Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Inside: The illicit fuel trade

It's the classic case of minimal risk for maximum gain. Crime bosses are pocketing millions of pounds from the illicit fuel trade safe in the knowledge that the risk of going to prison is minute.

The latest estimates from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs suggest the Government lost about £70m in revenue from the illegal trade in fuel here last year.

In spite of hundreds of arrests over the past decade, nobody in Northern Ireland has been jailed in connection with fuel fraud since 2002.

Illicit sales in the province currently account for an estimated 12% of sales – down from a high of 40% six years ago – but still higher than the average in Britain of 4-5%.

A huge illegal fuel-laundering facility was uncovered in Co Down last week. It was discovered during a raid on a farm in Mayobridge.

Investigators said that it was capable of handling about 24m litres of diesel a year. This could amount to evading £15.5m in duty and taxes.

Consultation is currently under way on proposals to allow the Court of Appeal to consider unduly lenient sentences for fuel and tobacco fraud.

Justice Minister David Ford said tougher sentencing was vital in the battle against fuel crime.

"Sentencing in each individual case is a matter for the independent judiciary," said Mr Ford, who is also chair of the Organised Crime Taskforce.

"However, the absence of custodial sentences in Northern Ireland for excise fraud is in stark contrast to what happens in England and Wales.

"I, therefore, believe that the Director of Public Prosecutions, as for many other serious offences, should have the power to refer convictions for fuel and tobacco excise duty evasion to the Court of Appeal, where he believes the Crown Court judge's sentence is unduly lenient."

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan has also expressed concern about the scale of the problem and backed the call for tougher sentencing.

Twenty-four tonnes of toxic waste was discovered in the Mayobridge raid.

A spokeswoman for the Lord Chief Justice's office said all judges "take sentencing very seriously".

She added: "The Lord Chief Justice has also expressed the view that, if the DPP considers a sentence for evasion of duty to be unduly lenient, then he should have the statutory power to refer it to the Court of Appeal.

"He is aware that this is a matter on which the Minister for Justice is now consulting."

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