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Session 2008 - 09
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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Roger Gale
Burns, Mr. Simon (West Chelmsford) (Con)
Cash, Mr. William (Stone) (Con)
Flint, Caroline (Don Valley) (Lab)
George, Mr. Bruce (Walsall, South) (Lab)
Green, Damian (Ashford) (Con)
Hopkins, Kelvin (Luton, North) (Lab)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
Mercer, Patrick (Newark) (Con)
Prosser, Gwyn (Dover) (Lab)
Rowen, Paul (Rochdale) (LD)
Spellar, Mr. John (Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household)
Woolas, Mr. Phil (Minister for Borders and Immigration)
Gosia McBride, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(6):
Clappison, Mr. James (Hertsmere) (Con)

European Committee B

Monday 26 October 2009

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

The EU’s Justice and Home Affairs Programme for the next Five Years (The Stockholm Programme)
[Relevant Documents: European Union Documents No. 10953/09 and Addenda 1 to 3, Commission Communication on Justice, freedom and security in Europe since 2005: an evaluation of the Hague Programme and Action Plan [25th Report of Session 2008-09, HC 19-xxiii, Chapter 1.]
4.30 pm
The Chairman: Does a member of the European Scrutiny Committee wish to make a brief explanatory statement about the decision to refer the relevant documents to the European Committee?
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Gale. I indeed have a statement to make on behalf of the European Scrutiny Committee. It may be helpful if I take a couple of minutes to explain the background to the documents and the reasons why the ESC recommended them for debate in this Committee.
The Commission’s communication of June 2009 is intended to contribute to the thinking of the Council of Ministers about the contents of the third justice and home affairs programme, which will run from 2010 to the end of 2014. It is likely to be approved by the end of this year and to be known as the Stockholm programme.
In the Commission’s view, the Stockholm programme should commit the EU to, for example, further action to promote people’s rights, such as the protection of their personal data; widen mutual recognition of judicial decisions to more matters; make it easier for people and businesses to get their disputes resolved in the courts; implement the European pact on immigration and asylum; and strengthen police and judicial co-operation between member states to protect people from organised cross-border crime.
As hon. Members will see from their document packs, the Home Secretary has provided the European Scrutiny Committee with a comprehensive explanatory memorandum on the communication, which included contributions from the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Law Officers’ Department, and explains that the Government can agree with much of the content of the documents. However, it also makes it clear that the Government disagree with the Commission on some matters. For example, they repudiate the Commission’s assertion that in criminal matters, such as terrorism and organised crime,
“only action at European level can deliver results”.
I draw the Committee’s attention to an important addendum to the document pack—the first draft of the European Council conclusions on the Stockholm programme. Normally, the House is not provided with the drafts of such conclusions. The European Scrutiny Committee believes that those drafts—and drafts of Council conclusions—should always be provided to the House. It is therefore greatly to the Minister’s credit that he has sent the European Scrutiny Committee the draft conclusions on the proposals and made them available to the European Committee. That is a striking example of the Home Office’s positive and constructive approach to European scrutiny.
The Chairman: I call the Minister to make an opening statement.
4.33 pm
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Gale. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North for his introductory explanation and his kind words. Indeed, I thought that it was sensible to share the communiquÃ(c) at the earliest possible moment. The decision by the European Scrutiny Committee allows me to explain Government thinking, which is in the interest of parliamentary accountability and transparency, and of the programme itself.
As my hon. Friend said, the programme is the third of its kind, following the 1999 Tampere programme—Tampere in Finland—and the 2004 Hague programme, to which he has referred. My right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley will remember that programme with fond regard as, if I am correct, she was the Minister who carried out the negotiations on that programme. It is a good opportunity for us to influence the agenda for EU activity over the next five years.
We believe that with the programme, we can ensure that future proposals for EU action meet the needs, not just of our constituents, but of our police forces, prosecutors, customs and immigration authorities and others, and help to support them in addressing the challenges that they face in tackling some of the most important issues facing our country—organised crime, terrorism and illegal immigration. To that end, as I told the European scrutiny Committee in the other place on 14 October, we have made it clear in our discussions so far with the presidency that the new work programme must focus on action that delivers real benefits for European citizens; new proposals must be founded on evidence of a specific problem; and existing measures—this is the key point—must be embedded and evaluated to ensure that they meet their original aims before we move on. We are pleased that those concerns have been taken on board in the first draft of the programme. I would have sent it out if they had not been accepted, but I was perhaps even keener to do so, given that they had.
Some 2.2 million British citizens live in other EU countries, and we need mechanisms in place to advance their interests and ensure that they are protected, have access to justice and are able to use the services that they need. We cannot achieve those aims without co-operating with our European and other international partners.
The UK’s national security strategy, which was updated in June, identified serious organised crime as a threat that is growing across the world, where criminal networks operate on a global scale, cause untold human misery and cost the UK between an estimated £20 billion and £40 billion a year. For that reason the Government will seek to ensure that EU action continues to reinforce co-operation against organised crime. I can point to some success already, such as the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre in Lisbon, which, in its first 18 months of operation—I think from January 2008—has been responsible among other things for co-ordinating the seizure of 40 tonnes of cocaine in the Atlantic Ocean, tracking smugglers across the oceans.
Equally, given the global nature of the threats that we face, the Government argue that the new programme must have a strong focus on EU co-operation with non-EU countries. We need EU action to bring about change in third countries to tackle the causes of crime and terrorism, to promote the rule of law—necessary for business to function—and to tackle illegal global migration flows before they reach the EU’s borders. We did not think that that issue was given enough attention in the Commission's communication on the Stockholm programme, despite the success in the EU migration agreements, but we believe that our lobbying has been successful and that the draft we have received now reflects the importance of the external work—external to the EU.
Co-ordinated action with our EU partners is essential to ensure that justice is effectively delivered, and that British nationals can have confidence in the fairness and effectiveness of the criminal justice system when they are in another European state. It is not about the creation of a single EU criminal code. The Government's view is that justice co-operation must continue on the basis of mutual recognition with a respect for the diversity of legal systems across Europe. The European arrest warrant is just one example of how co-operation based on mutual recognition has already improved the efficiency of extraditing suspected terrorists to the UK within days rather than months, as was previously the case.
We have also been able to ensure that there is greater protection for those who haven fallen victim to crime in other member states. We are committed to driving up standards in criminal procedure across the EU and believe that the targeted action that we put forward is needed to achieve that. We therefore welcome the reference in the draft programme to the resolution on a road map on strengthening procedural rights of suspected or accused persons in criminal proceedings, and I can report to the Committee that that was agreed at the Justice and Home Affairs Council last Friday. It was attended by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier).
The Government believe that free movement of our citizens is among the foremost achievements of the EU. Therefore, in the new work programme we argue for policies that defend that right by curbing abuses such as marriages of convenience, forged documents and identity theft, and by ensuring that free movement rights are not exploited by persistent criminals or any other criminals.
We will also continue to push for action on asylum that promotes fairness between member states’ asylum systems, and encourages solidarity by helping them to build their own ability so that they can protect those who need it and remove those from their country who do not. We need further to strengthen the external borders of the EU and promote practical co-operation with third countries to return people with no right to be here. More generally, the Government believe that the next five-year work programme must build on the 2008 European pact on migration, which I already mentioned, with member states co-operating to tackle illegal immigration, strengthen our borders and develop more effective partnerships beyond our frontiers.
Child protection remains one of the Government’s top priorities for future EU work. We want to stop people with overseas criminal convictions of a violent or sexual nature from working with children, or with vulnerable adults. That is why we believe we need to share more information with our EU partners, including information on disqualification from particular professional activities. We believe that we have made some progress in reflecting that in the programme, building on what we have already achieved under the existing Hague programme.
We have already seen the adoption of measures to ensure that we are automatically notified of convictions against UK nationals in other EU courts. We can now also request information about the previous criminal convictions of nationals of other EU states, allowing our courts to reflect previous offending patterns when passing new sentences. In the past year, we have made more than 4,000 such requests, supporting the investigation of 258 murders and 195 rapes, with more than a quarter returned with previous convictions. It is therefore clear that there are benefits in such co-operation.
All of that requires measures to promote the sharing of information across borders. The UK has successfully pushed for the new programme to reflect a more strategic approach to what we exchange and how we do so, backed by strong data protection. We have made it clear that data sharing and data protection must be seen as a package, so that where the need to exchange information for public protection purposes is identified, it is pursued in a secure environment, with the benefit of greater protection and the protection of privacy.
The appropriate collection and use of data can bring very real benefits. For example, the Eurodac fingerprint database enables the UK to return, under the so-called Dublin arrangements, 130 asylum seekers a month to other member states, in cases in which people have applied for asylum in one EU country and then travelled to another one. Since 2004, we have removed over 8,100 applicants identified by that system to other member states, making us a prime beneficiary of that system.
According to an autumn 2008 Eurobarometer poll, 53 per cent. of European citizens considered terrorism to be the most serious problem facing us, and 72 per cent. saw added value in action taken at EU level. We have a duty to respond to those concerns, as I am sure we all accept. To protect our citizens, we need a strong work programme that keeps counter-terrorism co-operation high on the EU agenda. Our aim is to achieve a demonstrable impact in reducing the risk to the EU from international terrorism, while safeguarding civil liberties.
The work proposed under the Stockholm programme contributes directly to the delivery of that objective. We encourage the targeting of funding and practical co-operation in line with threat assessments. We want the EU to take continued action across all four strands of the EU counter-terrorism strategy—prevent, pursue, protect and respond. Of course, that closely mirrors our own Contest counter-terrorism strategy, which includes stepping up EU efforts on counter-radicalisation, examining new ways of tackling terrorist financing, and taking action to reduce member states’ vulnerability to attack. Work at the European level on counter-terrorism will contribute directly to our security.
On cross-border civil justice, which my hon. Friend mentioned, we need further to ensure that there is an effective and clear legal framework to enable our citizens and businesses to have appropriate access to justice, and to allow the internal economic market to function properly. A further European survey in April 2008 found that 55 per cent. of people thought that it was fairly or very difficult to gain access to justice in another country. Furthermore, 74 per cent. thought that additional measures were necessary to help people gain that access.
We have tried to respond to those concerns. For example, we have successfully secured a regulation to improve the judicial process for cross-border claims with a value of less than €2,000. That is a new standard procedure throughout the European Union, so creditors will know how it will apply in the courts of any member state. Specific time limits apply, ensuring that there is some certainty for all involved. Procedures for hearings and taking of evidence have been simplified to ensure that costs are proportionate to the value of the claim. Within the first six months of the regulation, there have been 46 outgoing and 110 incoming cases from and to England and Wales.
That is just one example of how we have agreed procedures to help creditors obtain judgments that can be recognised in another country. The draft Stockholm programme acknowledges that to help creditors make full use of the procedures that have been agreed, the EU now needs to take action to help them enforce those judgments. That is in line with the priority that the Government have given to the introduction of cross-border enforcement procedures.
Overall, the Government’s view of both the Commission’s communication and the draft programme is positive. We are convinced that the Stockholm programme will bring significant benefits for UK citizens in the field of justice and home affairs.
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Prepared 27 October 2009