Time to lock up the fuel scam crime barons
Justice Minister's plea over the lack of custodial sentences
Crime bosses involved in the multi-million pound illegal fuel trade must be sent to prison, Northern Ireland's Justice Minister has said.
Despite hundreds of arrests over the past decade, nobody in Northern Ireland has been jailed in connection with fuel fraud since 2002.
In Northern Ireland, the latest estimates from HMRC suggest the UK Government lost about £70m in revenue in 2012.
Illicit sales in the province currently account for an estimated 12% of sales – that's down from a high of 40% six years ago – but much higher than the average in Britain of 4-5%.
A period of consultation is currently under way on proposals to allow the Court of Appeal to consider unduly lenient sentences for fuel and tobacco fraud amid claims by hauliers that up to 50% of those in the trade are using illegal fuel.
Justice Minister David Ford said tougher sentencing is 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 is happening in England and Wales and I believe that it is essential that this is addressed.
"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 said he was deeply concerned about fuel laundering and its environmental impact.
He backed calls for tougher sentences: "I would like to see more being done by everyone who has a role, and yes I would like to see stiffer sentences, something which is obviously outside my powers.
"In DoE I will be using my powers to maximise our fight against this crime."
Last month PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott said counter-terrorism efforts were intertwined with investigations into organised crime.
Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy (right) told the Assembly: "They (republican criminals) are dumping the diesel where once they were dumping the bodies.
"It is inescapable to me that monies generated as a result of this black economy ultimately will find their way back to republican paramilitaries," the UUP MLA, who represents parts of south Armagh, alleged.
Last year Revenue and Customs officials dismantled 22 fuel laundering plants – mostly in south Armagh. Mr Ford said increased co-operation between law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border was a key factor in those successes.
A spokeswoman for the Lord Chief Justice's Office said all judges "take sentencing very seriously".
"The Lord Chief Justice is aware of the concerns about sentencing in this jurisdiction for fraudulent evasion of duty on fuel and cigarettes," she said.
"In 2012, the Lord Chief Justice's Office published an online compendium of sentencing materials for fuel and tobacco smuggling offences which is available as an aid to all judges dealing with these cases."
She added: "The Lord Chief Justice has also expressed the view that if the Director of Public Prosecutions considers a sentence for evasion of duty to be unduly lenient then he should have statutory power to refer it to the Court of Appeal. He is aware that is a matter on which the Minister for Justice is now consulting."
Types of fraud include:
Laundering – removing dyes and markers to make identification of a non-road fuel harder.
Mixing – combining oils to make an illegal road fuel, for example kerosene or tied oils with lubrication or other oils.
Misuse – illegally using red diesel in road vehicles when it is intended to be used off-road.
Smuggling – failing to declare or misdescribing consignments of oils dispatched from within and outside the EU.
Q What exactly is fuel laundering?
A For economic reasons farmers and some industries can buy diesel at a considerably cheaper rate than other road users. Laundered fuel is red or green diesel which has been filtered through chemicals or acids in order to remove the government markers. Green diesel is the Republic of Ireland equivalent of the UK's red diesel.
Q And how exactly is it done?
A The dye is relatively easy to remove using a bleaching agent – the most recent method of removing the dye is to use silicon dioxide, which can render the fuel colourless in two hours. The silicon dioxide is put into a tank of green diesel and a compressor is used to pump the air through. Previously coal and even cat litter has been used to filter the dye out.
Q Who is involved in fuel laundering?
A Dissident republican paramilitaries are heavily involved. PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott said counter-terrorism efforts were intertwined with investigations into organised crime. UUP MLA Danny Kennedy, who represents parts of South Armagh, said: "They (republican criminals) are dumping the diesel where once they were dumping the bodies."
Q What is the cost to the public purse?
A In Northern Ireland, the HMRC suggests the UK government lost about £70m in revenue in 2012.
Q What is the impact for motorists?
A The fuel can be purchased for around £1.11 per litre, much cheaper than legitimate fuel. But it can ruin the engines of cars.
Q What is the environmental impact?
A Almost half-a-million pounds was spent in just one year cleaning up waste from fuel laundering in Northern Ireland. A toxic sludge is produced in the laundering process to make no-duty paid fuel harder to detect. Just prior to his departure, then Environment Minister Alex Attwood said the agency responsible for tackling it has been ineffective.