On the nature of fuel smuggling…

One of the most interesting sessions on organised crime in Westminster was this one. Sylvia Hermon leads off:

Q312 Lady Hermon: May I just take you to paragraph 14 of your written paper? There is a comment which jumped off the page as I was reading through it and that is: “Finally, it is important to note that while we believe the majority of illicit fuel is not sold through legitimate filling stations in Great Britain, our latest assessment is that a very significant proportion of the illicit fuel sold in Northern Ireland is sold through retail filling stations.” How on earth has this come about? Do people do it knowingly or willingly?

Mr Gerrard: I think there are a range of behaviours involved. Certainly once there is a volume of illegal fuel – be that smuggled fuel or be it laundered red diesel, mixed kerosene or whatever it may be – there is what you would term illicit sale through the use of tanks by the side of the road but most people will not buy fuel to put into their vehicles through those sites; most people will want to go to what looks like a legitimate filling station. Some of those individuals owning those sites will know they are buying illegal fuel because they are part of that criminal network. Some of them will have suspicions because they are buying fuel at a price that they cannot buy legitimately. Oil has a floor price; you cannot buy it legitimately below that floor price but this is often below that floor price and it is attractive. They may say they did not know, but they must have had suspicions. Equally there are people who will be buying fuel which is illegal but paying the full price, therefore they are completely unknowing of the fact that they are selling illegal fuel, so I think there is a range of behaviours involved. Our difficulty is that we engage in a good deal of enforcement activity targeting retail sites but our frustration is that we will seize fuel and where we can we will seek to prosecute people, but that site we cannot close down.

Q313 Lady Hermon: When you say “we” could you just tell me how big is the “we”? How many people are actually engaged in Northern Ireland – I mean exclusively in Northern Ireland – and actually going round testing fuel and seizing fuel in Northern Ireland? How big is your operation?

Mr Gerrard: In terms of testing the fuel which is done by our detection officers there is about 100 or 110 of those. In addition to that we have intelligence officers, we have criminal investigation specialists and we have non-compliance officers who will raise duty assessments. Over all we have just over 160 officers in Northern Ireland exclusively dedicated to oils activity.

Q314 Lady Hermon: What would help you in your investigations in Northern Ireland in dealing specifically with the retail side?

Mr Gerrard: I think there are two parts to that. There must be more that we can do to improve our inter-agency cooperations with the other agencies in Northern Ireland; I am absolutely certain of that. I am aware of a recent operation where we received fuel from a particular vehicle that was delivering fuel to the retail sites. It was delivering that fuel from the back of a normal truck, it was a skip with a tank in it. I am sure we have all seen when fuel is legitimately delivered to retail sites it is cordoned off and you have the hazchem signs because it is a very hazardous product. This is not; this is done through a hosepipe down to the floor. So there is something we can do with health and safety; there is something we can do around the quality of the fuel with the Trading Standards people; there are things we can do to improve our co-operation. From my perspective it is not my responsibility. When I look at what we do in GB it is very difficult for someone to get illegal fuel into legitimate retail sites because those sites are licensed. I have friends who work for the oils majors downstream and certainly one of my friends has been interviewed under caution twice and it terrifies her because of the potential health and safety issues at her retail sites in GB. That does not happen in Northern Ireland. I have been involved for six years in Northern Ireland and there is an issue about how those sites are licensed and are those licences effective for the 21st century; I would say that they are not.

Q315 Lady Hermon: We have heard evidence from another witness at another session of the Committee and that point was made, that the introduction of the licensing system in Northern Ireland would be very helpful. Having tabled the question I then had a reply from the Minister, Angela Smith, which is very disappointing but I will read it into the record: “Proposals to streamline a type of petrol licensing regime are currently being considered”; they are only now currently being considered and you say you have been working there for six years.

Mr Gerrard: Yes.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty