HL Deb 25 April 2001 vol 625 cc191-4

2.41 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for tackling the increasing level of organised crime and racketeering in Northern Ireland.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, the Government and the operational agencies in Northern Ireland are committed to tackling the organised crime problem. Organised crime is unacceptable in any society but in Northern Ireland the problem is compounded by paramilitary involvement. In September last year the Northern Ireland Office established a multi-agency Organised Crime Task Force which has already published an analysis of the problem and a strategy for tackling it. A copy of these documents can be found in the Library.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that reply. As a result of the Good Friday agreement the paramilitaries are on cease-fire. However, they have not been doing nothing. They have supported the alarming growth in organised crime such as racketeering, drugs and intimidation, bringing untold misery to thousands of people. Does the Minister accept that the RUC has, against all the odds, prevented anarchy for over 30 years? Does he agree with the previous Secretary of State who assured Parliament that the implementation of Patten would proceed only at a pace favourable to maintaining law and order in the Province?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I agree with the statement made by the previous Secretary of State, Mr Peter Mandelson, about the introduction of Patten. I agree with what the noble Baroness said about the relationship between paramilitaries and organised crime. Indeed, that is specifically referred to in the document produced by the task force, The Threat to Northern Ireland Society from Serious and Organised Crime. It is vital that the Government and all the agencies address it with full vigour. That is what they are doing. That is why they have set up the task force and why the task force has analysed the threat and has set out a strategy for dealing with it.

Lord Blease

My Lords, is it not vitally important and in the best interests of the citizens of Northern Ireland, of Britain and of the Republic of Ireland to combat the growing destructive evils of powerful local and international organised crime and racketeering with plans to ensure the retention and development of the ongoing, effective and efficient police service in Northern Ireland?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, of course it is and, indeed, the police service has achieved some considerable coups against organised crime in the past year. I should have associated myself with the noble Baroness's comments about the splendid job that the police service is doing. I give one statistic. So far in 2000–01, 51.4 million cigarettes have been seized by Customs in Northern Ireland. Last October a joint police and Customs operation resulted in the recovery of about 7.5 million cigarettes from premises in Northern Ireland. It is vital that the police continue to be so effective.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, of the 78 mafia style organisations mentioned in the report of the task force to which the Minister referred, over half are paramilitary sourced. Gangsterism is flourishing in this potentially transitional period for Northern Ireland as those with expertise in using paramilitary networks for serious criminal purposes are increasingly using their expertise for purely personal rather than part-paramilitary gain. Does the Minister agree that until paramilitary organisations and their criminal networks are either disbanded or destroyed Northern Ireland will be unable to become an organised crime and intimidation free society?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I accept that there is a link between the paramilitary organisations and organised crime which is committed simply for criminal purposes and for no other. It is vital that not just the police but all of the agencies involved get together and fight that with all the vigour they can command. The task force was set up to bring all the relevant agencies together to fight organised crime. It is vital that it be defeated so that Northern Ireland can return to normal.

Lord Renton

My Lords, what proportion of the crime in Northern Ireland—that is, the established crime which has resulted in convictions—is known to be politically motivated?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I do not have the statistics to hand. I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord do his best to convince his colleagues that harmonising VAT and other taxes as between Northern Ireland and the Republic would do a great deal to reduce organised crime and in particular to reduce the profitability of smuggling?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I take note of the noble Lord's point. I am very aware of the fact that the greater the difference in duty rates between the two countries and, indeed, between the United Kingdom and other countries, the greater the prevalence of that kind of crime.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend able to make a comparison between the crime rate in Northern Ireland and that in England?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the rate of ordinary crime, as it were, in Northern Ireland is lower than in the United Kingdom.

Lord Elton

My Lords, what is the volume of illegal diesel being brought into this country from the island of Ireland and particularly from the Province? Who is benefiting from those illegal sales and what is being done in the United Kingdom to prevent them?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I cannot give the precise figures. I believe that the figures are greater in the main part of the United Kingdom than as between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. I shall give the noble Lord the figures in writing.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, have Sinn Fein/IRA and the SDLP yet taken any steps to encourage their communities to co-operate with the police as against hating the RUC and doing their best to destroy it?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the noble Baroness will know from the debates that we had on the then police Bill that neither the SDLP nor Sinn Fein has yet urged their communities to join the new police service.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the key to tackling this problem lies with the paramilitaries? Can he report any progress in dealing with their prevalent activities? Is he aware that the editorial of the Belfast Telegraph of 24th April states: The reality is that despite the ceasefires many areas of Northern Ireland remain within the grip of the paramilitaries. These self-appointed groups lay down the law and intimidate those who stand up to them"? Do the Government recognise that description and—I appreciate the difficulties—can they offer us some progress?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the analysis of the threat posed by organised crime published by the task force earlier in the year specifically recognises the link between paramilitary organisations and organised crime. It states that the legacy of terrorism is a significant influence. More than half of the groups known to police are either associated with or controlled by loyalist or republican paramilitary organisations. The task force seeks to bring together all of the agencies tackling these groups and to make the tight concerted. The first step it has taken is to prioritise against which groups they must focus the fight. In the light of what has been said, it is clear which groups those are.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, against the background of the debate we have just had, does the Minister share our deep concerns over reports that up to half of the senior officers in the RUC are set to leave the force by the autumn of this year?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, this point has been raised in the past. I was able to report that the Chief Constable is satisfied that as a result of boards he is having there will be sufficient people above chief inspector to fill any vacancies.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the introduction in Ireland next year of the notes and coins of the single currency, the euro, may give new opportunities for organised crime and racketeers, especially in the areas of fraud and money laundering?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, that is a point which has to be taken into account by the task force.