Select Committee on European Communities Twelfth Report





Bridges, L.Tordoff, L. (Chairman)
Goodhart, L.Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Inglewood, L.Wedderburn of Charlton, L.
Rix, L.Wigoder, L.

Examination of witnesses

Ms JOYCE QUIN, a Member of the House of Commons, Minister of State, Home Office, and MR PETER EDWARDS, European Union and International Unit, Home Office, called in and examined.


  1.  Minister, I think that the initiative for this meeting came from you originally, and that makes it doubly pleasant to have you here. The last time that you appeared in front of a sub-committee of the Select Committee was when we were doing the Intergovernmental Conference report a couple of years ago, and I remember the help that you gave us on that occasion. This is a meeting of Sub-Committee F augmented by members of Sub-Committee E and I find myself in the chair because there are interesting things that I want to ask you about Third Pillar scrutiny. However, perhaps you would like to start, Minister, by making some sort of opening statement?

  (Ms Quin)  My Lord Chairman, I very much welcome the chance to appear before you, and I too remember the earlier occasion on which I gave evidence to the Committee. Obviously one of the real reasons behind this occasion is the forthcoming United Kingdom Presidency and the work that that will involve in justice and home affairs issues, and in justice and home affairs as with the United Kingdom Presidency generally the Government sees this as an excellent opportunity to participate fully in the workings of the European Union, to work with our colleagues in progressing a variety of matters, some of which I know the Committees here take a great interest in, to be an efficient enabling Presidency and also, of course, to speak to a certain extent to the domestic audience here in the United Kingdom about the usefulness of co-operation in justice and home affairs issues on a great many issues that we believe are of practical benefit to the people that we represent and, indeed, to the people of other European Union countries as well. The obvious areas are ones with which you are very much familiar: the fight against organised crime and the various facets that that has; the need and desirability to promote the issue of enlargement in the European Union and the justice and home affairs aspects of that - certainly we see the work on the pre-accession pact on organised crime as an important part of the arrangements that are being made with the applicant countries and, indeed, with the associate countries over the coming months; the desirability to co-operate on various aspects of immigration and asylum policy; the need to get Europol up and running where the United Kingdom has certainly been extremely active up to now, and we hope that that will become a reality with all the countries concerned ratifying the Europol Convention during our Presidency; police and judicial co-operation generally and, indeed, such areas as race relations which are an important part of our remit and where we believe that the United Kingdom certainly has got a contribution to make. There will be a series of events and seminars and conferences organised during the United Kingdom Presidency addressing these issues. We will also be having an informal Council meeting in Birmingham and there will be various events around that. Some of the events that we are organising will, of course, be open to the applicant countries, the countries from central and eastern Europe. We need to manage a great deal of business and to progress a great deal of business which is already in the pipeline. Some of that will be business involving Schengen, although the United Kingdom, as you know, has a special arrangement as a result of the Amsterdam Treaty. We will nevertheless need to be a Presidency which is responding to the wishes of the European Union as a whole in incorporating the Schengen acquis into the Treaty. We will also be presiding over G8 at that time and there will be a range of international commitments that the United Kingdom Government has where we will want to have a good co-ordination between what we are doing in the United Kingdom Presidency and our work within the G8, the OECD and other international bodies. I think that is what I would say by way of introduction. There are a large number of complicated issues within the areas that I have mentioned, but we very much see the justice and home affairs aspect of the United Kingdom Presidency as reinforcing the need for co-operation in a good many areas which we believe are of concern to the citizen, and that is really the fundamental objective of the work that we will be doing.

  2.  Thank you, Minister. I think it is probably true to say that these Sub-Committees and the Select Committee have been gearing up on the subject of Third Pillar matters for some time now. Speaking in terms of the British Presidency, of course, we will have COSAC, that is, the Conference of European Affairs Committees, meeting in London in May, and I think that my opposite number in another place, Jimmy Hood, and I have managed to get Third Pillar scrutiny on to the agenda for that COSAC meeting because it seems to us that there is a special responsibility on national parliaments to scrutinise Third Pillar matters in a way that the European Parliament cannot do by the very nature of the beast. Let us then move on to the detail. I think that after Amsterdam we were all somewhat baffled by what the position was in relation to Schengen, where the opt-ins were and where the opt-outs were and where neither of them were. Do you think that you are in a position to clarify our situation in relation to Schengen now and how much progress has been made to date in identifying the Schengen acquis?

  (Ms Quin)  My Lord Chairman, it is hard to give you a great deal of comfort on this score, I am afraid, simply because we have not even now received the whole of the Schengen acquis although we have been told that the Schengen Presidency has just finished its analysis of the acquis to determine what are the relevant documents. It has been quite a perplexing process in some ways in that different countries seem not to have exactly the same notion of what is in the Schengen acquis, so we await the final version with some interest and, I may say, some trepidation given accounts of the quantity of documents that are reported to exist on this matter. There have been meetings so far to assess the allocation of the acquis between different Pillars and different parts of the new Treaty, but again not a great deal of progress has been made on this up to now and these really have only been discussed, I think I am right in saying, in the working group. Perhaps at this point, my Lord Chairman, I could mention that I am accompanied here today by Peter Edwards, who is the head of our European Union and International Unit in the Home Office, and who will, I am sure, supplement any gaps in my knowledge in answering or attempting to answer some of your questions.

  (Mr Edwards)  My Lord Chairman, I shall do my best.

  3.  You are one of our usual welcome witnesses, Mr Edwards.

  (Mr Edwards)  Thank you, my Lord Chairman.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

  4.  May I ask a supplementary question on Schengen. When it is agreed what is in the acquis and what is to go into the First Pillar and into the Third Pillar we will, as I understand the Amsterdam Treaty, have the choice of opting-in or opting-out subject to agreement with others of those aspects that go into the Third Pillar. Would it be correct to assume that all those that go into the First Pillar the United Kingdom will be unavoidably involved with or do we have some opt-in/opt-out even under those matters?

  (Ms Quin)  My Lord Chairman, as I understand it, we have an opt in arrangement on all the matters in the Schengen acquis. Perhaps I may ask Peter Edwards to come in here.

  (Mr Edwards)  My Lord Chairman, I will do my best to explain the position as I understand it. I think the position is that when a decision has been made on which part of the Treaty the different parts of the acquis should be entered into there is then a further negotiation which has to take place to consider whether the United Kingdom and Ireland may participate in certain elements of the acquis which have been incorporated. Ministers have not yet taken decisions on which those parts should be, but it would be inconsistent with our general stance on internal frontiers for us to want to participate in much of the Schengen co-operation that would be put into the First Pillar. By contrast, in regard to the Third Pillar, where we have taken the view that we want to co-operate very fully in police and judicial co-operation, there is a presumption that we will want to look very carefully at the scope for co-operating in Schengen arrangements incorporated into the Third Pillar. So there are those two broad categories, but there is also a sort of intermediary category where I think the Government will have to think very carefully which way it wants to move. Asylum might be put into that category, and although asylum falls within the First Pillar, the new free movement chapter, it seems at least possible that the Government will decide that there is a balance of advantage for the United Kingdom in continuing to co-operate in the area of asylum policy, particularly with a view to avoiding the kinds of asylum shopping problems that have been encountered within Europe up to now.


  5.  How far and in what way do you anticipate involving Parliament in the discussions on these things as the pattern emerges or are you going to come to Parliament and say, this is what we have decided, take it or leave it?

  (Ms Quin)  My Lord Chairman, we are keen certainly to consult with Parliament on these issues. The Schengen acquis, or as much information as we have, is being deposited in the House of Commons Library and, indeed, already we are responding to quite a few Parliamentary Questions on this issue, so I have a feeling that even if we did not want to we would still be very much involved in contact with Parliament about this. It certainly makes sense for Parliament to be in a position to look at aspects of the Schengen acquis and for us to have a consultative arrangement by which we can ascertain views on how these matters ought to be taken forward. It seems to me - and this is partly following up the first question - that whether it is in Pillar One or Pillar Three there is a difference between the Social Chapter opt out arrangement that used to operate and the opt in possibilities for us under Schengen because we will be part of the discussion of these issues and therefore we will be able to be there at the table even if at the end there are areas, as Peter Edwards pointed out, which we will be very unlikely to opt into.

  6.  I think that what we would ask as a Select Committee is that the Home Office keeps us informed as much as possible and as early as possible. We recognise that this is a moving target that you are dealing with, but on the other hand I think that the sooner that we can get information and can come to a view ourselves to advise both the House and the Government on what our view is, the better for all concerned. I know that it is more difficult with Third Pillar matters than it is with First Pillar matters, but I think that it is something that we have been developing over the last two or three years now, I think moderately successfully, and I hope that we can continue with that.

  (Ms Quin)  Certainly that is our intention, and I am glad that despite various hiccups - because there are always hiccups in that particular system - we have, I believe, improved the relationship between the Home Office and Parliament in terms of consulting and keeping the flow of information going on these important matters, and it is certainly our intention to continue in that. I would also like to thank the Committee for some of the flexibility that you have been prepared to show in instances where the target seems to have moved a bit more quickly than we imagined it was going to. As I know the Home Secretary emphasised when he gave evidence, it is sometimes difficult to predict; something that seems to be moving very slowly will suddenly gather momentum and it leaves difficulties in the consultative process, but we are very committed to making that process work as effectively as we can, and we do think that the new arrangements agreed at Amsterdam will help greatly in that respect.

  7.  I have to say, Minister, with all due respect, and not directed at the Home Office, that that has not shown generally in recent weeks and we are at the moment in that awful period at the end of a Presidency where documents come through - this week I think that half of the documents that we have had required to be cleared for scrutiny before Council next week and frankly that is so wide of what was agreed, even in Maastricht, never mind Amsterdam, that it is becoming unacceptable.

  (Ms Quin)  Well, I think that you are right to draw attention to the cycle of events. Certainly we have noticed, particularly towards the end of the current Presidency, that we also have come under great pressure, and I personally have come under great pressure, to clear things very, very quickly even though there are many other matters within my portfolio that I need to give attention to. I do understand the Committee's frustration and certainly we will do our very best to ensure that the problems do not recur. However, the situation certainly is not a particularly easy one and there are many frustrations. I would like to say, however, a word of support for my own officials in the Home Office because I know that their workload has increased very greatly and staffing has not increased at the same rate, anything but, so they have been under particular pressure both with this last minute rush that takes place under Presidencies and also with the extra burden of preparing for our own Presidency.

Chairman]   We do understand that. We will always be as helpful and as flexible as we can, but there does come a time when you begin to wonder what is the point of parliamentary scrutiny when one only has a matter of hours sometimes to produce some sort of answer, and again I absolve the Home Office from this. All that I can say, I think, is that with the British Presidency coming up we hope that it will not be the same mad rush at the end of the British Presidency as there has been at the end of all the others.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

  8.  I just want to ask about Schengen. You mentioned that the British and Irish Governments take a similar line at the present moment. Do you anticipate any particular difficulties if, as this process of looking at bits of the acquis in detail goes on, there should be any substantial divergence between the responses that the British and Irish Governments maintain?

  (Ms Quin)  No, I think we recognise that obviously the Irish Government have their own particular point of view. They like us are very attached to the Common Travel Area, but they certainly will have the flexibility to opt into the measures that they wish to adopt, and while we have worked in a very co-operative way together, none the less you are talking about two sovereign governments and they have the right - and I do not believe that it would cause any difficulty - to choose the measures that they feel comfortable with and that they would like to adopt.

  9.  Let me ask about a Presidency management matter. Lord Kingsland and I were in Brussels on sub-committee business in July and several people remarked to us just how very heavy the Third Pillar committee structure was, steering committees, working groups, a mass of paper going through. Do you see any way in which one might lighten the hierarchy of working groups, the involvement of a very large number of officials and the circulation of a huge amount of paper?

  (Ms Quin)  I will give a general reply and then perhaps ask Mr Edwards to comment further. I think that there has been some rationalisation of the work of the Steering Groups. The structure is fairly cumbersome although the amount of work and the amount of preparatory work that needs to be done in a sense makes that to a certain degree unavoidable. Certainly we are not in the business of creating structures for the sake of creating structures, and if further changes can be considered or may be proposed, then obviously that is something that we would look at. Perhaps Mr Edwards would like to comment.

  (Mr Edwards)  Yes, thank you. Certainly the weight of paper in the First Pillar is pretty overwhelming and I can see very little prospect of that easing under our Presidency. I am afraid that we are talking about a paper mill essentially in Europe. I believe that the Third Pillar accounts for something like 30 per cent or more of all the papers that go through the European Union machinery. However, so far as the bureaucracy is concerned I do think that there will be some attempts made at streamlining from now on. We inherited a situation in which there were five levels of consideration of matters from the working group level right the way up to the Justice and Home Affairs Council with the Steering Groups playing a role, K.4 itself playing a role, and COREPER preparing the Council as it does every other Council. I think that it has been recognised for several Presidencies now that this is too heavy a structure and that the way to achieve some lightening of the structure is by focusing on the role of the Steering Group. For the last couple of Presidencies the Presidency has organised only one meeting of each of the three Steering Groups and during our Presidency we want to take that one stage further by not having any meetings at all of steering groups. We think that their role has really been largely overtaken now, particularly by some of the new committees that have come into being recently, and I am thinking here of the multidisciplinary group which looks after action on organised crime and whose remit really runs across more than one of the steering group areas. Also the new Schengen working groups obviously have to look at the whole of the Treaty and not just the Third Pillar. There is also now a horizontal drugs group which looks at drugs action across all three Pillars of the Treaty. I think that the existence of these usually fairly senior level groups has made it unnecessary to have steering groups, and has also simplified the bureaucracy in other ways. It is not a case of new groups introducing new complexity, but more of new groups simplifying the bureaucracy.

Lord Inglewood

  10.  If I may, my Lord Chairman, I should like to ask the Minister this. We have talked about the opt-in or opt-out, whichever way you want to define it, for the Schengen acquis. Has the Government - and you may say that the question is premature - started to develop an attitude which will indicate where we might opt-in and where we might opt-out? What kind of test do you anticipate applying to the acquis to see whether or not we in this country might wish to opt in or opt out?

  (Ms Quin)  Well, you kindly suggested an answer in that it is somewhat premature, but basically we intend to adopt a pragmatic attitude towards this and see what seems to be a sensible measure on which to join with other member countries, obviously whether the measure is seen to be in our interests or not, and that we will simply approach the issues on a case by case basis. There are obviously areas where already in Third Pillar and justice and home affairs areas we have been very active in co-operating, judicial and police co-operation and so on, and in some cases of customs co-operation. There are other areas, particularly the issues that Mr Edwards referred to, of border controls where we have not, so there are obviously some indicators there of how we are likely to approach this, but it is really hard to give any more precise information until we have had a chance to look at what is on offer. However, I must say, having attended now a couple of Justice and Home Affairs formal Councils and an informal Council there is good co-operation across a range of policy areas, so we are certainly ready to help do our bit to make that co-operation a success in areas in which we feel we have a contribution to make and which are in our interests.

Lord Bridges

  11.  If I may ask you a question, Minister, about what you said about the Schengen acquis, as I understood you, you said that you were still awaiting information as to exactly what this amounted to and I formed the impression that you are waiting the arrival of some bulky dossier from somewhere. Who exactly is compiling this for you? Is it done by the Commission, is it done by some of the groups which Mr Edwards has described to us? Is it the Commission or the Council? I am very unclear where this dossier load is expected to arrive from.

  (Ms Quin)  Mr Edwards will correct me if I am wrong, but I assume that this gets forwarded to us by the Schengen Presidency - is that right? - or by officials working to the Schengen Presidency.

  (Mr Edwards)  The Schengen Presidency, Austria at the moment, Belgium in the new year, is in charge of an exercise which is looking at the Schengen acquis as a whole and trying to come up with a definitive version of it for the purposes of incorporation into the European Union, but that is not a straightforward exercise, as I understand it, because there is a vast bulk of instruments, decisions, documents, which have been accumulated over the few years that Schengen has been in being. Some of them are superseded by parts of the European Union Treaty, some are simply spent because they relate to circumstances that no longer obtain. It is really a matter of sifting through the material and deciding what is formally the acquis for purposes of treaty incorporation, and the Schengen Presidency, Austria, have been taking the lead on that supported by the Schengen Secretariat, which is at present separate from the Council Secretariat but which in due course will itself be swallowed up by the Council Secretariat.

  12.  I see, thank you.

  (Ms Quin)  It is a complicated area because also there is work that needs to be done in looking at some of the institutional questions involved in bringing Norway and Iceland into the incorporated arrangements because of the border free area that they operate with the other Nordic countries, so that is a further interesting aspect of the Schengen incorporation work.


  13.  And, of course, it is true, is it not, that in terms of enlargement similar problems will occur when we get into eastern Europe?

  (Ms Quin)  Indeed.

  14.  Particularly in relation to Hungary?

  (Ms Quin)  In a way bringing into effect Amsterdam will at least help to clarify matters - incorporation will have taken place by then - and the fact that that body of rules has been incorporated will then be something that will be clearly identifiable to the applicant countries, so in some ways it may be simpler than the situation that we are in at the moment.

  15.  May we move on to the question of Europol which, as you know, is something that has engaged this Committee in the past, or Sub-Committee E, to be precise. We had certain disagreements with the Home Office on the role of the European Court of Justice on Europol matters. Can you tell us how many States have now ratified the Convention?

  (Ms Quin)  Eight Member States have reported that they have gone through the procedures of ratification. Obviously, as is always pointed out, we were the first in the United Kingdom, but Portugal, Sweden, Spain, Denmark, Germany and Ireland have ratified although only the United Kingdom and Spain have completed the formal notification requirement by depositing the instrument of ratification with the Council Secretariat. We still remain hopeful that all Member States will have completed the procedures in time for the Convention to enter into force during the United Kingdom Presidency. We cannot guarantee that, but we are very hopeful that that will be the case.

  16.  We understand that the Germans are expressing concern about the Protocol on Immunities for Europol staff, and I also get the feeling that the Germans are a bit uncertain as to how they see the future of Europol. There seem to be countervailing pressures here. We have always been very clear in this country that Europol is basically an information exchange. The word operational creeps in these days and there are different interpretations of what operational means. I think that as far as we are concerned operational means that the database is up and running. I think that as far as one or two other people are concerned it may mean that they want to see Europol as a European wide police force.

  (Ms Quin)  On your last point, my Lord Chairman, in my early months in the Home Office I commented that I kept seeing this expression "getting Europol up and running" and, of course, that was precisely because of the ambiguity if you use the word operational given that the German view was very much that they wanted to develop it into an operational police force whereas the general view, and this is the view of the United Kingdom, was that it was an information and intelligence gathering body. I think that Member States are very clear now what Europol's role is, but that does not mean to say that there is not some hope, particularly in Germany, that it might turn out to be something different despite the fact that the agreement very clearly gives it the identity which you yourself, my Lord Chairman, have described. Germany has experienced some difficulties over the Protocol on Immunities and Privileges and basically that seems to be because they have looked at these immunities for Europol staff and said that they are more wide-ranging and far-reaching than those which are enjoyed by German police officers. But, of course, we would say, along with other countries, well, this is not a genuine comparison because Europol is not composed of police officers in that sense. However, despite this difficulty it has been signalled to us by Germany that they do expect to ratify the Protocol in the first three months of next year.

Lord Bridges

  17.  Is part of the difficulty that Europol is going to be sited on German territory?

  (Mr Edwards)  If I may dare to correct you, Europol is situated in the Hague, not in Germany.

  18.  Oh, I did not know that.

  (Mr Edwards)  The headquarters is in the Hague though no doubt Europol staff will go on mission to Germany for a variety of purposes. May I just add one further point, my Lord Chairman, which is to make the point that Europol is not just about the exchange of information; it is also about the analysis of information and the preparation of analytical files on criminals, criminal organisations and so on, so that when it does become operational - if I can use that word - it will mark a real step forward in police co-operation at the European level.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

  19.  If I may press you on the immunities question, because it does seem to me to be a very delicate one, the question of immunities of Europol staff does, of course, partly depend on how far you see Europol becoming the European FBI of which Chancellor Kohl has spoken and there are civil liberties delicacies, to put it gently, in having international liaison officers who will be drawn from national police forces who have extensive immunities to carry out even analytical work.

  (Ms Quin)  I think that that is a fair point. Certainly if Europol was not the intelligence gathering and analysis organisation that has been described and was operating as a police force, I think that the civil liberties aspect of the immunities argument would be very real, but we do not believe that in the present and foreseeable state of Europol that is a problem and certainly we do not see it developing into a European FBI. It seems to me that that argument has already been gone through and been rejected in the agreement that has been reached. I must say in answer to the previous question that the question was put with such authority that I had a real moment of panic in thinking, well, it is in the Hague, but is it about to move to Germany. However, I am reassured to hear that it is not!

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