I beg to move,
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 11497/11 and Addenda 1 and 2 relating to the Draft Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the right of access to a lawyer in criminal proceedings and on the right to communicate upon arrest; and supports the Government’s recommendation not to opt into the Directive in accordance with Protocol (No. 21) on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland in respect of the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice to the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
I commend the European Scrutiny Committee for calling this debate. As set out in the coalition agreement, the Government approach criminal justice legislation case by case, with a view to maximising our country’s security, protecting Britain’s civil liberties and preserving the integrity of our criminal justice system. The Government recommend that the UK should not opt into this proposed measure at the start of negotiations, not because we do not think that minimum standards of defence rights, including access to a lawyer, and the right to communicate on arrest, including with consular authorities, are important—of course, we do—and not because we disagree in principle with the setting of common, minimum standards across the EU in respect of certain aspects of criminal proceedings. On the contrary, we see the benefit of appropriate minimum standards. For that reason, the UK opted into the first two measures on the procedural rights road map on interpretation and translation and the right to information in criminal proceedings. We are not making this recommendation because we fear that our law does not meet the minimum standards required by the European convention on human rights—it does.
The reason we do not propose to opt into this measure at the outset of negotiations is that we think that the directive as published by the Commission would have an adverse effect on our ability to investigate and prosecute offences effectively. It is important that action is taken to ensure that the standards of procedural rights across the EU are adequate. That is necessary for two reasons: first, to ensure that, as people travel through the EU, they can be confident that in the event that they are unfortunate enough to become subject to the criminal justice system of another member state, they will be dealt with fairly and in accordance with robust minimum standards; and, secondly, the EU has chosen to develop a series of mutual recognition measures designed to promote security by helping to combat crime and ensuring that suspected offenders cannot use European borders as a way to escape justice.
The Minister has twice used the words, “at the outset of proceedings”. Being something of an old hand at this sort of thing, I wonder whether that means that he proposes to opt in later. Perhaps he will bear in mind the problem that some other member states have judicial systems that are, quite frankly, below par.
Indeed they do have systems that are below par, which is why we are keen for the measure to proceed across the EU. We will decide at a later date whether Britain opts in, subject to the negotiations that will take place. If my hon. Friend listens to what I have to say a bit further, he will hear how we propose to look at that process.
This is a good, practical idea that has delivered some notable results, provided that it does not put suspects at risk of less-than-adequate criminal proceedings. Such instruments of mutual recognition were never intended to operate on their own. It was intended that they should be supported by a series of criminal procedural rights, enforceable at EU level, that would build on the rights already guaranteed by the ECHR and provide additional reassurance that the rights were being given practical effect in all member states. These standards will not only protect British nationals when they are arrested elsewhere in the EU but will provide greater trust and confidence among the courts of all EU states that judgments handed down, which they may be expected to recognise, have been made on the basis of sound procedural standards.
Standards of procedural rights are high in the UK. The right of access to a lawyer, both before and during police interview, has been provided in England and Wales and Northern Ireland since the mid 1980s. A similar right was provided for in Scotland last year. However, despite the fact that we see value in the Commission tabling such a measure, we have considerable concerns about the detail of the directive and the impact its drafting would have on the UK’s criminal justice systems.
The procedural rights directives are intended to draw on the jurisprudence of the ECHR and to flesh out what those rights mean in practice. Certain provisions of the Commission’s proposal, however, go far beyond the minimum standards that stem from the convention. While there is no problem in principle with going beyond the standards of the convention if there are good practical and policy reasons to do so, we do not see such reasons in this case. On the contrary, we think that there would be some quite adverse and costly impacts on the ability effectively to investigate and prosecute offenders were the Commission proposal to be adopted.
Examples of that include the fact that the directive as drafted by the Commission may require access to a lawyer to be provided in some stages in the investigatory process where currently a lawyer is not provided, such as at a police search of a property or where a person’s fingerprints are taken when they are booked into a custody suite. We do not consider it necessary or proportionate to provide a lawyer in those situations.
In addition, the directive requires that a person should always be able to meet his lawyer face to face, whereas we provide, in some minor cases, for telephone access, which detained persons often prefer as it can mean that they are held for a shorter period as it is not necessary to wait for a lawyer.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is exactly the case, and if it is to be under threat we should be concerned.
The directive also requires absolute confidentiality of meetings and communications between a lawyer and a suspected or accused person. While confidentiality of such discussions is of course a fundamental principle, there are some limited circumstances in which confidentiality should not be guaranteed. The most obvious example is where the authorities have reason to believe that the meeting or correspondence is being abused to further criminal activity. In such circumstances, which are exceptional but none the less extremely serious, the communications ought not to be privileged and the authorities might need to monitor them.
We also believe that member states should be allowed to derogate from other rights set out in the directive, in certain exceptional circumstances. For example, it might not be appropriate to allow a person in custody to contact a particular individual if the police might have reason to believe that he will ask that person to conceal or destroy evidence. The ECHR case law has been clear that restrictions can be imposed on access to a lawyer for an accused person if there are compelling reasons to do so.
We do not think that the drafting allows enough discretion for judges to decide case by case whether evidence should be admissible if it has been obtained in breach of any of the rights set out in the directive.
In some of the documentation and information that Members received before the debate, there seemed to be a question about whether citizens of the United Kingdom would be disadvantaged with regard to the high level of legal representation that they have compared with that in the other 26 EU countries, which seem to have agreed on a method and the way forward. As a Member of the House, I would have to ensure that my constituents had that high level of legal representation, such that it was equal to that in the rest of the EU and that we were in no way disadvantaged.
The straightforward answer is that if the other states were to go ahead with the directive and we did not opt in, British subjects travelling abroad would, I suppose, have the advantage of the minimum standards whereas other EU citizens would not have the benefits in this country. However, that is not the basis on which we are negotiating, because it would not be a good position from which to negotiate. That is the technical position.
The changes that the directive in its current drafting would require us to make to our domestic law would not only be unnecessary, but would be highly resource- intensive. Our initial analysis suggests that the directive as drafted by the Commission could cost upwards of approximately £32 million to £34 million per year. I stress that the UK is not alone in having these concerns about the directive. The early negotiations made it clear that our concerns are shared by a good many other member states. The incumbent Polish presidency is taking a sensible and pragmatic approach to negotiations, and we can expect that the final product may be very different from the text we are looking at now and that many of the concerns that we have highlighted will be dealt with.
Because of that, and because of the value we attach to ensuring fair trial rights across the EU, we intend to work very closely with other EU partners to develop a text that takes greater account of the practical realities of investigation and prosecution and allows for greater flexibility in meeting the requirements of ECHR jurisprudence. Given the extent of our concerns with the current text, we cannot at this stage be entirely confident that all of them will be taken into account, and it is for that reason that we are seeking not to opt in at the outset. However—I say this to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) in direct reply to his question—if our concerns are taken into account in the process of negotiation, we will be able to consider opting in at a later stage, as our protocol allows. Given the importance that we attach to this dossier, that is something to which we will give serious thought.
My hon. Friend is setting out the situation with great care and extremely competently. If we were to take the decision to opt into the directive, would we then be subject to the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction in respect of what he described as very wide ranging matters to which we had opted in?
The European Court of Justice has jurisdiction in determining how European law is to be applied, but it is not an appeal court so it would not constitute any type of court of appeal.
I look forward to hearing the views of hon. Members on this recommendation and I commend the motion to the House.
As the Minister says, the directive forms part of a defence rights road map agreed by the European Council in 2009 that aims for greater harmonisation of fundamental tenets of the criminal law. We have opted in and supported the previous two limbs of that. The current proposals concern principally the right to access to a lawyer on arrest, the right to have someone notified on arrest, and the right to communicate with a third party on arrest. As such—I do not think the Minister resiled from this—it articulates what most British people would consider not only uncontroversial but essential civil liberties. Since 2009 the EC has sought to harmonise these rights across Europe. I think the Government welcome that.
Notwithstanding the points the Minister made, which I shall come to in a moment, it is difficult to see why the Government oppose the proposal as far as this country alone is concerned, at least for the present. If introduced, it would give us confidence that members of the British public would be subject to due process when overseas. According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, more than 19 million British nationals travel to France every year, 13 million to Spain, 4 million to Italy and 2 million to Greece. Hundreds of them will, sadly, end up being arrested for a criminal offence. In Spain more than 2,000 Britons a year are arrested for criminal offences.
As the Minister said, Europe is not a homogenous legal environment and not all justice systems operate in the same way or to the same standards. I am grateful for the briefing that Fair Trials International provided for the debate. The organisation helps to ensure a fair trial for anyone facing charges in a country not their own. In its research it highlights some notable examples. I shall not spend a great deal of time on that, as it would take up the time of other Members who wish to speak.
Some of the cases are familiar, such as that of Garry Mann, a 51-year-old fireman and football fan who was arrested in Portugal, allowed to leave the country, subsequently arrested on an arrest warrant and imprisoned for two years. It was a case of mistaken identity and on arrest he did not have the benefit of a knowledge of Portuguese law, which would have allowed him a stay.
Another case is that of Edmond Arapi, who was convicted in absentia of committing a murder in Italy at a time when he was working in the UK. It got to the point where he was about to be extradited and imprisoned for a term of 16 years. Had legal advice been available to him at the time of his arrest, it would have become apparent much earlier that this was a clear case of mistaken identity.
I am reasonably familiar with the Arapi case because it took place in Staffordshire, not far from my constituency. Of course, the real mischief was the arrest warrant itself. There was no reason whatsoever why that man was dealt with in that way. I think that it is absolutely futile to attempt to argue the case on access to lawyers on the basis of the complete failure of the arrest warrant system.
The hon. Gentleman makes part of my point for me. There are concerns about the operation of the European arrest warrant, but that is one of the reasons we wish to see the provision of good-quality legal advice and access to lawyers throughout the European Union. He might have his own solution on our relations with Europe, probably a rather more fundamental one than mine or the Minister’s, but we are where we are and it is therefore important that these safeguards exist.
I was going to mention a third case, that of John Packwood. There are unfortunately a large number of such cases, but those are the three famous ones that have featured heavily in the UK press, particularly the Daily Mail, which has championed many of the cases in which the most perverse decisions have been made in foreign jurisdictions. For the people involved and their families, the experience was a nightmare. They were in a foreign country trying to communicate with officials who spoke an unfamiliar language and subject to procedures that were often summary and perverse, and yet they had no knowledge or advice with which to challenge them. It should be a matter of concern to the Government to protect our citizens overseas and ensure that they are given the same consideration as we would grant citizens of other countries visiting Britain, and that they are given the opportunity to do so and, at least for the present, decline.
We should not be slow to see the high standards of justice that British people expect of our criminal justice system applied to other countries. The directive would assist that process. After all, it was the previous Conservative Government who enacted the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which provided a suspect in police custody with a statutory right to legal advice. Section 58 of the Act states that a person arrested and held in police custody is entitled to consult a solicitor privately at any time. The detention code provides that the consultation may be in person, in writing or by telephone and that free and independent legal advice is available. Therefore, the decision not to opt in to a directive that has the same intention as those provisions seems strange, and I will move on to what the Minister says are the differences.
First, the directive’s requirements are broadly in line with current UK legislation. Where there are divergences—the Minister mentioned one or two—they are negotiable. This is a process of ongoing negotiation, and in some cases they are subject to the requirements of national law. The example of searches, which the Minister gave, is one of those.
Secondly, the negotiations are continuing. As the Minister said, many other countries are concerned that there is inadequate room for derogation and are questioning aspects of the directive. It is therefore unlikely that it will remain in its current form. It seems pointless to send negotiating teams, as the Minister proposes, when we are the only country that intends to opt out at this stage, which fatally undermines the authority and leverage that this country will have. We appear to be throwing away an advantage to British citizens for reasons that are at best unconvincing and at worst spurious. Why have the Government taken this position? The Minister might have seen the briefing from JUSTICE, which takes the Government’s points of objection and states that they are either points that can be negotiated, or points that the Government have got wrong. It looks as though the Government are looking for reasons to opt out at this stage.
Tomorrow, the Minister and I will meet again for the next Committee sitting of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, and I look forward to that in Committee Room 12 at 9 o’clock. One of the first clauses that we will consider is clause 12, which gives the new director of legal aid casework and, by extension, the Lord Chancellor the power to decide who does and who does not get access to a lawyer in a police station—and to do so on the basis of an interests of justice test.
There has already been an outcry throughout the criminal justice system at that attack on a basic right, which was introduced to avoid the risk of a miscarriage of justice. PACE itself was in part a response to the appalling miscarriages of justice of the 1970s, but, in answer to the criticism that the Minister is taking on a power that will allow the state to regulate who does and who does not get advice in a police station, he says that he has absolutely no intention of taking away legal help from police stations, so why is he then arrogating to himself the power to do so?
Taken together with the premature decision tonight to opt out of the directive while negotiations continue and before any decision needs to be taken, clause 12 of that Bill suggests that the lessons that led to PACE are being forgotten by this Government.
May I ask the Minister three questions, which, if he replies at the end of the debate, he may wish to answer? First, why are the Government not going to do what they did with the earlier stages of the road map and continue negotiations before making a decision on opting out? Secondly, why are they opting out now when there is further time to negotiate? And, thirdly, can the Minister confirm that the Government are committed to the current system of access to counsel in a police station and do not intend to erode that right, and if so explain why they are pursuing clause 12?
The objections that the Government have raised are nugatory and susceptible to change, if there is any merit in them, whereas the advantages to British citizens abroad are clear and substantial. It is not good enough for the Minister to say that we can get all the benefits of the directive if it is enacted in 26 other countries, but that we do not need to bother with it ourselves. That sounds like a clear Eurosceptic “have your cake and eat it” voice from the Minister, and I am not sure that that is what he is saying, but it is a—[Interruption.] I am not sure that Government Members think that that is what he is saying, either, but it is a knee-jerk reaction to opt out at this stage.
The hon. Gentleman has on a couple of occasions in the past couple of minutes referred to opting out of the directive, but we are not opting out, we are simply not opting in, and in fact there is a big difference, because if we opt in we will never be able to opt out.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. The Minister is at least open and clear about attempting to take the benefits. He wishes to do so, and in that I agree with him. Appalling miscarriages of justice occur regularly, and we want British citizens to be protected from that, but we cannot do so without engaging. We can negotiate what are for us as a country relatively minor changes, if changes at all are needed, but if we accept the experts who briefed Justice we find that the Government have misinterpreted those minor changes, to which the Minister alluded, in any event.
In the end, it comes down to this: do we wish seriously to see the proposals implemented, in which case we should be in the game and negotiating clearly, or do we wish to take the Government’s somewhat disingenuous position tonight? For that reason, and notwithstanding the Minister saying that he may change his mind in due course, we will oppose the Government this evening.
It is a pleasure and a relief to be called in the debate, partly because I gave relatively little notice of my intention to speak, and partly because I knew I would be coming immediately after the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter). As other Members who serve on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Public Bill Committee know, sometimes he gets carried away with his eloquence and might well have risked eating into the entire time allocated for this debate.
Obviously, I welcome the debate. As the Minister said, the new Commission proposal seeks to guarantee fair trial rights, providing access to a lawyer from the first stage of police questioning and throughout criminal proceedings by allowing adequate confidential meetings between the lawyer and the suspect; by allowing the lawyer to play an active role during interrogations and to check detention conditions by making sure that the suspect is able to communicate with at least one family member or employer; by allowing suspects abroad to contact their country’s embassy or consulate and receive visits; and by offering people subject to a European arrest warrant the possibility of legal advice in both the country where the arrest is carried out and the one where it is issued. The draft directive acknowledges that the right to a lawyer is not absolute and allows some derogation.
As the Minister said, the UK affords most of the protections offered in the new proposal in existing domestic law. However, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith pointed out, in many other EU countries there is clearly not such provision; he quoted from Fair Trials International, which listed the countries in which, unfortunately, many of the rights that we have here do not apply. That is clearly why it is arguing for the UK to opt in to the directive.
The Minister rightly set out the Government’s concerns about the provisions, some of which are not consistent with our national law or practice. Some of the proposals have financial implications for the UK, when, as we know from our debates on legal aid, there are real pressures on budgets. However, it is important to point out that other member states share many of our concerns about the practical implications of the proposal and the ability of their criminal justice authorities to investigate and prosecute crimes.
In his letter, the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice briefly set out the other issues about which the UK Government have concerns in respect of the impact on our legal system. I hope that the Government will pursue those matters because there can be no doubt that, as the Minister who is here today has acknowledged, the directive would benefit UK citizens abroad, many of whom have to put up with legal systems that are not comparable with ours. Equally, if the UK opted in, some aspects of the changes required might well be beneficial to other EU citizens who had to go through our own court system. I hope that there is an active engagement on these issues.
My final point is about whether the UK Government’s approach is one of going in to win the battles around the differences and perhaps secure the possibility of opting in later, or whether we are going in to battle for a draw—to try to make some changes, but without the expectation that they would be sufficient to allow the UK to opt in. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer that point.
I will not be long, Mr Deputy Speaker; I just want to put on the record my opposition to the motion. The Minister made great play of the fact that it does not contravene the European convention on human rights, and suggested that cost was a key consideration in not opting into the directive.
As I understand it from the legal opinion that I have heard, it is clear that the motion does conflict with article 6 of the convention and areas of PACE, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) has said. There have been a number of miscarriages of justice, such as the Garry Mann case; I understand that, because the directive was not in place, Mr Mann had only five minutes with his solicitor before he was convicted.
I turn briefly to the impact of cost. If cost came before the consideration of human rights we would be on a very slippery slope; that would not be a sign of a civilised society—the one that I recognise that we belong to. I have spoken tonight because I wanted to register my objection to the motion.
The European Scrutiny Committee recommended this subject for a debate on the Floor of the House, in line with the written ministerial statement that all matters of this kind would be so debated when they
“have a substantial impact on the United Kingdom’s criminal or civil law”.—[Official Report, 20 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 52WS.]
This is a very good starting point. However, I am somewhat disquieted by the extent to which the Minister has indicated—I hope that I am wrong, and that he will correct me if I am—that it is only a matter of time before, irrespective of the matters of principle that arise, we might end up opting in. I remind him that the whole process of the opting-in arrangements is based on a presumption against our opting in unless there are profoundly good reasons for doing so.
For the reasons that have already been touched on by the Minister and by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), I believe that neither the difficulties that arise in relation to the application of arrest warrants nor the question of failures of justice in certain countries in the European Union may ever be sorted out. One need only look at a number of countries that came in by way of accession over the past few years. That went somewhat against the advice of the European Scrutiny Committee, and we had indicated beforehand that they had judicial systems that were so substantially below standard and riddled with corruption, with political judges and perverse procedures, that it was completely unacceptable that they should be allowed in. Access to a lawyer is obviously an important necessity, but whether one gets justice as a result of having such access when the courts themselves are corrupt is quite another story. That needs to be borne very much in mind.
We all believe that when citizens of the United Kingdom go abroad they should have access to a proper judicial system when they get there. Sometimes they are arrested, as in the case of some of the arrest warrants. We have heard reference to the Arapi case and one or two others. I have the greatest respect for Fair Trials International; its representatives have given evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee, and they have been very impressive. They have grave reservations about the arrest warrant and have said so. Where there is a serious problem in respect of the judicial system of a given member state, the fact that one has access to a lawyer may be only a minor mitigating factor.
Some time ago, before a lot of these laws were being put through, there was the case of the Greek plane spotters. Mr Arapi came from Staffordshire, and I noted what went on. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) was instrumental in what happened. It was the subject of her first intervention in Prime Minister’s questions, and the Prime Minister immediately seized on it. I had a little word with her beforehand and suggested that it might be a good idea if she raised it with him, because I was convinced that he would immediately take the appropriate action, and he did. However, it took the intervention of the Prime Minister to sort this out, not access to a lawyer or to the judicial system where this poor man was convicted and sentenced to 16 years for an offence that he could not possibly have committed. The entire procedure that led to his conviction was utterly, completely and incontestably absurd, futile and dangerous.
My concern is less about access to a lawyer and more about whether people get justice even when they have a lawyer. That might seem rather strange, but it is exactly the problem. I do think that being able to contact consular authorities is incredibly important. I would certainly go along with that.
We have heard a number of points from the Minister, and I will briefly mention them, so as to put this on the record as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee. The potential consequence of article 10.2 and 13.2—of fettering the ability of a trial judge to decide on a case-by-case basis whether evidence should be admissible if it is obtained in breach of the directive’s provisions—is one problem. The other, as the Minister has indicated, is the financial implications of article 4, about providing a face-to-face meeting with one’s lawyer. As the Minister said, it is suggested that the cost of providing that could be as much as £32 million to £34 million a year. Another problem is the precluding of the use of accredited representatives. Those are people who are trained to advise a suspect at a police station. Even though they are not qualified lawyers, they at least provide a degree of assistance.
There is also the issue of the European convention on human rights, about which it is well known that I am not wholly enthusiastic, to say the least. It would be far better if, having drafted the European convention on human rights, we had been aware that we are quite capable of passing legislation in our own country to protect people’s human rights. The idea that I am not in favour of human rights, which the Home Secretary put to me the other day, is positively absurd. Of course I am in favour of human rights; I just want them to be real ones.
I am afraid that quite often artificial constructions are placed on the European convention on human rights, which have been criticised by some distinguished judges. The Lord Chief Justice himself said that the first duty of judges is not to apply Strasbourg decisions in the UK courts, but to protect the common law. A tremendous industry has been created since the 1990s, and the extent of human rights law has now reached astronomical proportions. It provides lawyers with a useful source of income without giving a proportionate degree of protection to those who seek human rights. Human rights could be provided for in Westminster if we passed our own legislation.
Another question is what effect an EU proposal would have if it failed to improve fair trial standards in our own criminal law. Even if it attempted to improve trial standards in other countries, what effect would it have on our criminal law? If the EU proposal had no effect it would become a lot easier to support it, with all the reservations that I have already expressed.
This afternoon, the Lord Chancellor gave evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee on the accession of the EU to the European convention. I assure hon. Members that he made it clear that that is a very, very long-term proposal, with huge degrees of negotiation yet to happen. Apart from that, there must be unanimity all the way down the line. He even ventured to suggest that it might not happen in his lifetime, or at any rate in his political lifetime.
We have to bear in mind the complexities that are being developed. The European convention, as it relates to the citizens of this country and others abroad, interwoven with the charter of fundamental rights under the Lisbon treaty, which of course we voted against but which the Government are now implementing, produces the curious result of a multiplicity of complex procedures all overlapping with one another. It is important that we bear that in mind, because it would have a bearing on cases such as those that we are discussing.
As I have said, given that we have tried and tested procedures, my preferred option would be not to opt in. I have grave reservations about the tsunami of opt-ins that we have been seeing.
Is not the fundamental problem with EU opt-ins that if we opt in there is no way back, so if our negotiation is not successful we are stuck with whatever is decided, but if we choose to opt out we are not part of the negotiations? That means that if we opt in at a later stage we get the worst of both worlds. That is a fundamental flaw of the European Union and the opt-in system.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend, who is also on the Committee and witnesses these things at first hand. The Committee recommended this debate, and I am glad that it is taking place. It is not a token exercise, and I trust that the Minister understands that there are serious reservations about how the judicial system operates in other countries. Although we certainly believe that access to a lawyer and to consular authorities is a good idea, we do not have to have the Lisbon treaty, the European Union or an opt-in procedure under those arrangements to provide for access to the courts or to secure protection for those who need it.
I add my thanks to the European Scrutiny Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) for ensuring that we are having another of our regular Wednesday evening debates on European matters. I am also pleased to say that for once I can support the Government’s present position on this issue, although I have to say that I am a little concerned that I might not be so readily able to support what might come in future.
When any of our constituents travel abroad, they do so in the full knowledge that they are entering a foreign country with foreign systems. It seems to me that the fact that there are inadequacies in some of the legal systems of other European Union member states is not a good reason to accept another dollop of European legislation.
I have heard no one suggest that our own procedures and legal systems in this country are not up to scratch. In fact, as far as I can see, it is a case of the rest of the Europe catching up with the systems and procedures that we already have in place. Of course, if we were ever to opt into the directive, we would have to change some of our existing procedures that have served us well. In my short time in the House, I have never had anybody complain to me about the procedures that we have in place in respect of access to a lawyer, the right to consult a lawyer when detained or any of our pre-charge procedures.
Whatever one’s view of the current procedures within the UK, surely it is for the House and the UK to decide whether there are to be changes, on the basis of the arguments, which should be fully explored and discussed beforehand, rather than changes coming about as the by-product of a European directive. That is the problem if there are to be changes in the UK system.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely valid point. I would have made the same point later, but I shall make it now. I have heard no complaints about our current procedures, but if there were a general acceptance that an aspect of them could be improved, it would be for the House to pass legislation to do so. We would then have the right to tinker with and change them as we wished. Indeed, we have done so. Only very recently, a Delegated Legislation Committee on which I sat altered the rules under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, because this House thought it appropriate to do so.
My hon. Friend is making an important point in response to the one made by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). Has my hon. Friend turned his mind to the bigger picture? These opt-ins do not come before the House by accident or by way of judicious fine-tuning of our system. This measure is part of a political project that was put in place by the EU to create a European area of freedom, security and justice, whereby rules and laws on criminal procedures and other criminal matters will be made at the EU level rather than in this House, and whereby our law will be subject to that law.
My hon. Friend makes another extremely valid point. Whenever I have discussions on European matters with constituents and other members of the public—not surprisingly, I have such discussions fairly frequently—time and again they refer to the fact that they are dissatisfied with our membership of the EU because they believed that the EU was to do with business and trade. They believe that the EU should have no part in justice or home affairs. When we entered the EU all those decades ago, it was never envisaged that the EU would play a part in justice and home affairs. That is one reason why I will continue to push for a referendum. Such things may have been in the minds of those who were pushing for the European project, but they were never in the minds of our electorate. They were never told about that and it was not part of their consideration when they went to vote back in the 1970s.
May I remind my hon. Friend that the Conservative party, for the first time since 1972, was completely united in opposing the implementation of the Lisbon treaty? Only as a result of entering into the coalition agreement did we end up having to accede to many of the provisions that result from the introduction of a treaty that we were previously united in opposing.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is one reason why opposition to our membership of the EU is growing in this country. As I often say to people, in many ways every directive that passes is another nail in the argument of those who will one day argue in a referendum—I believe we will eventually have one—that we should stay in the EU. People are increasingly fed up with the ever-growing competences of the EU. It is all very well to argue that the European Union Act 2011 will put an end to all these things, but we can see—day by day, week by week, month by month—that slivers of competence are going to Europe, and this would be another of those slivers. If the directive were adopted, it would be a classic example of this country’s handing over a further tiny piece of its competence. It might be only a sliver, but this is still a matter of sovereignty. At present, we can decide what our rules are.
Is this not also a classic example of the European ratchet? First the European arrest warrant allows British subjects going about their lawful business in their own country to be arrested by foreign Governments; then it is decided that there must be basic standards to protect them from such action, because that is only fair and proper; and that then leads to the conclusion that there must be more harmonisation of the criminal law across Europe. In fact, what Her Majesty’s Government should be doing is not just not opting into this, but getting out of all the other measures to which they have agreed.
My hon. Friend has made an excellent point, which I am sure would find widespread support outside the House. Far too much legislation from Europe is already foisted on our constituents, and we certainly do not need this as well. It is, in my view, an example of a solution looking for a problem. There is certainly no great clamour for it. When our constituents go abroad, they may well choose to go to Europe—there are, after all, another 26 countries in the European Union—but they may equally choose to visit any of the other 170-odd countries in the world, where none of this would apply. What do they do then?
We ought to consider speaking—quietly and diplomatically, of course—to plenty of other countries which have judicial systems that are far less helpful to the accused than any that might be found in the European Union. This is, I submit, a criminals’ charter. If it were to become law, the criminals and their lawyers would not only have to comply with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, but would have recourse to this directive as well as the European Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights. It would be yet another hurdle for our police to surmount in dealing with crime and disorder on our streets, and, in my opinion, a problem that we could well do without.
The other group of people who would profit from the directive are the lawyers, particularly legal aid lawyers. As has already been mentioned this evening, it has been suggested that advice be given face to face. I know from my own experience many years ago that when a suspect is arrested, advice is given quite adequately on the telephone, and I see no reason to change that arrangement. Again, there has been no clamour for it to be changed. I see no reason why this country should have to change its practices and procedures purely on the basis of this directive. It may well benefit other countries—indeed, it may well benefit some of our constituents when they travel abroad—but I feel strongly that there is no need for it to be adopted now or at any time in the future. I hope that even when the negotiations have been completed, this will be the last that we hear of it, and that we shall never see it back on the Floor of the House again.
This has been a constructive debate, and it has provided a timely opportunity to place the Government’s position on the record. Let me reconfirm, not least for my hon. Friends the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), that we believe it is important that action is taken to ensure that the standards of criminal procedural rights across the EU are adequate—I stress the word “adequate”. That will help to ensure that British nationals in other member states receive the rights that underpin a fair trial. It will also help to provide the level of mutual trust necessary to support European legal instruments that require competent authorities to accept and act upon decisions or judgments given in other member states.
The Government see clear benefit in setting minimum standards across the EU in respect of certain aspects of criminal procedure. As many Members have noted, standards of criminal procedure in relation to access to a lawyer and the right to communicate upon arrest are high in the UK. We see benefit in an effective and workable directive which would raise standards in this area.
The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), asked a number of questions. He asked why the UK had opted in to the previous two directives on the procedural rights road map, but not this one. The Government believe it is important that action is taken to ensure that the standards of criminal procedural rights across the EU are adequate. The previous Government opted in to the directive on interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings, and this Government opted in to the victims directive. The hon. Gentleman asked why we opted in to that directive, but not this one as well. The Government have decided to opt in to the victims directive establishing minimum standards for the rights, support and protections of victims of crime because it meets the criteria set out in the coalition agreement with regard to EU justice and home affairs measures and is more in line with existing UK practice. I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that we currently intend to retain free legal advice in police stations, as I have said publicly in the past, and he will hear more on that in Committee tomorrow.
The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone mentioned individual examples of process, on which the Government cannot comment. However, I noted the disappointment of the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) about the fact that we do not intend to opt in at the outset.
I also understand the disappointment of Members who have set out the difficulties faced by constituents who have faced trial in certain other EU member states. However, the directive as published by the Commission goes very much beyond what we see as the minimum standards of the European convention on human rights and would have an adverse and exceptionally costly impact on our ability to investigate and prosecute offences effectively. We do not think it would be sensible to opt in to the directive at this stage because it is not possible to be completely confident that all these difficulties could be mitigated through negotiation.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for his supportive remarks, and I can confirm that we intend to negotiate and win on our positions. In order to do so, we intend to work very closely with our European partners—that work is already under way—to develop a text that takes greater account of the practical realities of criminal investigations and prosecutions. We are not alone in our concerns, and we are optimistic that the directive that is finally adopted might look rather different from that published by the Commission.
Our aim during negotiations will be to amend the text constructively, so that the UK might be in a position to contemplate participating in the final directive, and we have three months from the proposal in which to opt in. We can be part of the negotiations if we do not opt in, but we would not have a vote, so we intend to participate in, and influence, negotiations to make the directive better. We would opt in post-adoption only if our criteria were met, and following appropriate consultation in Parliament. I can confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone that there is no inevitability to opting in, and I understand many of the concerns he raised. At the same time, I have to tell him that there is no presumption against opting in unless there are profound reasons for doing so, such as he suggested.
If the decision is taken to opt in—which I would regret, for reasons I have explained—I hope it will be made clear that our Government are opting in to a major piece of criminal justice legislation and choosing to hand over to the EU and the European Court of Justice jurisdiction over a wide swathe of our criminal procedure.
We will still have jurisdiction over criminal procedure, and subsidiarity would apply as well, but my hon. Friend makes his point.
Any decision to opt in at a future date will be taken on the basis that the Government approach legislation in the area of criminal justice on a case-by-case basis, with a view to maximising our country’s security, protecting Britain’s civil liberties and preserving the integrity of our criminal justice system. Any decision to opt in at a future date would also be subject to scrutiny in Parliament.
The Deputy Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 14 September (Standing Order No. 41A).