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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, for securing this opportunity to have a short debate on an important report and providing us with the opportunity to discuss the role of Europol and the current proposals to amend its legal base. This is an issue of great significance to the Government's delivery agenda for policing organised crime and is of great importance to the security and freedom of
Nowadays there are no boundaries for organised criminal groups. Ever-increasing global economic integration and the enormous capabilities of modern technology in transport and communications have enabled criminal groups to extend their illegal activities world-wide. A single country can no longer deal effectively with serious cross-border crimes by acting in isolation. The Government recognise that an effective system of co-operation with our partners across Europe is absolutely essential in the fight against trans-national crimes such as terrorism, drug trafficking, illegal immigration and the trafficking of people. Europol has a key role to play in our efforts to protect the safety and security of all EU citizens.
It was established to facilitate the rapid and secure exchange of intelligence on organised crime between all EU member states and to provide sophisticated analysis of its intelligence to add real value to member states' own law-enforcement investigations. Those are the origins of Europol's efforts to tackle international drug smuggling. Our Government are fully committed to Europol. Since commencing its full activities in 1999 Europol has developed considerably in its role as the EU's criminal intelligence agency. Its progress, as noble Lords who have contributed to the debate have said, has been well supported and strongly influenced by the United Kingdom, in particular through our Europol national unit based at the National Criminal Intelligence Service.
As well as the UK's major financial contribution to Europol, which this year stands at some £6 million, we have been at the forefront among member states in terms of sharing with it relevant intelligence and expertise. The director of Europol has singled out the UK on a number of occasions publicly to praise our engagement with that agency. Our law enforcement agencies have also been among the most effective in utilising Europol's capabilities, and the scale of Europol's support to UK investigations continues to increase. More than 500 UK investigations were supported by Europol in 2002, the highest total among all the member states for the second successive year. Recent major successes have been achieved in operations dealing with Internet paedophilia, illegal immigration networks and drug trafficking.
Europol plays a key role in the Government's strategy for preventing and combating the serious cross-border crimes that threaten the safety and security of the people of this country. The Government will continue to play their full part in making sure that Europol lives up to our highest expectations and to its fullest potential.
I turn to some of the major issues that were raised during the debate and look at some of the thinking and the purpose behind amendments which are proposed over the way Europol works and the Government's own role in negotiations.As part of our commitment to ensuring that our agencies have the tools they need to fight organised crime, we want to see Europol provide an outstanding service in support of their efforts. For that reason we have supported the overall purpose of the current proposals to amend the Europol Convention that are aimed at improving the effectiveness and service delivery of Europol, and strengthening both its openness and accountability.
As the noble Baronesses, Lady Harris and Lady Stern, said, criminal intelligence is the lifeblood of Europol. Together with our partners we have comprehensively reviewed its procedures for the collection, processing, analysis and transmission of operational data to ensure that the organisation can operate effectively. The proposed amendments to the convention will: streamline Europol's arrangements for providing member states with analytical support; improve the flow of valuable information between states and also appropriate third countries and bodies; and enable it to react with greater speed and efficiency in responding to the needs of national law enforcement agencies.
While offering broad support to the Danish presidency during the course of negotiations, the UK has worked hard on a number of specific points to ensure that we get the amendments right. We have been particularly concerned to ensure that the right balance is found between improving the organisation's flexibility and ensuring that adequate data protection safeguards are in place to protect the storage, processing and use of personal data.
Separate amendments to the Europol Convention, agreed by Ministers at the Justice and Home Affairs Council last November, will enable it to participate in joint investigation teams in a support capacity. The UK played a prominent role in pushing forwards the conclusions of those amendments, to ensure that the benefits of Europol participating in joint investigation teams could be realised as soon as possible. By allowing Europol to support joint investigation we will be ensuring that those teams have quicker and better access to information essential to their investigations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, referred to the question of accountability. We fully recognise the need for Europol to be accountable for its important work. However, first and foremost it must remain accountable to the member states of the European Union through the Europol management board and the Justice and Home Affairs Council. It is our strong view that Europol must focus on delivering real results in the areas of crime that most threaten the member states, and avoid spreading its resources too thinly over an overly ambitious range of tasks. There was certainly consensus within Sub-Committee F on that point.
In the interests of accountability and delivery, the Government pressed hard in negotiations for the convention to be amended so that Europol will be obliged to implement and report on the priority activities identified by its management board and agreed by the Justice and Home Affairs Council.
Our success in pressing this case will ensure that Europol is more accountable to member states for its performance in meeting its top priorities in the fight against organised crime. The Government also recognise the more important role of parliamentary oversight of Europol's work, particularly by national parliaments.
National parliamentary scrutiny is important because it provides an opportunity for dialogue and is a source of independent external advice. These are two areas where this is particularly important. Perhaps I should make reference to those. The first is Europol's core work as the EU's criminal intelligence agency. It is critical that there is exchange and analysis of personal data and also that there is adequate protection of personal data. That must be one of the fundamental common values of the EU member states. Here national parliaments have a key role to play in ensuring that due care is taken to protect the rights of EU citizens in the treatment of personal data. The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, gave effective reflection to that point.
The second and important significant contribution that the UK makes to Europol's budget is well recognised. Here Parliament has a major role on overseeing Europol's work to ensure that the organisation is delivering adequate value for money and that the Government's spend is justified.
Through the process of domestic parliamentary scrutiny of EU business, the UK Parliament is fully involved in scrutinising legislative proposals on Europol's work, as demonstrated by today's debate. The Government genuinely value the work of the scrutiny committees in both Houses and have found it to be most useful as part of the process in the formulation of policy on co-operation with our EU colleagues.
The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, raised an important issue about the relationship between national units and Europol and the importance of the existing arrangements. What is the Government's view on the provisions in the proposed amendments which might allow competent authorities to seek a route around national units and liaise directly with Europol?
Following intense discussion between the presidency and member states on the role of national units, a consensus was reached in support of the current proposals. These will allow each member state to decide for itself whether to permit its authorities to liaise directly with Europol, subject to the prior involvement of the national unit concerned. It is important that member states and Europol can co-operate effectively and quickly and this new provision will provide extra flexibility and efficiency in certain cases.
We fully recognise the need for adequate protection of personal data exchanges. The UK successfully pressed for additional safeguards to be put in place, requiring that member states allow direct contact only with designated competent authorities and that information exchanged directly must be copied simultaneously to the national unit.
We are satisfied that these safeguards will ensure that national units retain their full co-ordinating role and enable them to maintain an up-to-date overview of the information flowing to and from Europol.
We also laid great store on ensuring that data protection, particularly personal data protection, measures are in place. We want to ensure that the importance of these protective measures are recognised and valued. It has been necessary to revise some of the procedures governing the storage, processing and transmission of personal data by Europol in order to allow it to operate more effectively and efficiently. But the UK Government have pressed the case throughout the negotiations that these changes should not be at the expense of adequate data protection safeguardsa point which the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, made most forcefully and was well supported in that by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern.
We place particular importance on the role of the joint supervisory body of Europol in providing independent and expert advice on the data protection implications of Europol's activities. For that reason, we pressed the presidency to obtain a further opinion from the joint supervisory body on the revised draft of the amendments.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, asked about the Government's position on the current provisions on Europol in terms of the draft EU constitution. He was asking what changes the Government believe that might bring. At the end of last year, the UK was actively engaged in the convention's working group on freedom, security and justice. The group's conclusions made clear that a new EU constitution should provide a clear, precise legal base for Europol in order to strengthen and clarify its role.
The convention's current draft articles on justice and home affairs include a specific article on Europol. This is a significant improvement when compared to the current treaty. The article goes some way towards the aims of placing Europol at the centre of EU law enforcement co-operation.
However, in our view, the draft article is at present a little open ended. The UK would prefer it to be made clearer in the article that Europol should focus on crime, which is cross border and affects two or more EU member states. We pressed for this in the most recent convention plenary discussion at the JHA and we will continue to do so.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, was assiduous as ever in budgetary matters and raised the issue of funding. The Government believe that there should be clarity as to Europol's funding. But we are not opposed to the principle of Europol being financed by the Community budget, a principle provided for in the Treaty on European Union. We are clear about avoiding a mixed model of funding, where cash would come from member states as well as from the Community budget. In our view, that would lead to duplication of lines of accountability, which would be unhelpful for the strategic management of Europol.
This has been a very valuable opportunity to discuss Europol. We are extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for her work and the work of the committee. The Government are working hard to remove the remaining obstacles to effective EU police co-operation and the proposed amendments to the Europol Convention support those efforts. We welcome the good progress they are making in improving the accountability and delivery of Europol. The Government will continue to pursue our vision for Europol to develop into a centre for excellence for international co-operation in the sharing and analysis of criminal intelligence.
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