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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 20 Oct 2021

Vol. 279 No. 8

EU Regulations: Motion

I move:

That Seanad Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion under Protocol No. 21 on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice annexed to the Treaty on European Union and to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, to take part in the adoption and application of the following proposed measure:

Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Directive (EU) 2019/1153 of the European Parliament and of the Council, as regards access of competent authorities to centralised bank account registries through the single access point,

a copy of which was laid before Seanad Éireann on 18th August, 2021.”

I thank the Senators for agreeing to debate this motion at relatively short notice. I request the House to approve Ireland’s opting into a new proposal on facilitating the use of financial and other information for the prevention, detection, investigation or prosecution of certain criminal offences.

Ireland has an option, provided for in Article 3.1 of Protocol 21 annexed to the Treaty of Lisbon, to opt in to individual proposals in the area of freedom, security and justice. The protocol provides that Ireland has three months, from the date a proposal or initiative is presented to the Council, to notify the Presidency of the Council in writing of its wish to take part in the negotiation, adoption and application of any such measure. The three-month period for this proposal is due to end on 1 November. Following approval by the Government on 12 October, Oireachtas approval is required under Article 29.4.7° of the Constitution. The Dáil gave its support to the motion yesterday. Ireland will still be able to accept the proposal any time after it has been adopted, but in such a case Ireland will not have been in a position to vote on the final contents of the proposal. It must also be noted that Ireland made a declaration appended to the Treaty of Lisbon of its intention to opt in to measures in the area of freedom, security and justice to the maximum extent it deems possible.

This proposal is linked to a suite of EU proposals on reforming the EU’s anti-money laundering framework published in July. The proposals include a proposed 6th anti-money laundering directive, 6AMLD, which, among other things, would provide for a cross-border interconnection between member states' bank account registers, BAR, via a single access point. The amending directive we are discussing today seeks to extend access to the BAR single access point to the bodies designated with responsibility for the prevention, detection, investigation or prosecution of criminal offences under directive 2019/1153, which Ireland has already opted in to.

My officials have consulted the Office of the Attorney General and have been advised that there is no legal impediment to Ireland opting into this proposal. Work is in progress to transpose Directive (EU) 2019/1153 into Irish law. That directive requires member states to designate authorities competent in the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of criminal offences in order for them to access and search the centralised BARs. In Ireland, these competent authorities include the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, and a cohort in An Garda Síochána at senior level.

The 4th anti-money-laundering directive, as amended by the 5th anti-money-laundering directive, requires member states to put in place BARs. It is anticipated that Ireland’s BAR mechanism will go live in the third quarter of 2022. The new anti-money-laundering directive will provide access to the BAR single access point at EU level only to the financial intelligence units of member states. Wider access for other authorities with responsibilities for preventing, detecting, investigating or prosecuting criminal offences will facilitate effective financial investigations. This is why the directive we are discussing is necessary.

By interconnecting the national and centralised BARs at EU level, authorities with access to the BAR single access point will be able to establish quickly whether an individual holds bank accounts in other member states. The information that will be available through the BAR single access point includes names, IBANs, dates of account opening and closing, and the duration of the lease period in the case of safe deposit boxes. The same limitations and safeguards created in Directive (EU) 2019/1153 will remain in place. Not opting into this amending directive will present risks regarding Ireland's perceived commitment to the EU anti-money-laundering framework. Furthermore, given Ireland's status as a hub for business and investment, it is important to have appropriate preventive measures in place, including robust legislation, to address a range of interconnected economic crimes, such as corruption, fraud and money laundering. I look forward to hearing the views of the Senators. I urge them to support the motion.

I welcome the motion. An entirely common-sense provision is being suggested by the Minister of State. Considering that this measure relates to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, including Article 5, as mentioned by the Minister of State, it is good that these motions are discussed in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Constitutionally, it is appropriate that the relevant measures be ratified by both Houses. In the context of European legislation, it has stood us in good stead that these things interact with the national legislatures and, in a broader context, the people. The danger with some of these measures is that they proceed at a supranational level, or at European level, such that citizens do not know about them or understand what is happening. Then, all of a sudden, something happens and people wonder why or how it has come about. I welcome the fact that there is an opportunity to speak about this.

I accept what the Minister of State said about the urgency of this matter. There is a deadline and it makes sense to meet it. There is no reason we should not.

In the context of citizens and others who are going to interact with the system and who wish to understand it, I was contacted by somebody about the proposal. Very often, these motions are debated in a vacuum in some respects because there is no interaction, but somebody did contact me. One of the concerns the person had was on the protection of their information. I will say what I said to the individual concerned. It is important to note that all the protections we expect in connection with this kind of activity remain. GDPR, for example, continues to pertain in regard to any of this information. It is important to recognise that the sharing of the information in question happens at a high level only. It is not the case that ordinary officials in a bank, ordinary civil servants or people who are not connected with anti-money-laundering activities would ever have access to the information. The system operates as a high level. In this regard, the Minister of State referred to gardaí and others who are operating specifically in this sphere. Anybody who does not particularly want somebody in Poland, Sweden or Italy to know about his or her bank account details should consider the motion in the context of how the data will be used, who will have access to them and why they will be accessed. We have spoken a lot in this House about anti-money laundering provisions and provisions to stop or stymie effectively the sharing of money across the EU. We have bodies such as CAB, which celebrated its anniversary this year and which does good work. It has been effective at shutting down certain criminal organisations that have acted with impunity. Bodies such as the bureau will be enabled by the legislation. They will now be able to contact a single point of access to find out about bank accounts of people in their own jurisdiction. Previously, the bureau, for example, would have had to write to its counterparts in every EU state. That is an unsustainable system. It allows things to fall through gaps. It is much better to have the information held centrally for those who need to have access to it, and only them.

When we talk about the centralisation of information, we already know that the information is available to CAB in the context of Irish bank accounts. I do not believe anybody has a difficulty with it. It is appropriate that the authorities in this country would know, or would be able to find out, where bank accounts are held, when they were opened, etc. Having this information available to us across the EU is a natural extension of our partnership with our EU neighbours. That a border exists between us and France, for example, should not mean that the bureau cannot find out whether a person of interest to it has a series of bank accounts in Lyon, Marseille, Paris or elsewhere. This motion is a common-sense extension of the anti-money-laundering legislation that we have supported in these Houses. It is a common-sense conclusion to come to, even though I realise there are more matters to be dealt with and a 6th protocol coming down the line. It is logical to get to a point where we are sharing information with our European colleagues. Perhaps more important, we benefit from the information they share with us. This is an important motion to support because it will facilitate greater action by authorities such as CAB and An Garda Síochána in tackling money laundering, other criminal activity and the assets derived therefrom.

I will be brief. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for introducing the motion. It is important to have collaboration and co-operation, as Senator Ward said. It is important if we are serious about tackling crime and the money from criminal activity. We need to know that knowledge is power. I thank the Minister of State for making his statement to the House and allowing this debate. It is essential. Engagement is important so we will know what is happening. I fully support the motion.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit ar ais go dtí an Teach. Fianna Fáil is delighted to support the motion, which is about an aid for the EU in its fight against criminal financial activity. The proposal, as I understand it, would create a central register where bank accounts would be accessible all across Europe. That makes perfect sense. I understand this motion must be passed in both Houses of the Oireachtas. We have had a three-month window in which to pass the measure. It expires on 1 November but I have no doubt that we will meet the deadline.

The Attorney General has given the proposal his blessing, which gives us some comfort. When I was researching this matter last year, I discovered illegal revenue generated by criminal activities in the EU amounted to €139 million in 2019. This shows the magnitude of the task that lies ahead of the EU. Any measure we can introduce to assist with the sharing of information is to be welcomed. In that regard, I am delighted we are discussing this motion this afternoon. If Ireland were not to support it, it would send a bad message about our commitment to fighting money laundering and other criminal activity of a financial nature. I fully support the motion.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Criminals, as the people of this State and the North know only too well, are becoming increasingly sophisticated as they ply their dangerous trade, whether it is peddling drugs on the streets or killing each other and many innocent people over personal and territorial disputes.

Even last night we saw with the BBC "Spotlight" programme that they are now diverting their activities to puppy smuggling because it is a cash-rich business. I welcome the debate on this motion, although I question that the time allowed for debate on such EU directives is very short and it is rushed. Perhaps we can reflect on that and make more time for the debates.

Sinn Féin supports the motion and believes wherever the criminal is, the State must be as well. The motion is, of course, about making it clear to criminals in the State that we will pursue criminal behaviour wherever it surfaces and in whichever guise it surfaces. Sinn Féin brought forward its proceeds of crime Bill to make it crystal clear it supports measures of this nature to dismantle criminal infrastructure wherever it exists. There is no better place to start than the pockets and seizing the financial assets of criminals, such as money in this instance. Sinn Féin fully supports the Criminal Assets Bureau and its ability to seize the assets of criminals. Nevertheless, it is disappointing the Government has delayed unnecessarily the bringing forward of our Bill. We are three weeks off the deadline so there is an urgency in the matter.

We welcome the proposal at an EU level aimed at stopping money laundering by criminals through financial institutions. Although, as I have said, we have no problem supporting that, we call for greater debate around EU directives that have profound implications on the people in this country. That should not be rushed and it should be given the time warranted in both Houses.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. We in the Labour Party very much welcome this motion. Picking up on Senator Boylan's comments on the timing of the debate, we know the deadline is 1 November for opting into this security directive. It is a little uncomfortable being so close to that date, and we have seen this rushed through both Houses of the Oireachtas within 48 hours. Again, we would like to see more time being allocated to really important developments like this.

Speaking to the directive, as everybody has said, it makes absolute sense to have a centralised register and there should be no administrative hurdles in the way of our police force in it trying to combat financial crime across Europe. An Garda Síochána and the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, should not be beholden to national borders. I am sure many Members saw the article a number of days ago in The Irish Times about 50 young persons being identified as recruited to be money mules. There are consequences for those young people, who in a variety of circumstances we can only imagine, have allowed themselves to be duped into effectively processing money illegally for an international crime gang. They will, of course, suffer the consequences and live with them for a long time.

The important issue is to get to the top of those gangs so they are not allowed to prosper and continue. We must strengthen the tools used in policing and investigating those gangs. We very much support this motion and our opting into the directive. We would like to have more time to discuss these very important EU directives in future.

On behalf of the Green Party, Comhaontas Glas, I confirm the party's support for this motion. A previous contributor commented that where crime should be, the State should be. That may be the case but it is often a reaction rather than being proactive. It is easy for me to say from the Seanad Chamber but if at all possible we must get ahead of the criminals who are so sophisticated in their lust for greed. Human life means nothing to them.

I also agree with the comments that this Chamber has great potential to devote much more time to important initiatives and directives from Europe. It is an exciting development that we will see in the Upper House in the months and, I hope, years to come.

To clarify, only spokespersons are allowed to contribute. I acknowledge that Senator Paddy Burke is in the Chamber and wished to speak but only one speaker is allowed per grouping. I thank Members for their contributions.

I thank Senators Ward, Boyhan, Gallagher, Boylan, Sherlock and Martin for their contributions. Unfortunately, under the protocol there is only ever a three-month window for opting in, and passing it requires a recommendation to the Government, Government approval and passage in both Houses. I regret that it will always be a tight timeline in dealing with options for the protocol.

I thank the Senators who contributed to the discussion and I welcome the broad support for the proposal. As I indicated earlier, the proposed directive amends a directive we have already opted into, Directive (EU) 2019/1153, widening access to bank account registers, otherwise known as BAR, single access point. This proposal is linked to a suite of EU proposals in reforming the EU's anti-money laundering framework published in July that do not fall within the freedom, security and justice legal basis. This proposed directive is still subject to negotiations on the overall suite of anti-money laundering reforms.

I reiterate that there are clear reputational reasons for opting into the proposed directive and our opting in will reflect on our status as a committed EU member and our visible commitment to an EU anti-money laundering framework, as well as adding to our reputation as an attractive and safe place to invest in and do business.

Ireland's opting into this directive will be an important element for the smooth functioning of our national anti-money laundering framework as it requires that the information from the national centralised bank account registries be available through the bank account registers single access point at EU level, which will be developed and operated by the European Commission.

Ireland continues to enhance our anti-money laundering framework. The Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) (Amendment) Act 2021 transposes the criminal justice elements and several non-criminal justice elements of the 5th EU anti-money laundering directive. This Act ensures our regulatory framework keeps pace with the increasing integration of financial flows in the internal market and evolving trends and technological developments in the prevention of organised crime. It enhances the range of measures countering money laundering by reflecting modern developments and it will also help bring us in line with EU obligations.

Ireland and the EU share a strong commitment to the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing. Law enforcement and financial institutions are reporting an increasing trend towards cyber-enabled economic crimes. There should be zero tolerance for illicit money, as criminals will exploit all possible avenues to pursue their illicit activities to the detriment of society. We remain determined to ensure criminals do not benefit from the proceeds of these crimes.

The targeting of money laundering is central to fighting organised crime. Ireland has a robust legislative framework, both criminal and civil, that allows for the freezing, seizure and confiscation of assets derived from criminal conduct. By pursuing those proceeds, we can bring those responsible to justice and meaningfully reduce the incentives to commit crimes in the first place.

This proposal is minor and practical and opting in will enable us to participate more fully in and reap more benefits from the EU's anti-money laundering framework. The action plan for a comprehensive EU policy on preventing money laundering and terrorist financing adopted by the Commission in May 2020 emphasises that the Union-wide interconnection between centralised bank account registries is necessary to speed up financial intelligence unit and law enforcement authority access to bank accounts and information, as well as facilitating cross-border co-operation. The EU's security union strategy of July 2020 also stresses that such interconnection could significantly speed up financial intelligent unit and competent authority access to financial information. For all these reasons and those outlined in my opening statement, I once again ask Senators to support the motion and Ireland's continued engagement with the EU's anti-money laundering framework.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 3.10 p.m. and resumed at 3.45 p.m.