The main benefit of this new Customs Bill will be, in theory at least, that it will strengthen the overall role of Customs and Excise, as it will give its officers more powers to stop, seize and prosecute criminals who openly choose to break our laws for their personal gain. For example, section 6 of the Bill, will be a welcome tool in the arsenal of customs officials, as it will provide for the appointment of any place in the State as a customs port or airport for the arrival and departure of vessels into and out of the State. This will ultimately mean greater scrutiny of cargo and personal belongings in areas other than the main airports and shipping ports of this country.
As the House is aware, in recent times there have been reports that obscure beaches and small airfields are open to serious abuse by drug and criminal gangs. For example, along the large coastline of County Sligo, there have been numerous reports of speedboat activity occurring in the middle of the night along some of the most obscure beaches. I dread to think what is occurring in these instances. As I have mentioned on previous occasions, smuggling and related activities are rampant and their effects are apparent in my constituency of Sligo–Leitrim. Hopefully, this new Customs Bill will lead to an increase in efforts by Customs and Excise, Revenue and An Garda Síochána to combat offences and ultimately result in more criminal convictions, more fines being issued and the removal of illegal and unsafe products from our streets.
I would like to mention briefly the effects the smuggling of tobacco is having on retailers, such as those I met recently from Sligo. They are calling on us as a Legislature to control the sale of tobacco in this country. Retailers are governed by our laws on the conditions of the sale of tobacco and therefore must charge €10 per packet for 20 cigarettes. This is a stark comparison to the fact that today the same quantity of cigarettes can be bought on the streets of Sligo, like many other towns, for just €3 per packet.
I do not need to elaborate here how this activity is affecting their business trade, at a time when revenues are already dwindling. Three small retailers closed in Sligo town just last week.
Not one red cent of this €3 will make its way back to the Exchequer, and in fact, it will more than likely be used by criminal organisations to further their criminality and increase their profits in this country and beyond. Just this week we have seen the extent to which these criminal gangs will go in order to evade both the Irish customs officials and their counterparts in the United Kingdom. The massive seizure of over €2 million worth of raw tobacco in a joint raid by Customs and Excise, the PSNI and An Garda Síochána shows the smugglers' intent and capabilities.
Another area where the Customs Bill will be beneficial is in the State's attempts to tackle the rise in the online purchasing of counterfeit goods from which the State receives no VAT. This practice is on the rise internationally, and greater co-operation between Irish customs and our international partners is needed to combat this trend. A number of retailers in my constituency have informed me that this practice is having a damaging effect on local retailers.
While I strongly support the contents of the Bill, I believe that fine of just €5,000, listed in a number of sections of this Bill, for a person convicted of an offence under customs law is too lenient and should be examined again. This fine needs to be higher, as it will not deter people from taking the chance of smuggling illegal or prohibited goods, both into and out of the State at its current level.
Along with this welcome modernised customs legislation, I also strongly believe the State needs to invest more funding in the resources available to Customs and Excise, in order to help further combat the threat our country faces from smugglers and criminal gangs.
I have stated before that an agency similar to the Criminal Assets Bureau should be established within Customs and Excise and the Garda solely to tackle the importation and distribution of illegal tobacco products. There needs to be an intelligence-led strategy with officers seconded to this unit from the Garda and Customs and Excise who will target the importers and distributors throughout the country. It will cost money but this funding can be obtained through a levy or tax on cigarettes, rather than directly from the Exchequer. However, it would need a proper budget and mandate to tackle the crime of tobacco smuggling, which is estimated to cost the taxpayer €450 million per year.
It is clear from the facts that we are not winning the battle with these criminal gangs and smugglers at present. More financial resources for Customs and Excise and the Garda are needed along with this new legislation. However, I welcome the legislation and I hope it will be beneficial to their efforts.
I pay tribute to and commend the work the Irish Customs and Excise service does in protecting our State. It is often a thankless job and it is important that their hard work and effort is recognised and commended while discussing this new and welcome customs legislation.