policing in the Stepaside area in County Dublin; if her attention has been drawn to the spike in burglaries in the area since the closure of the Garda station there; if she will provide figures for crime in the area since the station closed; if her attention has been drawn to the fact that, since the station closed, residents and businesses in the immediate vicinity of the station have been targeted by criminals; if her attention has been further drawn to the number of arrests and convictions secured for such crimes; if she will reconsider the re-opening of the station, in view of the sense of insecurity felt by residents of the neighbourhood, since it closed; her plans to carry out a review of the Government's disastrous decision to close many Garda stations nationwide, in particular, the mistaken decision to close the station in Stepaside; and if she will highlight the successes achieved in catching criminals in the area, since the closure of this station. [7330/15]

In view of the fact that Stepaside Garda station was closed in March 2013, that the number of burglaries in the area has rocketed and that the residents of the area are victims of crime on a daily basis, will the Minister outline her proposals for what she intends to do about this, in particular, to revisit the disastrous decision by her predecessor to close the Garda station?

The publication of crime statistics is a matter for the Central Statistics Office, as the independent national statistical agency. The CSO is carrying out, at my urging having met it, an investigation and detailed analysis of certain issues raised by the Garda Inspectorate on the recording, classification and reclassification of crime to see whether and to what extent they may have implications for the crime statistics which that office produces.

There has been some comment about the last quarter of last year not yet being available. That is because they are doing this exercise, and I want to put that on the record of the House. Those statistics will be available shortly and I will make them available to the Deputy.

I am very aware of the concerns in regard to burglary and I am working closely with the Garda Síochána and other relevant criminal justice agencies to ensure an effective, whole-of-system response is in place. The general trend fell in 2013, as the Deputy knows, but there has been an increase overall in burglary offences. It is a heinous crime and has a dreadful impact on people.

The Garda Síochána is reacting to those increases, very often carried out by mobile gangs moving into an area. The Garda has responded through Operation Acer, which is in force throughout the Dublin metropolitan region. I have had discussions with the Garda Commissioner and other relevant agencies on this. The operation involves burglary response units attached to each division taking the lead, which is very important. There have been a number of initiatives in the Deputy's area. This work is monitoring the movements of burglary suspects and has resulted in many successful arrests. These operations are being co-ordinated by the Garda in a very careful way. Since Operation Acer commenced in early 2012, there have been almost 5,500 arrests, 2,746 charges and 1,087 convictions for burglary in the Dublin area up to 3 February 2015.

The Deputy asked what I am doing. There is clearly a practical operational issue for the Garda in this regard but, equally, I am looking at the legislative changes that may be necessary and the criminal justice response to burglary. We need to consider an inter-agency response to make sure we are bringing together all of those working on crime prevention and that we have support in the communities, as is being developed in the Dublin area, where communities are themselves taking action through text messaging and various other initiatives. I am examining whether other legislative changes ought to be introduced in regard to this issue.

The Minister's reply, unfortunately, is totally unsatisfactory. With regard to Stepaside specifically, I looked for the figures but they have stopped producing them, I presume because they are so embarrassing and, as there is an epidemic of burglaries, they do not want to expose themselves to the accusation that the closure of the station was a disaster and was wrong.

This is of epidemic proportions. I have spent the last three days being telephoned and going out to the Stepaside area to meet people who have been burgled there. We do not need Garda responses to burglary; we want Garda prevention of burglary. The idea that the smart policing which was introduced by the last Minister and the last Commissioner is more effective is complete and utter nonsense. They are very good at arriving after the crime and giving counselling and comfort to those who have been burgled in Stepaside but they are not good at preventing that crime. What we need is prevention, and that is only achieved if criminals think they are going to be caught.

What I am asking of the Minister is to have a permanent Garda presence in that area, as was there before, to reassure people so they can feel secure, and also to send the message out to the criminals that there is a Garda presence. The Minister may not be aware of this but, since the closure, virtually every shop on one side of the street in Stepaside has been robbed or broken into. One of the bookies was done twice in two weeks because the criminals got such a good haul out of it, the pub has been done once, the hairdresser has been done, and many houses close to the Garda station have been done.

The Deputy's time is up.

I am sorry. It is an emergency.

I agree with the Deputy that prevention is critical, the Garda response is critical and working with the community is critical. In Stepaside, the area Deputy Ross is specifically addressing, the decisions that have been taken by the Garda involve increased Garda visibility and patrol hours. As I said, a high percentage of these crimes are committed by gangs who are very mobile and who arrive into an area. What we need is for the Garda to have the ability to respond and to interrupt that, and to have the intelligence that will allow them to interrupt and prevent it.

Gardaí are working on all of those issues on a continual basis. They recognise there is a spike in this type of crime and they are taking action to deal with it. There is increased patrol mobility and flexibility in the area, which is resulting and should result in an improved policing service. The Deputy spoke about the closure of the Garda station but gardaí want to ensure there is the visibility through patrol cars and increased patrolling in the area, as well as increased engagement with the community. As the Deputy knows, various Garda clinics have been open on a regular basis to his constituents since that decision was made.

There is no evidence or specific information to suggest that criminals are targeting local businesses or residential areas in Stepaside. I take the Deputy's point about an increase. I want to reassure him that this is a high priority for the Garda in its work for this year. We have seen reductions in the area the Deputy is speaking about, for example, in regard to serious assaults and a range of other issues, including violent crimes against citizens. There are reductions in many areas. We get these changing patterns in crime and the Garda has to respond to the particular spikes that emerge for a variety of reasons. One I mentioned relates to the mobility of these gangs, namely, the number of extra patrol cars in the area following the investment by this Government in transport for An Garda Síochána.

The Minister is right that the gangs are very mobile. That is why they come to Stepaside. They know it is easy pickings because it is open season there. They come out there and they are not the slightest bit impressed by the fact there are a few more patrol cars, which there may or may not be. They come and they operate there with impunity.

At a local meeting some time ago, I asked the local gardaí how many convictions there have been and how many arrests they had made for all of these burglaries. They could not or would not answer the question. I know why. It is because they do not believe there have been any or, if I am exaggerating slightly, there have been virtually none. They do not catch anybody any more. Once the criminals know that, they are going to keep coming, which is what is happening. If we put the gardaí back on the beat, with a presence in the area, this would keep them out.

The Minister should acknowledge that the idea of smart policing, which is a kind of phantom garda idea where they go around playing cops and robbers, and they are very quick in arriving after the burglars have escaped, is passé. We have to re-establish the Garda in the community and have gardaí as a permanent presence in such a large area that has been afflicted so badly.

The Deputy is not correct that gardaí are not arresting people for burglaries. That is not accurate.

It is accurate in Stepaside. Will the Minister provide the figures?

Gardaí are investigating burglaries, prosecutions are going to the District Court and people are being jailed for periods. Clearly, what we have to do is focus on those recidivists, those repeat burglars and serious offenders who we specifically need to ensure are not free to commit burglaries as they do. That is the focus of the work between the Prison Service, the Garda Síochána and the probation and welfare service.

I agree with the Deputy that this is a heinous crime. As we all know from those who have suffered this crime, it is a very serious crime and it is being dealt with seriously by An Garda Síochána. Prosecutions and investigations are taking place. The Deputy is not correct that people are not being apprehended because they are being apprehended.

Can I have the figures?

The whole focus now is to have what the Deputy decries, namely, the kind of effective and smart policing that is necessary. It is that kind of policing we need, policing that is out there patrolling, gathering intelligence and interrupting these crimes.

This is the approach being taken by An Garda Síochána.

Gambling Legislation

Niall Collins

Question:

4. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Justice and Equality her plans to adequately regulate gaming and casinos venues; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7169/15]

The gambling control Bill proposed by the Minister's predecessor seems to have dropped away in priority and significance. In the hearings of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality during 2013 it became clear from the comments of people such as Mr. Barry Galvin, former head of the Criminal Assets Bureau, and representatives of the Licensed Gaming Association of Ireland that significant revenue losses were accruing to the State because of the unregulated nature of many gaming venues. What are the Minister's plans in this regard?

The Deputy is aware that there are detailed proposals in the general scheme of the gambling control Bill for the licensing of casinos in Ireland for the first time. This is the first Government to bring forward legislative proposals for changes in this area. My colleague, the Minister for Finance, is bringing forward the Betting (Amendment) Bill 2013 which was debated in the Seanad yesterday. It will extend the licensing regime to cover the operations of remote bookmakers and betting intermediaries. The activities of such operators can then be taxed.

There is no provision in Irish law for the licensing of casinos. Some 47 private member gaming clubs are registered with the Department under the provisions of section 109 of the Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) Act 2010, as amended. The Department's anti-money laundering compliance unit conducts inspections of these premises to assess compliance with the 2010 Act. It is understood some of these clubs offer casino-type games.

Under the proposals set out, the Minister for Justice and Equality will assume a regulatory role for all forms of gambling, with the exception of the national lottery, on enactment of the Bill. As its Title indicates, the aim of the Bill is to establish a system within which gambling can take place openly, fairly and in accordance with terms and conditions, in other words, within a controlled environment. The Bill will operate on the basis that all gambling is illegal, unless it is of a type permitted by law and even if it is permitted, it may be carried on only if it is licensed and in compliance with terms and conditions attached to the licence. The general scheme is with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel awaiting drafting. I cannot indicate precisely at this point when the Bill will be published. I take the Deputy's point, however, that this area needs to be regulated.

The figures brought to my attention and that of the Minister are staggering. It is estimated that there are up to 19,000 unlicensed gaming machines in the State at any one point in time and that this results in a loss of licensed revenue to the State of almost €10 million per annum. When one factors in that the average profit per gaming machine is in the region of €19,200 per annum, this means a turnover of approximately €364 million is potentially untaxed. It is a huge area in which there is a loss of revenue to the Exchequer. Proposals have been made, of which I know the Minister is aware, and given to the Minister for Finance for the introduction of a number of interim measures in advance of publication of the gambling control Bill. Will the Minister consider introducing them, given the scale of the loss of revenue to the Exchequer?

The legislation is seriously out of date, about which there is no question. The betting laws date from 1931, while those on gambling date from 1956. Increasingly, gambling is carried on by remote means and is not regulated. I agree with the Deputy that enforcement has suffered as authorities grapple with outdated laws and constant technological changes. A large and growing section of the market is unregulated, with attendant risks to consumers and a loss to the Exchequer. That is why we need new legislation and the Bill is with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for drafting. The Betting (Amendment) Bill 2013 which is going through the Houses deals with certain elements of betting. We need more comprehensive legislation to deal with the points made by the Deputy. Amending other legislation will not get us very far. We need a comprehensive scheme, which is the better approach. The Deputy is familiar with some of the provisions which will be included in the heads of the Bill.

The Betting (Amendment) Bill 2013 being progressed by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, will not address the issue I am raising. I want to get a sense from the Minister when the gaming Bill will become a priority for the Government. I know that she recently met Mr. Barry Galvin, the former head of the Criminal Assets Bureau and the legal representative of the Licensed Gaming Association of Ireland. He has a proven track record and come up with a sensible interim proposal which would not require the drafting of a big Bill to address the shortfall in revenue accruing to the Exchequer. A staggering number of unlicensed gaming machines - 19,000 - are being operated throughout the State, resulting in a loss of revenue of almost €10 million and producing a turnover of up to €364 million. The numbers are truly staggering. When one considers medical card issues, local authorities and people who are looking for grants, the State needs this revenue. Mr. Galvin has made sensible proposals which should be progressed.

The proposals made by Mr. Galvin, an expert in the area, will certainly be examined. I will take serious note of his suggestions. The Department is working on the legislation which is with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and on which I want to make progress as quickly as possible. It must, howver, take its place among the Department's priorities, but I understand the urgency in regulating the industry to protect vulnerable people and the revenue being missed by the Exchequer. I agree with the Deputy that it is important legislation which I will progress as quickly as possible. I will meet the various stakeholders to discuss it.

Garda Operations

Pádraig MacLochlainn

Question:

5. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the plans of An Garda Síochána and the resources available to it to tackle the criminal gangs involved in diesel laundering, cigarette smuggling and petrol stretching across the island. [7371/15]

This question is about the plans of An Garda Síochána and the resources available to it to tackle the criminal gangs involved in diesel laundering, cigarette smuggling and petrol stretching throughout the island.

The point made by the Deputy about criminal gangs involved in diesel laundering, cigarette smuggling and petrol stretching throughout the island but concentrated to a degree along the Border is an extremely serious one. The issue is receiving the attention of the PSNI and An Garda Síochána which work in close co-operation through the joint policing strategy and the North-South crime conferences which are held regularly. I am very pleased to say co-operation between the PSNI and An Garda Síochána has never been better. Recently I met Theresa Villiers, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to discuss this and other issues and we both welcomed the fact that co-operation was so effective. This co-operation is necessary to deal with the type of crimes about which the Deputy is asking.

Just this month, as a result of a joint intelligence-led investigation, officers from Revenue's Customs service, supported by An Garda Síochána, and officers from Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs, supported by the PSNI, carried out searches in a number of premises along the Border in both jurisdictions. As a result, seizures of cigarettes with a value of €167,000 were made in this jurisdiction, together with the seizure of a tobacco processing plant, 2 million cigarettes and 12 tonnes of tobacco in Northern Ireland. One can see the scale of the issue involved. A significant oil laundering plant was uncovered in County Monaghan. It had the capacity to launder an estimated 20 million litres of fuel per annum. These are just some examples of what is being done by the enforcement agencies.

Tackling organised crime, in all its guises, is a priority for An Garda Síochána. This is reflected in the policing commitments for the year ahead.

An Garda Síochána has a strong and productive relationship with the PSNI and takes actions to counter security and crime threats which face the island, including the activities of the organised criminal groups to which paramilitary groups are inextricably linked. This is a very challenging criminal justice area which is getting focused attention, North and South, to deal with the issues. A cross-Border policing strategy is in place to improve public safety and to disrupt this kind of criminal activity.

In April 2013, I made a speech in this House in which I referenced the presentation of Retail Excellence Ireland to the justice committee. It had brought to our attention that 12% of all diesel sold in Ireland was illegal. Nineteen oil laundries were detected and closed and 690,000 litres of oil were seized. It also made the point that almost 25% of the cigarette market is sourced from the black market and 109 million illegal cigarettes with a value of €45.9 million were seized. It estimates the Exchequer loses €861 million annually. This is a real threat. I wish to send two messages today. The first is to business people who work with the criminal gangs and to people who purchase cigarettes on the black market. We need the taxes on cigarettes for health services. When people smoke, as is their right, they will be unhealthy and will have to go to hospital. Those taxes, therefore, need to be paid to cover all of this.

This is a very serious crime. Organised crime gangs are involved in it and they have tried to spread their activities throughout the island. It is clear that a combined approach by the Revenue Commissioners, the Garda Síochána and the PSNI is being used to deal with this issue. These crimes are being interrupted and the figures show this. We will take every action we need to with respect to dealing with this and prioritising it. There is a cross-Border taskforce on tobacco and cigarette smuggling and also on fuel laundering.

In 2014, there were 1,109 detections of marked fuel oil and two oil laundries were detected and shut down resulting in 50,000 litres of oil being seized. There were 5,852 seizures of cigarettes made by the Revenue Commissioners resulting in the seizure of 53 million cigarettes with a value of €25 million. This is an indication of the scale of the issue. There have been recent surveys on this. The Deputy quoted a figure of 25% for the number of cigarettes on the market which were brought into the country illegally or were smuggled. I understand that this figure is lower now. I will give the Deputy up-to-date figures.

The second message I wish to send, as a Sinn Féin spokesperson on justice, is that the people involved in these activities, despite comments from one or two journalists, are not the IRA that supported the peace process and that have gone away. They are not republicans. They are criminal gangs. I am saying very clearly today, as a Sinn Féin spokesperson for justice, that those involved in these activities which I have asked about are criminal gangs. Anyone with information should assist the PSNI and an Garda Síochána in tackling them. The consequences are very severe for this State and the North. They are anti-peace process and are clearly criminal. I wish to put it on the record and send out a clear signal from everyone in this House that those involved in these activities are a threat to all of us.

I agree fully with the Deputy. This is absolutely serious criminal activity which has very serious implications for people's lives in this country. Everything possible will be done to interrupt this activity. There are links to paramilitary groups. I take the Deputy's points. These are criminal gangs and are being dealt with clearly as such by the PSNI and an Garda Síochána. No effort is being spared in terms of addressing this issue. On Monday, the British-Irish Parliamentary Body will be presenting a detailed report on these issues in the Seanad when it has its meeting. I have already met with it to give them my views and the views of An Garda Síochána, as have the relevant authorities in the North of Ireland. We are focusing on this issue again through this group. Senator Coghlan and others have been involved in this work and they will be reporting on it on Monday.