Many people in rural areas will have risked mixing the odd litre of red diesel in with the normal stuff, after watching farmers fill their Landrovers up for a knock-down price. For motorcaravanners with a big tank to fill, it’s pretty tempting.
But perhaps drivers using red diesel don’t realise that they’re risking a £500 on-the-spot fine – or vehicle seizure – if they’re unlucky enough to be stopped by HMRC officers in a random tank-dipping operation. Red diesel is dyed indelibly red, to make it all too obvious, even if you’ve only put a little of the cheap stuff in.
I can understand the temptation to gamble. Since March 2011 drivers have had to pay fuel tax at the rate of 57.95 pence per litre for both petrol and diesel. On top of that, we pay 20 per cent VAT. Consequently fuel prices in Britain are among the highest in Europe. (Click here to see how successive governments have raised fuel tax.)
Monday’s BBC Panorama programme, The Great Fuel Robbery, revealed a sinister new development. Undercover filming and reporting showed ‘pop-up fuel stations’ selling illegal diesel as low as 90p per litre. Taxi after taxi was shown pulling into one particular site to fill up on what turned out to be ‘laundered’ red diesel.
RISK TO ENGINE
This stuff has had various bleaching agents applied to it, so that it looks clear. Unfortunately for the drivers buying it, the cleaning chemicals can cause serious damage to their vehicle engines. On top of this, the drivers can still get caught, because HMRC’s tank-dipping methods have become more sophisticated in response.
The Panorama team discovered that there are at least 100 of these illegal filling stations in Northern Ireland. Gregory Campbell MP, a former member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee who has spent years monitoring organised crime and paramilitary activity, warned: “The type of people who are probably involved at the top of this are the terrorists of yesteryear who would like to be the oil barons of tomorrow.”
HMRC has said there is some evidence that organised criminals from Northern Ireland are likely to expand their red diesel-laundering businesses to the rest of the UK.
Buyer beware! However angry we motorcaravanners may feel about paying such high fuel duty, resorting to engine-wrecking bleached red diesel is just not worth the gamble.
Luckily, wherever you live in the British Isles, you don’t have to drive too far to find a wealth of beauty spots, castles, stately homes and historic towns and villages. Our spectacular coast offers everything from dramatic surf beaches to family-friendly sandy shores. I think we also have some of the best campsites in the world, right here on our doorstep. What’s more, everyone speaks our language. Perhaps it’s time to spend some of our trips exploring just a little nearer to home.
Kate Taylor, Practical Motorhome
Update: November 2012
In Northern Ireland 16 diesel laundering plants have been uncovered since 1 April 2012 and about 30 were discovered in 2011. A BBC news report quotes Mr Whiting of HM Revenue and Customs, who said that more and more toxic waste - a by-product of the laundering process - is being found abandoned by the roadside.
Mr Whiting told the BBC:
"Indeed we discovered a vehicle yesterday that literally had a sort of James Bond-style ejector system, whereby waste product could be ejected from the back of a vehicle very quickly and fly-tipped at the side of the road," he said.
As fast as the plants are raided, new ones spring up. Official estimates say 25 per cent of all diesel sold in Northern Ireland is illegal.