Treaty on the Functioning of the EU

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Attorney-General – in the House of Commons at 12:34 pm on 9th July 2013.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May The Secretary of State for the Home Department 12:34 pm, 9th July 2013

With permission, I would like to make a statement on the decision whether the UK should opt out of those EU police and criminal justice measures adopted before the Lisbon treaty came into force.

As hon. Members will be aware, this is a stand-alone decision that the Government are required to make under the terms of the Lisbon treaty by 31 May 2014, with that decision taking effect on 1 December of that year. It covers about 130 measures, some of which it is clearly in our national interest to remain part of, but if we wish to remain bound by only some of the measures, we must exercise our opt-out from them all en masse and seek to rejoin those that we judge to be in our national interest.

The Government have committed to a vote in this House and the other place before formally deciding on the matter. We shall honour that commitment in full. Next week, hon. Members will have the opportunity to debate and vote on this approach. Following our discussions in Europe, another vote will be held on the final list of measures that the UK will formally apply to rejoin.

Let me briefly set out the rationale by which the Government have approached the decision. We believe the UK should opt out of the measures in question for reasons of principle, policy and pragmatism and that we should seek to rejoin only those measures that help us co-operate with our European neighbours to combat cross-border crime and keep our country safe.

On principle, I am firmly of the belief that that the UK’s international relations in policing and criminal justice are first and foremost a matter for Her Majesty’s Government. In policy terms, the UK has and will continue to have the ability to choose whether it should opt in to any new proposal in the field of justice and home affairs. It is therefore right that we take the opportunity to consider whether we wish to retain the measures that were joined by the previous Government and to decide on a case-by-case basis whether we are willing to allow the European Court of Justice to exercise jurisdiction over them in future.

Finally, the Government are being pragmatic. I have said before that we will not leave the UK open to the threat of infraction and fines which run into many millions of pounds by remaining bound by measures we simply cannot implement in time. That would be senseless. In a number of areas, the measures relate to minimum standards in substantive criminal law. Even before their adoption, the UK already met or exceeded the vast majority of these standards and will continue to do so whether or not we are bound by them.

As people have become more mobile in recent years, so too has crime. The Government have sought and listened carefully to the views of our law enforcement agencies which combat it. We understand that some of the measures covered by this decision are important tools that they need to protect the British public. The Government have identified 35 measures which we will seek to rejoin in the national interest.

That set of measures, on which we propose to begin our discussions with the European Commission and other member states, is laid out in Command Paper 8671, which is published today. I want to be clear: what must happen next is a process of negotiation with the European Commission and other member states, and those negotiations will determine the final list of measures we formally apply to rejoin. But we promised that we would set out these measures clearly and give hon. Members time to consider them before asking them to vote—and that is what we have done.

One of the measures we will seek to rejoin, and on which I know many hon. Members have strong views, is the European arrest warrant. I agree with our law enforcement agencies that the arrest warrant is a valuable tool in returning offenders to the UK. Its predecessor, the 1957 European convention on extradition, had serious drawbacks. The arrest warrant has helped us to secure and accelerate successful extradition procedures, as shown by the case of Osman Hussain, one of the failed London bombers of July 2005, who was extradited back to the UK from Italy in less than eight weeks. More recently, Jeremy Forrest, the teacher who was sentenced last month for absconding to France with one of his pupils, was extradited back to the UK less than three weeks after his arrest.

Since 2009 alone, the arrest warrant has been used to extradite from the UK 57 suspects for child sex offences, 86 for rape and 105 for murder. In the same period, 63 suspects for child sex offences, 27 for rape and 44 for murder were extradited back to Britain to face charges. A number of these suspects would probably have not been extradited back to Britain without the arrest warrant. We owe it to their victims, and to their loved ones, to bring these people to justice. However, the European arrest warrant has its problems, too, as hon. Members have eloquently explained in this House. The last Government had eight years to address these concerns, and did nothing; this Government have taken action. I am today proposing additional safeguards to rectify these problems and increase the protections offered to those wanted for extradition, particularly British citizens.

A number of hon. Members have explained how European arrest warrants have been issued disproportionately for very minor offences. I will address this by amending the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which is in Committee, to ensure that an arrest warrant can be refused for minor crimes. This should stop cases like that of Patrick Connor, who was extradited because he and two friends were found in possession of four counterfeit banknotes.

We will also work with other states to enforce their fines and ensure that in future, where possible, the European investigation order is used instead of the European arrest warrant. This would allow police forces and prosecutors to share evidence and information without requiring the extradition of a suspect at the investigative stage.

Other hon. Members have expressed concerns about lengthy and avoidable pre-trial detention. I will amend our Extradition Act 2003 to ensure that people in the UK can be extradited under the European arrest warrant only when the requesting state has already made a decision to charge and a decision to try, unless that person’s presence is required in that jurisdiction for those decisions to be made. Many Members, particularly my hon. Friend Nick de Bois, will recall the case of Andrew Symeou, who spent 10 months in pre-trial detention, and a further nine months on bail, in Greece, only to be acquitted. The change that I am introducing would have allowed Andrew Symeou to raise, in his extradition hearing, the issue of whether a decision to charge him and a decision to try him had been taken. It would likely have prevented his extradition at the stage he was surrendered—and, quite possibly, altogether. We will also implement the European supervision order to make it easier for people like Mr Symeou to be bailed back to the UK.

Other hon. Members are concerned about people being extradited for conduct that is not criminal in British law. I will amend our law to make it clear that in cases where part of the conduct took place in the UK, and is not criminal here, the judge must refuse extradition for that conduct. I also intend to make better use of existing safeguards to provide further protections. I will ensure that people who consent to extradition do not lose their right not to be prosecuted for other offences, reducing costs and delays. We propose that the prisoner transfer framework decision be used to its fullest extent, so that UK citizens extradited and convicted can be returned to serve their sentence here.

Where a UK national has been convicted and sentenced abroad, for example in their absence, and is now the subject of a European arrest warrant, we will ask, with their permission, for the warrant to be withdrawn, and will use the prisoner transfer arrangements instead. This change could have prevented the extraditions of Michael Binnington and Luke Atkinson, who were sent to Cyprus only to be returned to the UK six months later.

To prevent other extraditions occurring at all, I intend either to allow the temporary transfer of a consenting person, so that they can be interviewed by the issuing state’s authorities, or to allow those authorities to do that through such means as video conferencing while the person is in the UK. Where people are innocent, this should lead to the extradition request being withdrawn. These are all changes that can be made in UK law, and that could have been made by the Opposition during their time in government. Co-operation on cross-border crime is vital, but we must also safeguard the rights of British citizens, and the changes that we propose will do that.

Before I conclude, I am conscious that hon. Members want to know our approach to the new Europol regulation. I fully recognise the excellent work of Europol and its British director, Rob Wainwright. Hon. Members may recall Operation Golf, a joint operation led by Europol and the Metropolitan police, which cracked down on a human trafficking gang operating in llford, and which led to the release of 28 trafficked children and the arrest of 126 suspects. It is for such reasons that we propose rejoining the existing Europol measure.

On the new proposal, the Government have today tabled a motion that will be the basis of a Lidington-style debate on the Floor of the House next week, following the debate and vote on the plan that I have outlined today. That motion states that we should opt in, post adoption, provided that Europol is not given the power to direct national law enforcement agencies to initiate investigations or share data that conflict with our national security.

For reasons of policy, principle and pragmatism, I believe that it is in the national interest to exercise the United Kingdom’s opt-out, and rejoin a much smaller set of measures that help us to co-operate with our European neighbours in the fight against serious and organised crime. I also believe that Her Majesty’s Government must strike the right balance between supporting law enforcement and protecting our traditional liberties. What I have outlined today will achieve both those goals, and I commend this statement to the House.