I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the European Arrest Warrant.
Mr Evans, you will be aware that back in January this year, there was a debate on the issue of Brexit and security, and I was one of a number of Members of Parliament who raised concerns about the European arrest warrant. It is fair to say that people had widely different opinions, but I gleaned that a number shared my concerns, and I went before the Backbench Business Committee to ask if we could discuss the matter. The Committee was very kind and gave its approval, on the basis that quite a few people might want to speak.
Unfortunately, since then I have been rather overtaken by events, and there are not quite as many speakers here as I initially expected—it’s a strange old thing, politics. However, quite a few Members of the House have feelings one way or another about this issue. We have known each other a long time, Mr Evans, and frankly, I could string out what I have to say for an hour or so, but there are one or two other people here who want to speak, so I will not do that. As a result, I suspect this may be a shorter debate than we originally expected.
The European arrest warrant was brought in following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, to ensure the safety of the public by enabling countries to swiftly bring criminals to justice within the EAW area. I would be the first person to acknowledge that criminals cross borders and that we need a system that enables us to bring them to justice if they flee overseas. The principle of the European arrest warrant marked a huge step forward from the days when parts of Spain were known as the Costa del Crime, with serious criminals living quite openly in the sun and avoiding justice.
I spent nine years as a special constable in London. During that time, I arrested quite a number of people, mainly for less serious, low-level offences. A high proportion of those people were foreign nationals. In general, as a proponent of law and order, I am instinctively supportive of the principle of a European arrest warrant. It is very efficient, and I wonder whether it is sometimes too efficient. Once the arrest warrant has been submitted by a country that is part of the scheme, it is almost certain that the individual named on the warrant will be extradited to the country that has issued it.
That is fine, and it is what was intended, but there is one obvious problem: in order for the European arrest warrant to be seen as fair, it is imperative that the standards of justice in all the countries signed up to it are of an equally high level. If that is not the case, it is irrefutable that we pay a price for judicial convenience. The price will be paid through an erosion of our own legal protections. That is a key point that I want to make to the Minister, and I would like him to hold that thought for a moment and try to answer this question. Does he accept that for the EAW to be fair, we must have equitable standards of justice in all the nations that are taking part? I suggest that we cannot be confident that standards of justice in all member states meet the standards we would accept in the UK.
Over the last 10 years or so—including while I served on the Home Affairs Committee, chaired at the time by Keith Vaz—I have visited various countries in Europe, through the police scheme and more recently through the Council of Europe. Overall, I have no doubt that standards are very high indeed. I have been a couple of times to Germany and the Netherlands and have been out on patrol with the police officers there. I have been into their detention centres. I must admit that in some instances, I thought the standards were rather too high, considering the people involved, but that is a subject for another debate. I am not suggesting that there are low standards across Europe—far from it. However, it is a slightly mixed picture.
There was a very high-profile case that resulted in a book, which Members may have seen. It involved Andrew Symeou, who is from Wales. He was extradited to Greece and spent time in prison there, facing 20 years for a murder he did not commit, following a completely unacceptable investigation against him. I recommend the book for more details about that. He was unable to avoid extradition and spending time in a Greek prison because, as I said earlier, once the EAW is triggered against a British citizen, a British court has almost no choice but to carry it through.
About three years ago I visited Greece with the Council of Europe. Among other things, I went into a police station in Athens that was being used to house foreign nationals—essentially, people who had committed immigration offences. I entered an area that was little more than half the size of the hall we are in now, and there were about 20 people in there. They were housed in there with little chance to get out and have exercise and no natural light at all; the conditions were absolutely appalling. I was told that they were being kept in there for up to a year, for immigration offences.
I am not soft on these things. I have spoken out many times in favour and support of strong controls on immigration and ensuring that the rules are followed, but I thought those were completely unacceptable conditions in which to keep people. I said so to the police officers who were with me, and privately they said they absolutely agreed; that is why they were showing me and an official from the Council of Europe those horrendous conditions. They said, “We want you to tell people about this, because we don’t think it’s right either.” In fact, some of the people in that cell asked if I could help them to be moved into a Greek prison. When people are asking to be put into a Greek prison because the conditions they are in are so bad, something is very wrong indeed.
Those conditions would be totally unacceptable in any sort of British institution or a police station. However, as things stand, a Greek court could issue a European arrest warrant against a British citizen without any standard of evidence that would be acceptable in the UK, and that citizen could be thrown into the kind of facility that I visited. The case of Andrew Symeou proves that I am not making a hypothetical statement; that situation has already happened.
Greece is not the only country about which I and many others have concerns. In Portugal there was the case of Garry Mann, who was arrested, tried and convicted within 48 hours for allegedly taking part in a riot. He had not in fact been involved. He was released, but there was subsequently a demand, which I think came through a separate court, for him to return to Portugal and serve a two-year sentence. He was not even provided with the basic facilities that we would take for granted—for example, the interpretation facilities that are standard throughout Britain, or having a lawyer; he was given access to a lawyer five minutes before his trial began.
In Italy there was the case of Edmond Arapi, detailed on the Fair Trials website. He was convicted of murder in his absence in 2006, even though at the time of the murder, he was working in a restaurant in Staffordshire. There were numerous witnesses to say that, and the court seemed to accept that on the day he was nowhere near the country in question. The murder was supposed to have taken place in Italy, but he was working in the UK, and yet he went through years of hell and faced a strong possibility that he would be extradited to Italy to serve a 16-year sentence. Italy, of course, is one of the wealthier countries in the European Union and one where we might expect higher standards to apply.
It is, however, Bulgaria and Romania that I think deserve much greater scrutiny. On this, I am at one with the European Commission, which is scrutinising those countries and has put them on to a monitoring procedure. I have copies here of the most recent reports on Bulgaria and Romania, which are widely available online, and I will sum up some of what is in them. Bulgaria has been subject to the European Commission’s co-operation and verification mechanism, and the Commission has said that the country’s justice system is failing in a number of areas.
On judicial reform, Bulgaria’s Supreme Judicial Council, which is tasked with ensuring the independence of the judiciary, is mired in in-fighting over allegations of a lack of objectivity, political interference and undue external influence. The report says that there has been
“little progress in establishing fairness and transparency” of the council’s decisions, and that there still needs to be a
“broader commitment of all state actors to judicial independence”.
The report goes on to say that
“criminal procedures in Bulgaria continue to present serious problems for the effective prosecution of complex cases”,
and that corruption remains a “significant challenge”, extending from the local level up to high-ranking officials. Those are the European Commission’s words, and one could read a lot into “significant challenge”.
There is a similar situation in Romania. The Commission stated that judicial reform and corruption are still a cause for concern. The process of selection of candidates for the employment of senior judges and prosecutors does not allow for a clear, open and transparent procedure, and there have been allegations of political appointees.
Romanian prison conditions are a persistent issue, with assurances that have been given to the British Government on the poor treatment of extradited prisoners being breached. I have not been into one of the prisons. Recently, there was the death in custody of an elderly Romanian newspaper owner, Dan Adamescu, who had been critical of the Government in his newspaper. He was denied medical treatment after falling ill, in a process that was described by the former President of Romania as judicial murder. That should be setting alarm bells ringing for the authorities here in the UK.
There are several ongoing cases at the moment, which I will not mention, that involve European arrest warrants being issued against people who are either British or living in Britain and facing extradition to Romania. I think people will watch those cases very carefully. We have a situation in which The Guardian, the New Statesman, the Freedom Association and the Henry Jackson Society all agree with each other that what is going on at the moment in Romania is unacceptable. When we get four bodies and publications such as those in agreement on something, it is time to take notice.
If it transpires that under the current scheme the British Government are unable to ensure that British residents who have not been found guilty of any crime cannot be guaranteed British standards of justice, I respectfully suggest to the Minister that we will have a moral imperative to use Brexit to draft a new European arrest warrant system that will continue to allow people to be extradited if we are confident that standards of justice in the countries they are being extradited to match ours, but will recognise the importance of protecting the legal rights of British citizens and ensure that such rights are upheld at all times wherever citizens face criminal charges. That is all I want to say; I look forward to the Minister’s reply.