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European Standing Committee B Debates

Criminal Sanctions

European Standing Committee B

Wednesday 15 September 2004

[Mr. James Cran in the Chair]

Criminal Sanctions

[Relevant Document: European Union Document No. 9317/04.]

2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): I welcome all hon. Members back from the summer recess. The Government thank the European Scrutiny Committee for providing this welcome opportunity for us to explain our approach to the Green Paper. People will recognise that the paper is wide-ranging. Its proposals are not cast-iron. Rather, it is a preliminary instrument intended to promote a debate—I am sure we will have that this afternoon—on the development of EU action in this regard. The paper raises interesting possibilities, but does not commit us to do anything that we do not want to. Nevertheless, as the Committee's report said, the paper is an important document, not least because the responses to it are not only from member states—non-governmental organisations can also comment—and obviously it will help to influence the direction of future work.

We welcome the Green Paper's acknowledgment of the importance of the principles of proportionality and subsidiarity, and of the differences in criminal justice systems that are deeply rooted in national legal traditions. The European Commission rightly concedes that that area is at the heart of member states' national sovereignty. The thrust of the paper, however, is the proposition that much deeper and extensive approximation of rules of criminal law concerning sanctions is required to secure effective mutual recognition of judgments. We take issue with some views and we do not hold that that premise should form the backbone of developments in this area.

The current EU legislative framework for common action on judicial co-operation makes a clear distinction between the role of progressive approximation in respect of serious cross-border crime and the role of other action designed to facilitate closer co-operation between the relevant competent authorities of member states in criminal matters. On the former, the UK has been prepared to examine the potential benefits of approximation of criminal acts and penalties in order to tackle common threats of a serious nature. All hon. Members will understand what that means. Examples are trafficking in drugs and human beings, sexual exploitation of children, money laundering and currency counterfeiting. On the

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last, we have supported measures to enhance member states' ability to assist one another in investigating and prosecuting cases with a cross-border element.

I am concerned, however, that the Green Paper pays insufficient regard to the distinction between those two areas of work. The Government also have doubts that many sections of the paper sufficiently justify its conclusions on subsidiarity and proportionality. That said, we believe that some aspects of the paper should receive cautious support. The key is added value. Further initiatives at EU level may produce benefits in both areas beyond what can be achieved at national level. For example, there may be scope for further approximation within the new justice and home affairs work programme to address more serious cross-border crime, such as illicit trafficking in weapons, munitions and explosives, and in nuclear and radioactive materials. There may also be added value in considering financial penalties for legal persons.

As regards measures to facilitate closer co-operation between the relevant competent authorities of member states, the Government believe that an approach focusing on mutual recognition of our different legal systems could provide benefits. The recognition of convictions for sentencing purposes and of decisions to obtain evidence from other member states are examples of areas in which we believe that we can be more positive, but of course we will also make it clear that we will firmly oppose any unwarranted attempts to introduce general harmonisation. We will, for example, resist any moves towards obligations to introduce changes to our prosecution system or our overall sentencing law and policy.

Overall, our approach should be to defend our position robustly where necessary, while giving selective and cautious support to some sections of the Green Paper, rather than dismissing it as a whole.

In its report, the Committee mentioned the concern that the Green Paper was produced before the enlargement countries officially joined the EU. To that end, the time for comment on the paper has been extended to allow those countries due time to do so. Clearly, the paper does not necessarily represent all those different legal traditions, and I am sure that the enlargement countries will have much to comment on in that regard.

The Chairman: We now have until 3 o'clock at the latest for questions. As usual, I remind the Committee that questions should be brief. There should be plenty of time for everybody.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I draw the Minister's attention to paragraph 3.1.8 of the Green Paper. Under the heading, ''Enforcement of criminal penalties'', it states:

    ''Suspended enforcement of a penalty is possible in only a minority of Member States''.

That is patently not true; it does not include UK jurisdiction. I wonder whether several parts of the document that I have read are accurate. I hit on that example during a cursory glance and I am concerned. Has the Minister had a chance to read that paragraph?

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Caroline Flint: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point and I shall examine it further. We want to ensure that the document is as accurate as possible and I shall study that particular paragraph.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I welcome the Minister's statement as reassurance on the matter. However, does she agree that wording such as

    ''should be, analogous to a unitary State in which a single system of law is to apply'',

which is included in the European Scrutiny Committee report, rings alarm bells?

Caroline Flint: I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, the document re-emphasises the issues of proportionality and subsidiarity. However, in its treatment of the extension and range of areas for us to consider or debate on approximation, it goes beyond the boundaries and infringes on the tenets of the way in which we have developed our co-operation in regard to criminal law. As I said, it is a debating document, which gives us and other member states the chance to raise such points, but there are certain contradictions in the document and how it has been presented.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): When do the Government intend to respond to the Green Paper? Why did they miss the July deadline to do so? Are there are any likely negative implications that could arise from that?

Caroline Flint: The Commission adopted the Green Paper on 30 April this year, requesting responses by the 31 July. Experts met to examine the paper in June, during which time delegates requested that the deadline for responses be extended; that might have also been because of the accession countries entering the EU. The deadline was formally extended to 15 September. In response to a separate request from the United Kingdom, which was prompted by the scheduling of today's debate, we extended our deadline to 15 October. We felt that it would have looked inappropriate for us to send our response without having today's debate.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I am concerned about the somewhat sceptical tone of the reception of the proposals by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins). Does the Minister not accept that with more people working abroad and moving around different EU countries, other things being equal, it is desirable that criminal law be similar so that people do not inadvertently commit crime because they cross a border and the rules are different?

Caroline Flint: The European arrest warrant gives an indication of how we recognise that people are travelling across Europe more. Whether other European nationals come to the UK to commit crimes or vice versa, we should create a secure environment for people to holiday, work and live. However, we must have a proportionate response. Not only do we have different legal and judicial systems, we apply the law differently on conviction in terms of sentencing and alternative sanctions. The thrust of the paper,

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which seeks to explore the possibility of common sentencing policies for custodial and alternative sanctions, would be almost impossible and could detract from areas of mutual recognition that we already have. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question.

In answer to the earlier question from the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), paragraph 3.1.8 does not mention the UK, and we shall bring that oversight to the attention of the Commission.

Mr. Llwyd: May I draw the Minister's attention to the Government's response dated 10 June 2004? It says that the measures aimed at the approximation of substantive criminal law can be supported only if there is a robust justification for such approximation. Would she care to expand a little on the use of the word ''robust'' and perhaps give us some examples?

Caroline Flint: As I said, people's attention has focused on areas where there is serious cross-border crime, organised crime and especially the sexual exploitation of children. The UK has contributed a great deal to getting an understanding of those offences and finding ways to work better together. As for robustness, it is about proving the case and seeing how further approximation would help us to deal with criminal offences. We also have to recognise where we are simply duplicating or where a matter is best left to the member state to deal with. Mutual recognition and trust come into the equation too. The case has to be proven and in terms of the areas of extension suggested by the paper, we do not think either that it is proven or that there is a practical way to get around the huge number of difficulties arising from the historical, cultural and social environments in which member states operate their criminal law.

 
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