Fuel fraudsters '˜still spared jail for peace'

Virtually all fuel fraudsters who appear before the courts are still escaping jail, despite repeated vows of clamp downs and inquiries over many years.

The UK's largest ever fuel laundering plant was dismantled by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) in Crossmaglen in 2011
The UK's largest ever fuel laundering plant was dismantled by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) in Crossmaglen in 2011

Justice Minister Claire Sugden has now revealed that out of 56 convictions over the past five years only one has resulted in a custodial sentence.

The recent Paramilitaries Panel report found it remains a key source of funding for terrorist bloodshed.

Fraudsters have cost the Exchequer over £1bn in lost duty over the past 10 years and over 40 per cent of all fuel in Northern Ireland is tampered with.

It has forced most UK fuel retailers to sell off all their Northern Ireland filling stations and closed over 500 independent retailers.

In 2009 south Armagh Pastor Barrie Halliday revealed he had been mediating a tax amnesty between the government and leading fraudsters. However his efforts failed and by 2013 he warned that the lack of custodial sentences was “the price of peace”.

HM Revenue and Customs is on record as saying that in England and Wales the sentences for such offences are custodial.

Speaking about the latest sentencing figures, TUV leader Jim Allister, echoed Pastor Halliday’s concerns.

“This is a scandal and the more it goes on the more one is confirmed in the view that it is part of the pernicious arrangement that attends to the peace process,” he said.

The Justice Minister released the latest sentencing figures in response to an Assembly Question by Mr Allister.

Her figures reveal that out of the 56 convictions since 2001, roughly half have been dealt with suspended sentences while the other half have been dealt with through fines.

Previous inquiries by the News Letter found that the fines had normally been “restoration of duty” that would have lost to the exchequer in the raid for which they were convicted.

Critics have said that the “fines” therefore provided absolutely no financial disincentive to fraudsters to stop the illicit trade as they only represent a financial loss for the one raid they were prosecuted for.

Mr Allister said: “It is well known that fuel laundering is a major source of income for paramilitary organisations with the issue being highlighted in the recent report produced by the Panel on Paramilitaries. It has long been the suspicion of many that because of this nexus between proscribed organisations and the problem of fuel laundering there has been a tendency on the part of the authorities to be unduly lenient or worse still turn a blind eye to the problem.

“It is no coincidence that south Armagh is synonymous with the scourge of fuel laundering. South Armagh used to be called ‘bandit country’ but it could be called “blind-eye country” because it is inconceivable that, with the industrial scale of fuel smuggling and laundering that has been going on in south Armagh, it is beyond the authorities to bring to justice those who have been perpetrating this criminality for years.

“If a farmer, in his single farm payment claim, gets something wrong about a field boundary, the satellites will catch him out. But you can run riot with fuel laundering and no one sees, no one hears and no one is brought to meaningful justice. How many times have we heard of seizures and of nobody being there?

“But it is even worse than that. On the few occasions when people do appear before the courts they are getting away with a slap on the wrist!

He added: “There have been 56 convictions of offences since 2011 but only one has resulted in a custodial sentence.

“We need stern, severe sentencing guidelines and a willingness to deal through deterrent sentences with those brought before the courts.”

In September last year SDLP and DUP politicians united in claiming that senior IRA members are still raking in millions of pounds from organised crime - and that blind eyes were being turned by the authorities.

The claims came amid renewed scrutiny about the ongoing existence of the Provisional IRA in the wake of the murder of Belfast man Kevin McGuigan.

DUP MP Ian Paisley, a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which regularly probes organised crime, said HM Revenue and Customs lost over £1bn over the past 10 years and that over 40 per cent of all fuel in Northern Ireland is tampered with.

He said fuel smuggling had turned “wholly criminal and those involved could not be described as solely loyalist or republican” but are working together.

“As a member of the organised crime task force until 2009, the evidence from police, HMRC and MI5 pointed to the fact that it was individual crime lords and gangsters directing it for personal gain but that they all had a history

with or had been prominent in paramilitary groups,” he said. “Those who were high profile republicans never stopped being republican. They stopped funding the PIRA but have not stopped being criminals.”

He added: “Former PIRA gangs are estimated to have access to hundreds of millions, largely through fuel crime.”

“I think many of the customs officials and PSNI officers are extremely brave and have a very difficult job to do. We did, however, hear evidence of blind eyes being turned to some of this crime and no policing of it taking place.”

At that time SDLP MLA Alex Attwood was part of an SDLP delegation which met the Chief Constable.

“We repeated the need to have war on organised crime,” he said. “The assets of no one and no organisation should be untouchable. Assets held by the individual on behalf of a loyalist or republican grouping must be pursued, be it past assets, current assets or future assets.”

In 2008 the News Letter reported that fuel fraudsters at that time faced only a one per cent conviction rate, zero per cent imprisonment rate, tiny fines and no threat of closure to their forecourts. Those figures reached back as far as 2001.

In January 2013 John Whiting, assistant director of criminal investigation for HMRC, said his organisation was concerned about the lack of jail sentences for fuel fraudsters in Northern Ireland.

“That is an issue we have raised with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee as a matter of concern,” he said.

He added: “In England and Wales the sentence is actually custodial, people are going to jail. Clearly there is a disincentive to the crime if you are going to have your liberty removed and that disincentive has not existed in Northern Ireland.”

A spokeswoman for the Lord Chief Justice said at the time that the Northern Ireland judiciary is “entirely independent of government and politicians” in how they hand down sentences to fuel fraudsters.

She added: “Cases are tried and sentences imposed purely in accordance with the law and commensurate with the overall circumstances of an offence.”

In 2013 the News Letter again reported that no fraudster had been jailed for fuel fraud as far back as 2009, despite just under £10,000 of fines and 157 months of suspended prison sentences.

The figures were once again released to Mr Allister, who commented that people were more likely to spend time in prison if they blocked a road carrying a Union flag, than if they “cheat HM Revenue of millions of tax”.

Pastor Halliday said: “Smuggling diesel is the way of life along the border – and it is also the price of peace.”

He added: “[Laundering] plants are only raided when there is sludge running down the street – and then for environmental reasons.”

In November 2013 then Justice Minister David Ford said the then forthcoming introduction of new legal powers could result in stiffer sentences. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory was - from December 2013 - to acquire the ability to refer sentences for review if he felt they were unduly lenient.