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9 Dec 2002 : Column 81—continued

7.08 pm

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): I would like to apologise to the Front-Bench speakers for the fact that, owing to Committee work, I was unable to attend the early part of the debate. I apologise to the House more generally if I inadvertently duplicate any points that have already been made.

As a starting point, we need to stress that the current position is not satisfactory. We are not living in an ideal world in which extradition works perfectly, in which wrongdoers are invariably returned to the country in which they committed an offence, or in which we can sit back and feel that we must not disturb this idyll because any change would be a change for the worse.

Now, when we attempt to extradite someone who has committed or is alleged to have committed a crime in another country, it normally takes us about 18 months

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and costs the taxpayer #125,000. It is reasonable to ask whether that process is necessary for the exercise of fairness and justice. None of us wants justice to be accelerated to the extent that people are sent back under some sort of summary decision and then treated cruelly and unjustly in another country, but most people who have had anything to do with extradition accept that the current process is abnormally cumbersome.

Conversely, when we attempt to extradite people in other countries who we believe have committed crimes in Britain, the process usually takes at least a year, and quite often we fail to get the necessary extradition order, especially when financial crime is involved. That, too, strikes most people as unfair—that a person who lives in Britain and commits a crime will, we hope, be brought to court and so to justice, but if, before the crime is detected, the person escapes to the Cote d'Azur or some other location within the European Union, he will have a sporting chance of not being returned for a long time, and perhaps not at all. Most people would agree that that does not seem a sensible way in which to proceed.

Some argue for what one might describe as the lowest common denominator of European offences. They say that they would be willing to apply a more rapid extradition process, but only where dual criminality applies, which is to say that the offence allegedly committed in another country is also an offence in Britain. The effect, if all those bilateral decisions were applied, would be that the only international extradition network that functioned efficiently would be in respect of crimes that were crimes throughout the EU.

Some go yet further and argue for the application of what one might describe as the British common denominator. The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), who is no longer in his place, argued that we should protect British citizens who return to Britain from overseas from having foreign laws applied to them, but we should be able to apply British law to people who come to Britain, after they have returned to their own country and even if their own law exempts them. I may have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, but if I have represented his argument correctly, I have to say that such a one-sided position is not sustainable in any serious EU discussion.

I respect the different position held by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples). He courageously accepts that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander and that if we say that we will not allow a British person to be extradited for a crime that is not a crime under the British code, we will accept the reverse. He suggested that that would apply only in relatively trivial cases, but I would like to give a couple of concrete examples of the type of case that we are discussing, because I feel that our debate has been conducted in a vacuum, whereby we discuss everything in principle.

My understanding is that, in Spain, the age of consent is 12. Sexual intercourse with a 12-year-old in Spain is legal, whereas in Britain it is an act of serious sexual abuse. If someone from Spain visited Britain and had sexual intercourse with a 12-year-old and it was detected the day after he returned to Spain, I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would feel that it should not be a sufficient defence for that man to say that, in Spain, what he did

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would have been legal. Even if the hon. Gentleman does not wish to intervene on that point, he might like to reflect on it.

Conversely, in Germany, for historical reasons with which we are all familiar, it is illegal to claim that the holocaust—the slaughter of millions of Jews and other people—never took place. It is illegal to do so because it is seen as giving aid and comfort to neo-Nazi groups who might want to revive past horrors. In Britain, because it has never been such a major issue, it is not illegal so to do. Anyone can go out on the street, grab people by the sleeve, and try to persuade them that the holocaust never happened. People would think it disgusting, but it would be legal. A couple of years ago, a well-known Englishman went to Germany, where he supported an extreme right-wing group which, among other things, claimed that the holocaust either did not happen or was grossly exaggerated. He then returned to Britain. Under German law, he had committed an offence. Under British law, he had not.

If we deny the European arrest warrant, we are saying that neither the Spanish paedophile under British law, nor the extreme right-wing English historian under German law, should be prosecuted. Are we saying that? No, we are not. We are saying that we should not prosecute them if they happen to have crossed the border. We accept, and have always accepted, that if people commit an offence in a country that they are visiting, that country has a right to prosecute them. The only question at issue is whether the country still has the right to prosecute if the person who commits the offence crosses the border before the offence is noticed. That is the apparently holy principle to which hon. Members refer when they say that we have had 500 years of liberty and so on: the issue is not whether one can be prosecuted for an offence in another country, but whether we allow people to escape by crossing a border.

Various suggestions have been made on how we might make exceptions to a dual criminality rule. The Home Affairs Committee suggested that a district judge should examine such cases, and if he or she determined that the crime in question was not covered by the British criminal code, the case should be referred to the Home Secretary. We all like to make life difficult for the Home Secretary—it is almost a national sport—but what is the Home Secretary supposed to do? Under the European Council's decision, he is compelled to decide that extradition is possible if the case comes under one of the listed categories, so in fact we are building in one of the notorious delays which, as the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon rightly said, are an unpleasant characteristic of the current system. We have someone who is accused of a crime that in another country is considered a serious matter, and everybody knows that he has to be sent back sooner or later, but we build in a clause that states that first his case must go to the Home Secretary, the Home Secretary has to think about it, and then say yes. That is not an advance. It imposes not an additional freedom, but additional delay.

There is a tendency among defenders of liberty, whom I respect, to use delay as a defence of liberty. That is undesirable in principle. The idea that justice should be

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speedy is not wrong in itself, but we should impose delays only where that improves the quality of justice, rather than as a token extra step.

I am sorry if the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon feels that I am getting at him, but I want to respond to what he said in his interesting speech. Another point—others made it by implication, without being as clear as he was—is that if we are to have exemptions from dual criminality, they should be specific. We should have a list of well defined offences so that we all know where we stand. The hon. Gentleman will correct me if I have misrepresented him, but I think that that is his position.

I am not sure how many serious criminal offences—Xserious" as defined in the Bill—exist in the British code, and in the French, German and other codes; but there are a great many. There are, for instance, a number of possible crimes under the heading XSexual abuse of children". I think most reasonable people would agree that we should not introduce a lot of legal hurdles in such cases, but should allow extradition even if the definition is not precisely the same in our country. In those circumstances, we would have to replace the broad category with a list of all the offences that we were prepared to accept. We would have to get the Home Office to inspect the Portuguese criminal code, offence by offence, saying, XYes, we will accept that one," or XNo, we will not accept that one."

It would be the exception rather than the rule if the definition of the offences were identical in every EU country. If we are saying that not just categories but individual offences must be identified, we are giving our law-makers a momentous, mammoth, gargantuan task.

Annabelle Ewing: Some offences on the list simply do not exist in Scotland—sabotage, for example. Some definitional guidelines would give sheriffs an idea of what criminal conduct was being discussed.

Dr. Palmer: It would be a good idea for the hon. Lady to look up the definition before visiting a country where sabotage is a criminal offence, if she was thinking of doing something that could reasonably be construed as sabotage. I remember when those applying for a visa before going to America had to sign a form saying that they were not planning to engage in terrorist activities. Currently, if the hon. Lady commits an act in Italy that constitutes sabotage according to the Italian code, she can be arrested and sent to prison for years. We are merely discussing whether, if she got out of Italy before she was caught—I hope she will forgive me for referring to her directly—that would allow her an exemption.

The hon. Lady implies that we will all be able to travel freely until the Bill becomes law, and that we need not know what constitutes sabotage in foreign jurisdictions because it will not apply to us. That is not true. It will apply to us; indeed, it applies to us now. The only question is whether we can extradite people for it if they come back to this country.

I think Members may agree, if they think further, that it is not practicable to descend to the level of the individual offence. They might be on slightly firmer ground if they suggested that the categories of offence should be recognised more in Britain.

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