The Government has today published a Bill to amend the Petroleum Act in order to deal with the increase in persons being found in possession of petrol canisters, on many occasions full of highly volatile automotive fuel.

The Government said it already changed the law earlier this year to make possession of fuel in the quantities in question a criminal offence.

Since last year, however, the number of persons identified as being illegally in possession of large amounts of fuel has increased despite the criminalisation of the activity.

The Chief Minister has therefore been in contact with the Commissioner of Police, Richard Ullger and the Minister for the Environment, John Cortes and the Ministers for Justice, Samantha Sacramento. As a result, the Government will propose a very considerable increase in the penalties due for the possession of fuel canisters.

The Bill is based on the premise that -

(a) the penalties for the offences regarding the amassing/transporting of petrol are to be substantially increased, and

(b) the offences are to be made indictable only offences.

By way of background information, the Petroleum Act and Petroleum Rules date back to 1931. This may explain why, rather unconventionally, the penalty for a breach of the Rules is provided for in the Act itself. Consequently, the rule making power in section 7 of the Act does not allow for rules to be made that provide for penalties.

As a consequence of the above the Bill amends the Rule making power in section 7 so that in future a Minister may further amend the Rules as deemed necessary.

There is a consequential amendment to disapply two provisions of section 23 Interpretation and General Clauses Act which together provide a limit on the size of fine and length of imprisonment that can be included in subsidiary legislation and which makes all offences in subsidiary legislation triable summarily.

The Bill also amends section 9 of the Act so that it continues to provide penalties for breaches of the Act itself, but will no longer apply to breaches of the Rules.

The Bill then amends the Rules in accordance with the Government’s stated policy objectives. Although the amendment of the rules need not be made in this Bill it ensures that the amendments are made as soon as the Act comes into force. It also helps to inform the public of the nature of the changes that are about to be made.

Rule 38 currently states that breaches of the Rules are to be prosecuted under section 9 of the Act. Accordingly, this rule is replaced in its entirety. In its new form, rule 38 continues to apply the current level of penalty to breaches of the rules that are not concerned with the petrol issue.

The petrol issue is separately provided for in new rule 38(2).

Firstly, under the new rule 38(2) the prosecution of an offence under rules 24, 26A, 31 or 32A is triable on indictment only.

Secondly, the penalty is also increased. The fine that the Supreme Court may impose is expressed as not exceeding the greater of 10 times level 5 on the standard scale (which amount to £100,000) or 50 times the value of the fuel.

Thirdly the term of imprisonment is also increased to 10 years in a "normal" case but where there is loss of life or serious injury the term is life imprisonment.

The Chief Minster said he intends to take this Bill at the next session of Parliament and to certify it as urgent under section 35(3) of the Constitution if six weeks have not passed by the time that the Parliament can deal with the Bill.

The Chief Minister, the Hon Fabian Picardo QC MP, said:

I have been very concerned about the increased detection of crimes involving possession of large amounts of fuel. Given the volatility of these fuels, the possession and transportation of them is restricted in order to avoid unfortunate accidents from occurring. The indiscriminate trade in these fuels and their careless transportation, is creating a reckless and massive danger to so many innocent people in our community. We will not tolerate that the safety and security of our people and our streets should be put at risk. If a vehicle carrying twenty fuel canisters were to explode, the loss of life, personal injuries and physical damage in Gibraltar would be enormous. The explosion would potentially result in devastation. Working in close consultation with the Commissioner of the RGP, Richard Ullger and with the Ministers for Justice and the Environment, Samantha Sacramento and John Cortes, we have agreed to greatly tighten the penalties due in respect of these offences so that the Courts have the power to really deter the involvement of persons in these nefarious activities that are, after all, designed to assist the drug trade. Strangely, since we made the practice illegal, the nimbler of instances has increased. As a result, by now providing for these huge penalty increases, I know we are going to do the right thing and provide the tools our law enforcement and our judiciary need when dealing with these offences. If necessary, we will act further, again. Gibraltar and Gibraltarians will not want to be associated with or be anywhere near anything that supports the trade in illegal drugs, whether logistically or otherwise. It’s not who we are. It’s not what Gibraltar stands for.