Dáil Éireann - Volume 632 - 22 February, 2007
Priority Questions. - Criminal Assets Bureau.
Mr. Gregory Mr. Gregory
 Mr. Gregory asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if the expansion and localisation of the activities of the Criminal Assets Bureau to target the assets of persons or gangs involved in drug crime in the communities hardest hit by drugs would be a significant measure to curtail the growth of drug gangs and drug crime; his plans to re-organise CAB to take on drug crime at local level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6993/07]
Mr. McDowell Mr. McDowell
Mr. McDowell: The Criminal Assets Bureau has been at the forefront of the fight against organised crime including drug trafficking in this jurisdiction since its inception in 1996. In that 11 year period the manner in which the bureau operates has come to be viewed, both domestically and internationally, as a successful model for targeting persons seeking to derive profits from criminal activities.
In recent days I took the occasion to discuss the Deputy’s proposal with the Garda Commissioner at some length. He strongly advised me that there would not be an advantage to a structural reorganisation of the work of the Criminal Assets Bureau along a regional model, and he set out his reasons to me at some length.
On the Deputy’s proposal for an expansion and restructuring of the CAB on a more local level focused on persons involved in drug crime, let me first respond by acknowledging the positive results being achieved by the current modus operandi of the bureau. Since its inception in 1996 up to 31 December 2005, which is the end date covered by the most recently produced CAB report, the bureau has obtained interim and final restraint orders to the value of over €58 million and €25 million, respectively. In the same period, taxes and interest demanded was almost €87 million, with almost €89 million collected. Regarding social welfare payments, savings amount to almost €2 million and recovery of overpayments amounted to over €1 million.
The assignment of specialist staff to the Criminal Assets Bureau from An Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social and Family Affairs, enables a multi-disciplinary, co-ordinated and integrated approach to the identification, freezing and seizure of criminal proceeds, the assessment and collection of unpaid taxes, and the recovery of social welfare overpayments. In addition, due to the unique nature of its work, the safety, protection and anonymity of the CAB staff is provided for by legislation.
On the possibility of dividing the CAB up regionally or such like, the Commissioner’s arguments are briefly as follows. First, to have the relevant degree of professionalism and expertise, it is better to keep people at a central level so that  they can interact with each other. Second, on the question of the anonymity of CAB personnel, if they were put in regional communities they would become much more easily identified, which is also a worry for the Commissioner. Third, he has recruited, at the suggestion of my Department, lay accountants who are centrally based and he has now received authority from my Department to recruit forensic analysts for the bureau. The idea, which he outlined and I accept, is that the CAB works better on a centralised basis where its quality is kept at a high level.
There is a danger that if there were a local scandal or if standards declined in one part of the country, the standards and integrity of whole of the Criminal Assets Bureau could be impugned. The director of the bureau is keen to ensure that no scandal attaches to the activity of the bureau and no accusation of impropriety or low standards ever applies, and therefore he wants to keep a firm grip on it to ensure adherence to high standards.
Mr. Gregory Mr. Gregory
Mr. Gregory: The Minister will be aware that I raised this issue with him in the past here in the Dáil and my question was to him, not to the Garda Commissioner, with all due respect to the Commissioner. Will the Minister accept that when people like myself were in this House calling for the establishment of an agency such as the Criminal Assets Bureau, it was the Garda authorities, the Revenue Commissioners’ investigation branch and the investigation branch of the then Department of Social Welfare who stated that it was not a good idea and that they wanted to stay in their own territories, keep structures as they were and tackle it? The death of Veronica Guerin was the lever the Government used to establish the bureau despite the resistance of the very people who are now resisting the practical measure I suggest.
I again ask the Minister, if targeting the assets of drug crime is the way forward, does he agree it would be a good idea to target those assets at local level. With the Leas-Ceann Comhairle’s permission, I will give a brief example of what I mean. This is one of many. A young couple was raided in a private apartment where drugs were found and they were charged. One of them will take the rap. Currently, the partner, who is on social welfare, who has a rent allowance and who drives a blacked-out jeep, has just returned from a skiing holiday, and has had expensive cosmetic surgery — there are a range of other matters I do not have time to mention here. At the lower to middle level in the drugs trade nothing is being done about any of those matters, for instance, claiming social welfare while being clearly caught in possession of a large amount of drugs and having assets available to them which they clearly could not have on a social welfare income. That is the scenario that fuels the drug crime gangs  whose members are killing one another every couple of weeks in this city. That is the way the gangs build up.
The Criminal Assets Bureau, according to the debates in this House and elsewhere, was set up to target people like that, whether through their social welfare payments, their jeeps, their expensive holidays, etc. The bureau is not doing that at local level. I am not interested in whether the bureau is centralised or localised. I am interested in operatives targeting assets of people involved in drugs at local level. It is not happening.
I presume the €58 million the Minister mentioned in his response, which figure pales into insignificance in the context of the €1 billion industry of which we speak, is for the proceeds of all crime, not just drug crime, since the CAB was set up. Why, if the bureau is so good at dealing with organised drug crime, has it expanded throughout the country since its establishment? The Minister cannot have it both ways. It is as plain as day that since 1996 drug crime and drug gangs have expanded and flourished throughout Dublin’s inner city, from the inner city to the suburbs, and to other cities around the country, and have led to the current scenario where it is so lucrative that human life itself is valueless and people are shot dead for the most trivial of reasons.
In the context of all of that, and particularly in the context of my first point on which I will conclude, when we all — including Veronica Guerin who was murdered for it — were calling for an agency to target the assets of the drug gangs, all the people who the Minister now quotes as a reason for him not to take this further step were the same ones who resisted that measure at the time. As the buck stops with the Minister, I ask him to give a little more consideration to the points I made. I would suggest some practical measure like the one I put forward would be far more productive than infringements on the right to silence and the endless other legislative innovations and initiatives the Minister is taking. Something practical on the ground, such as going after the assets of these people, is also essential if we are to get to grips with the problem.
Mr. McDowell Mr. McDowell
Mr. McDowell: I have a good deal of sympathy with the point Deputy Gregory made. From recent accounts given to me of places to which the Garda has gone where crime has been committed or where people have fled following crimes, I have been surprised by the accumulation of physical possessions such as flat-screen televisions in various bedrooms where there does not seem to be a support base for it. I take Deputy Gregory’s point that in such cases there should be a follow-up. Those involved should not simply note these matters and leave the house. Somebody should return to take what appear to be proceeds of crime, directly or indirectly, into pos session. That is a matter which I will raise with the Commissioner.
I am not suggesting to the Deputy that all is perfect, nor am I stating that the CAB is perfect. Perhaps I did not fully understand the Deputy’s point. I believed he was suggesting the CAB be regionalised but he is proposing to have on-the-ground asset hounds whose job it would be to sweep up assets. That is a useful suggestion. In each Garda division there is now a criminal assets profiler whose job it is to examine assets in his or her division and bring information thereon to the attention of the CAB generally. The CAB has local eyes and ears on the ground and is not working entirely within a bubble in Dublin. I would like that to be understood.
The Deputy is making a different point which I understand; it concerns the prioritisation of criminals with the Jeeps, holidays and plasma televisions. Just because criminals are operating below a certain threshold does not mean action should not be taken against them. Depriving people of their assets will actually turn the tide in the war against drugs. I take the Deputy’s point in this regard.
Mr. Gregory Mr. Gregory
Mr. Gregory: The simple way to achieve that is to localise or regionalise the CAB. A centralised bureaucracy inevitably deals with high profile cases and tackles the criminal with the ten big houses. It never comes to grips with those at the middle level. I do not mind what approach is taken once the job is done but the most practical approach is to localise and regionalise the centralised bureaucracy that the bureau has become.
Mr. McDowell Mr. McDowell
Mr. McDowell: I take the Deputy’s point.
Mr. J. O’Keeffe Mr. J. O’Keeffe
Mr. J. O’Keeffe: We will consider it when in government.
Dáil Éireann 632 Priority Questions. Criminal Assets Bureau.