EU: The Hague Programme — Justice and Home Affairs (EUC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:31 pm on 20th June 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Spokespersons In the Lords, Foreign Affairs, Spokespersons In the Lords, International Development 5:31 pm, 20th June 2005

My Lords, I shall speak for the Opposition on the four European Union Committee reports. I thank the committee members for their undoubted hard work, having produced these very thorough reports. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that your Lordships' EU reports are highly respected worldwide. As noble Lords know, my brief is foreign affairs and international development, so I hope that the House will forgive me if I am not as familiar with home affairs and the legal aspects of these reports as they are, although as a former MEP I can declare an interest.

The simplest way of dealing with these detailed volumes is to speak about each in turn, if I may take the opportunity to probe the Government on their next steps regarding the issues raised in the reports. I shall then concentrate most of my remarks on the report regarding terrorism, as have many noble Lords. That is partly because it is the only report on which the Government have not commented. I wish to ask the Minister to clarify only a few issues, as in the limited time available it would be impossible to cover all the points in these detailed reports; otherwise, I fear, we would be here for many more hours.

There is no denying that we have seen a substantial growth in international terrorism in recent years. As the report points out, such action threatens not only the lives and well-being of citizens but also the foundations of democracy. It is important that in complying with measures flowing from the European Council's Declaration on Combating Terrorism, we do not forget the latter and that our response to terrorism is proportionate to the threat posed.

The report's main focus was information exchange; that was identified at the special meeting of the European Council on 25 March 2004 as an area in which further work was required. The findings of that and previous reports show that the UK is very good, even excellent, at sharing intelligence. However, it is also clear from the report that some countries do not fulfil their part in intelligence sharing. If we are to win the fight against terrorism, countries other than our own must substantially contribute their data. What are the Government doing to promote information exchange?

I should also like to ask the Government about data protection of the information that we are exchanging. The report raises many questions about the adequacy of our data protection. Do the Government agree with the report? Do they think that there should be a common EU framework of data protection for the third pillar?

The report also calls into question the auditing powers of national data protection authorities. Its conclusion states:

"It is important that national data protection authorities have sufficient audit powers. We regret that in the United Kingdom the Information Commissioner does not have such powers and recommend that this is reviewed".

Will the Government undertake to conduct such a review?

I should like to draw attention to that report's conclusion regarding lost and stolen passports, as mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Corbett and Lord Dubs. The evidence gathered in making the report shows that many member states do not notify Interpol of lost and stolen passports. That goes back to my earlier point that such systems work only if we all contribute. We need to be careful not to throw all our resources into new initiatives at the expense of old, tried-and-tested methods of prevention. Have the Government plans to remedy that problem?

The report concerning the role of Eurojust was introduced very ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond. I was heartened to learn that the committee concluded that it had made an excellent start. It was also encouraging to note that, since the publication of the report on Eurojust, Norway has concluded and agreed the text of a draft co-operation agreement. Let us hope that the exchange of information is not one-sided, as it appears to be with the United States.

The report raises the issue of the European public prosecutor. We are concerned that, if Eurojust is given the power to take binding decisions on which jurisdiction should prosecute in cases of cross-border offences, it will become a quasi-prosecutorial authority. Such a power would almost make it a European public prosecutor. Will the Minister clarify the Government's position and state how they feel about such a change?

That leads me on to the report regarding OLAF, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Scott. I am very concerned about the lack of co-operation between Eurojust and OLAF. I note in a letter from Caroline Flint, which has been made available, that the Government feel that that is also an issue and that,

"a first step could be a formal framework for co-operation".

How are the Government progressing with the issue and what else do they propose to do to make certain that the relationship between the two organisations runs more smoothly?

I feel that it is a little late now to turn to the report on The Hague programme, on which we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Wright, at the start of the debate. It is possibly the most detailed report and contains such thorny issues as asylum, migration, border security, police co-operation and various aspects of the law. It is my understanding, however, that we are expecting an asylum Bill later this Session—as, it seems, we do every Session—so I shall leave this part of the debate to my noble friend Lady Anelay, who will, no doubt, raise all the important matters during the passage of the Bill.

I hope that we never have a repeat of the Government's behaviour of withholding from Parliament the drafts of The Hague programme prior to its adoption by the European Council, as it is essential that we should be able to scrutinise such important proposals. I look to the Minister for her assurance that such a situation will not arise again.

Finally, I congratulate the committees and their chairmen on producing such interesting and important reports, which no doubt will give the Government food for thought. We look forward to their conclusions.