Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 26 Nov 2009

Vol. 696 No. 2

EU Council Decisions: Motions.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion provided by Article 1.11 of the Treaty of Amsterdam to take part in the adoption of the following proposed measure:

a proposal for a Council Framework Decision on Accreditation of forensic service providers carrying out laboratory activities,

a copy of which proposed measure was laid before Dáil Éireann on 3 November 2009.

Question put and agreed to.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion provided by Article 1.11 of the Treaty of Amsterdam to take part in the adoption of the following proposed measure:

a proposal for a Council Framework Decision on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings, and protecting victims, repealing Framework Decision 2002/629/JHA,

a copy of which proposed measure was laid before Dáil Éireann on 4 November 2009.

Question put and agreed to.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion provided by Article 1.11 of the Treaty of Amsterdam to take part in the adoption the following proposed measure:

a proposal for a Council Decision concerning the signing of the Agreement between the European Union and Japan on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters,

a copy of which proposed measure was laid before Dáil Éireann on 12 November 2009.

Question put and agreed to.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion provided by Article 1.11 of the Treaty of Amsterdam to take part in the adoption of the following proposed measure:

a proposal for a Council Decision concerning the signing of the Agreement between the European Union and the United States of America on the processing and transfer of Financial Messaging Data from the European Union to the United States for purposes of the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme,

a copy of which proposed measure was laid before Dáil Éireann on 17 November 2009.

Question put and agreed to.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion provided by Article 1.11 of the Treaty of Amsterdam to take part in the adoption of the following proposed measure:

a proposal for a Council Decision on the use of information technology for customs purposes,

a copy of which proposed measure was laid before Dáil Éireann on 25 November 2009.

This motion deals with the Council decision on the use of information technology for customs purposes. The customs information system, CIS, a computerised network database, which is the subject of the proposed European Council decision, is one of the tools used by customs services in the member states of the European Union to co-operate with each other in combating smuggling and customs fraud.

International co-operation between customs administrations is not new. On its accession to the EEC in 1973, Ireland became party to the Naples Convention, drawn up in 1967. That convention proved invaluable to customs administrations in what is now the EU in dealing with cases involving smuggling of prohibited substances, including drugs, restricted goods, such as guns and ammunition, and dutiable goods, such as alcohol and tobacco products. Since then, Customs and Excise has been continually introducing new tools to combat smuggling, including the introduction of a scanner and the Customs cutter, and continually updating the legal bases for co-operation with colleagues in other member states as the need arose. A second scanner and cutter will also be operational by the end of this year.

The success of this co-operation and sharing of intelligence can be demonstrated by the fact that seizures of cigarettes and "roll your own" tobacco more than doubled by value since 2007. Some 74.5 million cigarettes were seized in 2007 and 135 million in 2008. In addition, Customs seized more than 1,500 kg of "roll your own" tobacco in 2007 and almost 3,100 kg in 2008. During the period January to October 2009, more than 200 million cigarettes have been seized with a retail value of approximately €80.5 million. This includes the recent seizure on 27 October of some 120 million cigarettes at Greenore Port, which was valued at €50 million.

Alcohol seizures increased from 139 seizures in 2007 to 282 in 2008. This involved the seizure of more than 22,800 litres of beer, wine and spirits in 2007 and more than 83,000 litres in 2008. During the period January to October 2009, there were 319 seizures of alcohol, totalling almost 90,000 litres of beer, wine and spirits.

Drug seizures in 2008 included the seizure of more than 1.6 tonnes of cocaine and heroin. One of the largest cocaine seizures in the history of the State, with an estimated street value of €105 million, took place in November 2008. Other large seizures during 2008 included two consignments of cannabis, valued at €18 million, in Rosslare and 10 kg of heroin valued at €2 million. The overall street value for drugs seized in 2008 was over €152 million. During the period January to October 2009, drugs with a street value of €42 million were seized.

Cash seizures in 2008, representing the proceeds of crime, amounted to €3.5 million, seven times more than Customs seized in 2007. During the period January to October 2009, the net amount of cash seized amounted to €1 million.

Most of the large seizures were made as a result of intelligence. This is the strongest indication of the increased effectiveness of the intelligence capability of Customs and Excise and of good quality inter-agency co-operation in Ireland and internationally. However, we cannot be complacent and we must consider the potential losses to the Exchequer of such activities, their effect on legitimate business and the impact of drug abuse on our communities. The people engaged in smuggling activities are becoming more sophisticated in their approach and more ruthless in their determination.

One of the initiatives taken at EU level to combat smuggling was the development of the customs information system, CIS. On completion of the Single Market in 1993, the EU decided to build an information system specifically for customs, aimed at ensuring that the relevant officers would have immediate access to information on suspicious border crossings throughout the EU. The reasons for setting up this system, which are equally valid today, were the abolition of normal customs controls at the internal EU frontiers on completion of the Single Market and the effect this could have on the ability of customs to combat smuggling including drug trafficking; the clear need to enhance existing arrangements for co-operation between the customs services in the member states and to improve the effectiveness of customs controls, particularly at the external frontiers of the EU; the success of and improvements in technology had demonstrated the benefits of fully using the potential of such technology for the rapid dissemination of information between customs offices across the EU; and the increased sophistication of the techniques used by those involved in transnational organised crime.

The aim of the CIS is to enable national customs services to exchange and disseminate information on smuggling activities and requests for action. Since information can be accessed quickly, legitimate trade can be facilitated, while customs and police officers can act effectively on the basis of information from other customs services in relation to possible illegal activities. Its purpose is to assist in preventing, investigating, and prosecuting serious contraventions of customs law. The system is a computerised network comprising the central database in Brussels, with terminals in all the member states linked to that database. The CIS consists of two parts to the central database, each of which is similar in structure. They are underpinned by two separate legal bases to cover both the first pillar, which deals with the three communities of the European Community, the European Atomic Energy Community, EAEC or EURATOM, and the former European Coal and Steel Community, ECSC, and the third pillar, which deals with police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters. The legal bases are a Community regulation dealing with first pillar customs fraud, Regulation (EC) No 515/97, which was amended most recently in 2008 by Regulation (EC) No 766/08; and a convention dating from 1995, which also has a number of subsequent associated Protocols covering third Pillar customs-related matters.

In each of the databases, the main categories of information collected relate to commodities, means of transport, businesses, persons and fraud trends. Direct access to data is reserved exclusively for the national authorities designated by each member state. Revenue has been designated as the national authority for Ireland. Within Revenue, there are 17 terminals located throughout the country, primarily at the ports and airports, with between two and five users in each location authorised to interrogate the system and input cases.

The Council decision we are dealing with today is to provide a fresh legal basis for the third pillar CIS in order to allow the information to be used more fully. Part of the rationale for the decision is also to consolidate, update and replace the existing CIS Convention, as well as a number of protocols. These are a protocol dating from March 1999 on the laundering of the proceeds of breaches of customs legislation and the inclusion of the registration number of the means of transport in the list of information which could be exchanged between member states; and a protocol dating from May 2003 and providing for the creation of a customs files identification database, which has an intelligence focus on persons or businesses that have been or are the subject of investigations in the member states in connection with serious breaches of customs legislation.

It is important to note, as already indicated, that the system has been in operation for some years, with the CIS convention and the protocols underpinning it from a legal perspective. Consequently, customs administrations in the member states are already allowed to exchange information using CIS in respect of breaches of customs legislation. A proposal was made by the French Presidency in 2008 to replace the convention and existing protocols with this new Council decision. The decision was also regarded as being necessary to adapt the existing legal basis better to the control services' requirements and to allow information on the CIS, which is currently only an alert system, to be used for operational and strategic analysis.

The European Parliament has passed its opinion and the Swedish Presidency plans to have this decision adopted as an A point at the Council of Justice and Home Affairs Ministers on 30 November 2009. I have circulated with my speech the main elements of the decision.

I welcome the agreement that has been reached in respect of the Council decision on the use of information technology for customs purposes. This decision will lead to the various member states of the European Union coming together to use the best technology possible in order to combat the type of smuggling that has become more high profile in recent years.

The Minister of State referred to recent seizures of cigarettes and drugs off our coasts. However, the south-west coast appears to be extremely vulnerable with regard to the smuggling of drugs. Ships are able to drop large quantities of illegal materials some miles off the south-west coast where they can be picked up by locals interested in seeing to it that they reach the Irish market. There is a considerable amount of work to be done in respect of this part of the coast. I accept that it is not easy to police it. Some fishermen who used to provide intelligence to the authorities are not as co-operative as previously because they were adversely affected by legislation that was introduced in recent times. The various peninsulas located in Cork and Kerry appear to make the coastline there particularly vulnerable in the context of illegal activities. I accept that the technology to which this decision relates will be used but perhaps the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform might consider introducing further technology, in the context of the legislation necessary to implement the decision before 27 May 2010, to assist in combating the type of smuggling to which I refer.

There is evidence of a significant increase in the amount of coal being smuggled into this jurisdiction from Scotland and elsewhere. Perhaps this matter might be contemplated by the tax and excise provisions — particularly as they relate to a carbon tax — that will be contained in the budget to be introduced on 9 December by the Minister for Finance. There is a need to monitor the increase in the type of illegal activity to which I refer and to take action in respect of it.

Will the Minister of State indicate where Ireland's terminals relating to the CIS system are located? How many people are involved in their operation? Is the information gathered here through the system expected to be used in court cases? What is the status of such information in the context of its being used to assist in apprehending those involved in smuggling rings? Is the CIS linked to the US system? What level of co-operation exists between the EU and the US with regard to dealing with many of the issues to which the Minister of State referred?

I welcome the fact that there is co-operation among EU member states. The Council's decision will certainly underpin this co-operation. However, there is a need to go beyond that. Is it possible that an agreement might be reached between the EU and the US in order that information might be shared and the high profile and highly illegal smuggling of drugs, cigarettes and solid fuel might be stamped out? Such an agreement would allow the European Union to co-operate more fully with other continents to ensure that the Irish Exchequer and Irish businesses do not operate at a disadvantage as contraband cigarettes and other products are placed on the market at very low prices which makes a huge contribution to the loss of finance to the Exchequer and to losses for businesses as they have to compete with this activity on our streets.

I welcome this opportunity to support the Council decision and I welcome the intentions of the Minister of State, as outlined in his contribution, to implement this in Irish law prior to May 2010.

The Labour Party welcomes Ireland signing up to these arrangements. Cigarette smuggling is estimated to cost the State approximately €500 million a year. Given the very bad state of the public finances it is important to remind people who buy smuggled cigarettes, whether on street corners or out of the back of vans, that the cost to everybody is enormous. The capacity of smuggled cigarettes to damage an individual's health even more than ordinary cigarettes properly manufactured and vouched for by the manufacturers is very considerable.

The recent discoveries have been extremely helpful and I congratulate the Customs Service, the Revenue Commissioners and the gardaí. However, former Scotland Yard officers have pointed to the fact that the penalties in Ireland for cigarette smuggling are exceptionally low. Where prosecutions are undertaken — and the number of prosecutions is relatively small — the average fine for cigarette smuggling is only approximately €500. I want to draw the attention of the Minister of State to the remarks reported in the Irish Examiner of John O’Connor, a retired flying squad commander, that “the average fine cigarette smugglers were being hit with in Ireland was minuscule. Any attempt to dissuade gangs from smuggling in major shipments of contraband would fail unless the fines system was toughened up”. He also made the important point that Ireland is seen as a fairly attractive staging post for smuggling and that historically, the number of prosecutions taken by Ireland for smuggling is small and that the penalties average approximately €500.

For a professional criminal or smuggler, being brought before the courts and fined or imprisoned is part of the risk of the trade, and an average fine of €500 is seriously laughable and would not deter these people for a moment. We need to re-examine what is going on. We have a long coastline and we are an attractive jumping-off point. We have a record of IRA and loyalist paramilitaries, who were always criminals but signed up in paramilitary colours, who have now slipped over to criminality. They have very sophisticated networks and full-time businesses in cigarette smuggling. Not enough is being done to dampen it down or to create a consciousness among purchasers of contraband of the additional health risks they run by using contraband cigarettes or of the economic damage being inflicted on the country by the loss of €500 million in tax revenues because of the failure to stop smuggling.

Will the Minister of State explain what proposals there are to change the penalty structure and impose serious penalties that would make professional criminals think twice? Have the Minister of State or the Government had discussions with the Garda Commissioner on community policing in areas where contraband cigarettes are being openly sold? In many highly-visible city centre areas one can see people on the street selling cigarettes. We also know cigarettes are sold through commercial channels. It is a challenge for the Government.

We need community-based policing to tap somebody selling cigarettes on the street and stop them. Instead, we have to look at people loitering with intent. Local people know what is happening. I do not know whether the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has spoken to the Garda Commissioner about reducing the level of sales. People are selling with impunity on streets in Irish towns and cities because there is no serious local community Garda presence in a persistent and consistent basis over a period of time to stop the selling of contraband.

This is important and it is heavily related to the drugs trade. People can use the enormous profits they make in selling contraband cigarette to invest in the drugs trade. These are professional criminals who see themselves as business people investing in smuggling and investing the profits of their smuggling in the drugs trade. Government action in this regard has been very lacking in joined up connections to deter selling on our streets and other channels, of which I am sure the Minister of State is perfectly aware.

I have raised the issue of intelligence on many occasions. Private airports in Ireland are not regularly or sufficiently scrutinised. A number of years ago, a flight from a continental airport to Weston Airport was used for drug smuggling purposes. We have many private airports but regulation of the comings and goings of craft is strictly limited, which creates an open opportunity to smuggle contraband which can be used in Ireland or brought to the North and on to the UK.

In the run up to the budget, various people on behalf of the cigarette lobby have suggested, as has the drinks trade, that in Ireland excise duty on products such as cigarettes is very high and that it should not be raised, although very good health reasons exist for increasing it. This is against a background not of the objective cost of cigarettes versus the cost to the health services over the long term of high cigarette consumption in this country but that much revenue is lost by legitimate traders through the huge sales of contraband in this country.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr. James Hamilton, recently stated that one in every four cigarettes smoked in Ireland contains illegally imported tobacco. They are sold on the streets, in pubs and clubs and through agents. An information campaign is needed to advise the public that the quality of these smuggled cigarettes is not guaranteed. They may be highly carcinogenic because of the additives used in them. The people involved in the smuggling case in Greenore appeared to be operating a cigarette factory along the Border. They were manufacturing cigarettes from contraband tobacco. Smugglers do not even get a slap on the wrist given that they pay a fine of €500.

I hope the Minister of State will tell us that the Government has serious plans in place to persuade people not to use contraband tobacco for the sake of their health in particular. I am sure the Minister for Finance could do with an extra €500 million in tax revenue. Law and order would benefit enormously if the professional smugglers of cigarettes and drugs were brought before the courts and jailed.

I thank Deputies for their support. As most of us are aware, Ireland has a very long coastline and has been vulnerable to smuggling for centuries. I note Deputy Hogan's comments about coal smuggling and am sure the relevant agencies are aware of the matter.

I agree with Deputy Burton regarding the costs of cigarette smuggling in terms of undermining social solidarity, taking badly needed funds from the Exchequer and impacting on health. Although we must not be under any illusion about how much smuggling we can prevent, we are stepping up our efforts in this regard. I do not think the Deputy is correct in regard to penalties. On 13 October 2009, the Minister for Finance stated:

The penalties for cigarette smuggling provided under legislation on summary conviction, are a monetary fine not exceeding €5,000 and/or a custodial sentence not exceeding 12 months. These are the maximum penalties that can be imposed at District Court level. The penalties for conviction on indictment are €12,695 or treble the duty-paid value, whichever is the greater, and/or a custodial sentence not exceeding 5 years. These penalties are considered adequate.

I accept those are the penalties but the average fine is €500.

That is not primarily a legislative issue, however. I am aware of the connection between smuggling and dissident paramilitary activity but it would be wrong to be entirely reductionist because it is certainly not the case that the majority of smugglers are from paramilitary backgrounds. However, the fact of this connection throws light on the supposed ideals of such organisations.

Deputy Burton's comments on community policing and the graduation from contraband cigarettes to drugs are valid but there is no reason for the Garda to avoid acting against people who sell contraband. Whenever rates of excise duty are set for budgetary or health purposes, the impact on smuggling must be borne in mind. The higher the rate, the greater the incentive for smuggling. At the same time, however, one cannot lower the duties solely for that reason.

Question put and agreed to.