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9 Dec 2002 : Column 43—continued

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): My right hon. Friend referred to the European Union. Will he confirm that if the EU is enlarged during the next few years, the proposed legislation will mean that we can take much more effective action to deal with the criminality that exists throughout the European continent? It will then be far more effective in tracking down the origins of the people smugglers and the drug smugglers who use central and eastern Europe as a conduit to this country.

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend makes a good point, to which I shall turn shortly.

An important part of the accession agreement is that states must be able to fulfil their full obligations under the framework decision and the European arrest warrant. The ability to have common approaches throughout the EU after enlargement will, I think, be of significant assistance to us in fighting international and organised crime.

I shall continue to go through the issues that have been raised as potential objections to the Bill. It has been said, for example, that people will be sent off to stand trial in another country without due process in this country. I can reassure the House. Anyone who is the subject of a European arrest warrant will be entitled to an extradition hearing before a British judge. They will then have the right of appeal to the High Court and, if significant points of law are raised, to the House of Lords.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Will the issuing country—the country that requires the extradition—have to make a prima facie case in this country?

Mr. Denham: No. In the context of part 1, the issuing country does not have to do that today, and has not had

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to for many years. Under the European agreement on extradition, a much wider group of countries than the EU—essentially, the Council of Europe countries—agreed more than 10 years ago that prima facie evidence did not need to be provided. It is an unfortunate myth that the Bill is introducing a profoundly new principle into our extradition arrangements with our European colleagues.

There is an issue about prima facie evidence that comes up in part 2, which I shall address briefly. However, as for EU countries, I think that there is no new issue of principle in the proposed legislation.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): Mutual recognition.

Mr. Denham: The provision of prima facie evidence is not required at present and it will not be required in future. On this issue, the Bill does not introduce a new principle.

It has been suggested that a newspaper editor could be extradited for publishing an anti-German editorial. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that these stories are wildly inaccurate. No one will be extradited for conduct in this country that is not illegal in this country. I shall say more about dual criminality in a moment.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Denham: No. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me. Perhaps I could make some progress and then take more interventions.

There have been complaints that we are removing the requirement for evidence in the case against fugitives to be produced. As I have said, all the Council of Europe countries have not had to provide prima facie evidence with their extradition requests since the United Kingdom signed up to the European convention on extradition in 1991. I assume that the Opposition found that an acceptable principle then—I assume that they still do today. It has been suggested that we would be obliged to extradite in cases where the presumption of innocence is not applied. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary pointed out to the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) in the debate on the Gracious Speech, the presumption is a guaranteed right under the European convention on human rights, to which all European Union states have signed up. In the case of convictions in absentia, the Bill it makes it clear that we will extradite only if the fugitive is guaranteed a retrial. A retrial is differentiated from a simple appeal by the fact that the process starts again from scratch with a presumption of innocence.

Having spent rather longer than I intended on what the European arrest warrant is not about, I shall say what it is about, and describe its benefits. It will speed up extradition with EU partners. In future, cases within the EU should take about three months, as opposed to nine to 12 months at present. The current timetable for bringing serious criminals to justice does a great disservice to the victims of crime. It works both ways—

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Britain's extradition procedures are notoriously slow, but our EU partners are not always above blame, as demonstrated by the case of Mr. L. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in this country for beating a man unconscious and leaving him to die. The victim died from his wounds four days later. Mr. L escaped from prison and absconded to France, and an extradition request was made to France, where he was duly arrested. One would have thought that that was a very clear case, yet it took more than a year before he was returned to Britain—one can only imagine the additional distress and pain that the episode must have caused the victim's family.

Some of our European partners refuse to extradite their own nationals, even if they have committed the most heinous crimes in Britain. The European arrest warrant will mean that those countries will no longer be able to prohibit extradition of their own nationals, denying us the right to try those who have committed serious crimes here.

Some of our European partners have traditionally been unwilling to extradite people who have committed purely fiscal offences. The UK has never held the view that fiscal offences are minor crimes, but others take the contrary view. UK criminals have not been slow to exploit that loophole, with the result that people accused of major tax evasion and VAT fraud have been able to escape justice. The European arrest warrant means that serious criminals accused of fiscal offences will no longer be able to hide within the EU.

Some of our European partners are unwilling to extradite for crimes where they have a statute of limitations, even though we do not. The case of Mr. Y, a British national, illustrates the problem. He was accused of the serious sexual abuse of two children in Britain—a crime that by its nature only comes to light many years after the event. His extradition from Denmark was sought, but refused because Denmark's statute of limitations had expired. However, Mr. Y could legitimately have been put on trial in this country. In future, people in his position will be extradited.

The European arrest warrant will have all those clear benefits for the United Kingdom and our criminal justice system, but there will also be strong safeguards for fugitives—an extradition hearing before a district judge, the right of appeal to the High Court and, if important points of law are raised, to the House of Lords. Extradition can be barred because of double jeopardy, and will not be possible if the fugitive's mental or physical condition makes it unjust to extradite him; if there is reason to believe the prosecution is politically motivated; if the fugitive's trial is likely to be prejudiced by extraneous factors; or if the fugitive's rights under the European convention on human rights would be breached. All the states that we are talking about are mature democracies and ECHR signatories, so it is highly unlikely that some of those bars will ever arise.

Mr. Hogg: I have almost lost my voice, so I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can hear me. On the ECHR point, will it involve the district judge assessing the quality of the trial that the defendant will receive in the country to which he is to be extradited?

Mr. Denham: The Bill is based on mutual recognition of each EU country's judicial and criminal justice

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systems. The presumption on which the original framework decision and the legislation are based is that decisions in one another's countries are respected and trusted. None the less, we need to be sure that ECHR rights are not breached. Personally, I think that unlikely in the case of the states under discussion, but it would be open to people to argue, as it always is in legal processes, that that would be an issue. It is important that the House understands that mutual recognition is a point of principle on which the Bill is based.

Derek Conway: The Minister brings to the House his usual temperate delivery, for which we are grateful. However, there is a concern. If 32 categories of offence are exempted from the dual criminality requirement, what does the Minister say about Lord Scott's observation that the definition of a xenophobia offence in the schedule

On the murders, rapes and child offences, nobody in the Chamber would do other than share the Minister's views, but it is the other aspects of European law, which are not customary in the United Kingdom, that cause concern.

Mr. Denham: Perhaps it would be helpful if I turned straight to the issue of dual criminality, which is clearly an important issue in this debate.

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