In March this year, customs and police operating in tandem on both sides of the border uncovered a massive fuellaundering operation in Co Louth. Some 40,000 litres of diesel were recovered and it is estimated the cost to the Irish Exchequer in lost duty would have been £4.8m.
This, unfortunately, was not an isolated example of a criminal enterprise which goes on daily here and in the Republic. It is obviously well organised and on a huge scale as evidenced by the number of seizures made in recent years.
Some people may regard this as a victimless crime, especially at a time when fuel costs are at record levels, but nothing could be further from the truth. Firstly it deprives the tax authorities in the UK and Republic of much-needed revenue which could be ploughed back into essential services such as health or education when funding is under pressure due to mounting national debts. Secondly, the use of laundered fuel by some hauliers, for example, means they can undercut competitors in an industry where margins are already low. And, as the Assembly was told yesterday, there is also damage to the environment with large amounts of sludge from the diesel-cleaning process dumped into watercourses and agricultural land.
While customs and police are to be congratulated in their efforts at finding and destroying laundering plants, there must be grave concern that no-one has been jailed for this criminal activity in the last decade. Some hauliers are under investigation for using the illegal fuel, but the real masterminds behind the laundering are apparently getting away with it.
The Assembly has evidence of the scale of the problem and, undoubtedly, there is intelligence to identify those engaged in fuel laundering. Surely it is now time to consider introducing new legislation – or at least revising existing laws – to give customs and police greater prospects of bringing the criminals to justice. These gangs are making millions of pounds and must be pursued ruthlessly.