Thursday, 19 November 2015
I thank the Minister of State for attending. This issue is a question of resources as regards combating the smuggling of drugs into the country via the south-west coast. As the Minister of State knows, we have one of the longest coastlines in Europe and the seas which surround us form a large jurisdiction. From the information I have received from people on the ground, not enough personnel are deployed to tackle drug smuggling on the south-west coast. I would welcome the Minister of State's comments in this regard. What is the specific number of personnel dedicated to the issue? All gardaí are involved in the prevention of smuggling but how many are there whose full-time job it is to gather information on the people living in our communities who act as lookouts and co-ordinate the landing of shipments? These landings might happen only once every year or two years but that is why those people are on the ground. Only intelligence-led policing will lead to the smugglers being captured.
-----the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners. I will ask that the Garda Síochána details requested by the Senator be provided to him. I will revert to him on that point. I thank him for raising this important matter.
The Revenue Commissioners have primary responsibility for the prevention, detection, interception and seizure of controlled drugs being smuggled into or out of Ireland. I am advised by Revenue that, as part of its risk-focused approach to the discharge of its role in this regard, harbours and inlets along the coastline - including along the south-west coast - are monitored and evaluated on an ongoing basis from the point of view of the potential for smuggling. Revenue is conscious of the dangers and threats from smuggling of all types, including drugs, using seagoing vessels. Revenue's enforcement infrastructure in combating the threat of smuggling includes two customs cutters, which are deployed to patrol the coastline and undertake maritime intelligence gathering duties. They provide Revenue's Customs and Excise with ready access to vessels, whether commercial or leisure, operating in the waters off the Irish coast. The decision on whether to board and search a vessel is based on risk analysis and profiling, which is informed, inter alia, by an evaluation of national and international smuggling trends and threat assessment, journey frequency, routes and other risk indicators. I am further advised by Revenue that patrols of the coastline by the cutters are kept under constant review to take account of available intelligence and emerging smuggling trends.
Apart from the time spent at sea, the crew of both cutters work closely with their land-based colleagues and coastal communities in developing intelligence and following up on information regarding risks and smuggling threats that are brought to their attention. It is worth mentioning that the crews of these vessels are also trained and certified to carry out deep rummage - detailed searching - of vessels. This is a core skill and competence for the detection of deep concealments and the thorough post-seizure searching of vessels. Outside of the focus on vessels to which I have alluded, I am assured by the Revenue Commissioners that the crew members and passengers, where relevant, of such vessels who enter the State are subject to the same checks as any other arrival, including individual profiling, and are liable to be checked by Revenue customs staff on a risk-focused basis.
Revenue officers liaise with local gardaí, harbour masters and the Coast Guard regarding drugs and also with trade interests in respect of fiscal products. This work is supplemented by Revenue's customs drug watch programme, which incorporates a coastal reporting mechanism and allows members of the public and maritime and local communities to report, in confidence, suspect or unusual movements at sea or around the coast through a confidential 24-7 freefone facility. Such sightings, examples of which include vessels anchored or making landings in remote areas, shipping being observed away from designated shipping lanes and vessels signalling ashore or operating without lights, when reported to Revenue are fully evaluated and appropriately actioned by Revenue. Revenue promotes the drugs watch programme - I am happy to have an opportunity to do so now - and encourages the public to contact it on 1800 295 295 in the strictest confidence. I encourage people, including the Senators present, if they have information as regards specific incidents of drugs smuggling into the country, to bring it to the attention of Revenue. Such information will be dealt with in the strictest confidence.
Revenue is a fully integrated tax and customs administration and I am advised that it is not possible to disaggregate the resources deployed exclusively at any given time to the detection of illegal drugs. Revenue has approximately 2,000 staff countrywide engaged in activities that are dedicated to targeting and confronting non-compliance. These activities include anti-smuggling and anti-evasion, investigation and prosecution, audit, assurance checks, anti-avoidance, returns compliance and debt collection.
Let me say something about collaboration and co-operation with other State agencies and about the international arena. Revenue's customs service collaborates at national level with the Garda and the Naval Service as part of the joint task force on drugs interdiction and at international level with its partners in significant and ongoing operations. Internationally, Revenue continues to co-operate with administrations, agencies and services where areas of common interest exist, particularly in the area of countering drug trafficking. Revenue officials attend and participate in many international fora, such as the Customs Co-operation Working Party, CCWP, and the Pompidou Group. Under the auspices of Europol, Revenue supports, participates in and implements the European Multidisciplinary Platform against Criminal Threats, EMPACT, plan. In addition, Revenue maintains an effective working relationship with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs across the broad range of revenue and customs functions, with the UK Border Force and with the UK National Crime Agency.
The national drugs strategy is the Government-directed strategy to deal effectively with the problem of drugs in Ireland. The overall strategic objective of the national drugs strategy 2009-2016 is to continue tackling the harm caused to individuals and society by the misuse of drugs through a concerted focus on the five pillars of supply reduction, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research. I commend Revenue on its success in supply disruption and seizures. This demonstrates the professionalism and capability of Revenue in delivering on our drugs prevention policy. Revenue will continue to attach a high priority to its role and activities in this regard.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. My question was on the number of personnel dedicated to this issue but a breakdown could not be provided. The Minister of State is well used to getting evasive answers. Saying that 2,000 personnel in Revenue are involved is something I could have checked on Google. How many of those personnel are dedicated to this? Identifying the people in communities who are involved in drug smuggling is long-term, slow and strategic work. Drug smugglers do not just arrive on a boat one day and unload. A bit like how Revenue combats smuggling, they do so by intelligence-led surveillance. They spot vulnerabilities, identify the most suitable locations for smuggling and pick the time and date. We need specific resources dedicated to combating smuggling. There are 2,000 people in Revenue, but most of them are collecting our taxes. Let us be honest, in that they are not involved in anti-smuggling.
I thank Senator Daly for raising this matter, as it is an important issue. The 2,000 staff are engaged in targeting and confronting non-compliance rather than the general array of work but I take the Senator's point in that their work involves more than drug smuggling, for example, non-compliance, audit, debt collection, etc. It is not that the Revenue Commissioners or I am attempting to be evasive.
Revenue has informed me that because its resources are deployed across its broad compliance activities - of which the combating of drug smuggling is an important component - it allocates them on the basis of risk. Revenue has a presence at all key airports and ports but it also deploys resources, on a risk assessment basis, to less busy points. Staff deployed at any particular location can be and are augmented with additional personnel on a risk assessment basis or when certain operations are taking place.Revenue's commitment to co-operation with international partners is an important part of underpinning our success and effectiveness in combatting drug smuggling. I believe this commitment is reflected by the fact that resources from Revenue are assigned to international anti-smuggling organisations. Revenue currently has customs attachés and liaison officers posted in Brussels, London, Europol, The Hague and Lisbon. Revenue also has an officer assigned to the Europol national unit in Garda headquarters. It is a matter of intelligence gathering.
I reiterate that if anyone has specific information, I urge them to use the customs drug watch programme and the telephone line, because Revenue makes decisions on the level of resources to deploy based on the level of risk as assessed, as well as on intelligence received from the public. I will ensure that the Senator's feedback is brought directly to the attention of the Revenue Commissioners.