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EU: European Justice and Home Affairs Powers

Volume 739: debated on Monday 15 October 2012


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on European Justice and Home Affairs powers.

Under the terms of the Lisbon treaty, the Government are required to decide by 2014 whether we opt out of, or remain bound by, all those EU police and criminal justice measures adopted prior to the entry into force of the treaty.

The Government are required under the treaty to reach a final decision by 31 May 2014, with that decision taking effect on 1 December. While this may seem a long way off, as with many EU matters the process of decision-making is a complicated one. We wish to ensure that before that point we give this House and the other place sufficient time to consider this important matter.

In total, there are more than 130 measures within the scope of the decision to be considered at this stage. A full list of the measures concerned was provided to the House on 21 December last year, and a further update was given on 18 September this year.

The Government are clear that we do not need to remain bound by all the pre-Lisbon measures. Operational experience shows that some of the pre-Lisbon measures are useful, some are less so and some are now, in fact, entirely defunct. But under the terms of the treaty, the UK cannot pick and choose the measures from which to opt out. We can only opt out en masse and then seek to rejoin the individual measures.

So I can announce today that the Government’s current thinking is that we will opt out of all pre-Lisbon police and criminal justice measures and then negotiate with the Commission and other member states to opt back into those individual measures which it is in our national interest to rejoin. However, discussions are ongoing within government and therefore no formal notification will be given to the Council until we have reached agreement on the measures that we wish to opt back into.

This Government, more than any other before them, have done their utmost to ensure that Parliament has the time to properly scrutinise our decisions relating to the European Union and that its views are taken into account. I can assure the House that the 2014 decision will be no exception. As the Minister for Europe has already told the House, the Government are committed to a vote on this matter in both this House and the other place. We are also committed to consulting the European Affairs, Home Affairs and Justice Select Committees, as well as the European Scrutiny Committee and the European Union Committee, as to the arrangements for this vote.

I fully expect that these committees will want to undertake their own work on this important decision. The Government will take account of the committees’ overall views of the package that the UK should seek to apply to rejoin. So that the Government can do that, I invite the committees to begin work, including gathering evidence, shortly and to provide their recommendations to the Government as soon as possible.

The Government will then aim to bring forward a vote in both Houses of Parliament. The timeframe for this vote will depend on the progress in our discussions with the Commission and Council. An update will be provided to Parliament early in the new year on when we can expect the vote to take place.

I hope that today I have conveyed to the House the Government’s full commitment not only to holding a vote in this House and the other place on the 2014 decision but on the importance we will be according to Parliament in the process leading up to that vote. I am sure that all parties will want to work together to ensure that the final decision is in the UK’s national interests.

It is in the national interest that the Government have taken this decision, and I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, when I read reports in the press and heard about this Statement this morning, I had hoped that we would get some clarity from the Statement about exactly what the Government’s plans involve. Having listened to the Home Secretary and the noble Lord, I am not much wiser. Rarely can a Statement have been so devoid of detail.

I have expressed my concerns before that Home Office Bills, specifically in relation to crime and courts, have come before this House before the detail has been worked out. The community sentencing clauses, for example, used a procedure of recommitting a Bill that I have never seen before in 15 years in both Houses.

I suspect that I know why. It is not often that we get Conservative Party policy from the Dispatch Box, particularly from a Lib Dem Minister, and that probably explains why there is a lack of clarity. If the press reports are to be believed, Liberal Democrat sources have played down the significance of today’s Statement. If I have understood the report correctly, the Home Secretary and the Minister today have “limited authority” in what they can say, because government policy has not yet been agreed. The Minister cannot go as far as the Prime Minister—I doubt that he would want to—when he said that the Government would opt out of all police and criminal justice measures.

I cannot recall any other Statement of such significance where a Secretary of State has announced that the Statement represents the Government’s “current thinking” and has added that “discussions are ongoing within government”. We all know what that means: it is the pro/anti EU tension at the heart of this Government that makes this announcement confused and shambolic and seem like yet another example of policy being drafted on the back of an envelope.

Several questions about the detail need to be answered. I apologise to the noble Lord for referring to detail, but the House deserves to have some. If the European arrest warrant had not been in place, what action would have been available to UK police in co-operating with their French counterparts to ensure that the French police were able to arrest Jeremy Forrest and ensure that he and Megan Stammers were returned to the UK in the same timescale? No one is suggesting that the European arrest warrant is perfect, but the independent Scott Baker report commissioned by the current Home Secretary strongly recommended keeping it. Yes, it could be improved and updated, and that very process is taking place now; it is being reformed. As a further example of this Statement being premature, the Government do not even know at this stage what they would be opting out of.

The European arrest warrant is responsible for nearly 600 criminals being returned to the UK to face trial. It has allowed 4,000 citizens from other European countries to be sent back to their home country or another European country to face justice. In light of some of the Government’s briefing on this issue, your Lordships’ House might like to be aware that 94% of those sent back to other European countries to face trial under the European arrest warrant are foreign citizens.

The Home Secretary has said that the Government may want to opt out—because no one is sure yet—and then may consider opting back in again. There is a process for opting back in, but can the Minister say what happens in the mean time—in that gap between opting out and trying to opt back in? What processes will be in place, and what happens if the opt back in is refused? My understanding is that Denmark has had around 50% of its applications to opt back in refused.

If the UK opts out of policing and criminal justice measures, what process do the Government envisage putting in place to deal with some hugely significant issues? These include: counterterrorism; the sharing of criminal records, including those of sex offenders; conventions to protect member states’ financial interests in the event of major international economic crime; minimum standards of collection of customs and police information to tackle cross-border crime; co-operation on the identification of laundered money; co-operation between member states in tracing and freezing criminal assets; and the setting up of Europol. That list is not exhaustive.

It would have been far more satisfactory if the Minister had been able to give us some clarity today, if he had been able to say which of those areas he would want the Government to opt back in to, and if he had been able to say why the Government think the position is so unsatisfactory that they are considering opting out of the entire police and criminal justice powers. Which of these are so offensive that the Government are prepared to put at risk European co-operation on some of the most serious and abhorrent crimes that damage British citizens? The Statement gives no reasons for the Government taking this view. There is no justification for this view, and there is no information on which provisions the Government think are valuable and would want to opt back into.

We have a process from the Government but we do not have a policy. The reason is that this is still only the Government’s current thinking, as the Minister stated, and discussions are still ongoing within the Government. Will anything ever change? It seems an absolute shambles. On issues as serious as this, this House and the public deserve better. This sounds too much like a political gimmick drummed up on the back of an envelope.

I thank the noble Baroness for her response. I suppose I should also thank the Opposition for leaving this measure in the negotiations that they carried out on the Lisbon treaty.

First, on clarity, I do not think there could be a better and clearer declaration of pre-legislative scrutiny—something that I think the House wholly approves of. If I had come here today with a definitive list of measures to be opted into or out of, the House would quite rightly have said, “How can you pre-empt the decision in this way?”. I will borrow the noble Baroness’s phrase: we have put in place a process, not a policy. The process will allow this House, the other place and their committees to look at this matter in a proper, considered way, and to bring forward recommendations that will in turn form the Government’s final decision. That does not sound to me anything like policy on the back of an envelope. It seems a very measured way of looking at matters, and one reason why we are starting early is to make as much progress as possible on these matters so that there is not the gap to which the noble Baroness referred in relation to the opt-out and implementation.

The European arrest warrant is a perfectly good example. No final decision has been taken. The European arrest warrant has had some successes, but there have also been problems, including the disproportionate use of the EAW for trivial offences. As with all the other measures, the point is that it will now be open to scrutiny and consideration by those who have experience of how these things have worked, so that we can make that final decision on these measures in the national interest. As I say, this is one of the clearer Statements I have come across about how a Government intend to develop policy, and one that sets forth for both Houses a process that will give them maximum influence on policy.

My Lords, I start by welcoming the fact that the Government are consulting so soon on whether or not to opt out. That seems an entirely good thing. I also welcome the fact that they are consulting the various committees listed in the Statement.

I suggest that those committees, and indeed the Government, could do no better than to start by reading—and, if I may say so, inwardly digesting—a working paper very recently produced by a group of very distinguished academics under the leadership of Professor John Spencer of Cambridge University, entitled Opting Out of EU Criminal Law: What is Actually Involved?. It was the result of much work over the summer and was published only last month. The report starts by disposing of various myths that have surrounded this subject since first it raised its head: in particular, the myth that one can pick and choose what one is going to opt out of. Happily, the Government accept that we simply cannot do that.

However, the Government believe that we can opt out of the whole and then try to negotiate our way back in where it suits us—the so-called Danish solution. But what if we do not succeed? It is quite wrong to suppose that all 130 pre-Lisbon police and criminal justice measures are bad. On the contrary, they are not. We will in any event be bound by all post-Lisbon police and criminal justice measures—that is another myth that is widely believed. So it will be partly one and partly the other. If we opt out, we may in the end get the worst of all possible worlds in deference to the pressure that I think we all understand.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has already referred to the “current thinking” of the Government on this matter being to opt out. I implore the Government to keep their current thinking on this matter under review.

My Lords, the whole point of the exercise is that the Government can keep their thinking under review and can take on board the kind of evidence and study that the noble and learned Lord referred to. He puts his finger on it entirely. We were faced with the position, as the Lisbon treaty stands, that we could not pick and choose what we opt out of; we can simply opt out and then negotiate on the basis of opting back in. Is that a high-risk strategy? We will take the evidence of the debate that unfolds in both Houses, from the committees of both Houses and from academic, judicial and other advice that we receive. However, I do not think that the Government can be accused of taking an irrational way forward. It seems a very measured way forward that gives us time—the noble and learned Lord welcomed how soon this decision had been made. It is because we are taking this early decision that we are going to be able to make the kind of measured decision in the national interest that I think both Houses will welcome in the end.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, although I confess that I am not much better informed than I was before it. Will he clarify three things to take us a little bit further in detail, something with which the Statement was not replete? First, during this period when the Government are “minded” to do something—one of those useful words that civil servants taught me—will the present provisions continue to operate until such time as the Government become “minded” to stop things? Secondly, given that law and order is both now an international and transnational phenomenon and among the highest priorities of people in this country, can the Minister tell us whether any impact assessment has been done of the effect of abandoning these regulations on law and order in this country during the interim, between when he becomes minded to do something and the negotiations finish? In particular, has any consultation taken place with the police and the intelligence communities about it? Thirdly, if either has taken place, can he give us a little more detail on the anticipated effects, were such regulations to be abandoned, in particular or wholesale?

I thank the noble Lord for those questions. I am sure we are going to get this continually. I make the point that the whole merit of this Statement is that it does not present either House with a fait accompli. On the contrary, it offers the House involvement in making these important decisions, which I think would be welcome to the House concerned. That is why this word “minded” is used, because the Government are awaiting advice and having discussions. I cannot imagine that decisions of this importance and magnitude would be taken without the input of those who have responsibility for policing and security matters. They will certainly be involved in giving evidence and advice. However, I am not sure that the process would be helped if Ministers or anybody else dribbled this advice out a little bit at a time. We will get a big picture and all the committees of both Houses will have the opportunity to take advice from a wide range of bodies. We will see that advice emerging when they have had the opportunity to give it.

My Lords, I know many noble Lords wish to speak on this. Perhaps we can take the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and then come across proportionately to the other Benches.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is fundamental to the EU that there is freedom of movement and, that being so, that we need the tools to deal with negative consequences, when there are negative consequences? If that is so, will he give the House an assurance that the Government’s decisions will be based on evidence and informed opinion—of which there is quite a lot—because the Statement is not neutral? Does my noble friend further agree that playing hard to get is not always the best way to progress a relationship?

I shall not go there. Instead, I assure my noble friend that the invitation before the House, and indeed the country, is to let us make these very important decisions on the basis of evidence and informed opinion. I am very confident that if we approach this on the basis of evidence and informed opinion we will make the right decisions for the country.

My Lords, I was the Home Secretary at the time of the Maastricht arrangements. Let me remind your Lordships of what Maastricht did. It said that matters of criminal justice and police powers should remain matters for independent states within Europe. In fact, John Major described it on coming back from Maastricht as one of the great independent pillars of that settlement. That independence has been eroded over the years by the natural effluxion of powers to the centre, which is remorseless in the case of Europe. Therefore, I very much welcome the statement that we will resile from undertakings and then pick and choose which we think are advantageous to our country. This seems to be an excellent exercise in subsidiarity and may well be the shape of things to come.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Baker, for that intervention. I think he would agree that things have moved on from Maastricht, not least in a matter that I think the noble Lord, Lord Reid, referred to—that many of the challenges that we face in these areas are transnational and international. That is why, while looking at the issues with an eye to subsidiarity and the responsibilities of the nation states, we also have to look at them from the realities of the much more international, transnational and global operation of many of the criminal forces that we are trying to counteract. That is why I rely on proper evidence-based examination of the decisions that we are taking forward.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the thanks for the Statement today would be a great deal more sincere if it was not such a sham? It is a sham because the Prime Minister has stated categorically that he will opt out—no ifs and buts and nothing about reinserting those measures we choose. He has ridden roughshod over the undertakings that were given in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and in the other place by the Minister for Europe that before the Government came to any conclusions at all on this matter they would consult very fully. The warm words he said about consultation today are, frankly, not very comforting. I can only repeat the words of the chairman of the EU Select Committee of this House, the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, when he wrote to the Home Secretary after the Prime Minister’s statement expressing his dismay. Does the noble Lord agree that it would be completely unthinkable to put the matter for decision to the two Houses until we are absolutely clear what the whole of the reinsertion or reapplication package is? We will not be able to judge what the consequences of the Government’s actions are unless we know not only that they are going to opt but what they are going to opt back into.

The noble Lord is being unduly cynical about the approach being taken—or let us say pessimistic. When the Home Secretary of the day makes a considered Statement of government policy and I repeat it from this Dispatch Box in this House, we are asking noble Lords and Members in the other place to believe that the Government have not made a final decision on this matter. They have adopted a process which will enable us properly to look at the issues before us. I take note of the noble Lord’s point that the opt-out/opt-in decision is part of a single picture, and I shall certainly draw my colleagues’ attention to the fact that somebody with his long experience of negotiations of this kind is giving what I consider to be wise advice.

My Lords, if we take the Labour Benches and then we will move back to the Cross Benches and the government Benches.

My Lords, in the event that we opt out and then persuade 26 other EU countries of the importance of us opting back in on an individual item, would the act of opting back in trigger a referendum under the Government’s own legislation?

My Lords, can my noble friend assure the House that, in the event that the United Kingdom Government decide to pursue certain elements to opt back into, we would know in advance that the other 26 countries would be willing to negotiate on that basis? It is crucial, if we are going to opt back in, that we have reason to believe that we will be heard and that those issues will be negotiated. Does my noble friend agree that it was under the European arrest warrant that, among other people, one of those who perpetrated the 7 July atrocities was arrested? Will he also assure and remind the House that Europol was at a very advanced position in breaking the dangerous international paedophile ring that until last year operated throughout the whole of Europe?

My Lords, the European arrest warrant and other measures of European co-operation stand very clearly as benefits to us—my noble friend cited two examples. That will be part of the debate that is unfolding. One of the reasons for our wanting to make the Statement today, which, as I have said, it would have been possible to delay by another year, was to start engaging in exactly the kind of discussions that my noble friend referred to. On both a bilateral basis and with the Council and the Commission, we will explore the very areas that will give us and both Houses a clear indication of prospects for success.

My Lords, I do not think that this is a high-risk strategy as has been suggested by others. We negotiated in the Lisbon treaty the right, if we so decided before the end of May 2014, to opt out en masse of the EU police and criminal justice measures adopted before the entry into force of the treaty. As for the treaty, it is a case of all in or all out. That is what the treaty says. It is the consequences that we are talking about now. The Government have, as I understand it, now decided to opt out. Of course, it is possible to opt in for other individual measures, but does not the Minister agree that one problem there is that the practical consequences of some of these measures are still rather difficult to foresee, because we are talking about a moving target? That is a serious point, but I welcome the Government’s intention to scrutinise the possibilities very carefully, to give Parliament the time to carry out the scrutiny, particularly in this House, and to require a vote in both Houses of Parliament. That is the right way to go and the British public deserve no less.

My Lords, I welcome from such an experienced source the opinion that this is not a high-risk strategy. As I have acknowledged, there is a danger in taking the opt-out route, but the treaty left us no option other than to stay in en bloc or to adopt this strategy of opting out and then negotiating back in. By adopting a good timescale and involving committees of both Houses, we will have the opportunity to take both external advice and the political opinion of both Houses to keep track of the individual measures and look at the exactly the kind of consequences and movements that the noble Lord referred to. It is certainly not a political ploy, as has been suggested; rather, it is a political opportunity. It may be seen as a political opportunity for Eurosceptics. I urge those who have a belief in the European process and the benefits of European co-operation to use this exercise to argue their case strongly in both Houses and with the intention of a getting a final decision which is truly in the national interest.