I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. At first glance it may not appear to be very important or wide-ranging legislation but when one considers the central theme of it, one can see it is hugely important.
This Bill, which will give force of law to the convention drawn up on the use of information technology for customs and excise purposes between EU countries, should prove very useful. I hope it will result in a greater curb on illegal drug traffickers and those engaged in other illegal activity. Whatever about Ireland's unique features as an island nation and the many good things it has going for it, from an international security point of view, it must be a haven for anyone who wishes to traffick illegally in drugs, etc. It has probably a longer coastline in proportion to its size and population than any other country. It must be a nightmare to police the shoreline and this is something which has come to our notice on more than one occasion over the years. Given the ruggedness of the coastline, it must be extremely difficult to have any sort of land or sea supervision. It is, therefore, very important that some of the provisions in the Bill work.
The greatest scourge of this country is the drugs problem. During my many years as a Member of this House I have seen a great amount of legislation enacted, all with the best of intentions. The problem as always is that anybody who wants an illegal drug can get it. Where there is a will there is a way and that has been the case through the years. Whatever about the distribution chain, which is a different issue, the supply chain is alive and well. Given the technology that has become available over the years it is difficult to understand why there has not been a more concerted effort and integrated approach because those involved in drug trafficking, no matter where they come from, must be known to a police force or customs officials somewhere in the world.
There is nothing secret in the world. The key question is linking information and technology and the way they are used. The Bill could be extremely useful. When I hear of drugs seizures off our coastline I think of how blessed we are to have the personnel and agencies required to curb this activity. However, I am around long enough to know that for every seizure made many more get through and the agencies involved will agree.
There were high profile seizures over the past year or two for which the relevant authorities should be commended but the problem is that, despite such seizures, large amounts of drugs still get through. It does not matter which constituency one represents as there is now a drug culture in the smallest towns and villages. We should spend day and night in the House considering initiatives to cut off the supply line.
The Bill covers a number of other areas but if we were to effect greater seizures against drug traffickers, who are the worst people imaginable, it would be worthwhile. No words can describe the people involved in drug trafficking and no penalty would be too severe. The legislation covers hot pursuit across borders but if the individuals involved can be apprehended anywhere we will have done a great day's work.
Our society must come to grips with the problem. All aspects of the drug distribution chain must be monitored, including small-time drug pushers, although that is a debate for another day. The only hope is to cut off the supply line through whatever surveillance means are necessary, utilising an array of State agencies. The agencies could then liaise internationally with similar bodies. A great deal could be done using the databases that are available which could never even have been contemplated before. The Bill aims to utilise such information technology and I hope more countries will sign up to the convention. If there could be a reasonable clampdown on illegal traffickers it would be a job well done.
There are other illegal traffickers on the high seas, including alcohol and tobacco smugglers. These activities impinge on the economy. Potential jobs are lost and the Exchequer loses out in terms of taxes. I am extremely impressed by the operations of the Customs National Drugs Team to date. The team comprises a staff of 85 but they can only be motivators because if they do not get the co-operation of a variety of other agencies they will not win the war. I assume the 700 Customs and Excise officials are an integral part of this massive movement.
The relationship between the Garda and the Revenue Commissioners seems to be on a better footing than it was previously. There was no reason for an information deficit between them in this area.
Ireland has a long coastline. There are only eight ships in the Naval Service and they were deployed in the field of fishery protection originally. In this technological era extra responsibility could be given to the naval fleet. I do not wish to give the Naval Service more work but it is in an important role to help in the drive against drug trafficking. It is likely that the number of ships in the Naval Service will increase in the years to come. I am spokesperson on the marine for my party and the problem remains that the service is not in a position to prevent foreign trawlers from fishing illegally in Irish waters. The Naval Service has a huge role to play and I ask the Minister of State to refer to that when he replies. How much will the Naval Service be involved in future? Is it represented on an overall co-ordinating committee? What equipment is used on the naval vessels to help in the fight against drug trafficking?
I compliment the Criminal Assets Bureau. It is good to read about high powered people losing their ill-gotten gains. The CAB has an important role to play. The only problem is that the criminals must be caught first before their assets can be seized. The relationship between the CNDT, the Garda, the Revenue Commissioners and the Naval Service in the battle against drug trafficking will decide whether the battle will be won or lost.
I refer to co-operation between trade associations, independent companies or anybody involved in the movement of goods. It is similar to a whistleblower's regime and it is a great idea. They also act as eyes and ears for State agencies. I was not aware of that and I would like to know more. That is similar to asking every law abiding citizen to help the Garda Síochána for the reason of keeping down the rate of crime. I assume that is what is behind it.
Will the Minister indicate the type of associations involved and the level of their involvement? Why do they do it? I assume there is a certain level of self-interest because if this could be built on, it would make the smugglers' attempts much more difficult. Many more pairs of eyes than usual would be watching them.
I am intrigued by the section and I would like to know more about it. If I interpreted the provision properly, it appears that a case can only proceed to the European court if it has been heard in the Supreme Court. I assume the purpose of this is to expedite the number of cases heard here, although I presume there are more detailed legal reasons for it.
People involved in money laundering are extremely good at their job. I understand the technical aspects of money laundering are breathtaking. It was explained to me recently by a member of the security forces that there is no known limit on what money launderers can do. It involves a web of deceit from the top to the bottom and anything that would put an end to it would be extremely useful.
No other country involved in this agreement would be more aware of the sensitivities involved in hot pursuit than Ireland because of the Border. In common with other Members, I would not like unwarranted intrusions across the Border. This view would be shared by most of the Deputies present. However, when the national interest was at stake with regard to smuggling, many difficult choices had to be made. For example, if a strict regime had not been in place during the BSE crisis over the past four or five years, there would be even more problems now.
It depends on what we are trying to stamp out. If a drugs baron was in the process of dumping illegal and damaging drugs that would affect the lives of thousands of young people, I would not be too worried about the borders I crossed in order to nail him. This is putting it at its simplest, but many people throughout Europe would share that view. I am aware of different cultures and that countries approach issues differently, but the great common denominator now is a desire to stop drug trafficking. Wherever one goes in the world, most societies are against drug trafficking.
The Minister said that Ireland is opting out of the hot pursuit provision. I have an open mind on the issue, but I would have thought that if it came down to brass tacks it would be a chilling experience for everybody concerned if a person escaped just because a border could not be crossed. I assume other measures can be put in place to counterbalance that decision.
There are many other reasons that the Bill should be implemented successfully, such as international terrorism. This is on the increase and it always amazes me when I hear that semtex has been smuggled into Ireland. I assume it cannot be smuggled in easily, but it appears to arrive anyway. Anything that would enable people involved in such smuggling to be apprehended would be hugely important.
The Government's White Paper on Defence stated there was no case to be made for broadening the role of the Naval Service. This is difficult to understand, particularly in the context of this Bill and the actions the Minister proposes to take. I do not understand why the role of the Naval Service should not be broadened. Is it the case that one Department does not know what another is doing? It is important that the Departments of Defence, the Marine and Natural Resources and Finance reconsider that matter. I do not know what the review committee on the White Paper intended when it mentioned not broadening the role of the Naval Service. It would be extremely difficult to argue against broadening its role in the context of the Minister's proposals.