Draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (The Convention on Mutual Assistance and Co-operation between Customs Administrations (Naples II)) Order 2001

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Dawn Primarolo: The written answer to which the hon. Gentleman has referred related also to previous years. Compared with previous years, prosecutions are rising markedly. The problem existed when the hon. Gentleman's party were in power, and it once the Labour Government were elected in 1997 that a strategy was developed and resources given to Customs officers to tackle the problem.

I am happy to engage in an Adjournment debate with the hon. Gentleman on smuggling and tobacco smuggling, but today we are considering powers in a convention to deal with all illegal goods. We are not engaging in a discussion only on the smuggling of tobacco, and I would be grateful if he could confine himself to the treaty.

Mr. Clappison: I thought that I had made it clear that these matters fitted into the treaty. The hon. Lady has referred to the written answer that I received. I always try to be fair, and I might be happy to accept that the number of prosecutions was low in the past. The point that I was going to make was that I had had a written answer from the Paymaster General, in which she said:

    For the number of prosecutions generated by Excise Verification Officers for both alcohol and tobacco from 1994-95 and 1997-98 I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer given on 19 July 1998, Official Report, c. 300W.—[Official Report, 15 January 2001; Vol. 361, c. 123W.]

The hon. Lady is nodding her head at that. There is only one problem with that answer. Parliament did not sit on 19 July 1998, so the figures that she gave me are non-existent. The hon. Lady looks puzzled. I have double-checked with the Library, which has been unable to assist me with finding out any more about this.

Dawn Primarolo: I have—

The Chairman: Order. I think that we should be moving on, because this becoming extremely contentious. Quite frankly, it is up to the Chair to decide on what is fair, what is not fair and what is the business of this Committee. Please let us continue as we were five minutes ago.

Mr. Clappison: I do not want to make this a big issue, but I hope that the hon. Lady will take the question away. I think she will also see, for her assistance, that the other document, which was referred to in the appropriation accounts as a blank page, does not contain any other information either.

You are quite right to bring me back to the point about the provisions in the convention, Mr. Cummings. These are important legal innovations, particularly that of cross-border surveillance by the authorities of one country and other member states. The joint investigation teams and all the other provisions, including that for hot pursuit, although that is not being applied here, are all well and good, but they have to be supported ultimately by prosecution and serious punishment for those concerned. These provisions are designed to get at ``Mr. Big'' and prosecution of such individuals must follow.

We would like to see the work of the Customs and Excise supported by prosecuting and judicial authorities. The convention, apparently discussed at length under the last Government, is intended to facilitate international co-operation to bring offenders to book. Although I have mentioned only some of the illegal activities that Customs and Excise have to deal with, all the activities that they deal with, to a greater or lesser extent, are social and economic evils and some are very considerable evils. I certainly pay tribute to Customs and Excise and the dedicated people who work for it, and believe strongly that they deserve all the support and all the international co-operation that we can help to bring about. We look forward to this convention facilitating that international co-operation.

I hope that the questions that I have put to the Paymaster General reflect our concern to recognise the scale of the problem that this convention is designed to deal with and to maximise the degree of international co-operation between European Union member states, having a mind to that old phrase that we hear repeatedly about the European Union in this country—that this country is punching its weight.

5.6 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I join the Paymaster General and the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr Cummings. I also welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the order. It is good to see those on the Conservative Front Bench welcoming a new development in European co-operation, particularly one designed to combat international crime.

The hon. Gentleman's remarks covered many of the questions that I want to make, so the Committee will be pleased to hear that I will make my remarks rather more briefly than planned. He focused on alcohol smuggling, tobacco smuggling and the situation in Northern Ireland, so I will not cover those points.

I shall concentrate on the other illegal activities that this mutual assistance co-operation between customs administrations is designed to deal with: offences relating to illicit drug trafficking; gun smuggling; smuggling of other illegal materials such as pornographic material and so on. This order will help the authorities tackle in this country and in other member states those extremely serious offences, which undermine our society and create misery among the populations that are affected by them. That is why it is so very important. It is a good example of the European Union at its best, working together to deal with international issues and international crime, and that is to be welcomed.

The hon. Gentleman quite rightly said that the substance of the order is contained in title IV of Naples II, and I shall ask of the Minister some brief questions about the five articles contained in that title. The Minister has told the Committee that the United Kingdom is opting out of article 20—the point about hot pursuit. I should like the Minister to say more about why the UK Government have chosen to opt out of that article. Would it have been possible to opt out of part of article 20, for example, the part that allows a customs administration from another member state to carry firearms? The Government may have felt that hot pursuit might help the fight against international crime in certain circumstances, and perhaps it was just the issue of carrying firearms that was the problem. If that was the case, I certainly share the Govt's concern. However, some leeway needs to be given if customs officials of other countries, or indeed of our own country, are actually chasing criminals who are trafficking in illegal substances and guns. I should therefore like to press the Minister on that point and ask her to make sure that her Department keeps that issue under consideration. Will she find out whether, at a later stage, we could reconsider whether we should be a signatory to article 20, based perhaps on the experience of other countries and the ability to opt out of any part of that article? I share the concerns about carrying firearms.

With respect to articles 21, 22, 23 and 24, can the Paymaster General tell me whether the hon. Member for Hertsmere was correct in saying that the Government were opting out of article 21? The Minister shakes her head, so I confirm for the record that the Government are not opting out of article 21. I would be concerned if they were. Article 21 concerns the continuation of surveillance of suspects when they have entered another member state's territory, so there is good reason for enabling mutual co-operation in that regard.

Mr. Clappison: I share the hon. Gentleman's curiosity. Does he agree that, although the issue concerns the control of the activities of another member state on this country's territory, we are talking about their customs officers, not their cowboys? We should have some degree of trust.

Mr. Davey: Again, I welcome the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and I believe that the Government are trying to place trust in other member states' customs administrations. We are not talking about cowboys and I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record for those who take notice of our proceedings.

The Government are right to sign up to articles 21, 22, 23 and 24, which seem to me reasonable parts of co-operation. Could the Minister at least give the Committee more details about the effect of the articles in practice on the ground? In the operation of those articles and the powers that other member states' customs administrations would take under those articles, would any prior approval be required? Clearly, in the case of article 21 on hot pursuit, no prior approval would be required but, in terms of those articles, would there be any guidance on, and requirement for, seeking prior approval? If not, would there be a requirement for the member state's customs administration to report on its activities as soon as is practically possible? In conducting such activities on another member state's territory, would it link in with the customs administrations of that member state? If individuals were apprehended under these articles, what law would have effect? Does the convention state which country's legal system would apply? That is important because, clearly, offences could be carried out in both member states' territories, so, potentially, there could be two different offences and two judicial proceedings under two different jurisdictions. It would be helpful if the Paymaster General would clarify those points.

Finally, what other safeguards are in the convention to make sure that, should these powers that have been granted to other member states' customs administrations be abused, the UK courts and Government would have recourse to action at European level? It is important for our citizens to be sure that if, they see an abuse of power by civil servants from other countries, their Government and legal system will provide protection for them against those abuses. Those safeguards are important.

The Liberal Democrats support this order in anticipation of welcome remarks from the Minister.

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Prepared 17 January 2001