Thursday, 14 February 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
9. To ask the Minister for Finance the additional measures he plans to implement to counteract cross-Border smuggling and illicit trade in fuel, tobacco and drink products; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7242/19]
I have been constantly tabling parliamentary questions to the Minister and his colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, about the need to deal with the criminals involved in illicit cross-Border trade and smuggling. The issue goes back over many decades. In one reply, the Minister referred to the resourcefulness of those involved in those forms of criminal activity. It is an area that the Revenue Commissioners and all organs and agencies of the State, along with their counterparts in Northern Ireland, need to be constantly diligent about and to constantly review the measures in place to deal with such criminality. It is having a significant impact on legitimate businesses and the State is losing large-scale revenue annually due to this illegal trade.
I acknowledge the fact that the Deputy has raised this issue with me in many different debates. The threat that fuel fraud and the illicit alcohol and tobacco trades pose to legitimate business, consumers and the Exchequer is clear and I am assured by the Revenue Commissioners that combatting such criminality continues to be a priority for them. Steps taken by Revenue to combat the illegal fuel trade include the introduction of stringent new supply chain controls and reporting requirements and a rigorous programme of enforcement action. In addition, Revenue and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs undertook a joint initiative to introduce a new marker for use in marked fuels, which came into operation from April 2015. Revenue has also conducted random national sampling programmes in the years 2016 to 2019 to assess the extent of fuel laundering. The industry view is that the actions taken have been successful in curtailing fuel fraud.
Illicit trade in alcohol can occur through the diversion of untaxed alcohol onto the market, through the production of counterfeit alcohol and through smuggling from countries with lower taxes. Revenue takes appropriate action where illicit activity is detected, and this action is informed by intelligence on criminal activity and risk-based examination of commercial traffic and stock in retail premises.
Revenue and An Garda Síochána work closely together in acting against fuel, alcohol and tobacco crime, and co-operate closely with their counterparts in Northern Ireland. I am satisfied that their work has achieved a great deal. I will consider any additional proposals for legislative change to be brought forward by Revenue to enhance its capacity in the future.
It is important that Revenue and the Minister's Department constantly evaluate the effectiveness of the different measures in place because those criminals, including paramilitary gangs in some instances, have significant resources and the State can never underestimate the resourcefulness of those people involved in criminal activity. I fully appreciate that the new marker system has had some success but I am told locally in the Border region that fuel fraud has started to increase again. I would like the Minister to ask the Department officials to check that with the Revenue Commissioners to ensure that the marker system is as effective in 2019 as it was in the latter part of 2017 and 2018.
We do not want sludge dumped in our fields, streams and rivers. That threatens the provenance of our primary agricultural production systems. It is important that our environment and landscape is not subjected to this sludge being dumped at will by those criminals.
I agree entirely with the Deputy. The view the Revenue Commissioners have given me, which may interest him, is that the problem of fuel fraud has been massively reduced. Revenue's current assessment is that it has made a lot of progress to almost eradicate the issue. The Deputy may well have a different view and may be aware of more recent developments in this. I will pass those concerns to the Revenue Commissioners, which are very active in the area.
To give a sense of the kind of enforcement activities the Revenue Commissioners are now involved in, on 29 January last, officers at Dublin Port seized more than 11,000 litres of alcohol with a retail value of €500,000. This included more than 10,000 litres of whiskey and 800 litres of alcopops. I accept that my examples do not relate to the Border, which is the subject of the Deputy's question, but they show the sophistication of what is now under way and the success of the Revenue Commissioners. He may be aware that last November Revenue officers seized 8 million cigarettes that had arrived in Dublin Port.
I thank the Minister for his response and I do not doubt the good work of the Revenue Commissioners in any way. I take this opportunity to compliment many revenue officers who dealt with very hostile situations in the past. People stood up to those criminals and thugs. We also want to protect legitimate business.
I compliment the Retailers Against Smuggling group, which continues to try to create public awareness of the damage caused by everyone who knowingly buys those illicit products. I commend their work on that. I speak to SMEs and they tell me of the difficulty they have competing with product coming illegally. In many instance, people pricing for jobs, tendering, etc., are undermined by product being brought in illegally. We have to be constantly vigilant in this area and diligent in ensuring that the message continues to go out that this will not be tolerated under any circumstances.
I compliment the offices and agencies north and south of the Border that have had to deal with criminals on back roads or in remote farmyards. It is never the easiest task. Their work must be supported to the maximum level possible for the good of society and our State. Of course, people unknowingly buy inferior products at times.
I thank the Deputy. It is great to hear about the initiative to which he referred. As he stated, there must be somebody who is willing to buy the products. In some instances, consumers may well be buying products without being aware of their origin. In others, this is not the case. I am interested in finding out a little bit more about the work to which the Deputy referred, if he has any information he can share with me about the retail group and the work it does. It sounds like a valuable initiative.
The Deputy acknowledged - and I want to do so again - the work that has happened on both sides of the Border. The work done by Revenue here and HM Revenue and Customs in Northern Ireland and the UK is an invaluable example of the co-operation that takes place between both jurisdictions. It is really important to me and to the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners and his team that we sustain this co-operation, particularly as we move into a post-Brexit environment. Co-operation between our legal and enforcement agencies is to the immense mutual benefit of all of us and we have to find ways in which it can be maintained.