The chances of fuel and tobacco fraudsters ending up with prison sentences are set to increase following a change to the law.
From today the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland has the power to appeal sentences for such excise evasion on the grounds of undue leniency.
Around 100 fuel laundering plants have been raided in the Province in the last three years.
But while 58 people were arrested in connection with the crimes, 22 of whom were convicted and with 32 cases pending, no one has ended up in jail.
Concern has been voiced that no one has received a custodial sentence for fuel offences for more than a decade, despite the fact that fraud costs the public purse millions in lost revenue each year.
The severity of sentences given to tobacco fraudsters has also been a matter of contention.
Justice Minister David Ford said he had introduced the legislation in response to concerns raised with him.
“This is not just about the loss of money to the Government, although these crimes do divert essential resources from public services into the hands and pockets of criminals. It is also about the wider impact of such crime,” he said.
“Criminals involved in fuel laundering and tobacco smuggling are damaging our environment, impacting on legitimate trade and putting the health and safety of people at risk. The organised crime gangs may also use their ill gotten gains to fund other harmful activities such as drugs smuggling or human trafficking.
“So I would ask potential buyers to consider the consequences of their purchases and to ask themselves, what they are funding?
“We have seen successes recently by HMRC against gangs involved in this crime. I know that they will continue to target these groups and to seek to bring them to court.
“When they do I hope the sentence will reflect the seriousness with which I view the offence. If not, then this legislative change will enable the Director of Public Prosecutions to refer the case to the Court of Appeal.”
John Whiting of HMRC added: “Tackling fuel fraud is a top priority for HMRC in Northern Ireland.
“In the last year we have seen a significant increase in the number of laundering plants dismantled and illicit fuel seized.”