Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Post-G8, we'll need to focus on how we police fuel fraud

Black economy: fuel and cigarette smuggling is a huge and complex problem for Stormont
Black economy: fuel and cigarette smuggling is a huge and complex problem for Stormont

National security weighed on the minds of MPs when they returned last week. The murder of Lee Rigby, the rise in attacks against British Muslims and the antics of 'patriots' in the EDL have left Westminster jittery.

A different type of security headache presents itself at the G8 summit in Fermanagh. At Northern Ireland Questions in the Commons, Theresa Villiers said the military "are providing a number of specialist services to support the security effort", but would not go into operational details.

In a separate answer, her junior minister Mike Penning claimed that 3,800 British police volunteers heading to the province to help with G8 security "sends a message to the rest of the world about the normalisation of policing in Northern Ireland".

While the PSNI will be glad of the support, the political tussling over whether the new National Crime Agency (NCA) will operate here is far from normal policing.

The prevalence of what is termed "serious and organised crime", including fuel and tobacco smuggling, are bigger problems in the province than nearly anywhere else in the UK.

Labour MP David Anderson, who represents the Tyne and Wear seat of Blaydon, told the Commons that fuel fraud is not just about lost tax revenue, "but the criminal activities that lie behind it and the potential support for terrorism".

His constituents will find it hard to understand why Northern Ireland, which needs all the help it can get in dealing with organised crime, isn't part of the NCA.

"This is a matter for the devolved Assembly," Penning explained to unimpressed MPs on all sides. "We are pushing as hard as we can, but we cannot and will not take away the devolved administration's powers, because we want to move forward, not backwards."

Shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker said it is Whitehall's responsibility to ensure that they reach an agreement on the NCA with the Executive.

Tackling organised crime is devolved, but the NCA will be able deal with tax and fuel fraud, Villiers told MPs.

That means the PSNI is expected to deal with the organisations, while Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, in conjunction with the NCA, are expected to catch fuel and cigarette smugglers.

Ian Paisley spoke for many MPs when he said delays and complacency are "frustrating the security services, putting billions of pounds into the hands of criminals and, importantly, assisting organised crime".

Let's hope that, after the G8, the focus will return to fighting fraud and smuggling in a serious and organised fashion.

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