We are coming towards the end of the Committee, and we now have the question of commencement. On this occasion, I am indebted to the important organisation Liberty for suggesting an amendment. I tabled an amendment about transitional provisions whose inclusion Liberty proposed in place of clause 201, but I realised that that amendment could not be selected because we wanted to delete the clause and replace it with another. The debate technically has to be on clause stand part.
For the benefit of the Committee and the Minister, in case he did not look at our original amendment, we wanted to say that all the provisions of the Bill up to and including clause 200 would apply only to conduct committed after Royal Assent. We are now into our regular argument about whether legislation should have retrospective effect. I am sure that the Minister will immediately stand up and say that if we do this, there is a great danger that people will slip out of criminal proceedings that they should rightly face. I understand those concerns, but existing legislation will cover any offences committed before the Bill receives Royal Assent.
I quote what Liberty said to us, and, no doubt, to the Liberal Democrats and others:
''We urge the Government to take advantage of the transitional provisions allowed for in Article 32 of the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) Framework Decision by making a statement to the effect that it will continue to deal with requests relating to acts committed before the specified date''—
Liberty chose the date of the framework decision, 7 August 2002; I suggested instead going on to the date of Royal Assent to the Bill—
''in accordance with the extradition system applicable before January 2004. There is nothing in the Bill that indicates that it will not be retrospective and we would urge the government to incorporate such a statement in the Bill''.
I have not had the opportunity or resources to check, but Liberty understands that the Governments of France, Italy and Austria have already made similar statements of non-retrospectivity, if I may put it that way. I do not know whether the Minister and his civil servants can confirm or deny that, but I am prepared to take Liberty's word for it because in my experience it always checks matters carefully.
Liberty's briefing continues:
''Retrospective application of the Bill may lead to situations where requests are received which apply to people who may have been involved in past conduct''
which will not be properly covered by the Bill. All members of the Committee are familiar with the argument about retrospectivity. I have placed the issue
firmly before the Committee. Liberty does not necessarily have the perfect wording, but it has suggested a substitution. I do not suggest that I have the perfect wording, but I want to raise the issue because those in another place who are experts on extradition law might want to discuss it in more detail than we have time for this afternoon.
That is helpful because the points made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will inevitably be raised on the debate on new clause 3. The matter raised by new clause 3 is of no small importance. I shall try to convince the Committee and the hon. Gentleman that it is not necessary to amend the Bill in this way. If he is going to go all the way in terms of retrospective application of the Bill to alleged criminal behaviour, I am not sure that he would want to make this amendment if he thought about it in detail.
New clause 3 would provide that the new powers under the Bill would apply only to conduct that takes place after Royal Assent. That might appear to make sense, but if it is followed through, the conclusion is far from logical. Let us say that a person commits a murder shortly before Royal Assent. Because the conduct occurred before the 2003 Act came into force, an extradition request for the offence could be made only under the former provisions. That might not be too bad if the request comes within a few months, but what if it comes five years from now, because the murder is only discovered five years from now? What about accusations of paedophilia, which by their nature are often made some years after the acts themselves?
If the new clause were accepted, the existing legislation would need to remain on the statute book in parallel with the new regime as long as it might be possible to extradite a person for an offence committed before Royal Assent. That could mean that we had two systems running in parallel for many years.
I take the Minister's point. As I hoped, he is taking this matter seriously. However, I made it clear that I am not saying that we or Liberty have necessarily got the provision exactly right. Does the Minister understand that we are trying to avoid improper restrospectivity? It would be helpful if he at least kept the matter under review to see whether there is a way to address Liberty's concern while not having two systems running in parallel as he described. I understand the Minister's point about paedophiles and murders that are discovered many years after the event. We do not want two systems running in parallel, but equally we do not want improper and unnecessary
retrospectivity. Will he at least undertake to continue considering the issue?
Unreasonable lapses of time can be prayed in aid against extradition requests. I should have thought that the point that most concerns Liberty, which the hon. Gentleman has raised on its behalf, would have to be dealt with in that context. We have had lengthy discussions in Committee about how long certain extradition cases can be protracted by determined individuals with legal resources. It escapes me to understand how we could put something in the Bill that defined an inappropriate degree of retrospectivity but that did not allow people to fall through the net or place an obligation on us to keep both pieces of legislation running in tandem for many years.
The hon. Gentleman makes a genuine point about people seeking many years after the event to use a piece of legislation that was not in place at the time, and about the ability to extradite people years after a crime was committed. Such a person would be able to raise that point with a district judge in respect of part 1. Other ways that are appropriate in part 2 would be covered by the time bar for an unreasonable passage of time.
I hear what the Minister says and, as I said, I hope that he will continue to consider the matter. Those in another place who have even greater experience of the way in which the law operates and issues of retrospectivity may want to debate it. I do not wish to push the matter at this stage. We have placed it on the record, and those who look at our proceedings will see what I have said and the Minister's response. I suspect that this will once again be a live issue in another place.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 201 ordered to stand part of the Bill.