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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Hywel Williams
Brokenshire, James (Hornchurch) (Con)
Burns, Mr. Simon (West Chelmsford) (Con)
Fisher, Mark (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab)
Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Home Department)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
Jackson, Glenda (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab)
Kemp, Mr. Fraser (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
McCabe, Steve (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)
Singh, Mr. Marsha (Bradford, West) (Lab)
Stanley, Sir John (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)
Willott, Jenny (Cardiff, Central) (LD)
Wright, Mr. Anthony (Great Yarmouth) (Lab)
Yeo, Mr. Tim (South Suffolk) (Con)
Michael Clark, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Seventh Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 24 June 2009

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Draft Crime (International Co-operation) Act 2003 (Designation of Participating Countries) (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Order 2009
2.30 pm
The Minister of State, Home Department (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Draft Crime (International Co-operation) Act 2003 (Designation of Participating Countries) (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Order 2009.
I look forward to serving under your chairmanship again, Mr. Williams. Hon. Members will recall the Crime (International Co-operation) Act 2003, which streamlined and modernised the United Kingdom’s mutual legal assistance relations with the rest of the world.
In an effort to further improve international co-operation and fight crime, we are seeking, in the draft order, to designate Switzerland, Iceland and Norway for the purposes of various sections of the 2003 Act. The draft order reflects the fact that the European Union has concluded two agreements with those states. On 26 October 2004, a co-operation agreement against fraud was signed between Switzerland and the EU, and on 19 December 2003, the EU concluded an agreement with Norway and Iceland, allowing them to accede to certain articles of the 2001 mutual legal assistance convention and its protocol. As a result, it is now necessary for the United Kingdom to designate those countries as “participating countries” under the 2003 Act.
The designation of the three countries for the purpose of sections 32, 35, 43, 44 and 45 of the Act, will allow for requests for locating bank accounts and providing banking information relating to criminal investigations to be executed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and for such requests to be made to Norway, Iceland or Switzerland by the UK.
Norway and Iceland are also designated under sections 31, 47 and 48 and paragraph 15 of schedule 2 to the 2003 Act. That will allow the UK to execute requests for witnesses to be heard by telephone in criminal proceedings and allow for prisoners in the requesting country to be temporarily transferred to the requested country to help with domestic investigations.
Finally, we propose to designate Switzerland under sections 4 and 4B of the Act, so that the process documents may be sent directly from the UK to the individuals affected.
The order is part of our general UK responsibilities to try to fight crime and to ensure that criminals do not escape justice. I thank my hon. Friends for being here today, and I commend to the order to the Committee.
2.32 pm
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, I believe for the first time, Mr. Williams. I hope to have further such occasions in the future.
In response to the Minister’s statement, Her Majesty’s Opposition broadly agree with everything that has been said about the need to ensure that we have co-operative links with other nations, given that a lot of crime now is international in its nature, particularly financial crime. The need to ensure that offenders are brought to justice requires that degree of co-operation to be in effect. Therefore, bringing the three additional countries within the ambit of the 2003 Act is welcomed.
I have some short questions to ask the Minister in relation to the order, although I am conscious of not detaining the Committee at any great length. The first is on the timing for the designation. As the Minister has rightly identified, the conventions were signed some time ago. Why has there been the delay in the creation of the designation to today, given that we may be going back to 2000-01? Have there been any implications? Why was it necessary to have the rather large time gap?
Secondly, what impacts or implications will the order have on law enforcement or other agencies in this country? As I understand it, the order is intended to promote greater co-operation to—we hope and trust—bring people to justice for the commission of various offences. I was somewhat surprised to see the explanatory memorandum to the order state:
“There is no impact on the public sector. An Impact Assessment has not been prepared for this instrument as no impact on the private, public or voluntary sector is foreseen.”
Will the Minister confirm, explain or expand on that a little further? Presumably, we are expecting some sort of impact; otherwise, the question will be why we are doing this in the first place. It is about ensuring that we bring people to justice and about whether there will be any impact on police forces or other prosecution authorities—the Financial Services Authority or others—to ensure they can comply with any of the additional requirements. We look forward to the greater participation that will flow as a consequence of this order.
May I also ask the Minister about the impact on our relationship with Switzerland, which has historically been a country with strict rules and regulations about banking secrecy? Clearly, the requirements set out in the 2003 Act envisaged, in the way it was drawn up, that there would be greater participation and that account information would be provided. Will the Minister say whether these provisions and the co-operation and participation they enable help prosecuting and investigatory authorities in this country obtain information to ensure that those criminals or third parties who think they may have had a safe harbour and who wish to commit financial fraud or other serious financial crimes know that that is no longer the case?
Obviously there are distinctions, as the Minister has highlighted, between the various agreements reached with the three countries. Will he explain further why agreement on all the points was not forthcoming with Switzerland, whether that is still work in progress and whether there is a wider policy on all that? We understand the need for the order and for greater co-operation and we look forward to the Minister’s answers, so that we can hear about the impact that this is likely to have.
2.37 pm
Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Williams. Overall, I warmly welcome this enhanced international co-operation. I do not see who could disagree with it; it seems a very sensible move forward, so I will not detain the Committee long.
Clearly, crime is becoming increasingly cross-border, so we need to make sure that our laws are up to date in that element. I was very pleased to hear the Conservatives’ stance today, since they have, in the past, objected to the European arrest warrant and various other measures that have improved international co-operation on crime. I am glad to hear that the Conservative party seems to be a bit more friendly towards international co-operation.
James Brokenshire: I am very pleased that the Liberal Democrats have changed their stance too—their home affairs spokesman has been critical of the European arrest warrant himself in the past. We have set out our support for the order and it is pleasing to hear that the Liberal Democrats are equally supportive.
Jenny Willott: At the risk of getting into tit-for-tat, I will continue with my questions to the Minister. One question I wanted to raise has already been raised by the hon. Member for Hornchurch, which is why some aspects apply to Iceland and Norway and others apply just to Switzerland. I would be grateful if the Minister clarified whether the Swiss authorities objected to some elements that Iceland and Norway agreed to, or whether there are other reasons for the difference.
I am glad to support the measures that enhance co-operation on banking, particularly given its importance to international terrorism. I am very glad that the Government have been able to negotiate with the Swiss authorities to ensure that we have improved co-operation, because that is a really important step forward. I should be grateful if the Minister would let us know how it will be ensured that decisions by judges on customer information orders and account monitoring orders will be uniformly applied across the EU and across Norway, Iceland and Switzerland, given that judiciaries operate very differently in different countries. Will the Minister say how we can ensure that there is uniformity, so that requests for information are treated in the same way? For example, will there be international guidelines?
Finally, during the debate in the other place the Minister was asked whether he could provide figures about the number of prisoners that are currently transferred under sections 47 and 48. That Minister was not able to answer at that point, but I wonder whether the Minister could do so today. Also, will he tell us when those sections are used? Do the Government foresee any examples of those sections being used in the next few months?
I look forward to the Minister’s answers and I am happy to support the order.
2.40 pm
Mr. Hanson: I thank the hon. Members for Hornchurch and for Cardiff, Central for their support in principle for the order. Evidently, its purpose is to try to ensure that we co-operate with the three countries mentioned on international crime issues. Several points were raised, and I will take each of them speedily in turn.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch asked why there has not been regulatory impact and what the regulatory numbers are. The number of requests that we have received is relatively small, and will not create a great burden on the agencies and operations dealing with them. In 2007 we had nine requests in Norway, three in Iceland and 104 in Switzerland. In 2008 there were 23 in Norway, three in Iceland and 111 in Switzerland. There is not a great deal of traffic on these issues, but it is important that we regulate the issue with proper legislation.
Both hon. Members drew attention to the delay in the implementation of the order. The UK signed and ratified the EU-Swiss agreement in February 2006. In relation to Switzerland, the sections related to banking evidence have been in force since 2006 and banks have been prepared to process the orders since then. However, we had to bring the order forward today because, particularly in relation to the Norway-Iceland agreement, which is before the Committee, the agreement requires each individual country to take domestic measures necessary to enforce the agreements prior to their conclusion. The order, effectively, brings that matter to a conclusion today, if the order is agreed by this House—as the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central mentioned, the other place consented to the order last week.
Both hon. Members asked why only certain elements related to Switzerland. The agreement between Switzerland and the EU only relates to fraud, so the provisions that we are designating are related to that area alone.
Jenny Willott: When the Minister says that the agreement is just for fraud, does that include money transfers that might be involved in international terrorism? That is clearly not fraud, but it is an area that many people are also deeply concerned about.
Mr. Hanson: My understanding is that it does, and self-evidently, it is about international co-operation on crime issues.
I hope I can give reassurance on the point that was made on the historical, well-known significance of Swiss banks for occasions when individuals may have tried to use the Swiss banking system to avoid some of their responsibilities. That is obviously an issue of some concern. The fact is that under the legislation to date and under the order, the Swiss authorities have committed to ensure that the agreement between the EU and Switzerland is enforced. Switzerland has agreed to provide such evidence as is required and I have no reason, and nor do the United Kingdom Government, to believe that the Swiss authorities will not help to enforce the agreement. I am sure that hon. Members, like us, want to ensure that the integrity of the Swiss banking system is maintained. That is important for the Swiss Government, as well as for our Government.
I was asked about the number of prisoner transfers. There have been no transfers under sections 47 and 48 this year. I know from my previous incarnation—only two weeks ago, I was the Minister responsible for prisons—that we are keen to facilitate transfers both in relation to convictions in due course and, as is the case in the order, in relation to appearances and support in investigations of crime. In the event of that being requested, we will certainly attempt to facilitate it.
I hope that I have covered all the points that the hon. Members for Hornchurch and for Cardiff, Central have mentioned. If, on reflection, I have not, I will examine them.
Jenny Willott: Will the Minister also answer the question about ensuring conformity across the different EU countries, Norway, Iceland and Switzerland when judges are making decisions on the orders?
Mr. Hanson: It is an interesting point, which I would like to look at. From my current understanding of the order, I cannot give a definitive answer now. But evidently, it is key for us to look at that issue across the European Community to ensure that we have an ability to act on the order, not just in the UK but elsewhere. If the hon. Lady allows me, I will look at that point on reflection and drop her the proverbial note to confirm it. If she has any points on that, she can come back to me in writing or by means of parliamentary questions. I will reflect on and examine that point, and I will, as promised, get back to her.
I hope I have covered the other points, Mr. Williams. It has been a pleasure to have unanimity in the Committee, and I commend the order to it.
Question put and agreed to.
2.46 pm
Committee rose.
 
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