Time to get tough on fuel launderers
Crime always flourishes when the potential reward grossly outweighs the potential penalty. Little wonder then that fuel laundering is so prevalent in Northern Ireland. The seizure of a mobile fuel laundering plant concealed in a lorry stopped in Co Antrim shows that the criminals behind this type of crime are audacious and apparently hold the law in contempt. And the figures show why that attitude prevails.
The gang responsible for the mobile plant could have made around £2m in profit annually. And, given past experience, they have little to fear in terms of justice. Since 2002 no one has been jailed in connection with fuel laundering in Northern Ireland in spite of many illicit laundering plants being uncovered. Indeed, the haulage industry has reported that as many as 50% of hauliers use illegal fuel in their lorries. Given the soaring cost of legal fuel, the temptation to take a chance on laundered fuel is obvious in a bid to cut overheads.
There is probably an attitude among the public at large that using illicit fuel is a victimless crime. The only loser, some would argue, is the Treasury, which motorists blame for the crippling cost of petrol and diesel in the first place. That, obviously, is a false argument. Particularly in these times of austerity any loss of legitimate revenue to the Treasury affects services right across the spectrum. It is no good complaining about an underfunded NHS, for example, and then trying to justify tax fraud on the scale involved in fuel laundering. Also, the dumping of waste from fuel laundering causes untold damage to the environment.
While Customs and police are to be commended for their efforts in seizing fuel laundering plants, there is a need to complement their efforts with stiff court penalties. Why has no-one been jailed for involvement in what is obviously a highly organised crime and why are penalties here lighter than in other parts of the UK? Justice Minister David Ford is right to call for tougher sentences but he must also show the judiciary that he means business by ensuring that they have the legal framework to combat this crime in the most effective and efficient manner.