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Thursday, 3 May, 2001, 17:08 GMT 18:08 UK
Fuel smuggling down say customs
Diesel laundering
Fuel smuggling is reduced say Customs and Excise
Customs and Excise officials are making inroads into the illegal petrol trade in Northern Ireland, a Stormont Committee was told on Thursday.

The assembly's ad hoc committee on the Proceeds of Crime Bill was told that a fourfold increase in resources had resulted in an apparent scaling down in black market activity.

Regional customs director Bill Logan told the committee that 100m was lost in oil trade revenue in 1998.

Half of this was because of people crossing the border for cheaper petrol, the other half through sales on the black market.

Petrol pump
Legimate forecourt sales have risen
But Mr Logan said: "We have had a fourfold increase in our resources.

"On the available evidence, I can say since September that legitimate sales have stabilised and we are having a serious impact on the amount of smuggling."

'Joined-up approach'

Mr Logan was responding to a call from Seamus Close of the Alliance Party for a more focused attitude among agencies tackling the black market trade in fuel.

"There appears to be a fracturing of diverse organisations involved in licensing.

"You have the Health and Safety Authority on one hand and local government on the other," Mr Close said.

"There is no joined-up approach and that leaves itself wide open to what appear to be legitimate businesses but are actually ones which openly flaunt that which is illegal.

"This is something that we have really got to get grips with. There needs to be an urgent and direct joined-up approach to get this scourge out of society," Mr Close said.

'Hierarchy of offences'

David Ervine of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party said he feared that, while there was a focus on the illegal oil trade because it directly affected the Exchequer, the fight against drugs was not getting the same priority.

He asked if there was a "hierarchy of offences" in the fight against crime motivated purely by political concerns.

David Ervine
David Ervine: Fears over drugs
"Resources are an issue for politicians and I would argue in the political mind there is such a thing as a hierarchy of offences.

"They will have a raft of offences and offenders they may wish to deal with but they will not be able to deal with all at once," he said.

"It would seem to me that, if the Exchequer is affected by crime, it might be regarded by the Chancellor of the Exchequer as a higher priority than if young people are dying on the streets because they have taken some chemical product."

Committee report due

The Proceeds of Crime Bill is expected to complement the Northern Ireland Office's Financial Investigations Order, which will give increased powers to the RUC and customs officers to investigate the affairs of paramilitary racketeers and drug dealers.

Under the bill, the state will be able to confiscate money or property accumulated by convicted criminals over a six-year period unless they can prove it was gained by legitimate means.

A Criminal Assets Recovery Agency is being established to target individuals suspected of criminal activity.

It will have the power to initiate civil actions against those who have not been found guilty in a criminal court.

The committee will deliver its consultation report on the Proceeds of Crime Bill to Home Secretary Jack Straw later this month.

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