EU Criminal Justice and Detention
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Sarah Thatcher, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Criminal Justice and
It may be helpful to the Committee if I take a few minutes to explain the background to the green paper and the reasons why the European Scrutiny Committee has recommended it for debate. The green paper is one of the actions of the European Union’s 2009 road map for strengthening procedural rights in the criminal justice systems of member states. The road map states that the amount of time people can spend in detention pre-trial and during proceedings varies considerably between member states. It continues:
The green paper explores the extent to which detention issues impact on mutual trust and co-operation in criminal matters generally within the EU. It asks 10 questions of member states on what should be done at EU level on the issue of detention. Those questions, and the Government’s detailed replies, are set out in the relevant report of the European Scrutiny Committee, which is in the debate pack.
The Government’s response to the green paper can be summarised as follows. National pre and post-trial detention procedures in EU member states are necessarily different. Detention procedures should not be considered in isolation, but rather in the context of the overall national legal system. As such, detention procedures are not suitable for harmonisation in the form of rules on the minimum number of reviews and the maximum length. In any event, different detention procedures are not obstacles to mutual confidence, even in the case of prisoner transfers. The Government concluded that EU legislation is not, therefore, a desirable objective.
Instead of legislation, the Government recommend that the Commission focuses on the sharing of best practice in the field of detention between member states. Probation and alternative measures to detention are already being successfully promoted at EU level, and the EU should draw on, rather than duplicate, the helpful processes established by the Council of Europe. The case law of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg provides guidance for Member states on
The European Scrutiny Committee agreed with the Government’s analysis that EU legislation in the field of detention was undesirable. Should such legislation be forthcoming, the Committee feared that it would encroach into areas of domestic legal practice and procedure that are better regulated at national level. We also thought that there was a significant risk that it would infringe the principle of subsidiarity. We noted that very little, if any, evidence had been made available to us to demonstrate that different systems of detention in EU member states were an obstacle to co-operation between member states. In the Committee’s view, such evidence is a pre-requisite for EU legislation to be permissible.
The European Scrutiny Committee has suggested that this debate should focus on the Government’s response to the green paper, which I have just outlined. In addition, the Committee would be grateful to know the likely follow-up to the green paper, how the Government would respond should EU legislation be proposed, and whether the Government think that the Commission has shown sufficient evidence that legislation is required.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): It is a pleasure to serve under your enlightened chairmanship, Mr Turner, particularly as you have allowed us to remove our jackets on this, the first warm day since March. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley for the admirably balanced way in which he presented the view of the European Scrutiny Committee and its assessment of the Government’s position. If I may follow the excellent way in which he set the scene for today’s debate, I shall start by making some general contextual remarks of my own.
This is a potentially important matter and one that I know is of interest to Parliament and to the public in general. The first thing to say about the project—if that is the right word for it—is that it is part of a package. The green paper stems from the so-called road map of measures; the European Commission was tasked to look at this area among several others.
The second thing to say about the project is that it is at a very early stage. The Commission’s consultative document, which we will discuss today, was a first step in a process to ascertain how individual member states approach these matters and whether there is a problem that we need to address. Perhaps the third thing to say is that the project is still at that opening stage. The Commission’s consultation period ended last November. The Government made a response, which was summarised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley. The Commission will now or will soon be considering all the information that it has received. I expect that the Commission will make a response to the consultation in
The green paper sought views on 10 broad questions. As we have heard, in paragraph 2.86 of its report, the European Scrutiny Committee indicated that it generally agreed with the Government response to the consultation paper. The Government response was, I hope, clear in signalling that we remain to be convinced that any new overarching European Union-level legislation is either necessary or desirable. It suggested that non-legislative means should be examined first as an alternative solution if a problem that requires a solution is found. It pointed to the potential benefit of simply improving the way in which best practice is shared among member states to raise standards and increase confidence, and noted the important work already under way in that regard under the Council of Europe. Clearly, we would want to build on that if possible, rather than replicate or seek to replace it.
I believe that that is in line with the broad view of this Committee, and I look forward to hearing at first hand the views expressed here today, which will inform our position when any proposal emerges from the Commission, whatever shape that proposal may take.
Paragraph 2.88 of the European Scrutiny Committee’s report invited me—my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley repeated the invitation—to give an update on the likely follow-up to the green paper. Unhappily, at this point in time I have no insight into what shape any such proposal might take or what it might or might not contain. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I cannot comment during this debate on detailed aspects of any future proposal. Unless members of this Committee have intelligence that is not yet available to Her Majesty’s Government, I know as much as the Committee does about what is likely to emerge from the Commission following the consultation exercise.
I can, however, assure hon. Members that when any proposal does emerge, it will be considered carefully, as we consider all proposals, on a case-by-case basis, and we will seek the views of the European Scrutiny Committee in shaping our position. That Committee has clearly registered its support for today’s motion and its keen interest in the policy as its develops. I hope that we can continue to service that interest and that we will enjoy the Committee’s support for our response to any proposals that emerge from the green paper.
The Chair: We now have until 5.30 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that these should be brief. It is open to Members, subject to my discretion, to ask related supplementary questions.
Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I do not intend to delay my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central or anyone else longer than is necessary.
Mr Blunt: I am grateful for that question. There is a substantial number of examples of good practice, particularly in the sharing of information by the National Offender Management Service. The hon. Lady, with her background, has a keen interest in those examples. As soon as I can pull up the right details, I will be able elucidate.
The Ministry of Justice provides a representative for the organising committee of the biennial conference of the European Organisation for Probation. NOMS is a partner in a number of European projects that aim to develop a pan-European approach to effective reductions in reoffending and to custodial alternatives. I am happy to give some details to the Committee—forgive me, but the hon. Member for Darlington asked the question.
EuroPris, the European Organisation of Prison and Correctional Services, brings together practitioners in the prisons area with the intention of promoting ethical and rights-based imprisonment, exchanging information and providing expert assistance to support that agenda. There are also STARR, the strengthening transnational approaches to reducing re-offending programme, and the charmingly named DUTT programme on developing the use of technical tools in cross-border resettlement. The even more exotically named EXOCoP, the Reintegration of Ex-Offenders Community of Practice, aims to identify and improve EU-wide services in education, training and employment, and promotes close collaboration between decision makers in the fields of justice, labour and education, and third-sector representatives.
The National Offender Management Service is not an organisation that gets too many plaudits, but the truth is that the standards of many of the programmes that NOMS delivers are among the best in the continent of Europe. Many of our partners, both in the Council of Europe and in the European Union, look to us and to NOMS to set their own standards. This is an appropriate moment for me, as the responsible Minister, to place on the record the service that NOMS does for us and for all the citizens of Europe through the process of levelling up standards, which is exactly what our approach in general ought to be.
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 11658/11, relating to the European Commission’s Green Paper on the application of EU criminal justice legislation in the field of detention; and supports the conclusions of the Government’s response to the Green Paper, including the recommendation that the European Commission should focus on the development and extension of best practice amongst Member States before making any new legislative proposals in this area.—(Mr Blunt.)