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European Public Prosecutor’s Office: EUC Report

Volume 748: debated on Monday 28 October 2013

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That this House takes note of the Report of the European Union Committee on the Commission proposal for a Council Regulation on the establishment of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (COM(2013)534, Council Document 12558/13) (3rd Report, HL Paper 65).

My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion on the Order Paper in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell. The noble Lord, Lord Boswell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, present their apologies. Both are attending the COSAC meeting in Vilnius. As a member of Sub-Committee E, which prepared this report, I have the pleasure of inviting the House to agree to its recommendation. That recommendation is that the House issue a formal reasoned opinion that the Commission’s proposal to create a European Public Prosecutor’s Office breaches the principle of subsidiarity.

The principle of subsidiarity enshrined in Article 5 requires that the EU should take legislative action,

“only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States … but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level”.

No one now denies that there are significant problems with European Union fraud. Indeed, it was our committee which sought to highlight this point in its April report when it suggested that European fraud now ran to the tune of about £5 billion a year. We recognise that there are considerable shortcomings in the system for combating such fraud. We are not arguing this evening that one does not need to address these issues seriously but about in what way one should address them.

The Commission has now come up with the proposal that the way to deal with European fraud is to create a new supranational European body, with an independent power to investigate and prosecute EU fraud offences in national courts, called the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, or EPPO. Our report outlines, in detail, the structures and powers of the proposed public prosecutor’s office. I will identify some of the features that concern us most. The European Public Prosecutor’s Office will have a very wide jurisdiction as to what it investigates and prosecutes. Although the definition of European fraud has yet to be firmly fixed, it will be very likely to encompass any act or omission which has the effect of wrongly acquiring or retaining EU funds or assets or which results in the diminution of European Union revenue. It would include, for example, incitement, aiding and abetting such offences, and corporate criminal liability.

The committee was particularly concerned about the proposal for the prosecutor’s office to gain exclusive jurisdiction over any other offence which is inextricably linked to a European fraud offence. That has the considerable capacity to further expand and involve the office in national jurisdictions and expand its own jurisdiction. We should all be concerned at the nature and potential character of that proposal.

The proposed office will also have exclusive power to investigate and prosecute a wide range of offences. It will have a wide range of investigative powers such as the right to search premises and intercept telecommunications, to be exercised in accordance with national law and subject to obtaining a judicial warrant where national investigators would be obliged to obtain one. It can require information and assistance from national authorities. The proposals also suggest that it can operate under its own rules on the admissibility of evidence.

The committee, in considering these proposals, concluded that the proposal fails the subsidiarity test. The report lists nine bullet points at paragraph 14 to justify that opinion. I will briefly underline or summarise a few of them. First, we suggest that there are better alternatives, based on the current framework, which is built on criminal enforcement by member states. More can be done to prevent fraud happening in the first place through good quality legislation and careful administration of resources by the Commission and member states. We should remember that 80% of all European Union funds are administered by member states themselves. That is a vital factor, which should be taken into account. Co-ordinated action needs to be improved, but we do not believe that this particular proposal for this particular kind of office is justifiable.

The EPPO would undermine the effectiveness of existing EU fraud-fighting organisations such as Eurojust and OLAF. Giving the EPPO exclusive competence would create an unnecessary faultline between national and European Union efforts to counter fraud, introduce complication, and risk the moral hazard that member states will feel that they can leave EU fraud to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. By contrast, it must be a shared responsibility, particularly given that, as I emphasise again, 80% of all European Union funds are administered by the member states themselves. Our committee was concerned that the proposal would interfere disproportionately in the sensitive area of member states’ criminal law systems, by conferring exclusive powers on the public prosecutor’s office and giving it power to dictate how finite national criminal law enforcement resources are deployed and by allowing it to operate according to its own rules on the admissibility of evidence.

Our committee found that the Commission has not made its case adequately. It underestimates the costs and overestimates the benefits of such an office, particularly as at least two member states, the UK and Denmark, will not be participating. The Government have made it clear that the UK is not going to opt into this proposal and, indeed, that a referendum would be required for it to do so. It is nevertheless, in our view, appropriate for this House to issue a reasoned opinion, and it does not absolve the House from coming to a position on the issue of subsidiarity. All national parliaments have a special role to play in monitoring compliance with subsidiarity in accordance with the treaties, and many national parliaments have been very active on this proposal.

Although Article 86 of the Lisbon treaty specifically envisaged the creation of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office, that does not undermine our reasoned opinion. First, the article is permissive. Our opinion is consistent with the treaty—we do not challenge the right of the EU to create such a body, but are saying that this particular set of proposals is far-reaching, intrusive and infringes the principle of subsidiarity. Under the subsidiarity procedures, national parliaments can force European institutions to review a proposal—it requires, as I understand it, 14 parliamentary votes across the union. Fascinatingly, there has been, in the past few weeks, a growing groundswell of parliamentary opinion across the union critical of these proposals. I understand that we have already reached 14 parliamentary votes and five more are in the pipeline including, I hope, in this House tonight. The House should support the report and our reasoned opinion, and put further pressure on the Commission to review these radical and unacceptable proposals.

My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands. He has laid out the case as to why this proposal to establish a European public prosecutor’s office does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity with forensic skill, and I will try to avoid repeating what he has said.

I was a member of Sub-Committee E, both at the time of issuing this subsidiary assessment and of the publication of the report, The Fight Against Fraud on the EU’s Finances. That report found that there appeared to be a significant level of fraud within the EU budget, and that official figures appeared, at least to us, to significantly underestimate the volume and value of that fraud. Therefore, at first blush one has some sympathy with a proposal that appears to have as its objective, the sharpening up of the organisational response to these defects. Further to that, our report found significant weaknesses in the work of the European anti-fraud office, known as OLAF, which included tensions between the supervisory committee and the executive arm of the agency; frequent turnover of representation so that consistent policies were not followed through; an absence of classification of fraud offences, which the noble Lord referred to; a reluctance to name and shame countries where it appeared that fraud was taking place; and last but not least, a lack of will among member states to report and follow up suspected cases of fraud.

To be fair to the commission, it has put in place a number of measures to improve OLAF’s operational efficiency, notably the regulations adopted just six weeks ago on 11 September. However, one of the more depressing features of the Brussels bureaucracy—at least to a Euro-agnostic like me—is the tendency, where an organisation is not operating up to par, not to undertake a serious attempt to improve the efficiency, but instead to pile on top of, or in this case alongside, that organisation yet another body to look after it. It is almost certain that an EPPO operating alongside OLAF and Eurojust will surely only serve to undermine OLAF’s work at this time, when the recent changes just introduced, as I mentioned, should give it a new sense of purpose and direction.

I particularly share the view expressed in the report that the anticipated costs of running the EPPO are woefully understated; a net annual cost of just €6.1 million is surely not credible. The reason for the subsidiarity judgment is that the fight against EU fraud needs to be developed from first principles, and they can be done without the introduction of the EPPO. The Commission needs to improve the clarity of its budgeting system; improve its own systems for overseeing that budget; and work more closely, where appropriate, through OLAF and Eurojust with member states so that they investigate and prosecute fraudulent activity with vigour and purpose.

The noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, quite rightly focused on the impact of this proposal on the national criminal law systems of individual member states. He was right to do so and I support him. However, I believe that even if it were possible to overcome these principle objections—and I, for the record, do not believe this would be possible—establishing the EPPO would, on purely practical grounds, likely offend the principle of subsidiarity and undermine the existing organisations of OLAF and Eurojust at the same time.

My concern on this point was underlined by the Written Statement published in Hansard on 15 October, which states:

“Vice President Reding presented her recent proposals for the creation of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office … There was support, in principle, from a large proportion of Member States … but less agreement on issues of substance, including scope; structure; competence; powers; jurisdiction and governance”.—[Official Report, 15/10/13; col. WS 52.]

In effect, the EU member states could not agree how this thing should be proceeded with on any practical level, and that is why I support this reasoned opinion.

Since my noble friend described himself as a Euro-agnostic, I do not think I would offend my friend—not noble friend—on the Labour side if I called him a Euro-realist or sometimes a Euro-hesitator about a number of aspects which he analyses with great precision. I am an unashamed Euro-enthusiast and yet, none the less, I think there is agreement about this particular document and report as was seen in the way in which we couched our recommendations having studied this matter carefully.

The European Union is evolving after the Lisbon treaty in what I hope will be a gradually accelerated fashion. It is inevitably slowed down by the realities of economic austerity and slowed down in the national economies of all the member states, not just the leading ones. That is a reality that we see, as well as the constant difficulty of blending different national cultures in all sorts of areas. Perhaps one of the most difficult areas is the law and the legal sector, because of the noticeable difference of the Anglo-Saxon legal system, mainly in the UK and Ireland, the Roman legal systems of the other member states, mixed with some of the new member states since 2004.

That is just the reality; it is not to be hostile to the evolution of Europe by annunciating those realities that we are facing in all sorts of complicated sectors. This one is particularly complicated, and I think that this is an occasion where the member states expressed a general support for the notion and the concept, but maybe for the future, as the noble Lords, Lord Rowlands and Lord Hodgson, mentioned without going into the details. Subsdiarity must be a real element of the Lisbon treaty in order to provide reassurance to the national publics of each member state, particularly the one in this country, which is particularly fragile in its Euro-hesitation; this disturbs me greatly because I think it is unnecessary, but it is because of the fight between the political parties and the rise of UKIP. It is necessary to balance all those things and not to rule out this concept for the future.

There is every prospect that the EPPO concept itself will gain confidence if it goes slowly forward but the national legal systems demand that the national prosecutorial authorities have the upper hand in the initial stages of that timeframe, which may be quite long, over a number of years, to gain reassurance. We have the co-operative tradition anyway between the forces of law and order in the European cockpit. Europol is proving to be a great success—under a UK executive head, I am glad to say—and is developing apace, and so are the other instruments that were mentioned by the two previous speakers in this debate.

If that is the way to do it, it may be that in future the EPPO will have a pragmatic construct, a special piece of instrumentation by way of a regulation agreed between the Council and the European Parliament that would include the national prosecutorial authorities inside the EPPO system to reassure the public, who will feel that subsdiarity will have therefore been satisfied. Our need for subsidiarity in a number of areas needs to be expressed. People should not be nervous about doing that. This is a classic example. I am very glad to be on the same committee as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, and to support enthusiastically this recommendation.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Rowlands for his explanation of the committee’s report. There seems to be a remarkable degree of agreement between us all this evening. I am pretty sure that the Minister is not going to demur from that.

This is a very detailed technical issue and it is quite clear from the speeches we have heard that not only does it deserve detailed scrutiny, it has received that scrutiny. This is not a new proposal. It has been raised on a number of occasions. The negative response from the Government is not new either.

Even before the 2001 Green Paper from the Commission first proposed a European public prosecutor, the idea had been discussed, particularly in discussions on the Nice treaty, when an outline proposal was put forward but then dropped through lack of member state support. In response to the Green Paper, the European Scrutiny Committee in the other place reported in 2002, saying that it was,

“unnecessary, particularly given the existence of Eurojust”.

At that time, the committee identified a number of concerns. Those concerns remain, for example: the combination of prosecution and investigative functions; the power of the EPPO to commit a person for trial and determine the location of the trial; the creation of differing standards of criminal responsibility for fraud depending on whether or not it related to fraud on the community’s financial interests; the lack of democratic accountability for the prosecution function; and, of course, the breach of the subsidiary principle and dilution of member state responsibility for prosecution of fraud.

Since then, the creation of a specialist EU prosecution authority has been raised again but still has not gained the support it would need to proceed. The 2011 European Scrutiny Committee echoed the concerns of the 2002 committee when, in recommending the 2011 communication for debate in the European Committee, it cautioned against the “inappropriate and unacceptable” use of national criminal justice systems in acting against crimes against EU finances.

However, as my noble friend Lord Rowlands made clear, it is fair to say that this proposal has not been thought up in a vacuum. It seeks to address a genuine problem and we recognise the seriousness of that problem, which is that there needs to be greater protection of the EU’s financial interests and we need to see further improvements in how the EU deals with fraud. The level of suspected fraud against the EU budget is obviously and rightly a source of concern. The report refers to the Commission’s estimate that it stands at around €500 million, or £425 million, in each of the last five years. British taxpayers bear part of the cost of that fraud, which is totally unacceptable. We must seek new and better ways of tackling this fraud, preventing it and bringing those responsible to justice.

The question that the European Union Committee was looking at was: is the EPPO the best way of achieving this? We again concur with the committee’s conclusion that it is not. We made our position clear when in government, and that has not changed. Our position remains, as my noble friend Lord Rowlands outlined very clearly, that the proposal for an EPPO breaches the subsidiarity principle. It is clear that the national-level approach, supported by existing EU mechanisms, is more appropriate.

When we signed the Lisbon treaty, we made it clear that although the treaty could allow for such an office, we were strongly against it, as the noble Lord will recall. We insisted on a “double lock” to ensure that it could not be established. Indeed, your Lordships’ House was, as always, very diligent in its scrutiny of this measure and, following debate, supported the position made very clear by my noble friend Lady Ashton of Upholland in 2008, when she said:

“We have secured legally watertight safeguards in the treaty against any move towards a European public prosecutor or subsequently, and just as important, towards extending that prosecutor’s role. It is what we would call a double lock”.—[Official Report, 9/6/08; col. 454.]

We were not just opting out at that point but securing essential safeguards for the future, which we are able to use today.

That double lock meant that, in order to proceed, the UK would first have to opt in and then, even if a future Government decided that they wanted to opt in, there would still need to be unanimity, and that would be retained for any decision to establish a prosecutor or extend the powers of any such prosecutor. Therefore, we concur with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, on behalf of the EU committee, that the creation of the EPPO was not the appropriate response to tackling fraud.

The noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, outlined a number of issues of concern and we concur with them, particularly the point that the proposal would transfer responsibility for tackling fraud against the EU budget away from national-level decision-making to a supranational authority. The European delegated prosecutors would be required to prioritise EU fraud above other crime at a national level. It has always been a red line for us that member states determine their own national priorities, and the consequent use of resources for those priorities, in tackling crime.

Also, an EPPO system would result in a duplication of established national-level efforts to protect member-state and EU financial interests, including organised crime. It is somewhat surprising—and I read the reports again in case I missed something—that, although the Commission has reported two consecutive years of decrease in fraudulent and other irregularities affecting the EU budget and their estimated financial impact, it has not waited to evaluate the impact of the proposed new directives on tackling this issue. There is a danger that the establishment of an EPPO could disrupt that work.

The best way to tackle fraud is through prevention; that is reflected in the UK's own policy of zero tolerance towards all fraud, using robust management controls and payment systems, and requiring all agencies with responsibility for distributing EU funds to have processes in place to monitor and report fraud. There are genuine and—we consider—justified concerns that an EPPO would cause a shift from prevention to reaction after crimes have been committed, because each member state would be, in effect, less responsible for anti-fraud work at national level. Therefore, in terms of the practicalities and the implications of such an office as I have outlined, the creation of the EPPO fails the test.

The creation of an EPPO also fails the test on the important principle of subsidiarity. The principle is that the EU shall act only when,

“the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States”,

and that case has certainly not yet been made. On that specific point, it would perhaps be helpful if the Minister could tell us what further proposals the Government have, and in what timescale they will be able to bring them forward, for the UK to play its part in tackling EU fraud. If he has that information with him tonight, it would be helpful if, as part of this debate, he could show that we are playing our role and that he has further proposals to bring forward.

I welcome the committee’s report on this issue, and I welcome the Government’s approach on it as well. I hope that it remains the way forward for discussing issues relating to Europe, particularly on criminal justice matters. The Minister will be aware that we discussed similar issues on criminal justice on more than one occasion in this House, and he will be aware of our frustrations that government proposals seemed to be led by internal party and coalition concerns, rather than by what we regarded as being essential: the practical, principled and hard-headed examination of UK interests.

We have had the hokey-cokey of the opt in, the opt out and then the opt in again on justice and home affairs issues. In those debates, we fortunately had the wisdom of the European Union Committee of this House, and the debates we had then benefitted greatly by being shaped by the detailed, factual reports of that committee. As tonight, they were excellent, informative debates with contributions from noble Lords on the practicalities as well as the principles before us.

I appreciate—and I say this genuinely to the Minister—that Europe is a difficult internal issue for the Government, both in the Conservative Party and in the coalition, but we have to co-operate in order to have a real impact on crime. I am thinking particularly about cross-border crime, such as drugs trafficking, people trafficking and international fraud, where we greatly benefit from co-operation. Decisions must never be taken for internal party-management reasons; they must always be taken with a hard-headed practical approach in the national interest.

The tone of tonight’s debate is very welcome. We support maintaining the policy. We support the report from the EU Committee and the reasoned opinion. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Boswell of Aynho, for tabling this debate. He cannot be here this evening because he is exercising his responsibilities as chairman of the European Union Committee. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, for moving the Motions of the committee and its reasoned opinion on the European Public Prosecutor’s Office proposal and for presenting the issues so clearly—as does the report that the committee produced.

It is laid out in the EU treaties that the Commission must consider the principle of subsidiarity when drafting all EU legislation. It must also include a detailed subsidiarity statement in the published text. It should be,

“substantiated by qualitative and, wherever possible, quantitative indicators”.

In effect, the Commission should not only say that the principle of subsidiarity has been met but also clearly demonstrate how it has been met and provide well researched and accurate evidence. To assess this, there is a two-limbed subsidiarity test. The Commission should clearly demonstrate in its rationale and impact assessments that the objectives of a proposal cannot be sufficiently achieved at member state level—the first limb of the test—and then that the objectives of a proposal can be better achieved at EU level by reason of their scale and effect, which is the second limb and the so-called EU added-value test.

The EU treaties give this House and Parliament the right to decide whether the proposal meets both limbs of the subsidiarity test. If noble Lords believe that the Commission has failed clearly to demonstrate that EU-level action is necessary and is of added value, it is their right to say so by issuing a reasoned opinion. This is therefore a matter for Parliament and not for the Government. In the case of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office proposal published in July this year, as we know, the European Union Committee considered the two-limbed test and found that the proposal does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity. The reasoned opinion clearly lays out the reasoning. The Government agree with the European Union Committee’s assessment.

In the Government’s Explanatory Memorandum on the proposal, we made it clear that we do not believe that the principle of subsidiarity has been met in this case. We share the view that the Commission has not presented a convincing case. The figures used by the Commission to justify the EPPO are flawed and inflated, while other evidence draws on inappropriate, partial and unsubstantiated information. There are many gaps and blanks, especially in the costs of change and future funding needs. While of course the issue of fraud must be tackled at all levels—including when it involves funds that form part of the EU budget—we do not agree that the establishment of an EPPO is the right approach. The relevant legal base in the treaties—Article 86 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union—says that a European Prosecutor’s Office “may” be established. The treaties do not say that it “shall” be created, yet the Commission presents that as the only solution.

The Commission has not allowed time for current reforms at national level to take effect and make a difference. For example, reforms to the European Anti-Fraud Office—OLAF—are currently being introduced to improve information exchange between OLAF and national authorities and to improve OLAF’s internal quality control. Indeed, a new regulation governing the work of OLAF entered into force only on 1 October. We hope that the improved quality of evidence provided by OLAF to national courts will address many of the conviction issues that the Commission raises in its assessment of the EU fraud problem. These changes need time to be implemented before any action is contemplated. The Commission has not considered adequately other options to strengthen the current system further. For example, it has not considered enhanced incentives or other options for reform at regional or national level in any detail or in a rigorous manner.

In the Government’s view, the best way to tackle EU fraud is through prevention. The UK has a zero-tolerance approach to all fraud, with robust management controls and payment systems in place that seek to prevent incidents of EU fraud. Additionally, we should continue efforts that are already being made to strengthen the current system. The House is also aware of our long-standing position in the coalition agreement not to participate in the establishment of any European Prosecutor’s Office. The details of the proposal serve only to reinforce that position. This proposal is unnecessary, unsubstantiated and unwelcome.

On the principle of subsidiarity, every reasoned opinion sends a political message to the Commission. If a quarter of the votes allocated to EU national parliaments were cast, the so-called yellow card would be triggered. The Commission would then be obliged to review the proposal. I am pleased to say that, as the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, indicated, the 14-vote threshold has now been achieved in the case of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. I firmly believe that this House should join that group and send a political signal to the Commission that its proposal does not meet the subsidiarity test.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, for the way in which he has presented the report of the EU Committee, members of that committee and my noble friends Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts and Lord Dykes for their contributions to the debate. It has been a thorough report and a good debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, for her support on this issue. Time is of the essence. I understand that our votes have to be in by midnight tonight.

To conclude, this Motion is for Parliament. It is not for the Government to act. I can only encourage your Lordships to agree this reasoned opinion and exercise the right given to this House under EU treaties.

Our committee will take great comfort and satisfaction in the nature of this debate and in the unanimity that exists. I will not be tempted to rise to the bait of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, and describe my Euro-tendencies at this time, except to say that this is one of the rarer moments when he and I agree on European issues. We have not agreed in the past. We certainly can agree on this issue.

I thank all those who have spoken. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, rightly emphasised the changes that are occurring within the existing institutions; the door should be left open to carry them through. My noble friend Lady Smith on the Front Bench rightly said that the primary responsibility will lie with national jurisdictions. That is where 80% of the funds are administered. Article 325 of the treaty says that responsibility for dealing with European fraud lies both with the Union and with member states. This proposal is therefore in this context wrong and I am delighted that all of us who have spoken in this debate share that view.

Motion agreed.