I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Simon Harris.
Customs Bill 2014: Second Stage
I am pleased to be here to debate the Customs Bill 2014 which was published on 3 October 2014. The purpose of the Bill is to consolidate, revise and modernise Ireland's existing national customs legislation, some of it dating back to the Customs Consolidation Act 1876. The Customs Bill can thus be seen as another significant milestone in the Revenue Commissioners' comprehensive programme to consolidate and modernise our tax and duty legislation. Senators should note, however, that this is not a standard statutory consolidation of the existing customs legislation. Instead, it includes the two additional elements of revision and modernisation, both of which were necessary to cater for developments in trade and technology that have taken place over nearly 140 years.
The principal domestic legislation under which Irish customs currently operates is the Customs Consolidation Act 1876. This Act has been extensively adapted over the years to take account of various events and developments - for example, the foundation of the State in 1922, Ireland's joining the EEC in 1973 and the introduction of the EU Single Market in 1993. As a consequence, many of the provisions in the 1876 Act are now of doubtful validity, yet they remain on the Statute Book. In addition, a number of other Acts concerning customs matters were also passed in the intervening period, including the Customs Act 1956 and the Customs and Excise (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1988. Numerous Finance Acts have also over the years introduced customs measures, as have a number of ministerial regulations made under the European Communities Act 1972. The result is a complicated, overlapping structure of both old and newer national customs legislation which can be difficult to follow and understand. The Customs Bill is designed to address this. When enacted, the Customs Bill will repeal the old structure with a single, very much shorter Customs Act, which will be clear, easy to understand and easy to access, which is what we should strive for in all legislation. This consolidated approach, which is in accordance with the requirements of Better Regulation, will result in much clearer legislation in the customs area, to the benefit of all.
Senators should be aware that there is also a European dimension to this. The European Union customs legislation - known as the Community Customs Code - now directly provides most of the legal framework for customs, including the rules relating to rates of customs duty in different circumstances, customs valuation, the form of declarations and so on. As a consequence, national legislation is needed only in respect of those areas that are not already covered by European Union legislation. Typically, these areas include certain control provisions, enforcement powers and sanctions for breaches of the various customs provisions. This trend can be seen in the structure and the very much smaller size of the Customs Bill. The bulk of the material in the Bill reflects a small core of existing legal provisions in relation to customs, now updated to reflect modern language and terminology. This includes certain controls and procedures that are not included in Community legislation, mainly related to arriving and departing vessels and aircraft; specifying the various offences that arise in a customs context, for the most part involving smuggling; specifying the penalties associated with these offences and the procedures to be followed in court proceedings; and providing the necessary powers to customs officers to enforce customs law.
The Bill also includes a number of administrative and housekeeping provisions, among them the repeal and revocation of a large body of existing legislation, much of it of old vintage, which will become redundant on the enactment of the Bill and its subsequent commencement. Similarly, the Bill provides for the meeting of a number of specific EU and international customs obligations relating to mutual assistance between Ireland and other member states, to controls of cash entering or leaving the European Union through the State and to centralised customs clearance.
The Bill also carries forward the existing customs appeals procedures. The new legislative provisions are simply a reiteration of the procedures that currently apply and any subsequent change applied to the tax appeals procedures will have appropriate application to customs appeals.
The Bill also restates and modernises the existing legislation applying customs law to prohibited or restricted goods on their import into, or export from, the State. The Bill sets out the rate of interest to be applied on customs duties that are not paid on time. Lastly, the Bill updates the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 in respect of Revenue offences.
Before I go through a Part-by-Part explanation of the Bill, I ask Senators to try to imagine the environment for which the original 1876 Act was designed to cater and the social and political mores of those times. I like to think we have moved on considerably from then and that, for example, we no longer have a need for some of the more extreme powers with which customs were conferred at that time. However, we will always have those who will try to outwit our customs rules and, therefore, not everything has changed in the Customs Bill before the House. Senators might wish to be reminded of the scale of the customs operation in modern day Ireland. For example, Irish customs annually process, on the automated entry processing system, approximately 1.1 million customs declarations in respect of goods being imported from, or exported to, non-European Union countries. This breaks down into roughly 600,000 declarations in respect of imports and roughly 550,000 in respect of exports. Customs duty collected on such imports was €277 million for 2014.
However, it is not just the scale of the customs operation that should be noted. Irish customs also have an enviable reputation regarding the way that they do this business and it is important to acknowledge this. Senators might like to note that in recent reports from respected international bodies such as the World Bank, the World Economic Forum and the Swiss-based Institute for Management Development, Ireland, and in particular Irish customs, has scored highly in terms of ease of doing business with them. Some of the rankings achieved by Ireland, in categories in which Irish customs have a direct involvement, are as follows. In the category "trading across borders", Ireland scored fifth in the world and second in the European Union. In the category "burden of customs procedures", Ireland scored eighth in the world and third in the European Union. In the category "efficient transit of goods", Ireland emerged as the leader in the world, beating Singapore into second place. Senators will agree that these rankings paint an excellent picture of the way that Irish customs go about their business and that the Revenue Commissioners are to be congratulated on this.
With that in mind, I will now go through the Customs Bill and describe the main provisions contained therein. Part 1 includes the usual preliminary and general provisions that apply to legislation of this type. Thus, it provides for the Short Title, collective citation and commencement of the Bill; for the interpretation of certain words and expressions used in the Bill; for the repeal of certain statutes and the revocation of certain statutory instruments; and for a number of technical linkages to provide for legal certainty and for legal continuity in the operation of the law.
Part 2 of the Bill deals with customs controls. Accordingly, it provides for the appointment of customs ports and airports for the arrival and departure of vessels and aircraft into, or out of, the State; for the approval of places within customs ports and airports for the arrival of vessels and aircraft, for the loading and unloading of goods and stores, for the embarkation and disembarkation of passengers and for the storage of goods awaiting customs clearance; for the control by customs of movement of vessels and aircraft into and out of the State; for the reporting on vessels and aircraft, respectively, arriving in or departing from the State; for the control by customs of persons entering or leaving the State and of their baggage; and lastly, for the continuation of the existing control by customs of postal traffic into and out of the State. Each of the relevant sections provides for an offence for contravention of the provisions of the section and for the penalty that applies.
Part 3 deals, in the first instance, with customs offences and penalties. Thus, it provides for offences relating to improper import or export of goods, that is to say without payment of any duty or contrary to a prohibition or restriction on their import or export, and for other customs-related offences, primarily related to non-compliance with a requirement imposed by a customs officer performing his or her duties, or interference with customs property or equipment, or adapting conveyances for smuggling purposes.
In both cases the sections reflect provisions in current legislation and they provide for the penalties that apply. Part 3 also deals with various aspects of customs-related court proceedings. As such, it provides for determining whether a customs offence is to be tried summarily or on indictment; for the forfeiture of goods which have been illegally imported or attempted to be illegally exported, that is to say without payment of duty or contrary to a prohibition or restriction; for a notice of seizure to be given to the owner of goods, where the goods are seized by a customs officer; for a notice of claim to be made by a person who claims that something seized as liable to forfeiture was not so liable; for court proceedings for condemnation of seized goods; for the rules for court proceedings in relation to customs offences; for the question of damages and costs in civil or criminal cases where judgment is given against a Revenue official as the defendant, on account of the seizing or detention of any thing; and lastly, for presumptions and onus of proof in proceedings under the Customs Acts, that is to say where certain things may be presumed to be true until the contrary is proved. In all these areas, the sections are a restatement and modernisation of existing customs provisions and no changes of substance are involved.
Part 4 deals with customs powers. Thus, it provides customs officers with powers to enter, inspect and patrol certain places without a court warrant; to stop vessels, aircraft, vehicles and other means of transport in different circumstances; to board and search conveyances that are entering or leaving the State, as well as away from ports and airports and the land frontier; to examine goods under customs control; to enter and search a specified premises or land under a search warrant issued by a judge of the District Court and to seize and detain anything found in the course of the search which might be required as evidence in proceedings for an offence under the Customs Acts or any other enactment; to search persons in certain circumstances and subject to certain safeguards; to stop and question a person entering or leaving the State as regards their journey and their baggage and, if necessary, to search that baggage; to arrest without warrant a person who a customs officer suspects is committing, or has committed, certain offences, or where the person has obstructed or assaulted a customs officer; to detain goods being imported or exported, pending the outcome of inquiries and investigations into whether the goods in question are in compliance with the Customs Acts; and lastly, to seize any goods that are liable to forfeiture under the Customs Acts and to deal with seizures, whether before or after the goods have been condemned by the courts. Such powers are essential control requirements to ensure compliance with both EU and national customs legislation and, crucially, to prevent smuggling.
Part 5 deals with general customs administrative matters. Most of the sections are standard provisions in legislation relating to the Revenue Commissioners. They provide that the duties of customs are under the care and management of the Revenue Commissioners; that the commissioners may authorise customs officers to carry out various functions; that certain powers, functions or duties may be delegated to an officer of the commissioners; and that the Revenue Commissioners and the Minister for Finance, respectively, may make regulations for the purposes of giving effect to the Customs Act and of giving full effect to the community customs code.
Part 6 deals with EU and international customs obligations. As such, it provides for a system of penalties for contravention of certain customs rules and procedures; for the continuation of the force of law in respect of the Naples II Convention, which governs mutual assistance between EU customs authorities in relation to criminal matters; for the application by Ireland of the 2009 EU Council decision on the use of information technology for customs purposes; for controls of cash entering or leaving the European Union through the State; and lastly, for the ratification by Ireland of the EU Council convention of 10 May 2009 on centralised customs clearance, concerning the allocation of national collection costs when customs duties are made available to the EU budget.
Part 7 provides for the appeal procedures in relation to customs decisions and assessments of customs duty. As I stated, these sections are a restatement of the existing legislation. Part 8 deals with a number of miscellaneous provisions. The first of these restates and modernises the existing legislation applying customs law to prohibited or restricted goods on their import into, or export from, the State. The second provides for the charging of interest arising from late payment of customs duties. Lastly, the Bill amends section 1078 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 in respect of Revenue offences.
I commend the Bill to the House. I look forward to the debate on Second Stage and teasing out any issue on Committee and Remaining Stages.
I thank the Minister of State for outlining the main sections of the Bill and presenting it in the House. My party supports the passage of the Bill. It is mainly a technical Bill to bring legislation, some of it dating back to 1876, up to date. In particular, the two subsections relating to the forfeiture of goods in cases where duty is not paid and the confiscation of goods are important. I pay tribute to the work of the Customs service and Revenue, in particular the customs enforcement teams. We must continue to resource them appropriately, with adequate facilities and legislation to back them up in their job.
Designating areas for planes and boats and for cargo to be offloaded, as well as searched, is important. Our criminal gangs are becoming more sophisticated and are operating internationally. With this in mind, it is important the Government and the Oireachtas support the work customs does every day. Many times this House, as well as the other House, has discussed fuel laundering and alcohol and tobacco smuggling, activities in which the State loses hundreds of millions of euro of revenue. People need to understand that by participating in this, they are effectively taking money away from the State that could be used for important services such as health and the Garda while lining the pockets of criminals. People should not support the black market in any way, shape or form, particularly in purchasing white goods, tobacco, alcohol and fuel.
The Minister of State outlined the record of our customs teams against international standards. How well they have performed against those international benchmarks shows what a good job they are doing. Fianna Fáil supports this Bill and looks forward to going into it in more detail on Committee Stage.
I welcome the Minister of State and the Customs Bill 2014. I have several queries relating to conflicting provisions in the Bill which I wish to flag.
Part 4, dealing with customs officers’ powers, provides them with powers to enter, inspect and patrol certain places without a court warrant. Another Part, however, provides officers with powers to enter and search specified premises or land under a search warrant issued by a judge of a District Court. Why are we allowing for powers to enter and search where a court warrant is needed and for other occasions when it is not needed? Will the Minister of State, please, define this provision?
One section provides for a customs officer in uniform but another section refers to somebody who is not a Revenue official. Is Revenue thinking of outsourcing? What comes to mind here is a Revenue Commissioner doing his or her job with, say, the Viper. As it stands, if a garda enters a house, he or she will not have Joe Bloggs with him or her. This provision, however, will allow a customs officer and other people Revenue sees fit to, say, enter a premises. What category of person does this involve?
Section 22 provides "that in civil or criminal cases where judgment is given against a Revenue official as the defendant on account of the seizing or detention of any thing, the plaintiff will not be entitled to any damages or costs, besides the thing seized or the value of such thing, and the defendant will not be liable to punishment or penalty, providing the court finds there was probable cause for the seizure or detention.” I would just be a bit cúramach that this could be abused. Writing into the legislation that an official “will not be liable to punishment or penalty, providing the court finds there was probable cause for the seizure or detention” is strong talk. I know it does not change the legislation but it is a measure with which we should be careful. It might be the language used that is the problem.
Section 23 provides that in proceedings under the Customs Acts, certain things may be presumed to be true until the contrary is proven. This allows cases to proceed without presentation of proof of certain specified matters, that is, that a person is or was a properly appointed and authorised officer of customs. Following on from my earlier question, what happens in cases regarding a person assisting a customs officer? If the Minister of State could clarify these issues, it would allay my fears.
The Customs Bill 2014 seeks to consolidate and modernise national legislation relating to the administration of customs into a single Bill. As we saw in the legislation and from the Minister of State’s comprehensive statement, bar two particular sections, the Bill seeks to rationalise and improve existing legislation. It also seeks to consider the European dimension to customs, particularly the EU customs code and its implementing provisions which set out the rules and regulations relating to the import and export of goods and impose legal requirements and obligations on importers and exporters.
It is important to acknowledge that Ireland is a small island nation with an extensive coastline which is difficult to police. We also maintain a common external border with the United Kingdom. We are separate from a number of European countries in this regard in that we are not members of the Schengen Agreement. Accordingly, we have greater difficulties in monitoring and maintaining customs services than a number of other European jurisdictions do. The cross-Border illegal activities over several years, the active part taken by Revenue in combating some of the more nefarious activities of petrol-stretching, cigarette trading and so forth, as well as the extensive fines imposed for customs offences, all show the challenges the Customs service faces every day. It is to its credit that we do not hear more about them. One is more likely to hear about a service that is causing a problem than one is to hear about a service that is not. Given the extensive difficulties the customs service has, including difficulties with illegal activities, north and south of the Border, it is noteworthy that it rates so highly when compared internationally. The Minister of State has mentioned that it has achieved high honours in a number of international reviews of custom services. According to the 2013 annual report of the Revenue Commissioners, Ireland is ranked fourth in Europe for efficiencies of customs administration and fifth in the world. It is clear that when one wants to have a good and well-functioning business environment, the efficiency and civility of a customs service, as well as one that is as first rate as ours, contributes to the overall business environment in a way that we sometimes do not recognise. It should be placed on the record that the functioning of our customs service contributes significantly, not just in financial terms, but to the overall efficiency of business in this country.
At European level, the extent of the role of the customs systems in contributing to the running of the European Union is sometimes forgotten. The quantum of value that import charges contribute to the overall EU budget is calculated to be €13.6 billion.
That is no small or insignificant amount of money and it is very important that we recognise that for the European Union to be successful the European budget needs to have other forms of income rather than direct levies on the member states.
I was also struck to discover that we have approximately 2,000 staff in this country engaged through the Revenue Commissioners with customs activities and that they are dedicated to targeting and confronting non-compliance. There has been evidence in recent months that they do that effectively, given the significant fines levied. They are very active in the prevention of smuggling and evasion, investigations and prosecution and audit assurance checks, among other areas. It was news to me that we have two cutter boats in service. They are managed and operated by the Revenue maritime unit. It is important that the customs service is well funded. I echo the views of my colleagues on that point.
I also echo Senator Tom Sheahan’s view that the powers that are conferred on customs officials are extensive. Reference was made to the burden of proof, particularly under Part 3 as an example of where those powers are being extended. It does behove us when we extend powers on any organ of the State to do so with care. It is a testament to the Customs service that we have heard so little in terms of extending additional powers to them. They are held in high esteem and I do not think their competence or honesty has ever been called into question.
We support the Bill. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Simon Harris, for coming to the House today to propose it.
I welcome the Minister of State and the consolidation Bill he has proposed to the House. It is very interesting to reflect on the proposals being repealed. It shows the history of regulation in the customs area, from the Smuggling Act 1805 and subsequent legislation in 1807 up to the present day. Consolidation of the legislation is necessary. However, reflecting on what needs to be repealed reminds us that customs, barriers to trade and control of imports and exports have been a feature of world economic activity or non-activity for hundreds of years. We must all welcome the Bill.
I noted from the Minister of State’s opening speech that, in the lingo of our administrative masters, it is another significant milestone in the Revenue Commissioners’ comprehensive programme to consolidate and modernise our tax and duty legislation. When the public at large hear such a reference, they will be reminded of what Ronald Reagan deemed to be the most feared words in the English language, namely, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." Notwithstanding this, I welcome the legislation.
I have one or two observations which may be relevant. Section 28 concerns the power to examine goods, which is a necessary power. We are advised that a customs officer may examine goods that have been imported where he or she considers that there are grounds for certain suspicion. I might be on the wrong page, dealing with the wrong legislation or even addressing the matter to the wrong Minister. Reference has been made to smuggling, fuel laundering, petrol stretching, which is the new lingo, and diesel laundering. I have been asked by a number of persons in the trade to pose the question of why it is possible for a motorist driving a diesel car to be stopped by the Garda or customs officers in order that they can check whether the appropriate diesel is being used. I do not think we can object to that, but it appears that such inspectors are not able to visit a fuel depot or filling station to sample the product stored on the premises. Perhaps I am incorrect, but the argument has been presented to me that while an inspector can sample diesel in a car tank, he or she cannot sample diesel in a filling station. If that is correct, could such a power be granted under section 28? Will the Minister of State clarify the position? It might have been clarified already for him.
The broader aspects of the Bill cause us to reflect on the fact that we have moved significantly over the past 30 to 40 years to a Europe of very free trade. We are progressing in some ways towards a world of even more free trade. Once we reach a better destination in that regard, customs and trade barriers will become less of a problem. We must also be cognisant of the debate that will take place in the United Kingdom in the next 12 months or two years on its relationship with the European Union. It is quite frightening to think of what might be the case along the northern borders of this island if the United Kingdom exits the European Union. One must pose the question of whether we will again be facing customs controls and Border checkpoints. It is so much in our interests economically and politically that the United Kingdom remain in the European Union. We are discussing the need for consolidation and progress in terms of our customs legislation, yet, from a North-South perspective, if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, which hopefully it will not, the question of customs control will be very much back on our agenda. There is an obligation on all of us to ensure in particular that the sizeable Irish electorate in the United Kingdom who will vote on this referendum next year or the following year are very much aware of what a negative impact it would have on the economy of this country and the entire North-South project if Britain were to leave the European Union.
Senator Aideen Hayden presented an interesting figure in terms of staffing levels - namely, that there are 2,000 people, all of whom are no doubt busy. It must cause us to focus a little on the general cost of administration of taxation, with 2,000 people in the customs service, the people in charge of calculating, arguing and collecting property taxes, local authority motor taxation staff, those involved in collecting water charges and people checking for compliance with television licence regulations. Many of our taxation measures are hugely expensive to monitor and administer. If we drew up a balance sheet and came up with the cost of collection compared to the revenue that accrues, we would conclude that we must consider ways of introducing smarter taxation. The obvious one is motor tax, but that is a debate for another day. According to Senator Aideen Hayden, 2,000 people are employed in the customs unit. I am sure they are all very busy, but we must focus on the balance between the cost of administration and income generated.
The Minister of State might be able to answer my question. The question on diesel laundering might not be a valid one. I welcome the consolidation legislation, which is obviously necessary. Will the Minister of State ensure the Government remains committed to ensuring we will not have to reintroduce border controls on this island?
In so far as we can play any role in ensuring the United Kingdom remains in the European Union, we should do so.
Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I dtosach báire, ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil mé féin agus mo pháirtí ag tacú leis an mBille seo. Tuigimid gur Bille teicniúil go leor é ach go bhfuil sé fíorthábhachtach ag an am céanna.
My party will support the Bill. It is technical in nature, but we should underscore its importance. I join others in commending the work of the Customs service and the Revenue Commissioners in carrying out their job in a professional manner. Yesterday, I attended my local city joint policing committee. The issue of the amount of drugs entering some of our urban areas was raised again. There has been an increase in Galway recently, particularly in heroin. The work done by the Customs service in trying to stamp out these practices is important and sometimes precarious.
Sinn Féin tabled amendments in the Dáil because we believed the Bill could be improved. It should be obvious to all that the way to tackle smuggling and laundering is through cross-Border policies and co-operation. I note Senators' comments about the Brexit, as it is being termed. It would cause major difficulties on this island. Ironically, we are concerned about the voting rights of Irish expatriates in Britain, who will vote on the Brexit, when we do not seem too concerned about making them return on boats, trains, aeroplanes and automobiles to vote in our referendums.
Sinn Féin is on the record as having raised some concerns about the Bill, such as the measures empowering the holding of goods on what could be an indefinite basis and the legal exceptions that could be read as providing immunity for customs officers in some cases. However, I recognise that this is not the intention and that the Bill is a good one.
Our customs system is part of an EU system, which raises other important issues, such as the importing of goods that are labelled as Israeli and are therefore given preferential treatment under EU-Israel agreements but which originate in the illegally occupied territories of Palestine. Neither the European Union nor the Irish Government seems to have any interest in dealing with this issue.
The transatlantic trade and investment partnership, TTIP, will come down the tracks quickly unless progressive forces can organise to defeat it. It is a customs agreement with the USA. There are serious concerns. I have attended meetings with farmers, small business owners and so on about these issues. There are grave concerns among these groups in particular about the impact of the TTIP. The European Commission has a free hand in these negotiations due to the Lisbon treaty. The most damaging element of the TTIP is the investment state dispute settlement, ISDS, mechanism, which has been used in other jurisdictions such as Australia, under which multinational corporations can take a state to court if they believe that treaties are not being adhered to in a way that is feasible for them. From what we know of the mechanism, it is designed to allow corporations to sue states for having rules that hamper their profits. A foreseeable example is a corporation suing Ireland if the Government bans fracking. Environmentalists, trade unionists, farmers, many civil society groups and Sinn Féin MEPs have raised major concerns about what the TTIP will mean for Ireland and the rest of Europe.
Something we cannot forget is how the Bill will affect citizens and others. My colleagues were contacted by Belfast residents who, on arrival back from a holiday in New York, were shocked to be fined and to have goods impounded. The law is clear, but a more humane approach at times would be welcome. My party has suggested the people affected should have the right to receive in writing an explanation of the reasons for which they were stopped so as to prevent recurrences.
I welcome the Bill, and Sinn Féin will consider whether to table amendments on Committee Stage, where appropriate.
I thank Senators for the welcome given by all sides of the House to the Bill and their considered contributions on Second Stage. As I have stated previously and as Senators on all sides have reiterated, most of the customs legislation has stood since before the State was founded, in the form of the Customs Consolidation Act 1876. That Act has been extensively adapted and amended in the past 140 years. While its provisions are still on the Statute Book, many are redundant or of doubtful validity. From a wider perspective, the complicated and overlapping structure of the resulting legislation can, at times, be difficult to understand. I enjoy Ronald Reagan quotes, but the Government is here to help. There is an onus on all Oireachtas Members to ensure the laws that we pass are accessible, understandable and relevant to our constituents and citizens. The Bill will go some way in that regard.
The Bill's purpose is to repeal, consolidate, revise and modernise customs legislation into a single Act. The new legislation is more in keeping with developments in trade and technology and better reflects the social and political landscape in Ireland. This legislative approach is at the core of the wider better regulation initiative. It will provide greater clarity and transparency and, in doing so, make our legislation more accessible. I hope it will reduce the administrative burden and red tape that is often perceived and encountered by those involved in complying with customs legislation and regulation.
There are approximately 1.1 million customs declarations per annum, and €277 million in customs duty is collected. This is a sizable amount. The scale and context of the customs operation in modern Ireland necessitate the modernisation of the underlying legislation. I thank Senators for expressing their gratitude to our Revenue and customs officials and the front-line work they do on a daily basis. It is only right and proper that the Houses support them in their work by putting in place modern and relevant legislation.
On a point of clarification, the figure of 2,000 staff refers to all of the Revenue Commissioners' enforcement operations. I am sure the Customs service would love to have 2,000 staff on its own. I thank the 2,000 staff for the job they do.
Senator Tom Sheahan raised a point about how the Bill referred in some places to the need for a warrant but, in others, to there being no need for a warrant. To clarify, the measures where a warrant is not needed refer to those under which actions are taken in a customs-controlled environment, such as an airport or port. The measures where a warrant is needed refer to the standard procedure of accessing private property or businesses. Persons other than the Revenue Commissioners - this was an important question - means locksmiths, drivers or anyone who will be needed to accompany an official in carrying out his or her function. If the Senator has more concerns about these matters, we can tease them out further on Committee Stage.
Senators referred to section 20. It is important that the court provide protections for citizens, but customs officers also need protection when carrying out their functions. This is what section 20 endeavours to do.
Senator Paul Bradford asked for clarity on whether it would be possible for an enforcement officer or inspector to carry out inspections of diesel samples at a depot or anywhere else. The answer is "Yes". Under our excise law, there are extensive powers to carry out such inspections. This is a useful clarification, as the issue always arises in the Seanad in terms of fuel laundering and petrol stretching. It is worth putting on the record the fact that significant additional powers have been made available to tackle these problems. A comprehensive strategy to tackle illegal diesel laundering has been put in place. The licensing regime for auto fuel traders was strengthened with effect from September 2011 to limit the ability of criminals to get laundered fuel onto the market. A new licensing regime was introduced for marked fuel traders in October 2012, designed to limit the ability of criminals to source marked fuel for laundering. New requirements in respect of fuel traders' records of stock movements and fuel deliveries were introduced to ensure that data were available to assist in supply chain analysis. Following a significant investment in the required IT systems, a new supply chain reporting regime was introduced from January 2013. This requires all fuel traders to make monthly electronic returns to the Revenue Commissioners of their fuel transactions. The Revenue Commissioners are using these data to identify suspicious or anomalous transactions and patterns of distribution for further investigation. There is intensified targeting and co-operation with other law enforcement agencies on both sides of the Border in terms of enforcement action against suspected fuel laundering operations.
The strategy of the Revenue Commissioners has yielded considerable results. The number of oil laundries detected and closed down in the period 2010-14 was 35. None has been detected in 2015 to date. Since mid-2011, 134 filling stations have been closed for breaches of licensing conditions and more than 3 million litres of fuel have been seized. To the end of March this year, two filling stations have been closed down and, to the end of April, 22,205 litres of fuel have been seized.
Industry sources indicate a much reduced incidence of laundered fuel on the market and increased road diesel consumption. Obviously, other economic factors have contributed to this growth, but reduced fraud is an important factor. Last year there were four summary convictions and one on indictment for offences related to fuel fraud. In addition, there were 283 summary convictions relating to the detection of marked fuel in the fuel tanks of motor vehicles. I thought it was useful to take that opportunity to update the Seanad.
Senator Paul Bradford also raised a very important point, which goes well beyond the debate on this legislation but certainly has an impact in the area of customs, namely, the possibility of a UK exit from the European Union. It is well known by all Senators that the Government intends to take a proactive stance in respect of wishing to see Britain remain in the European Union. The Irish Government remained silent on the issue of a Scottish referendum because we were not part of that union. It did not mean that we did not care, but we stayed silent so as not to interfere. We are part of the European Union and, therefore, there is no intention to stay silent on that debate. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has already articulated on a number of occasions the Government's position and its desire that Britain remain within the European Union and has delivered speeches in London on that issue also.
It is very important that we see what the British Government wishes by way of reform of the European Union. I notice comments regarding a desire to make it easier to do business in Europe and reducing red tape, which are aspirations all European citizens can subscribe to, but it is important that Ireland and all member states see the details in that regard.
It is important to acknowledge in the context of a customs Bill that many of the repercussions for Irish customs if the United Kingdom were to exit from the European Union remain unknown or are speculative at best. The full implications would only be known once the details of any new agreement or arrangement negotiated between the United Kingdom and the European Union are finalised and published. There is much speculation, but that is all it is, that if the United Kingdom exited the European Union, and we hope it does not, it would enter a European free trade agreement with the European Union, similar to that currently in place for Switzerland and Norway, or enter a customs union with the European Union, similar to that currently in place for Turkey. Regardless of the final agreed position, the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union would have significant fiscal and logistical implications for Irish customs and, therefore, it is appropriate that it is raised in the context of this debate. Following the results of the recent UK general election, it now seems certain that there will be a referendum in the United Kingdom on EU membership within the next two years. If the UK public voted to exit the European Union, this would have a significant effect on trade between the United Kingdom and Ireland. The volume of trade country imports into Ireland would double in value. The increase in imports of third country goods and the increase in the volume of exports to third countries would put significant extra pressure on Irish custom resources and infrastructure. This is something we are monitoring very closely. Ireland is willing to play a very constructive role in respect of the debate and the reforms Britain seeks and will approach that debate in a constructive manner, as a neighbour and a friend, but it is important we see the detail. I am sure this is something that this House and, indeed, the other one will consider and debate further in the coming months and years.
I thank Senators for their views and their considered response to this legislation. I look forward to Committee Stage, on which we can further tease out this Bill, and to getting this legislation enacted quickly as possible, in order that we can give customs officers the powers they need and deserve to effectively deliver the customs and excise system citizens expect.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?