European Standing Committee B
Wednesday 10 December 2003
[Mr. David Chidgey in the Chair]
Security at European Council Meetings and Other Comparable Events
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): I am grateful to the Committee for the opportunity to discuss the draft resolution. The Government believe that it is essential for police services across Europe to co-operate to prevent violent scenes such as those that we have witnessed at recent international events. For example, 25,000 protestors took part in demonstrations during the European Council in Gothenburg in June 2001. During running battles with the police, more than 90 people were hurt, and damage was estimated at millions of pounds. That is why we support the draft resolution. However, it is absolutely right that we recognise and preserve the right of individuals to travel freely around Europe and to protest peacefully.
The draft resolution is aimed at highlighting the issue in the Council of Ministers. Like other such resolutions, it is not legally binding. It does not override current European Union legislation, including that on data protection and the right to free movement. The United Kingdom police service will continue with its current practice when the draft resolution comes into force.
As a non-legally binding instrument, the draft resolution does not have a legal base. However, the Council should act within the scope of the powers conferred on it by the treaty on European Union. The draft resolution deals with the exchange of information between member states for the purposes of preventing and combating crime. Therefore, we would argue that it falls within the field of activity set out in article 30 of the treaty and, in particular, in article 30(1)(b).
It may be useful if I outline the work of the UK police in this regard. The draft resolution is not legally binding, so the UK can choose not to co-operate. Before sharing information on groups or individuals with their European colleagues, the UK police carry out a nine-point risk assessment to ensure that the information is necessary to prevent or detect crime, or to enforce the rights or freedoms of others. A copy of that assessment can be provided to members of the Committee. Such assessments are made in relation to any exchange of information, and that would apply equally where member states asked for information under the present proposal.
In preparation for a European Council or similar international eventsthe latest text of the draft resolution mentions comparable events, which means political events with the status of European Councils
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and G8 summitsthe police will share with their European colleagues information about the travel plans and intentions of groups that intend to protest. An assessment of the group's capability might also be added. That will allow police in other member states to focus on groups that are intent on causing disorder and to facilitate peaceful protest for the vast majoritylet us face it, the vast majority of people, whether in this country or overseas, do protest peacefully.
Much of the relevant information is already in the public domain, but we will obviously have information on groups that operate in the UK. The UK police may simply be able to visit an organisation's website and pass on any information to authorities in other member states. Groups that take part in protests often post details of their travel plans on their websites, and such information can be passed to other member states.
The UK police may supply information on individuals in respect of whom there are substantial grounds for believing that they intend to enter another member state with the aim of disrupting public order and security at an event and, in doing so, causing damage and risking the safety of peaceful protestors.
If an individual has a conviction for a serious public order or criminal offence at similar events, the police would consider sharing that information with their European colleagues. However, I assure hon. Members that that happens on very few occasions. We are also of the viewthis is dealt with in the draft resolutionthat a previous conviction need not be passed on as a matter of course. Such a decision would have to be proportionate and appropriate. That is dealt with in the guidelines provided in the nine-point risk assessment.
There are safeguards for the individual. An exercise of power by the state to provide personal data is potentially judicially reviewable. The transfer of personal data would also be subject to data protection legislation and the remedies available under it.
In the most serious and exceptional cases, the member state may decide to refuse entry to an individual. Any such decision would need to be consistent with directive 64/221/EEC. A decision to refuse entry to a European economic area national would have to be made on public policy grounds and reflect only the personal conduct of the individual, not general or deterrent reasons. Directive 64/221/EEC describes cases where public health, public policy and public security are at risk.
The draft resolution also refers to the application of border controls. We have ensured that it takes account of the fact that the UK does not participate in arrangements under article 2 of the Schengen convention. It is possible for contracting parties that participate temporarily to reimpose internal border checks, where that is required by public policy or national security. That measure should be used only as an exception, and any member state that wants to reimpose border checks must inform the presidency and other member states in writing. Where Schengen borders are reimposed, individuals may be stopped
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and their passports checked. However, part of our aim in using intelligence-led checks is to prevent situations in which, for example, a whole train might be checked even though intelligence suggests that we need target only certain individuals. We do not want to disrupt the peaceful and quick passage of anyone who is going about their common-or-garden business, whether they are on holiday, on business or even attending a peaceful protest.
For example, the French Government decided temporarily to reinstate controls on its borders with Belgium, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Spain from 22 May to 3 June 2003. That decision was taken because of the threat of terrorist acts and the risk of serious public disorder during the summit of Heads of State and Government of the G8 member states in Evian-les-Bains.
The draft resolution applies to European Councils and other international events. Concern has been expressed about how wide-ranging the definition of the word ''events'' is, but the fact that the draft resolution refers to European Councils and comparable events shows that it relates to serious political events that bring together Governments and politicians and at which a security risk may need to be dealt with. The co-operation outlined in the draft resolution could apply to other meetings, such as G8 meetings. Indeed, as I said, it was for one such meeting that border controls were reimposed.
The practice of the UK police and the level of co-operation that they provide depend on the potential for violence and on the need to detect and prevent crime, rather than on the status of the event. That is what guides our police when they exchange information, and it would apply to the draft resolution as well. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to make sure that we are not so prescriptive that we miss out on a particular event that would need to be covered. However, I have tried to clarify that the reference to other international events does not mean, for example, other international sporting events. There are other procedures for dealing with such occasions.
I hope that I have outlined the Government's position, and I look forward to hon. Members' questions. The resolution is not legally binding, and I hope that the Committee is reassured that it is, in many respects, a way of discussing some of the events that have occurred in the past few years. Ultimately, the minority of people who disrupt such events affect the rights of others to protest peacefully and in safety. I am sure that we would all want to defend those rights to the utmost.
The Chairman: We now have until 3 o'clock at the latest for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that those should be brief and asked one at a time. There will be ample opportunity for all hon. Members to ask several questions.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am most grateful to the Minister for clearly outlining the issues. The draft resolution is not confined to the prevention of criminal acts. It refers to disrupting public order or security at an event, as well as to committing offences.
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As the Minister has said, peaceful protest and lawful assembly may disrupt public order. How does the draft resolution properly provide sufficient protection for legitimate public protest and peaceful assembly?
Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman should look at the resolution's recital, which states:
''Member States' authorities responsible for security and public order at the European Council meetings and other comparable international events have to ensure that the right of free expression of opinion and the right of peaceful assembly are upheld''.
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am relieved at my hon. Friend's assurances. However, like the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), I have concerns about the implications for civil liberties. Will my hon. Friend give me an absolute assurance that the British Government will try to ensure that this is not the thin end of a wedge that will restrict peaceful demonstration when people feel strongly?
Caroline Flint: I give my hon. Friend that reassurance. That is one of the reasons why we have a nine-point risk assessment, which, as I said, I can make available. We do not want to affect peaceful protest. Exchange of information is not necessarily about stopping people; it is also about ensuring that the authorities at the other end manage the situation better in order to enable people to participate. When there are demonstrations in London, our police try to manage routes and work with stewards and others to make sure that people are able to engage in the political process and that the events are as peaceful as possible. I assure my hon. Friend that it is not our intention to stop peaceful protest. We will very much bear that in mind when we receive any requests for information.