Extradition Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 27th October 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Minister of State, Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice and Offender Management) 6:45 pm, 27th October 2003

My Lords, I am perfectly aware that Liberty and Justice have taken a different view. On this Bill, as on many others, we have engaged in conversations. I do not know whether the officials have met specifically with Liberty and Justice in relation to these matters. However, we know the difference. Indeed, we had a very interesting, thoughtful and comprehensive debate on these issues in Grand Committee where we explored that difference. There is a difference. I promised in the last sitting of the Grand Committee that we would continue to think about these issues, and we have. However, there is a clear difference between what we think is right to do and what others may press.

When we are talking about the dual criminality requirement in relation to extradition—specifically in Part 1—to other EU countries we are not talking about some vital fundamental protection. We are talking about whether or not we should protect criminals who go to other EU countries to break their laws. The Bill provides two thresholds for extradition. For accusation cases—that is, cases where the person has not yet been put on trial—the threshold is 12 months, as in our present legislation. In conviction cases—that is, cases where the person had been tried and convicted—the person must have been given a custodial sentence of at least four months. Those thresholds apply in all cases, even in those circumstances where the dual criminality requirement is not to be applied. These amendments would change the thresholds in non-dual criminality cases so that they would be three years in accusation cases and 12 months in conviction cases.

My immediate reaction to that is to ask, "Why?". Who are we seeking to protect and for what reason? Why should we give sanctuary to those who go to another EU country and break its law? Let us put this into practical terms. Imagine that someone commits an offence in another EU country which happens not to be an offence in this country. He receives a nine-month prison sentence. Before his sentence begins he manages to flee to this country. If these amendments were passed, we would be unable to extradite him. I am not sure whether any of your Lordships really believe that that is in the interests of justice or that that outcome would serve the interests of justice.

The justification for these amendments appears to be that Part 1 of the Bill goes beyond the terms of the framework decision on the European arrest warrant and these amendments seek to bring us back in line. I freely admit that we have gone beyond the strict requirements of the framework decision—but why is that necessarily a bad thing? We have chosen so to do. I appreciate that there are some, particularly some who sit on the Benches opposite, who are more comfortable with a more insular approach. However, I hear with a little surprise the same insularity coming from the Liberal Democrat Benches. It is certainly not an approach that the Government want to adopt in our dealings with our European partners.

To be fair, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has said in the past said that he has another rationale for these amendments. His argument—I am sure that he will correct me if I am wrong—was that offences in the bracket of one to three years are by definition less serious, and therefore there is a greater chance that a person might be committing them inadvertently. I hear that. However, that was sufficient to justify the logical inconsistency that we would be applying dual criminality protection for lesser offences but not for more serious ones. I respect the noble Lord's point of view, but I would offer two observations. The first, as he is well aware, is that ignorance of the law has never been a defence, and to recognise it as a reason for not extraditing people to another EU country is a dangerous precedent.

Secondly, offences attracting a penalty in the bracket of one to three years may be less serious than offences which attract more than three years, but they are still serious. We are not dealing with minor or trivial matters here. For more than 100 years we have recognised that an offence with a sentence of 12 months or more is serious enough to warrant extradition. It is worth considering some of the UK offences which have maximum penalties falling in the category of one to three years. They include assault with intent to resist arrest, abduction of a girl under 16, aggravated vehicle taking and failure to surrender in accordance with bail conditions. Those are not trivial matters. They are certainly not trivial to the victims.

Let us also bear in mind that our sentence levels tend to be higher than those in other EU countries, and I would suggest that it is unlikely that we could excuse someone's conduct as inadvertent. There is a real risk that the introduction of a different threshold will cause confusion, not least for the person whose extradition has been requested. The universal application of a 12-month threshold in accusation cases will undoubtedly be much easier to follow.

I apologise for going over these matters at some length, but I think that they are important. We need to face this difference. Either we think that this is right or we do not. Of course, it is for the noble Lord and the noble Baroness to decide whether to press their amendments. However, there is one question that shines out above all others. Who would benefit from these amendments? Who would be protected if these amendments were made? It seems to me that the answer is clear: it is those who go to another EU country and break its laws, not by committing minor crimes or by doing so inadvertently, but by committing crimes that we have always thought serious enough to justify extradition.

The right to free movement within the EU is being abused by serious criminals. We cannot and will not let the fight against that abuse be hampered by diluting the ability to pursue these people and bring them to justice. That is the least that we owe to the victims of crime, in this country and throughout the EU. If noble Lords are asking whether we are deliberately going beyond that which others are minded to provide, then the answer is, "Yes, and we do not regret it".