Crime gangs 'targeting small business'

Organised crime gangs are increasingly targeting Northern Ireland’s small businesses for extortion, MPs were told today.

At least 4,000 businesses are victim of extortion in the North, according to the Federation of Small Businesses.

In a submission to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster they called for urgent action to tackle the the growing problem they are facing from organised crime.

They told the committee extortion and racketeering by paramilitaries and illegal organisations throughout Northern Ireland was the “hidden cost of doing business”.

Their evidence was given on the same day that the Independent Monitoring Commission’s latest report said the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries were still engaged in criminal enterprises.

Addressing the committee Wilfred Mitchell, the FSB’s policy chairman, said: “We recognise that the Organised Crime Task Force has had a measure of initial success. However, more can be done at a grass-root level.

“There has never been a serious attempt by government to fully identify the core problem and find a solution to the extortion of the SME [Small and Medium Sized Enterprise] sector.”

Northern Ireland was dependent upon the SME sector and the FSB could demonstrate through research that “illegal donations are a hidden cost of doing business.”

An FSB survey recently identified that at least 6% of businesses were affected by perceived illegal donations – extortion.

The business body said over 4,000 firms could be affected.

“As well as the economic impact, the fear and intimidation many businesses face is unacceptable,” Mr Mitchell told the committee.

It was unrealistic for an individual business to report the crime as the consequences in terms of personal security and business sustainability were high, he said.

“This problem is growing throughout the province and into new locations outside the Greater Belfast area,” said Mr Mitchell.

SMEs made a vital social and economic contribution to Northern Ireland and the FSB recommended:

:: The Organised Crime Task Force make tackling racketeering and extortion against the business community a core priority.

:: Research into the cost and impact of racketeering and extortion on small business and the wider economy should be commissioned.

:: Politicians who were responsible for making decisions in the area must demonstrate a willingness to take a lead in dealing with the issue.

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