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EU: Police and Justice

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will exercise their right to opt out of the police and justice provisions of the Lisbon treaty after 2014.

My Lords, the Government are considering carefully the many different factors and implications involved in this decision, which does not have to be taken until 31 May 2014.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that Answer, which does not quite give the full picture. The Government can opt out of all the 90 or so laws now and, if they want to, opt in to any of them individually thereafter.

Does the noble Lord remember the Prime Minister saying:

“We will want to prevent EU judges gaining steadily greater control over our criminal justice system by negotiating an arrangement which would protect it. That will mean limiting the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction over criminal law”?

First, will the Government support that promise in any vote on this matter—in the House of Commons and in your Lordships’ House—which, as the noble Lord knows, has been promised down the other end? Secondly, are not the Government faced here with a straight dilemma: is it to be the wishes of the British people or is it to be appeasement?

The answer to the last question is the former. The length and complexity of the noble Lord’s supplementary questions indicate why the Government are sensibly taking great care to study and consult on these matters, particularly with the committees of both this House and another place, and as he rightly said, my right honourable friend David Lidington has made it clear in a Statement to the House that when the decision is to be made on these matters, there will be a full debate and vote in both Houses of Parliament.

Does not my noble friend agree that to scrap the co-operation in surveillance, pursuit, arrest and extradition that exists with European countries in areas such as drugs, international fraud and trafficking would be simply daft?

I will have to check carefully whether “daft” is a parliamentary term, but I would have thought that such a course of action would be somewhere in that range of description.

My Lords, it is very good to have the Minister back answering Questions on behalf of the Government. We missed him.

The Minister will know that, during the last Parliament, the Justice Select Committee looked at this matter with some care and, I have to say, commended the last Government for much that they did in this undoubtedly very complex field. The present Government are to be commended on their reply to the Select Committee of another place, in which they said that,

“this Government intends to play a strong and positive role in the European Union”.

We say “Hear, hear” to that.

Would the Minister agree that what are needed before we move to legislation of any kind under the Stockholm programme are evidence-based proposals and a long look before we actually legislate? Is it not the truth about this matter that it is necessary always to be sensible and practical about it?

My Lords, yes it is. That is why we are following the pattern, as the noble Lord said, of looking at these matters in a pragmatic and practical way, with a mind to defending essential British interests and making sure that our judicial system is protected while also ensuring that we retain the many benefits of cross-border and EU co-operation referred to by my noble friend Lord Thomas.

Does the Minister agree that it would be a little odd to suggest that we should give up the right to decide whether to opt in? Will he confirm that the Government would opt into an EU measure only when they considered it to be in Britain’s national interests? Does he not think that to be able to opt in only after the matter has been negotiated by everyone else and not by us would be the least good way in which to bring our influence to bear?

Again, I agree. The practical way in which we have operated since coming into office is to look at the merits of the case, to put our decision before the two Select Committees of both Houses and to listen to their advice. It makes no sense at all to have knee-jerk reactions or to play to various galleries. We are looking at these matters in Britain’s interests, consulting as far and wide as we can and listening to Parliament. That is the best way in which to get the best decisions.

My Lords, under the guise of anti-terrorism and protecting society, many measures throughout history have been introduced that chip away quietly at many of our ancient liberties as enshrined, not least, under habeas corpus. I hope that the Minister will take very seriously the widespread anxiety about the continual erosion of the rights of the British citizen, which is done possibly for good short-term reasons but, in the long run, is chipping away at many of our basic and fundamental liberties.

My Lords, one of my responsibilities at the Ministry of Justice is as Minister for civil liberties. I assure my noble friend that the concerns that he expressed are never far from my thoughts. Our civil liberties will have to be protected and guarded.

Can the Minister recall that, when he and I fought side by side in the Labour movement for Europe for greater co-operation among the countries of the European Community, we were exceeded in our enthusiasm only by the Liberal Democrats? Is that still the case?

The last time I waited to respond to an intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I keeled over and spent four days in St Thomas’ Hospital. But I am glad to walk down memory lane with him.

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that using denigratory terms such as “daft” and “playing to various galleries” devalues the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, who, for the purposes of this Question, I will call my noble friend—that will be a first in this House, I think. There is a serious point in the thrust of my noble friend’s Question. In taking these decisions, it should always be borne in mind that the British public still need to be convinced that the social and other laws coming from Europe are in tune with British national opinion.

Again, I could not agree more. I am saying that successive Governments have built in methods of scrutiny and consultation that should reassure all but the most sceptical of colleagues. What we are doing now and what is before both Houses should give them that reassurance. Perhaps the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes, Lord Pearson of Rannoch and Lord McAvoy, and I could meet to discuss these matters.