HC Deb 05 December 2001 vol 376 cc320-3
3. Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

What recent initiatives the Government have taken to tackle organised crime in Northern Ireland. [18094]

5. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

What recent progress has been made in the fight against organised crime in Northern Ireland. [18096]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy)

I chair the organised crime taskforce, which has been in operation for just over a year. There have been a number of successes: on 8 November this year, 42.5 million cigarettes were seized at Warrenpoint harbour—the largest ever such seizure in the United Kingdom. In September, 26,000 litres of illicit liquor were recovered in Coalisland. Only this morning, a series of multi-agency operations in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been carried out to tackle fuel smuggling, fuel laundering and associated money laundering. Customs, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and agencies in the Republic of Ireland have searched 31 premises, 10 people are assisting those agencies with their inquiries, and the investigation is on-going. This is exactly the type of multi-agency operation that the Government wish to see.

Mr. McFall

Alongside the welcome peace initiatives taking place in Northern Ireland lies an increase in criminal activities involving drugs, alcohol and counterfeit goods. As the Minister knows, the profits from those activities go to terrorist organisations as well as lining the pockets of criminals. What is the organised crime taskforce doing to eliminate such activities, particularly at this sensitive time around Christmas, when many people are out shopping, and organisations such as the Co-op and other retailers are very concerned about counterfeit goods?

Jane Kennedy

My hon. Friend, who is a long-time supporter of the co-operative movement, knows very well how the sale of counterfeit or adulterated goods undermines legitimate traders. Only last week Sir Reg Empey, the Northern Ireland Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and I went on a shopping trip in Belfast city centre as part of a joint effort to publicise the need to tackle the sale of counterfeit goods. That is a good and practical example of the way in which everyone can play a role in fighting organised crime.

My hon. Friend is right, and members of the public should take note of the message: do not line the pockets of criminals this Christmas.

Helen Jones

In the context of tobacco and alcohol smuggling, what is my hon. Friend doing to make people aware that when they think they are getting a cheap bargain on the doorstep, they are actually putting money straight into the coffers of criminals and terrorists? In particular, will she ensure that communities such as mine which have experienced terrorist attacks in the past are made clearly aware that they should not be funding those who want to perpetrate similar atrocities elsewhere?

Jane Kennedy

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Shoppers in Warrington ought to be aware of an element of organised crime in Northern Ireland that has direct links with paramilitary organisations. They ought to be aware that when they buy cheap cigarettes and alcohol, and other counterfeit goods, they are providing funds for organisations that go out of their way to seek to kill, to maim and to lay the bombs that we saw in Ealing and Birmingham very recently.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

Does the Minister accept that one reason for the difficulty in tackling organised crime is the rundown of police numbers in Northern Ireland? While the numbers are on the increase elsewhere, in Northern Ireland the number of regular police officers is being reduced. Will the Minister give an undertaking that the full-time reserve in Northern Ireland will be maintained? Will she also give an undertaking that measures aimed at demoralising the police will be reversed? I refer to the issue of the name, the symbols, and the flying of the Union flag at police stations.

Jane Kennedy

My overriding concern is to ensure that the Police Service has all the resources it needs, and that Government continue to be guided by the Chief Constable's assessment of his resourcing requirements. As the hon. Gentleman knows, decisions on the full-time reserve will be made next year, in the light of the security situation prevailing at the time. I can say no more at this stage.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle)

Does the Minister agree that the best way to reduce organised crime in Northern Ireland is for all political parties to participate in the new policing board? That would replace vigilante activity with legitimate policing. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady must be heard.

Mrs. Calton

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, but I had finished. Would you like me to repeat the question?

Mr. Speaker

No, it is all right.

Jane Kennedy

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) on her appointment to the Liberal Democrats' Front Bench. It is a pleasure to be joined by another lady.

The hon. Lady asked about political support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. She is absolutely right. It is important for the establishment of the service to be recognised for the watershed that it was. It was supported by the Catholic Church, the nationalist community and the Social Democratic and Labour party, and it marked an historic moment. The police deserve the support of everyone in the Northern Ireland community, as we take up the fight against organised crime and the associated links with paramilitary organisations.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

I commend the Minister on her public statements in support of the Northern Ireland police during recent civil disturbances, in which 800 police officers have been injured since June. May I press her, however, on the subject of the full-time reserve? Will she comment on the fact that the reserve supplies a significant proportion of the active police manpower in Northern Ireland, amounting in certain districts to a quarter of those available for active duty? Does she accept the view of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary that, in view of the situation, the full-time reserve needs to be retained in existence for at least the next three years?

Jane Kennedy

My right hon. Friend knows certainly better than I do the issues facing the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the enormous changes that it has been undergoing to win the support of all the community in Northern Ireland. I hope that he will be encouraged when I tell him that we have been able to recruit 66 per cent. more recruits than had been envisaged. We are making every effort, and we stay in constant touch with the Chief Constable to ensure that he has the resources that he needs to police Northern Ireland as we expect it to be done.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

What an extraordinary coincidence that, two weeks ago, six of the 27 questions tabled by Labour Back Benchers happened to be on organised crime and that, this morning, we had an announcement on a successful operation against organised crime. Although the Government lost the benefit of doubt on coincidence long ago, we must welcome that operational success. However, will the Minister take it from me, and confirm, that fuel smuggling in South Armagh is an industrial-scale racket that is worth hundreds of millions of pounds; and that, in an area where police cannot operate without Army protection, Customs and Excise must be able to operate with all the assistance of the Army and police in dealing with an appalling threat that provides funds to future terrorism in Northern Ireland?

Jane Kennedy

The hon. Gentleman has demeaned himself in the way in which he asked that question. The Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Customs and Excise officers who were involved even in today's operation daily risk their lives in the work that they undertake, and they deserve our full support.