I move that leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide for the amendment of the Protection of the Environment Act 2003 in order to establish a cross-Border statutory agency to investigate and report on fuel smuggling and other criminal activity in counties adjacent to the Border between Northern Ireland and this jurisdiction.
In this Bill, I propose the establishment of a cross-Border, multi-agency task force to tackle fuel smuggling. This agency, to be known as the fuel smuggling forum, would bring together all the statutory agencies for detecting and policing the illicit fuel trade, North and South.
Fuel smuggling and the criminal activity which runs in tandem with it is a cancer affecting many areas along the Border. It impacts negatively on communities, North and South, posing not only an environmental threat, but also a severe criminal one by strengthening the dangerous and violent elements which are involved with this illegal trade. I commend the work of the investigative journalists who have clearly identified paramilitaries, among others, as being involved in this trade.
The environmental consequences of fuel laundering have been widely reported in areas along the Border. The material produced as a consequence of removing green dye from diesel is highly toxic and has the potential to damage public drinking water supplies. The fuel laundering industry also spawns broader criminality such as illicit cigarette smuggling and trade in other counterfeit products.
The Bill builds on the work of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. I commend the work of the assembly’s committee which produced an important report on this issue. The report’s recommendations include the imposition of more serious penalties, including lengthier custodial sentences for illicit activities, on the individuals and gangs involved in these criminal activities.
The fuel smuggling forum to be established through this legislation would consist of a director general and seven other officers appointed in accordance with the legislation. Three officers would be appointed to the forum by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and would consist of an officer each from the Environmental Protection Agency and Office of the Revenue Commissioners and a chief superintendent nominated by the Garda Commissioner. The Minister, in consultation with his counterpart in Northern Ireland, would also be enabled to appoint the following to be officers of the forum: an officer each from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and revenue service, a chief superintendent from the Police Service of Northern Ireland and an officer from the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment.
The forum, in carrying out its work, would be provided with the relevant information by An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. This information would pertain to fuel smuggling and other organised criminal activity in the Border region. It is proposed that the forum, within six months after the end of the preceding year, would prepare an annual report specifying its activities and submit same to the Minister. The director general would be required to attend a meeting of the joint committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas whenever asked to do so by the committee and to provide relevant information.
As a representative of two Southern Border counties, I am particularly conscious of the criminal activity involved in fuel smuggling and other illicit trade. The proposal I put before the House is to ensure these issues are dealt with comprehensively. They can only be solved through more effective and co-ordinated enforcement of the law. Bringing together in one forum or body the statutory agencies whose remit is to deal with these activities is clearly the way forward in dealing with a problem that has grown significantly in recent years.
We are all well aware of the large volumes of laundered diesel and, in more recent times, stretched petrol that are being traded much further afield than the Border region. The many negative aspects to these activities include a substantial loss of revenue to the State and a similar loss in Northern Ireland. It was recently estimated that upwards of €260 million is lost to the State annually through illegal fuel smuggling. Small traders also have a genuine grievance because their business is being eroded through illicit trade. Individual motorists also incur substantial costs when, in good faith, they purchase product without knowing it has been contaminated, resulting in high repair costs for engines and other vehicle parts.
On many Border roads, in particular, we witness fuel spillages which create hazards for motorists and may have caused many accidents over the years. Local authorities incur substantial expenditure every year cleaning up these spillages. We must also consider the overall damage to the environment caused by fuel laundering. We have all seen, either in person or in photographs, cubes of sludge dumped by roadsides and in ditches. This sludge is a by-product of the bleaching agents and sulphuric acid used in laundering diesel. The outcome of this process is that toxic waste is dumped in our countryside, posing serious dangers to our waterways, public drinking water supplies and public health in general and threatens the provenance and authenticity of our agricultural production system.
We need the new cross-Border multi-agency task force I propose to deal in the most comprehensive manner possible with the scourge that is being inflicted on so many communities, one which has impacted on the lives of genuine traders and innocent motorists and continues to rob the State of much-needed revenue. Our response to these despicable activities must be enhanced to rid society of this illicit trade and deny the criminals involved their ill-gotten gains.