I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Simon Harris.
Report on Cross-Border Police Co-operation: Statements
I thank Senators for allowing me the opportunity to address the report of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly on cross-Border police co-operation and illicit trade. I was pleased to meet the members of the assembly during its recent meeting in Dublin at which the report was discussed. I acknowledge the work of my colleague, Senator Paul Coghlan, who was co-author of the report and chairman of Committee A of the assembly which examined this issue and Senator Jim Walsh who is also a member of the committee.
I welcome the finding of Committee A that the current level of co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, is excellent, with evidence that both police forces are working closely together, formally and informally, on many issues. I also welcome the committee's conclusion that the joint cross-Border policing strategy, first launched in 2010, has contributed to the detection of criminal activity and better public safety across the island of Ireland by enhancing the policing capabilities of both police services. Also welcome is the committee's third finding that an all-island approach is necessary to tackle cross-Border illicit trade. In this context, I note the committee's welcome for the establishment since its last inquiry of the multi-agency, cross-Border fuel fraud enforcement group and the cross-Border tobacco fraud enforcement group. The three findings of the committee give us all cause to be pleased.
The report goes into some detail on the issues of fuel fraud and tobacco smuggling. While acknowledging the collaborative work done by the relevant agencies in tackling this issue, it expresses concern at ongoing activity in this regard. I join the committee in its commendation of the co-operation between the Revenue Commissioners and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs on their efforts in tackling these issues. In recognition of the fact that fuel fraud, including the laundering of markers from rebated fuel, is a significant threat to Exchequer revenues, Revenue is implementing a comprehensive strategy to address the problem. The licensing regime for auto fuel traders was strengthened with effect from September 2011 to limit the ability of criminals to place laundered fuel on the market. In October 2012 a new licensing regime was introduced for marked fuel traders to limit the ability of criminals to source marked fuel for laundering. In addition, new requirements in regard to fuel traders' records of stock movements and fuel deliveries have been introduced to ensure data will be available to support supply chain analysis. Following a significant investment in the required information technology systems, new supply chain controls were introduced from January 2013 to require all licensed fuel traders, whether dealing in road fuel or marked fuel, to make monthly electronic returns of their fuel transactions to Revenue. These data are being used to identify suspicious or anomalous transactions and patterns of distribution that will support follow-up enforcement action, where necessary.
Close co-operation in the framework of the cross-Border fuel fraud enforcement group with other enforcement authorities in this jurisdiction and Northern Ireland in combating the all-island problem of fuel fraud has proved effective in supporting the identification and targeting of the organised crime groups, many with links to paramilitaries and former paramilitaries, which are responsible for the bulk of fuel fraud. Following a joint process, Revenue and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs have identified a new and more effective product to mark rebated fuels. The new marker will be produced by the Dow Chemical Company and introduced in this State and the United Kingdom from the end of this month, providing a significant boost in the fight against illegal fuel laundering in both jurisdictions.
This has provided a significant boost, which I am sure Senators will welcome, in the fight against illegal fuel laundering in both jurisdictions. In addition, the Government has introduced a range of legislative measures in recent years to support Revenue's work in fighting fuel fraud, including reckless trading provisions, to ensure that a mineral oil trader is liable for the tax evaded where he or she knew or was reckless as to whether he or she was participating in a transaction or series of transactions connected to the evasion of the mineral oil tax. The Finance Act 2014 introduced measures to further strengthen Revenue's ability to refuse or revoke a mineral oil trader's licence where the trader does not comply with excise law, does not maintain adequate stock management systems and records, or provides false and misleading information.
I am pleased to report that Revenue's strategy has yielded significant results, and the report outlines its success in terms of fuel seizures and filling stations being shut down. Since mid-2011, 134 filling stations were closed for breaches of licensing conditions. More than 3 million litres of oil have been seized and 31 oil laundries were detected and closed. Industry sources report a much reduced incidence of laundered fuel on the market, and road diesel consumption and tax revenues have risen significantly compared with a couple of years ago. Despite the alarm expressed by the committee at the level of activity, the reports of a decrease in activity are to be welcomed. We should not be complacent, however. Other economic factors have contributed to the growth in diesel consumption but reduced fraud is also an important factor. I am confident that the introduction of the new marker from the end of the month will copperfasten the work already done in this area.
The committee's report referred to the impact of the illicit tobacco trade on legitimate business and the Exchequer. Combatting illegal tobacco trade will continue to be a high priority for Revenue. Its work to deal with this illegal activity includes a range of measures designed to identify and target those who engage in the supply or sale of illicit products, with a view to seizing the products and prosecuting those responsible. This multifaceted strategy includes: ongoing analysis of the nature and extent of the problem; developing and sharing intelligence on a national, EU and international basis; use of analytics and detection technologies; and ensuring the optimum deployment of resources at points of importation and within the country. Revenue officers also target the illicit trade at the post-importation stage by carrying out intelligence-based operations and random checks of retail outlets, markets and private and commercial premises. The annual survey conducted for the HSE and the Revenue Commissioners by IPSOS-MRBI indicates that 11% of cigarettes consumed in Ireland in 2013 were illicit. The survey results for 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 indicated illegal consumption rates of 15%, 14%, 14% and 13%, respectively. The Revenue Commissioners will continue to make tackling the trade in illicit tobacco products a key objective and the Government will ensure that any legislative action required to combat illicit tobacco trade is taken.
Revenue co-operates extensively with An Garda Síochána in combatting this illicit trade, and the relevant agencies in this State also work closely with their counterparts in Northern Ireland through a cross-Border initiative on tobacco enforcement to target the organised crime groups which are responsible for a large proportion of the illegal tobacco market. In addition, there is ongoing co-operation at international level with other revenue administrations and the European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF.
The report refers to the resources committed to tackling the illicit trade in tobacco products. The Revenue Commissioners have 2,000 staff who are engaged in activities dedicated to targeting and confronting non-compliance. These frontline activities include anti-smuggling and anti-evasion, investigation and prosecution, audit, assurance checks, anti-avoidance, returns compliance and debt collection. The organisation was subject to the staffing reduction imposed on all public bodies since 2009 and its overall staffing levels have decreased from 6,581 full-time equivalents at the end of 2008 to the current 5,661. Notwithstanding this reduction, Revenue staff resources assigned to compliance activities have been maintained. This is an indication of the priority the Government and Revenue attach to combatting illicit trade. The Revenue Commissioners are committed to ensuring that, despite staffing reductions in general across the organisation, enforcement work will be resourced to the maximum extent possible.
I again thank Senators for allowing me the opportunity to address the report by the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly on cross-Border police co-operation and illicit trade. I commend the members of Committee A of the assembly for their excellent and timely work on an issue that is important not only in terms of criminal and justice matters but also, from the perspective of the Department of Finance, the Exchequer and Irish taxpayer. I have outlined the many administrative and legislative measures that have been introduced in recent years to tackle cross-Border illicit trade. These measures are, thankfully, achieving success. The assembly recognised the excellent ongoing co-operation between the Garda and the PSNI and the benefits arising from the cross-Border policing strategy. It is important that we do all we can to strengthen that relationship. I assure Senators this Government will not take anything for granted. We will continue to do what we can to improve the situation. To this end, the assembly has offered interesting recommendations and insights which will be considered by officials in the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners in advance of the upcoming Finance Bill.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. As a member of Committee A, I can attest to the considerable amount of time that went into compiling this report. It was in the first instance conducted by way of hearing evidence from the various people involved in this area, including customs officials, police from the North and the South, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice. We accumulated sufficient information to get a feel for the situation but it was only when an initiative was taken, for which I commend Senator Paul Coghlan, to visit the areas in which these activities are carried out that we were struck by the way in which they are pursued with a degree of impunity. The authorities told us that they were applying themselves diligently to detection and bringing people to justice but it was hard to reconcile those assurances with what we saw on the ground, particularly given the number of units we observed that were involved in diesel laundering. We also spoke to a number of local people. The chairman of the committee will speak for himself but I came back from the visit more concerned than theretofore.
There is no doubt that issues of resources need to be addressed. The customs service in Northern Ireland carried out a cost-benefit analysis to demonstrate that the pay back from applying additional resources would more than cover the cost. This is something the Minister of State should consider in administrating services in this jurisdiction. I have heard figures for losses from illicit tobacco of approximately €525 million per annum, although this would not solely relate to the Border. A significant amount of tax is being lost to the Exchequer. In these times of austerity, it is imperative that taxes are collected where they are legitimately due.
The impact on the environment should not be understated. I understand that the water supplies for Dundalk, Castleblaney and other towns come from lakes and streams which contained cancer causing toxins. I presume these toxins, for which we saw evidence, ended up in the reservoirs supplying the aforementioned towns. I am not sure all of them would be eradicated by treating the water.
They are serious issues, to which the perpetrators will not be giving a second thought. Efforts are being made to develop a new marker. There is a great deal of hope and expectation that it will resolve the fuel laundering issue. The view of gardaí on the ground dealing with this issue is that the gangs involved are wealthy and have a great deal of money to invest in sophisticated equipment. It was reported in a recent edition of Forbes Magazine that the current income of the IRA is €50 million. ISIS, which is, apparently, the largest terrorist group, has income of approximately €2 billion. These are significant issues.
We strongly recommend, and this has been endorsed by the Assembly, the establishment of a task force which would mobilise authorities North and South to ensure that there is a singular focus on this issue. We identified a deficiency in the system in that policing in this area is being carried out as part of overall policing duties. This leads to competing priorities. The people involved in this very lucrative business are involved on a full-time basis. They are very professional. Unless the authorities put in place to tackle this problem have adequate resources and apply themselves full-time to tackling it, we are probably not going to resolve it.
Another issue of concern is the law with regard to phoenix companies. In other words, when a company is prosecuted for offences in this area it is allowed to fold and resume operation under a new name. This is a matter of frustration for the authorities. Action must be taken to tighten the law in this area. There is an issue of general lawlessness in this area, of which we have been aware for many years. It is now 17 years since the Good Friday Agreement. It is time the curtains came down on the softly-softly approach being taken to what is happening. The authorities have a significant role to play in that regard. The murder of Paul Quinn, which was a brutal, savage killing of a young man, was carried out by people who are known in the area. These are issues that should not be allowed to continue in a civilised society. Greater effort is needed in that regard.
I watched the proceedings of the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis last weekend. It was very professionally organised. Obviously, Sinn Féin is preparing for government. It is imperative that it distance itself from any of the activities that are going on in the Border area. It has been suggested that the couple recently caught smuggling cigarettes from Spain to Ireland have attended Sinn Féin events in recent years. It is important for Sinn Féin to participate in addressing this issue. As stated earlier, the committee believes that concerns regarding the ultimate beneficiaries and application of proceeds of these crimes can only be addressed through a more focused and concentrated effort to deal with these cross-Border activities, and thorough Criminal Assets Bureau and National Crime Agency investigation to follow the money trail. It would be untenable and unthinkable if any of this money was finding its way into the political process. Many of those who are involved are not dissidents; they are former members of the Provisional IRA who have some political connections. This is a serious issue for democracy, in my opinion.
I remind Members to stick to the time allocated, otherwise some Members will not get an opportunity to contribute.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Harris, for his opening marks. I also thank Senator Jim Walsh for his contribution. The work carried out by the committee over approximately one year was very interesting. We had many interesting meetings in Dublin, Belfast, Armagh and Louth with all of the relevant authorities, Ministers, North and South, the Garda Commissioner, the PSNI Chief Constable, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and Excise people and chief executives from three of the county councils in the Border area, the result of which was 16 recommendations to both Governments.
As outlined by Senator Walsh, the committee heard some startling evidence. In my view three of the 16 recommendations made are central. First, the cross-Border enforcement groups should establish a permanent, full-time task force dedicated to elimination of the activities of organised crime gangs involved in cross-Border illicit trade. Such a force should be provided with seconded staff from all relevant agencies, including environmental and criminal asset recovery agencies and supported by a central dedicated secretariat. As we discovered following what happened in Dundalk and Crossmaglen, the police cannot address this issue on their own. Gardaí in Dundalk have 34 crossing points to police. They are dealing with criminals. These are people who will jump through checkpoints and have driven bulldozers, tankers and other equipment at Garda checkpoints. Tackling this issue is not easy. The Garda need armed backup in some operations. The task force would provide that. Address of this issue requires the involvement of the police, Revenue, CAB and its Northern equivalent, customs and the environmental agencies.
The next issue of concern is the ease with which, once exposed, illegal operations can be transferred to another legal entity, enabling a business-as-usual appearance thanks to the concept of phoenix companies. I had never heard of these companies until the superintendent in Dundalk enlightened the committee about them. In this regard, the committee recommends that legislators in both jurisdictions re-examine company law in an effort to find a way to eliminate such capabilities. The committee believes, as set out in subparagraph (e), that the ultimate beneficiaries and application of proceeds of these crimes can only be addressed through a more focussed and concentrated effort to deal with these cross-Border activities, and thorough Criminal Assets Bureau and National Crime Agency investigation to follow the money trail.
As stated by the Minister of State, on the question of police co-operation there is no problem. Liaison between both is excellent and co-operation has never been better in the history of the State. We saw the ease with which both agencies were able to communicate with each other, be that communications between Dundalk and Belfast, Dundalk and Crossmaglen and so on. While they have very good intelligence they do not have sufficient manpower, North or South. In my view, there is less manpower on the northern side of the Border. We have heard a great deal about nods and winks in the context of the Good Friday Agreement. We do not believe that. There is no need for nods and winks in south Armagh because the police there are confined to barracks. The barracks in Crossmaglen is a fortress. Let us be honest, policing there is not normal. Even getting into the place is difficult, as we found on the day we visited it. It is bomb-proof, having been attacked with machine guns a few years ago. The police located there do not live in the local community. The last policemen from the community who lived there were murdered. Their photographs were shown to us. Policemen live in Portadown and so on.
The criminals involved in this area carry on pretty much regardless. We were shown 12 diesel operating fronts with the necessary back-up facilities for laundering. We were also shown two 40 ft. unmarked tankers at one of the premises, together with many other smaller tankers. Some of the premises also had shops. No doubt, part of these operations are legal, which is a tremendous front.
We witnessed at first hand the severe pollution of the Fane river system as a result of the discharge of waste wash from the plants. It was shocking. Across from many areas, we noticed blue, unofficial community alert notices and large monuments erected by former paramilitaries who seem to have some kind of continuing organisation on the ground to the present day. Someone jokingly asked whether I had heard of the B-Specials. When I said that I had, he told me that they had been got rid of with the RUC and that there was now the P-Specials. We can draw our own conclusions. That is what people there believe.
There is more I could say on this matter, but the co-operation has been excellent. Unfortunately, policing in Armagh is light. If a permanent task force is not established, the criminal overlords will be able to continue largely unheeded.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I wish to be clear at the outset, in that those involved in fuel laundering or the destruction of our environment through the dumping of toxic sludge are criminals. Those involved in smuggling tobacco or any other product are criminals. Those involved in stealing farm equipment or animals are criminals. Those criminals are absolutely no friends to the Border communities.
Recently, there has been a sinister and systematic upswing in criminality across the Border area. Being from Cavan, I have seen it at first hand and have constantly heard about it on the local news. Diesel laundering, cigarette smuggling, cattle rustling, vehicle theft, the financial extortion of local businesses and more have become a blight on our communities. The gangs involved operate on a cross-Border basis, are co-operating with one another and are intergenerational. There has been vilification and demonisation of the communities of north Louth and south Armagh in particular.
My party has been mentioned in some of this afternoon's contributions, but the reality is that some of the most prominent republican families associated with its leadership have been standing up to organised crime, resulting in their being physically attacked, threatened and targeted by the criminal gangs.
In a recent newspaper article, a journalist from the Independent group claimed that the illegal cigarette trade had become one of the IRA's main sources of income alongside fuel laundering and that the body still maintained its military structure. My party spokesperson, Deputy Mac Lochlainn, wrote to the Garda Commissioner. I can circulate copies of her response to Senators. The letter written by the Commissioner's private secretary on her behalf stated categorically that the Garda held no information or intelligence to support the assertion that the Provisional IRA still maintained its military structure and confined its criminal activities to fuel laundering, cigarette smuggling and counterfeiting. The letter also stated that, in 2009, the Independent Monitoring Commission confirmed that the IRA's structures had been disbanded and that, while some former members were engaged in crime for personal gain, they did so without sanction or support.
Republicans in the Border areas have been standing up to organised crime. In response, criminals have threatened their lives. As a republican, I condemn the criminals' actions. They are criminals and should be treated as such. I support all efforts made by the policing authorities on both sides of the Border to stamp this out, given the damage it is doing to communities in my area and around the Border. The attempt to kill Mr. Francis McCabe junior outside Crossmaglen only a few short weeks ago represented a new, violent escalation in the activities of criminal gangs in south Armagh and north Louth. This escalation followed death threats against Mr. Francis McCabe senior and Mr. Conor Murphy, MP, in recent weeks. In the past number of years, these criminal gangs have become bolder, more organised and more dangerous.
There is no support for criminality among Border communities. If we are to stop these criminals from operating, it is imperative that there be a symbiotic relationship between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána in their investigations. I have listened intently to what has been stated about the group's report. If extra funding is necessary, it should be made available. The immediate investment in policing and customs in the Border areas is the only long-term solution to this problem. It would be financially progressive for the economies North and South. The Dáil is examining the Customs Bill 2014, which can improve the work of Revenue and customs. I look forward to all Members who are passionate about the issue examining this legislation with a view to strengthening it on behalf of the Border communities that have been affected.
We must tackle tax evasion. The Revenue Commissioners have stated that hiring an extra 125 staff would allow them to collect an additional €100 million per annum. If we assigned some of those staff to customs, it would be a bold and practical step in taking on tax evaders and smugglers.
I cannot state more strongly or loudly that what is under discussion is criminality. I do not support it in any way, shape or form. I welcome BIPA's report. We must be resolute in our condemnation of the actions. Anything that can be done should be done.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome the opportunity to debate the report of BIPA's Committee A. I am standing in at short notice for a colleague. Unfortunately, Senator Moran is unwell. She is our representative in BIPA and has a strong interest in this issue.
I echo the comments of other colleagues on the necessity of ensuring a cross-Border approach to tackling this sort of illicit trade. Indeed, it is not trade, but criminal activity, as other Members have made clear. The Minister of State referred to fuel fraud and cigarette smuggling, which are serious concerns. I am a member of the justice committee, which has examined the consequences of the significant level of smuggling in terms of the very visible sale of cigarettes on the streets of central Dublin.
I welcome the report's important findings, particularly on the need for police co-operation. As the Minister of State mentioned, this is not just a matter for the Department of Finance, but also for the Department of Justice and Equality. The legislative and administrative measures that have been taken by the Government to support revenue and custom authorities as well as the police North and South cross both Departments and jurisdictions. I welcome the proactive steps that have been taken.
I have listened to my colleagues, who are more versed in this area and have worked on the report. It is good to hear of the levels of success achieved in tackling these issues. Given the ongoing difficulties in Stormont, it is good to hear of all-island mechanisms that are working well and cross-Border co-operation initiatives that are having tangible achievements. We welcome this and I support my colleagues. It is good to know that there is cross-party support for the report.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I will enthusiastically endorse the recommendations of the BIPA committee on cross-Border policing co-operation on illicit trade. Due recognition has been paid, and rightly so, to our friend and colleague, the Government Whip, Senator Paul Coghlan.
This is an important report because it focuses on an issue that those of us who live in the Border counties have been aware of for a long time. No one political party can be blamed, although the Troubles, as they were euphemistically called for 30 years, generated a new breed of unscrupulous criminal who, unfortunately, was aligned to the republican movement. Sinn Féin is a democratic party that has been elected on both sides of the Border by the people. If, as Senator Reilly just did, it now rightly condemns the panoply of smuggling, that is to be welcomed. I am not at all surprised to hear that some Sinn Féin members have been attacked. It indicates a split in the republican family, in that those who reluctantly gave up the gun decided to continue their smuggling activities.
It has not changed its political complexion one little bit. That is not the issue at heart, but sometimes I get a little tired of the hypocrisy surrounding the issue in certain areas.
The report confirms that the level of cross-Border co-operation between the law enforcement agencies and officials is excellent, but it raises concerns about the level of resources being devoted to tackle cross-Border illicit trade. I subscribe to the view that there should be cross-Border pursuit in some form. I know that this is a politically sensitive issue which dates back a long time and on which many discussions took place during the British army's more sustained occupation of the Six Counties, when, even if there was the slightest incursion by a helicopter or Border patrols, it stated the maps were wrong. This raised sensitive questions in Border counties, in respect of which people were very aware of the lines dividing the North from the South. As a result of the close co-operation following the Good Friday Agreement, with almost everybody on song, perhaps there might be justification to examine the issue of cross-Border pursuit on both sides if the law enforcement agencies on both sides were in any way inhibited from pursuing those involved in illegal smuggling.
The financial damage being done to local authorities in dealing with the sludge generated by illegal laundering outfits is horrendous at a time when local authorities throughout the country are finding it very difficult and being put to the pin of their collar financially. Last week I learned the reduction in the roads grant in County Leitrim from 2008 to 2015 had been in the order of 50%. I could not believe it. If this is happening in a small county such as Leitrim, what is it like in larger local authority areas? An extra financial burden is being placed on counties Monaghan, Louth and Cavan which suffer as a result of the activities of illegal traders because it costs millions to clean up toxic waste at fuel laundering sites.
The report notes the ease with which fuel fraud perpetrators can evade prosecution by transferring operations from one legal entity to another on detection. I find this somewhat frustrating. To draw a parallel, we dealt with international money laundering very effectively. Anybody with a bank account knows that every last cent must be accounted for and that one can longer go into a bank with a pile of money to put it into one's account without questions being asked. The same is true in the case of international business. I know that money laundering still occurs - I am not so naive as to think it does not - and that at the highest level billions of euro are involved. In general, money laundering legislation has worked, not only in this country but also throughout the European Union and the rest of the world. Why can we not address this issue in parallel by going after the fuel fraud perpetrators? If they operate legal entities, surely there must be a legislative model to ensure they can be chased, with the help of Revenue, the Garda and the PSNI.
I fully support the establishment of a permanent full-time multidisciplinary task force. It would be the beginning of a co-ordinated effort focusing on activities on both sides of the Border. I am impressed to hear 2,000 Revenue personnel are involved in enforcement activities on the Southern side of the Border. This gives an idea of the scale of the problem being faced. I have met several Revenue staff who constantly monitor the movement of fuel at Dublin Port and trace it to alleged illegal forecourts. I was always of the opinion that illegal fuel was laundered in fly-by-night operations, but in recent weeks the car of our Chief Whip was damaged by fuel he had purchased from a legitimate source in his native county of Cavan with which he had dealt for years. There was no reason to think the problem would occur. It involved a reputable internationally branded company, not a fly-by-night operator. The problem is infiltrating companies with status, as well as branded companies. It is a sad day that the Irish motorist must think twice before going to any forecourt in the Border counties to purchase fuel.
And much further south.
I am delighted that the Senator and his colleagues at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly have focused on this issue. I hope it will reinforce the Government's commitment, which I do not doubt for one moment, to try to eliminate this problem. We will never wipe out smuggling because it has been ongoing in the Border counties since God was a boy because of the various complexities involved in cross-Border trade and pricing. There must be a legislative way to go after the people involved. I encourage the Government to work in this direction.
I welcome the report. This is a national issue, although the hub is the Border. One is as likely, or more likely, to purchase laundered diesel in Tralee, Tipperary or Galway than in Dundalk. A point was made today by the First Minister about the situation in north Louth and south Armagh. The people of north Louth are and always have been law abiding. The people of Haggardstown, Hackballscross, Shelagh and Kilcurry are also law abiding and decent. When I think of south Armagh, I do not think of the nefarious diesel laundering plants but of the rolling drumlins and its great history, including the O'Neill graves in Creggan graveyard. I think of Anamar, Urney, Peadar Ó Doirnín, Art Mac Cumhaigh, the great poets and its cultural heritage. We put money into the peace project in Belfast and other places. As part of the project to get rid of diesel laundering, south Armagh needs special recognition that it also suffered during the Troubles. It needs economic revival in areas such as tourism. It has Slieve Gullion, where Fionn Mac Cumhail hunted the wild boar, and the great Fenian Cycle. When we think of the region, we should not always think of criminal activity but also of the possibilities.
The Government is making good progress on the issues of legislation and licensing. I do not know whether it will be like going to a chemist for a cough bottle, but none of them works. I have a feeling, however, that the issue is quite sophisticated.
Anecdotally, it is stated dissidents run tobacco operations and that the old Provos hang on to diesel operations. Six months ago I got a hint that things were moving along when one of the dons sent me a message that he had retired. I do not always agree with Sinn Féin Councillor Tomás Sharkey in County Louth, but time and again, when it was not popular to do so within his party, he spoke out against diesel laundering. He must be admired for this, if not for his economic philosophy.
We have heard about an attack on a Sinn Féin member which left me emotional. The fact is, for many years, those hard working and dedicated people in Revenue who have dealt with this matter have been subjected to intimidation. Some of them have had to install extra security in their homes and some of them have had their cars pipe bombed. Usually a convert is more zealous than the person who always was a member of a religious group. Let us hope that the conversion of some of the people, who were formerly agnostic as regards diesel laundering, will bear fruit.
I must say Senators Paul Coghlan and Jim Walsh, and all the other members of the BIPA committee, deserve the height of credit for their report and for highlighting the issue which we, in the Seanad, have debated for a long time.
I join in the welcome extended to the Minister of State to this important debate.
As a Senator who has raised the issue of illicit trade, particularly diesel and fuel laundering, on a number of occasions in this House so it is appropriate for me to make a few brief comments. I join with colleagues in complimenting Senator Paul Coghlan, and Senator Jim Walsh and others, who were involved in putting this very significant and important report together. It is crucial these criminals are put out of business quickly but that can only happen with the Garda, PSNI and all other authorities North and South of the Border co-operating to put an end to a criminality that has cost this State and the Northern Ireland Government significant amounts of money. The problem has had a significant impact on the environment because it damages water courses and costs local authorities a fortune to clean up the mess afterwards.
In the past couple of weeks I was contacted by a constituent from Laurencetown which is located just outside of Ballinasloe. She told me that her car and her daughter's car were damaged beyond repair as a result of faulty fuel or stretched petrol they had purchased from a filling station in Ballinasloe. The mother was fortunate because she had purchased her insurance from a long established insurance company which compensated her for the loss of her car. Her daughter was less fortunate because, as a young driver, she had purchased insurance from a company that was less reputable or had more exclusions and, therefore, had to suffer the loss of her car. We must ensure that the people responsible for providing faulty fuel or whatever are put out of business.
We must look at the legislation in the South to see how cowboy operators can rent a filling station here and quite easily commence selling fuel from a rented facility. They seem to be able to operate with impunity. They can purchase fuel from whatever source but a problem only comes to light when people's cars suffer which may only become evident several months later as a result of purchasing fuel from that location. By the time the authorities take a look at a particular station the owners will have packed up and gone. They probably will have defrauded the State by not filing VAT returns and moved on to somewhere else. We need to seriously look at these fly-by-night operators who have moved into various towns throughout this country.
I applaud the many successes that the authorities have had in recent months. They have made significant seizures of illicit cigarettes and put some people in the illicit fuel trade out of business. A lot of work continues to be done. I welcome the report as a major step in the authorities coming together, to work even closer, to look at who these people are and how they can be put out of business permanently.
Without doubt there is a strong dissident republican element that participates in this activity and there is anecdotal evidence to support same. That situation makes it all the more difficult to end the activity once and for all. I urge the Garda and the Garda Commissioner to provide the resources required on this side of the Border that we have jurisdiction over. I call on the authorities in the North to make equally strong resources available. If resources are provided we can, once and for all, come to terms with this major criminality that has caused so much hardship to families and caused so much loss of revenue to the State. I applaud Senators Paul Coghlan and Jim Walsh. They have done the State some service, to quote a well known former Taoiseach. Let us hope they can continue to build on their good work they have commenced as a result of the production of this report.
I wish to echo my gratitude and that of the Government for the work carried out by Senator Paul Coghlan's committee of which Senator Walsh was an integral member. The report has given us plenty of food for thought. The interesting recommendations and findings contained within it will be given due consideration by the Department of Finance, and I am also sure by the Department of Justice and Equality, in advance of any forthcoming Finance Bill. It is important that we do so. I shall ensure that the transcripts of this debate are seen by both the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Justice and Equality in terms of their deliberations.
Some of these issues also relate to our counterparts in Northern Ireland, which is where the success of BIPA lies, and it is important to acknowledge this. As a younger parliamentarian, when I had the opportunity to meet with BIPA recently in Dublin, I was struck by the commitment of members, who had varying political views and came from different geographical locations, to working together on a north, south, east and west basis in terms of this island. I had an opportunity to talk to people who had worked together on relationships, between the North and the South and between Britain and Ireland, in years when it must have been a lot more difficult to do so than it is now. I saw the personal relationships and culture of trust that they have built up among each other which allowed Senator Paul Coghlan and his committee to arrive at the point where politicians of a variety of persuasions, backgrounds and geographical locations can sit down and work together to produce such a substantial and thoughtful report, as is this report by Committee A. The Senator is truly to be commended. I wish the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly all the best for the next 25 years and hope that it will build on its success to date.
Today we have had an interesting debate here. I would like to pick up the point made by Senators Mullins and Jim D'Arcy about the need to acknowledge the successful work done, by the staff in Revenue and the Customs and Excise unit, to date. The hardworking men and women of those organisations often have to work in very difficult circumstances. They do not have the luxury, as we do in this House, of discussing solutions in the comfort of this Chamber. They have been out on the ground and have operated in very difficult and complex situations over a long number of years. It is positive and encouraging to see the results and achievements they have yielded to date. I have alluded to some of them already but it is worth repeating. Since mid-2011, due to the work of Revenue's strategy, we have seen 134 filling stations closed for breaches of licensing conditions, over 3 million litres of oil seized and 31 oil laundries have been detected and closed down. Those results are a testament to the men and women of the Revenue Commissioners and their strategy.
I accept the point made by Senator Mooney. It is encouraging that staff levels have been maintained at 2,000, even during the moratorium on public service numbers. The Senator is correct that it is an indication of the scale of the operation when one considers that 2,000 people are working on detection.
The Minister for Finance continues to keep legislative measures under review, and the Finance Act 2014 contained new measures to strengthen further the Revenue Commissioners' ability to refuse or revoke a mineral oil trader's licence where a trader does not comply with excise law. This is about using all possible tools in the State's toolkit to tackle what is a complicated and dangerous scenario. When we have conversations and debates about this there is a risk that it can almost sound victimless. It is anything but that. Victims range from the people who have been mentioned in this debate, who innocently go about their business and put fuel in their cars only to find their cars destroyed because of this illegal activity, to the loss of Exchequer revenue.
It is huge.
The loss of Exchequer revenue is not jargon. It is money for our health system, our schools and for running our public services. The Government is absolutely determined to crack down on this, because it must. From my perspective in the Department of Finance, we must protect every euro and cent that is owed to the Irish taxpayer and we must also support legitimate business.
It is important once again to appeal to people with information about smuggling and illicit trade, be it in diesel or fuel or in drugs and tobacco, to come forward with that information on a confidential basis. The interests of consumers and compliant business are best served by them playing their part in combatting the shadow economic activity by knowing their suppliers and providing information, anonymously or otherwise, to the Revenue Commissioners or to other relevant State agencies on persons involved in the shadow economy. All that is required for evil to triumph is good men and women to stand idly by. People who have information must come forward and help the authorities in combatting this. In that regard, the Revenue Commissioners recently launched a dedicated section on its website which allows people to report information electronically about shadow economic practices. There is a duty on all Members of the Oireachtas to convey that message to our communities. There is also a confidential free telephone number available in respect of drug and tobacco smuggling, 1800 295295. I encourage Senators to work with the Revenue Commissioners and spread that information, which is quite important.
Penalties for smuggling are provided for in section 119 of the Finance Act 2001. On conviction following summary prosecution under these provisions, a court may impose a fine of €5,000 or a term of imprisonment not exceeding 12 months, or both. Where a person is convicted of an indictable offence, the court may impose a term of imprisonment not exceeding five years or a fine not exceeding €126,970, or both. In addition, for an indictable offence under section 102 of the Finance Act 2001, if the value of the smuggled product concerned exceeds €250,000, including duty and taxes, the court may impose a penalty of three times the value of the products or a term of imprisonment not exceeding five years, or both. Obviously, the precise penalty imposed on conviction in each case is solely a matter for the courts.
The new marker is coming on stream and we are actively keeping legislative options under review. The Revenue Commissioners are working to a strategy. As has been acknowledged in the report, co-operation between the authorities North and South in both the justice and revenue areas has never been better, but we cannot be complacent. We must build on that. I assure the House, Senator Coghlan and the committee that the recommendations in the report are receiving careful consideration by the Government. I thank the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the Seanad for the opportunity to debate this matter.