Motion to Take Note
The Criminal Justice (European Investigation Order) Regulations 2017 transpose an EU directive regarding the European investigation order which standardises the way one member state can ask another for help in pursuing cross-border criminality, through gathering evidence, investigating banking information, executing search warrants or taking evidence from witnesses.
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee raised questions about how temporary transfers of prisoners to another member state to help with its investigations are to be handled and what assurances there are that the prisoner will be returned. In its fourth report, published on 7 September, the committee said:
“Regrettably, the Home Office has failed to respond in the seven weeks since we made that request. We shall pursue those enquiries directly with the Minister”.
That the committee did, when the Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Service appeared before it on 12 September. I will return to the issue of the Home Office’s failure later.
In its fourth report, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee stated:
“Given that the changes these Regulations make are all recognised as a significant improvement on the MLA system, the House may wish to know what arrangements the Home Office proposes to make for such exchanges once we leave the European Union”.
I therefore ask the Minister for the answer to the question posed by the committee. In addition, what arrangements would we be left with for such exchanges if we were unable to reach a deal with the European Union on Brexit and leaving the European Union?
Turning to the committee’s concerns in relation to the provision allowing a prisoner, with his or her consent, to be temporarily transferred to the custody of another member state, can the Minister confirm that it will be Ministers who have to authorise such a transfer, rather than an official or officials, and that in so doing Ministers would need to be satisfied that it was only through the transfer being agreed that the necessary information or evidence could be obtained by the member state seeking the transfer?
Moving on from that stage in the process, what will happen if the receiving member state fails to return a transferred prisoner within a timescale which the authorising Minister here would presumably lay down clearly when agreeing to the temporary transfer? What is the redress available, how is it available, and how long would it take for that process to be completed successfully? It would not be a very effective process if it took any length of time at all to activate and for a conclusion to be reached which had real teeth, resulting as a minimum in the individual being promptly returned. I have to say that the responses given to the committee on this issue were, to say the least, somewhat vague. I hope that we can have greater clarity when the Minister responds to this point.
I referred earlier to the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service appearing before the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. In its fifth report, published on 14 September, the committee expressed its thanks to the Minister for meeting it and for the fulsome apology he made,
“for the lamentable lapse by his department in failing to answer our queries in a timely manner”.
The report went on to say:
“The Committee pointed out that the reason that they had so many questions was because the EM presented with this instrument assumed the reader had an extensive knowledge of both Directive 2014/41/EU and of the current UK system”,
contrary to the committee’s guidance, which,
“makes clear that we expect an EM to assume the reader has no prior knowledge of the subject and a better-targeted EM could have avoided the need for some of our more basic questions”.
Can the Minister say why the Home Office’s Explanatory Memorandum did not comply with the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s guidance?
The committee went on to say in its fifth report:
“The Minister described the failure to respond to the Committee’s letter as an isolated incident, and the circumstances around it were being considered at the highest level in the Home Office. The Committee however commented that we had been in this position before: Home Office Ministers in July 2015 and November 2016 had both given undertakings to improve the way that the Home Office’s statutory instruments are presented. This case not only raised questions about the Home Office’s mechanisms for dealing with Parliamentary requests and the priority that they are given but also about the quality of the EM and the clearance process”.
Particularly in the light of the committee’s comments about the EM for this order, can the Minister spell out the changes that were made to process and procedure to deliver the commitments given by Home Office Ministers in July 2015 and November 2016 that the way the Home Office’s statutory instruments were presented would be improved? Can he also spell out exactly what changes have been made to process and procedure following the discussions “at the highest level” in the Home Office on the circumstances surrounding the delay in responding to the committee’s letter and to which the Minister for Policing referred in his oral evidence to the committee?
When the Minister for Policing appeared before the committee in September, he appeared to be unaware of the previous transgressions by his own department in July 2015 and November 2016. That in itself does not suggest that the department and its Ministers have taken as seriously as they should the concerns previously expressed by the committee. The Minister can help to quash any such thoughts by spelling out the precise actions taken by Home Office Ministers to properly and effectively address the concerns raised by the committee in each of the past two years. Responsibility lies at ministerial level, since Ministers gave the undertakings. He could also help to quash any such negative thoughts by spelling out the actions that have been taken, or will be taken, by Home Office Ministers to address the concerns raised by the committee in September about the failure to respond to its letter in a timely manner.
Finally, can the Minister say whether, first, the Home Office, and, secondly, the Government, accept—and will ensure that they abide by—the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s clear statement in its fifth report that,
“although an increased volume of SIs was to be expected from all Government departments during the Brexit period, that pressure would not be an acceptable excuse for any decrease in the quality of the material presented to the House for scrutiny”?
I beg to move.
My Lords, I do not propose to deal with the post-Brexit situation; that is a land from whose bourn no traveller returns unscathed. I will, however, raise with my noble friend a couple of questions around the situation as proposed in the EIO.
I need to declare two interests. First, I am a trustee of a charity called Fair Trials International. As the name implies, we are concerned with the operation of justice. I do not speak for the organisation. As far as I know it has no objections to the EIO in principle. I support the idea that we have an opportunity to execute judicial arrangements swiftly, clearly and fairly. I hope, therefore, to get reassurance—I am sure that I will get it—from my noble friend about how things operate on the ground in real life as opposed to the calm deliberations at a quarter to seven on a Wednesday evening in the Moses Room. Secondly, I was a member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and I am afraid that I was the person responsible for raising the “temporary” issue. I left the committee half way through this matter, so I have form where this is concerned.
It is obvious that for a state to hand over a citizen to another state is a fundamental decision. One of the primary reasons for the existence of individual states is the protection of their citizens as individuals. I hope that the Minister and the Committee will forgive me if I go through a practical example for a couple of minutes and get the Minister to explain to me how the real-life situation works. I note from paragraph 3.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum that so far only nine countries have signed up to the regulation. There is a larger list in Schedule 2 on page 40 of the SI, so I presume that all will eventually become signatories and abide by the convention.
My real-life example is not of concern to noble Lords: we all know where to press the hot buttons to protect our position. There are, however, many people who are less able to defend themselves. Let us assume that I am a football fan and I am going to Bucharest in Romania to watch a European football match. That country is on the Schedule 2 list, not on the list in paragraph 3.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum. Let us assume that it has signed up to this. I am going to see my team play Dinamo Bucharest, a good, quality European team. I go to the match and it is fine. After the match I go into a bar with some friends. We have some drinks and a good time is being had by all, but a fight breaks out in the street outside, somebody is stabbed, and people spill into the bar to try to get away from the violence. Understandably, the police are called. Of course they either anticipate trouble—or sometimes welcome it, as a chance to have a bit of a go at the football fans, whom they do not necessarily regard very highly. I am sitting there with my friends and am required to give my passport number and details, which I am happy to do, and then I go home.
A couple of months later, the man who was stabbed outside has died, and I am served with an EIO to come and give a witness statement about what I saw and what happened to me that night. This is where I would like the Minister to take me through the process. I assume that the EIO is then served, like the European arrest warrant, through a magistrate, probably through Westminster which is where the EAWs go, but I would like to be certain about that. The magistrate can dismiss the application, but if he grants it, as I read this regulation, various options are open to him. He can make a deposition under oath, arrange a telephone conference call, arrange for an interview by closed-circuit television, or he can arrange for my physical transfer. As I understand it, I have to consent to transfer, although I would like the Minister to confirm that.
If I am transferred, that places a considerable burden on me for reasons which I shall explain in a minute. How can I be certain that the magistrate, or whoever is the investigating authority, is certain that the transfer is the last resort? It may be that the police and the investigating authorities in Bucharest would much rather have me present, saying, “We really would like to get Hodgson here because he’s a serious witness, and we don’t think it’ll work well with closed-circuit TV”. How do we make sure that that is the last resort? After that, who is it who actually lets me go? The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, asked in the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee,
“whether it will be the Home Secretary personally who will be authorising the prisoners to be sent abroad under these orders or some designated official and if it is an official, what sort of official will it be?”.
Mr Hurd, a Member of Parliament, replied that it will be “the Minister”. Does that mean every single EIO goes across the Home Secretary’s desk? I will be delighted to be told that that is the case. The idea of the EAW is that it is a much faster and slicker arrangement than that. I would therefore like to be certain that the answer—which I am sure was given in good faith—is accurate.
On arrival, when I have been transferred to Bucharest, I give my evidence. However, there is a question about the availability of translation services—that need not concern us because it is not part of this regulation—not only of whether the questions are being adequately translated, but also of whether I understand their significance. The questions asked in different jurisdictions may have different weight attached to them, but that is another question. How do I know when I will be free to return? There is a suggestion here that the authorising person, the Minister, will say that it will be so many days or weeks. Will it happen and how is my judicial representative able to say, “That’s not fair. It’s too long”. Alternatively, is it just ex cathedra with, “Sorry, you’re going for 10 days”, or a fortnight, or whatever? When I am there, and the police are certain that they have got me bang to rights, innocent though I am, they say, “Thank you for your evidence, that’s great”, but they say to themselves, “The case isn’t quite ready yet, but it’ll be ready in two or three days. Since Hodgson’s clearly guilty, let’s hang on to him”. “Two or three days” becomes a week, becomes two weeks, three weeks and so on. We need be clear about what “temporary” means and how it works. Nick Hurd makes it perfectly clear in a letter to the committee that a prisoner “must be returned”, but he does not say actually when. I am a football fan. A month without any pay may interfere with my ability to pay my rent or mortgage, put food on the table for my family and, above all, if I do not know when I am going to come back, to make alternative arrangements to deal with my developing domestic circumstances.
I repeat that I do not oppose the measure as it is a useful adjunct to inter-judicial co-operation between us and other countries, making sure that people who have committed crimes are dealt with and sorted out quickly, but I am worried about the potential gap between the perfectly drafted legal system laid out in the papers before us and what actually happens to a person who is not terribly sophisticated, does not always know their rights and may or may not have access to first-class legal advice. He or she surely needs to have real protections before we transfer them to a state elsewhere—any state. It is a matter of principle that we look after our citizens. We need to make sure that if we send them abroad, we do so with the proper protections and provisions to ensure that their interests as citizens of the United Kingdom are safeguarded.
My Lords, I welcome this short debate. The European investigation order is a valuable instrument. Therefore, I am pleased that the Government are implementing it. I was involved with it when I was a Member of the European Parliament. I was the lead MEP for the liberal group and involved in all the co-decision negotiations with the Council in finalising it. It has been a source of regret to me and, I think, to my political colleagues in the European Parliament that successive British Governments have not fully taken part in the fair trial rights side of the EU programme alongside enforcement measures such as the European arrest warrant and the European investigation order—that partly relates to what has just been said.
I am a patron of Fair Trials International and a huge admirer of its work. The EIO is a sort of European arrest warrant for evidence. A fair criticism of the European arrest warrant is that it was occasionally used as a fishing expedition. It was meant to be used only from the perspective of charge and prosecution.
I do not think that that is in the EAW framework decision, but it was much discussed in the Julian Assange case with Sweden. Certainly, you had to be on the brink of those further stages of charge and prosecution—not when you just wanted to interview someone and were trying to collect evidence. I hope that the EIO will take the weight off the European arrest warrant and stop it being misused. That is all good. The EIO is for evidence; the search is for interception. It is much more efficient for police and prosecutors than relying on the rather clunky EU mutual legal assistance convention of 2000, which has never really worked. As the committee points out, it would be a very retrograde step to fall back on the MLA convention, just as having to fall back on bilateral extradition agreements under the aegis of the Council of Europe will be an alarmingly backward step if the UK is unable to stay in the European arrest warrant if we Brexit. So, like the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, I echo the question put by the committee about what concrete arrangements the Government propose to continue the efficiency and effectiveness that the EIO will deliver, as the European arrest warrant already does. In one of the committee’s reports, the Minister apparently said that,
“he hoped that close cooperation between Member States on security matters would continue, but the precise nature of future relations would be the subject of negotiation”.
Many of us are really quite eager to know how the Government propose to continue this essential cross-border police and prosecution co-operation.
I also want to ask about Regulation 28. Article 11(1)(f) of the directive gives us a ground for non-execution by the country which executed the EIO where,
“there are substantial grounds to believe that the execution of the investigative measure indicated in the EIO would be incompatible with the executing State’s obligations in accordance with Article 6 TEU and the Charter”.
We fought long and hard in the European Parliament to get those grounds for refusal in. Had they been in the European arrest warrant, we might have avoided some of the scandals which gave the EAW a bad name. One that Fair Trials International was deeply involved in concerned a constituent of mine when I was an MEP for London, the Andrei Simin case. It was a completely scandalous case where a young man had spent 18 months in appalling conditions in a top security jail in Athens before finally being released. It was a complete miscarriage of justice. I am afraid that those who did not like criminal co-operation measures jumped on that case in order to bash the EU over the head, as well as the idea of efficient extradition arrangements.
Regulation 28, which ostensibly transposes the directive, coyly does not actually spell out the human rights grounds for refusal; instead we have to refer to Schedule 4, which refers only to the grounds for refusal being incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights within the meaning of the Human Rights Act. That of course is a non-EU measure, so there has been a complete wiping out of any reference to the charter because paragraph 1 of Article 6 of the Treaty on European Union states:
“The Union recognises the rights, freedoms and principles set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights”.
The Minister may know of the charter because there has been some discussion of it during the passage of the Data Protection Bill, and I hope there will be more. It covers some grounds that are not in the convention and some provisions which are more modern and stronger than the European Convention on Human Rights. Unfortunately, there is a mood in some circles that is antipathetic to the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, which has always been much misunderstood. Put Europe and human rights together and many people start to jump up and down. However, the whole point of the charter is to protect people from the abuse of EU law by either EU institutions or member states. It is a protective measure for citizens. It is not about enlarging the powers and competence, but about restricting them in the name of EU law. A Home Office official giving evidence to the committee on the transferred prisoner issue referred to how such a person could raise a complaint under human rights. Surely the much fuller and stronger charter would be relevant and useful in, for instance, a case where there was any problem about the return of a transferred prisoner.
I will just correct myself—I am sorry, it has been a long week. It was the Symeou case. I ask Hansard to note that: Andrew Symeou was the person who suffered a miscarriage of justice under the European arrest warrant.
My last act as an MEP was to write a report calling for the reform of the European arrest warrant. One of the things I wanted was a clause similar to the one I have just invoked from the European investigation order. That was the first time the European Parliament had managed to get such a clause into an EU law enforcement measure. The failure of the Government to invoke the charter in this measure weakens the protection of people from any kind of abuse or misuse.
Finally, in answering the committee’s question about safeguards for the transfer of prisoners, the Home Office legal adviser explained that any recourse for problems in returning a transferred prisoner or a piece of evidence would be a matter for the European Court of Justice. That was in evidence to the committee in its recent report. Under the Government’s plans, if they happen, what happens after March 2019, or at least after a transition or implementation period, as the Government prefer to say? What alternative protection to court protection would replace the ECJ?
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, for allowing us to have this debate on the EIO. I will focus on the principal points raised during our discussions, which are, as I understand it, the failure of the Home Office to respond in time to the request for information from the committee and the language it used—I have read in full the minutes of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s meeting on 12 September. Then there was the question of what happens to the football fan, posed by my noble friend Lord Hodgson, then the issues of what happens to the prisoner transferred and their protections. Finally, there was the broader question of what happens post Brexit.
Rather than read out a fairly long brief about why the EIO is a marvellous instrument, I will focus on the specific issues raised during the discussion, beginning with the failure of the Home Office. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, made the point that it was not the first time the Home Office had apologised for late submissions to the Lords committee. He asked why the assurances given on an earlier occasion had not been fulfilled and delicately asked why we should believe the assurances that have been given this time.
I begin by apologising yet again, as my honourable friend Nick Hurd did, for the time it took to respond to the request from the committee in respect of this legislation. There was a breakdown in the process for handling this piece of correspondence in the department. It was a serious administrative error. I and Ministers in the Home Office take the business of parliamentary scrutiny very seriously. Officials have looked into what happened to learn the lessons and to ensure this does not happen again. They have now put in place a robust process to improve the quality of the material put before parliamentary scrutiny committees. I read the comments from, I think, my noble friend Lady Finn, who complained about the language used.
This supervision includes personal oversight by Ministers, with a named senior civil servant held personally accountable throughout the development of the draft instruments. New quality assurance and trading interventions are already under way. These are all intended to reduce the need for committees to seek additional information and to ensure that when such requests are made there is a clear line of sight throughout the department to ensure that they are expedited.
The matter has been considered at the Home Secretary- chaired regular departmental Ministers’ meetings, which I now attend, to ensure that it is addressed and discussed at the highest level. I hope that this will assure the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and others, that we take this very seriously.
Absolutely. As somebody who has been a Minister on and off for nearly 20 years, I am a fully-paid subscriber to ministerial accountability and responsibility to this House and the other place. I am not a Minister who will, if this happens again, pass responsibility on to civil servants.
On the question of the language, I apologise again for the quality of the memorandum on this occasion. As I said a moment ago, the Home Office has put in place robust processes to improve the quality of material put before the scrutiny committee, and again, this includes personal oversight by the Ministers, with a named civil servant within the apartment accountable for the development of these draft instruments. As I said a moment ago, the buck stops with Ministers.
In the example given by my noble friend Lord Hodgson, he would not be a prisoner in the UK, therefore the temporary transfer provisions simply would not apply. They apply only if the person is a prisoner in the UK. The Secretary of State then has to be satisfied, first, that the prisoner consents, and secondly, that no alternative means of providing evidence exists. In the evidence given by Stephen Jones on 12 September, we read:
“Baroness O’Loan: What if the prisoner refuses to go? … Stephen Jones: If the prisoner refuses to consent to the transfer taking place, then it will not happen”.
I hope that reassures my noble friend that he can go and watch his favourite football team in Bucharest and be an innocent witness to an exchange which may result in a crime being committed. He can come back to this country confident that he will not have to go back there under the provisions of the EIO.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, raised the question of what will happen if a prisoner is not returned. First, the temporary transfer of persons held in custody for the purpose of investigation has already been possible for a number of years under the existing mutual legal assistance system, which the EIO replaced, so this order is not introducing a new provision. However, the UK central authority’s records suggest that the numbers for transferring prisoners held under custody are extremely low. We are aware of one instance of this happening in the past five years. The prisoner is normally able to give evidence in person through court or through video telephone conferencing, and it would have to be authorised by a Minister.
Under the directive, a country receiving a prisoner under an EIO must return the prisoner back to the executing state. However, I accept that the point is not explicit in legislation, which I think was the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford. As with other matters relating to EU law, the Court of Justice of the European Union will be competent to give a view, in this instance on the application of the directive, and in particular on the interpretation of Article 22.1, which we consider makes it clear that a prisoner has to be sent back to the executing state—the UK—within the period stipulated by the executing state. Such an interpretive ruling would be binding on the member concerned.
I do not have the answer at my fingertips. Clearly, it would have to go through the judicial process. As I indicated, we have transferred only one prisoner in the past five years and in that case there was not a problem with the prisoner being returned. In these circumstances the European convention offers similar protections to those in the charter but, unlike the EAW, which I think was mentioned by the noble Baroness, no detention or transfer can take place without consent under an EIO. I am advised that an urgent procedure is available if the person is in custody. That seems only fair. But I take the point that the noble Lord and the noble Baroness would like more information on this. I am also advised that effective dispute resolution mechanisms and protections for UK and EU citizens will be agreed as part of the negotiation on our future relationship with the EU.
That brings me to the final point raised. The fact that both noble Lords raised this indicates that when we do negotiate post Brexit, these particular issues need to be tied down to avoid any problems of delay in resolution. The question was: what contingency plans are in place in case no deal is reached with the EU and, indeed, what are we planning to do as part of an agreement? As the Prime Minister made clear in her Florence speech, we are unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe’s security now and after we leave the EU. What we must do now is agree the mechanisms to support ongoing co-operation. It is in no one’s interests that either the UK or Europe suffers a loss of operational capability as a result of the UK’s exit.
We have proposed a bold new strategic partnership with the EU, including a comprehensive agreement on security, law enforcement and criminal justice co-operation. That was set out in a paper on those subjects, which I think was debated earlier this year. We are seeking an overarching treaty with the EU that provides for practical operational co-operation, facilitates data-driven law enforcement, and allows multilateral co-operation through EU agencies. It is too early to say what future co-operation we may have in relation to individual measures, such as the EIO. In leaving the EU, we will end the direct jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU. But there is significant precedent for the EU to have co-operation with third countries, including co-operation closely aligned to areas of EU law, but there is no precedent for a third country to submit to the jurisdiction of the CJEU. Effective mechanisms will be necessary to ensure that obligations that are agreed will be enforced after negotiations on the treaty.
I was asked what contingency plans are in place in case no deal is reached with the EU. We are confident that continued practical co-operation between the UK and EU on law enforcement and security is in the interests of both sides. The EU 27 made it clear in their Article 50 negotiating guidelines, published in April, that:
“The EU stands ready to establish partnerships in areas unrelated to trade, in particular the fight against terrorism and international crime, as well as security, defence and foreign policy”.
So we approach these negotiations anticipating that an agreement in this area can be reached. We do not want or expect a no-deal outcome. But a responsible Government should prepare for all potential outcomes, including the unlikely scenario in which no mutually satisfactory agreement can be reached. That is exactly what we are doing across the whole of government.
I hope I have addressed the specific issues raised.
As I understood it—and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, referred to this—one of the weaknesses of the EAW was that it was being used for fishing expeditions, which tended to undermine it, and that the EIO was to fill that gap; in other words, you could ask questions which did not require an EAW, which had been brought into disrepute in some senses. But that is not the case, is it? You have to be a prisoner before you can have an EIO, so we are back to fishing expeditions again. There is no way that an EIO could be served on the ordinary person in the street because they are not a prisoner. Our concern about fishing expedition continues, I think.
It goes back to what the EIO aims to do. Basically, it is a judicial co-operation mechanism for providing assistance in investigating and prosecuting criminal offences and it replaces the existing scheme; that is, the existing EU and Council of Europe mutual legal assistance measures. It does this through introducing mutual recognition of other member states’ judicial decisions. As my noble friend said, it standardises the process for making requests by using a template form rather than a letter of request, and it specifies time limits for responding. All the evidence shows that it is already working quite well. A number of requests have been made and processed, and it is proving to be a much more efficient system than the one it replaces. As more member states sign up to the EIO, we believe that it will be an improvement on the previous mutual legal assistance scheme.
I am not sure that I have fully understood the point made by my noble friend, in which case I shall read it again in Hansard. I will drop him a line and hope to give him and the noble Baroness an assurance. As I have just said, the EIO is a mutual legal assistance measure. An individual can give a voluntary statement under an EIO or could be compelled to come to court in the UK in the same way as in domestic proceedings. I hope that that gives my noble friend the answer he was seeking.
Perhaps I might invite the Minister to agree that one thing that would help in the situation of both the EIO and the EAW would be if the person concerned had legal advice and representation at both ends of the system. One of the regrets that I referred to in general terms was that the UK has not opted in to the directive on the right to a lawyer. That was a great shame, notwithstanding the controversies about legal aid. When the measure was agreed a few years ago, the gold standard was access to a lawyer. Had we opted in—hope springs eternal and there is still time—that would have motivated other member states to make sure that they came up to the mark, because a person who has legal advice and representation is going to be in a much stronger position to contest any unfair treatment.
It is a great pity that the UK, with its strengths in the rule of law and justice, has not opted in, apart from to the directive on interpretation and translation—which, contrary to the remark made by the Advocate-General for Scotland last week, is a directive, not a regulation. I was the rapporteur on it. Unfortunately, the UK did not choose to take part in the other ones in the so-called Stockholm programme of defence rights, so we have an unbalanced participation. I think that it would give everyone more confidence if the UK had a more balanced participation. I suppose that I am only asking the Minister to accept my remarks.
I think I will respond to those remarks rather than accept them. The noble Baroness prefaced her remarks by saying “notwithstanding any arguments about legal aid”, but I think that that is probably exactly the issue, in that the proposition she has just put forward would mean extending legal aid into an area where it does not exist at the moment. That takes us into a broader argument about legal aid. Perhaps I might offer to write to the noble Baroness if I have misunderstood her comments.
I raised one question at the end of my remarks which I do not think the Minister has responded to, and I am quite happy to repeat it. It refers to a statement at the end of the fifth report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. I asked whether, first, the Home Office and, secondly, the Government, accept—and will ensure that they abide by—the committee’s clear statement in its fifth report that,
“although an increased volume of SIs was to be expected from all Government Departments during the Brexit period, that pressure would not be an acceptable excuse for any decrease in the quality of the material presented to the House for scrutiny”.
My question was, first, does the Home Office accept and will ensure that it abides by that and, secondly, do the Government accept and will ensure that they abide by it?
I have in front of me the response given by the Minister to the committee—it was right at the end—to a question from my noble friend Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope. He asked:
“Can you give us some assurance as the numbers ramp up that you think the quality will not suffer?”.
Mr Hurd replied:
“I can give you as much reassurance as I can. It needs to be tested. There will be a high volume of secondary legislation, but I am absolutely sincere in saying I hope and believe this instance we had to come and apologise for is exceptional and will not be repeated. It is a basic function of any department to support Ministers in the scrutiny process with Parliament. I cannot guarantee that balls will not get dropped at all because to err is human, but that is what has happened in this case”.
In its fifth report, the committee also made it clear that,
“although an increased volume of SIs was to be expected from all Government Departments during the Brexit period, that pressure would not be an acceptable excuse for any decrease in the quality of the material presented to the House for scrutiny”.
I accept that.
I am not quite sure what answer I have had. I would have thought it fairly clear that if I asked whether that also represented the Government’s view, as opposed to the Home Office view, the Minister could have said either yes or no. I invite him to say either yes or no. Do the Government intend to accept and abide by the statement that he has just repeated, which appears at the end of the Secondary Legislation Committee’s report?
At the risk of bringing my ministerial career to a premature end, I can say yes. Of course the Government accept the principle that the committee has made clear: that pressure would not be an acceptable excuse for any decrease in the quality of the material presented to the House for scrutiny. I am happy to put my name to that proposition.
I thank the Minister for his responses. I am sure that he would not say that he found himself in a difficult situation, since he has had no responsibility for the Home Office’s failures to which we have referred and which were referred to in the committee’s report. I am very grateful to him for making it clear that if there are further failures by the Home Office, the responsibility rests fair and square on the shoulders of Ministers. It is just not good enough to turn up in front of a committee or to make statements that somehow it is due to an administrative failure, which by implication means that they are passing the buck on to officials. Ministers gave assurances; Ministers are responsible for seeing that those assurances are kept and, if they are not, it is only Ministers who are responsible and accountable for that. They should be prepared to accept that responsibility if they have to appear in front of the committee again, and not seek to say words which imply that somebody else within the department at a lower than ministerial level is somehow responsible.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, for their contributions to this debate and for the issues they raised, along with the questions they asked and to which the Minister has had to respond. I say in closing only that my motive in tabling this Motion, apart from raising my specific questions, is that we have some duty when we see such a report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee to make sure that it is debated. I do not think that the committee is prone to making such critical comments and observations about a department—and, in this instance, its failure—every five minutes. I think it really would have to be pushed to feel moved to write its fourth and fifth reports in the vein that it did. I will leave it at that and thank everyone who has participated. I thank the Minister again for his responses and, since this is a take-note Motion, I take it that this Committee agrees to take note of the Motion.
Committee adjourned at 7.29 pm.