Speakers in this debate:
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the European Arrest Warrant.
Mr Evans, you will be aware that back in January this year, there was a debate on the issue of Brexit and security, and I was one of a number of Members of Parliament who raised concerns about the European arrest warrant. It is fair to say that people had widely different opinions, but I gleaned that a number shared my concerns, and I went before the Backbench Business Committee to ask if we could discuss the matter. The Committee was very kind and gave its approval, on the basis that quite a few people might want to speak.
Unfortunately, since then I have been rather overtaken by events, and there are not quite as many speakers here as I initially expected—it’s a strange old thing, politics. However, quite a few Members of the House have feelings one way or another about this issue. We have known each other a long time, Mr Evans, and frankly, I could string out what I have to say for an hour or so, but there are one or two other people here who want to speak, so I will not do that. As a result, I suspect this may be a shorter debate than we originally expected.
The European arrest warrant was brought in following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, to ensure the safety of the public by enabling countries to swiftly bring criminals to justice within the EAW area. I would be the first person to acknowledge that criminals cross borders and that we need a system that enables us to bring them to justice if they flee overseas. The principle of the European arrest warrant marked a huge step forward from the days when parts of Spain were known as the Costa del Crime, with serious criminals living quite openly in the sun and avoiding justice.
I spent nine years as a special constable in London. During that time, I arrested quite a number of people, mainly for less serious, low-level offences. A high proportion of those people were foreign nationals. In general, as a proponent of law and order, I am instinctively supportive of the principle of a European arrest warrant. It is very efficient, and I wonder whether it is sometimes too efficient. Once the arrest warrant has been submitted by a country that is part of the scheme, it is almost certain that the individual named on the warrant will be extradited to the country that has issued it.
That is fine, and it is what was intended, but there is one obvious problem: in order for the European arrest warrant to be seen as fair, it is imperative that the standards of justice in all the countries signed up to it are of an equally high level. If that is not the case, it is irrefutable that we pay a price for judicial convenience. The price will be paid through an erosion of our own legal protections. That is a key point that I want to make to the Minister, and I would like him to hold that thought for a moment and try to answer this question. Does he accept that for the EAW to be fair, we must have equitable standards of justice in all the nations that are taking part? I suggest that we cannot be confident that standards of justice in all member states meet the standards we would accept in the UK.
Over the last 10 years or so—including while I served on the Home Affairs Committee, chaired at the time by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)—I have visited various countries in Europe, through the police scheme and more recently through the Council of Europe. Overall, I have no doubt that standards are very high indeed. I have been a couple of times to Germany and the Netherlands and have been out on patrol with the police officers there. I have been into their detention centres. I must admit that in some instances, I thought the standards were rather too high, considering the people involved, but that is a subject for another debate. I am not suggesting that there are low standards across Europe—far from it. However, it is a slightly mixed picture.
There was a very high-profile case that resulted in a book, which Members may have seen. It involved Andrew Symeou, who is from Wales. He was extradited to Greece and spent time in prison there, facing 20 years for a murder he did not commit, following a completely unacceptable investigation against him. I recommend the book for more details about that. He was unable to avoid extradition and spending time in a Greek prison because, as I said earlier, once the EAW is triggered against a British citizen, a British court has almost no choice but to carry it through.
About three years ago I visited Greece with the Council of Europe. Among other things, I went into a police station in Athens that was being used to house foreign nationals—essentially, people who had committed immigration offences. I entered an area that was little more than half the size of the hall we are in now, and there were about 20 people in there. They were housed in there with little chance to get out and have exercise and no natural light at all; the conditions were absolutely appalling. I was told that they were being kept in there for up to a year, for immigration offences.
I am not soft on these things. I have spoken out many times in favour and support of strong controls on immigration and ensuring that the rules are followed, but I thought those were completely unacceptable conditions in which to keep people. I said so to the police officers who were with me, and privately they said they absolutely agreed; that is why they were showing me and an official from the Council of Europe those horrendous conditions. They said, “We want you to tell people about this, because we don’t think it’s right either.” In fact, some of the people in that cell asked if I could help them to be moved into a Greek prison. When people are asking to be put into a Greek prison because the conditions they are in are so bad, something is very wrong indeed.
Those conditions would be totally unacceptable in any sort of British institution or a police station. However, as things stand, a Greek court could issue a European arrest warrant against a British citizen without any standard of evidence that would be acceptable in the UK, and that citizen could be thrown into the kind of facility that I visited. The case of Andrew Symeou proves that I am not making a hypothetical statement; that situation has already happened.
Greece is not the only country about which I and many others have concerns. In Portugal there was the case of Garry Mann, who was arrested, tried and convicted within 48 hours for allegedly taking part in a riot. He had not in fact been involved. He was released, but there was subsequently a demand, which I think came through a separate court, for him to return to Portugal and serve a two-year sentence. He was not even provided with the basic facilities that we would take for granted—for example, the interpretation facilities that are standard throughout Britain, or having a lawyer; he was given access to a lawyer five minutes before his trial began.
In Italy there was the case of Edmond Arapi, detailed on the Fair Trials website. He was convicted of murder in his absence in 2006, even though at the time of the murder, he was working in a restaurant in Staffordshire. There were numerous witnesses to say that, and the court seemed to accept that on the day he was nowhere near the country in question. The murder was supposed to have taken place in Italy, but he was working in the UK, and yet he went through years of hell and faced a strong possibility that he would be extradited to Italy to serve a 16-year sentence. Italy, of course, is one of the wealthier countries in the European Union and one where we might expect higher standards to apply.
It is, however, Bulgaria and Romania that I think deserve much greater scrutiny. On this, I am at one with the European Commission, which is scrutinising those countries and has put them on to a monitoring procedure. I have copies here of the most recent reports on Bulgaria and Romania, which are widely available online, and I will sum up some of what is in them. Bulgaria has been subject to the European Commission’s co-operation and verification mechanism, and the Commission has said that the country’s justice system is failing in a number of areas.
On judicial reform, Bulgaria’s Supreme Judicial Council, which is tasked with ensuring the independence of the judiciary, is mired in in-fighting over allegations of a lack of objectivity, political interference and undue external influence. The report says that there has been
“little progress in establishing fairness and transparency”
of the council’s decisions, and that there still needs to be a
“broader commitment of all state actors to judicial independence”.
The report goes on to say that
“criminal procedures in Bulgaria continue to present serious problems for the effective prosecution of complex cases”,
and that corruption remains a “significant challenge”, extending from the local level up to high-ranking officials. Those are the European Commission’s words, and one could read a lot into “significant challenge”.
There is a similar situation in Romania. The Commission stated that judicial reform and corruption are still a cause for concern. The process of selection of candidates for the employment of senior judges and prosecutors does not allow for a clear, open and transparent procedure, and there have been allegations of political appointees.
Romanian prison conditions are a persistent issue, with assurances that have been given to the British Government on the poor treatment of extradited prisoners being breached. I have not been into one of the prisons. Recently, there was the death in custody of an elderly Romanian newspaper owner, Dan Adamescu, who had been critical of the Government in his newspaper. He was denied medical treatment after falling ill, in a process that was described by the former President of Romania as judicial murder. That should be setting alarm bells ringing for the authorities here in the UK.
There are several ongoing cases at the moment, which I will not mention, that involve European arrest warrants being issued against people who are either British or living in Britain and facing extradition to Romania. I think people will watch those cases very carefully. We have a situation in which The Guardian, the New Statesman, the Freedom Association and the Henry Jackson Society all agree with each other that what is going on at the moment in Romania is unacceptable. When we get four bodies and publications such as those in agreement on something, it is time to take notice.
If it transpires that under the current scheme the British Government are unable to ensure that British residents who have not been found guilty of any crime cannot be guaranteed British standards of justice, I respectfully suggest to the Minister that we will have a moral imperative to use Brexit to draft a new European arrest warrant system that will continue to allow people to be extradited if we are confident that standards of justice in the countries they are being extradited to match ours, but will recognise the importance of protecting the legal rights of British citizens and ensure that such rights are upheld at all times wherever citizens face criminal charges. That is all I want to say; I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies). We are taking part in a very important debate. He may have lamented the fact that there are so few members here, but it is the quality of the debate that counts. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) and I may be regarded as usual suspects at debates such as this, but the Minister and shadow Minister have to be here.
The hon. Member for Monmouth was missed on the Home Affairs Committee when I was chairing it. He went on to chair his own Committee with great distinction. I hope he will continue to do that in the next Parliament. He has raised an important subject. I fully support the concept behind the European arrest warrant. It was right that the previous Labour Government signed up to it. It was a mechanism by which those who had been responsible for criminal offences in one country could almost immediately be transported without question to another country, so the concept and the principle are right. The hon. Member for Monmouth gave examples of the Costa del Crime, as it was sometimes referred to in Spain, where people ran away to hide from the authorities in this country.
However, what I have seen in the operation of the European arrest warrant is that the current capacity of the warrant still causes concern, because in certain cases—the hon Gentleman has talked about some; I will refer to others—it tramples on the rights of individuals. I accept the important principle of the European arrest warrant, which is an integral part of our involvement in the European Union, which, as we know, will come to an end by 19 March 2019, if not sooner. It is a part of our being involved in the justice and home affairs agenda of the European Union.
The Minister has a task when he returns. I hope he will again return to the same post after the next election, because he has done the job extremely well in the time that he has been the Minister for Policing, although we still do not have a police funding formula, but we will leave that to another debate. The measures are complicated and they need to be dealt with carefully. We need the arrest warrant to be a critical part of our negotiations with the EU.
I am surprised that hon. Member for Monmouth, who is one of Parliament’s leading Brexiteers, did not put the issue at the forefront of his speech, because, if we come out of the European Union, as we will—the people have voted for us to come out—we will also have to come out of the European arrest warrant, unless a great deal is done by the Minister or the Home Secretary to ensure we remain a part of it. That is why this debate is so important. It sets a strategy as to what we expect Ministers to do. If they come to an arrangement whereby we remain part of the EAW—I do not know how they will do that under the current arrangements—and if we do a deal that gives us a benefits of the EAW, the problems with it, as eloquently set out by the hon. Gentleman, need to be addressed.
Of course there are benefits from the European arrest warrant. It enables us to track down criminals. In London, 28% of those arrested are foreign nationals, half of whom are EU nationals. We therefore commend the success of the European arrest warrant so far. When the shadow Minister for Policing comes to speak in this debate—I have heard her speak on this subject in the Chamber, and she made one of the best speeches that I have seen her give—I am sure she will tell us of all the successes, as will the Minister. However, the problem is that it is a disproportionate measure at the moment. The United Kingdom receives disproportionately more warrants than it issues. Not only does that undermine the credibility of the system, but it is extremely costly to the taxpayer.
In 2015—the Minister might have more accurate or up-to-date figures—the United Kingdom issued 228 requests for arrest to other EU member states. In that same year, 12,613 requests were sent by EU member states to the United Kingdom. Between 2009 and 2016, 55,838 requests were sent to the United Kingdom; 10,532 arrests were made in the United Kingdom; and 7,436 surrenders were made here. However, in that period 2009 to 2016, the United Kingdom sent only 1,424 requests; 916 arrests were made on our behalf; and only 800 surrenders were made to us. That therefore points to the disproportionate nature of the way in which the European arrest warrant has operated. That is why this is such a good opportunity for the Government to be able to negotiate a better deal with the European Union. I hope this will be very much a part of what is going to happen when we look at the justice and home affairs agenda.
The hon. Member for Monmouth gave us examples of individuals and miscarriages of justice. Deborah Dark, a British woman, was pursued across Europe because of an EAW issued by France, although she had been cleared of drug charges years previously. Other cases include that of Michael Turner and Jason McGoldrick, who were extradited under a European arrest warrant in 2009. These men were ably supported by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) after being imprisoned in Hungary without trial in a process that continued for eight years.
There are other examples, but my point is that, if we have reached a situation in which the warrant is used against citizens conducting their lawful business because of mistakes in other countries, that really affects them. It is no good the other country’s apologising at the end and saying “I am sorry; we got the wrong person,” or “We should never have arrested this individual.” The fact is that that damage remains with the individuals for years to come. Edmond Arapi, an Albanian chef, was arrested while arriving at Gatwick airport in June 2009. An EAW had been issued after he was tried and convicted in his absence by a court in Genoa for carrying out a murder in Italy. He was to face a sentence of 16 years in prison. He possessed documentary evidence to prove his innocence but he was held in Wandsworth prison for two weeks before being granted bail. He was subjected to 12 court appearances before the Italian court admitted that it had sought the arrest of the wrong person, following a brief check of Mr Arapi’s fingerprints. That is a classic example of where the EAW has gone wrong.
I agree with the points the right hon. Gentleman is making. Does he agree that another problem is that British nationals who are extradited to countries in the EAW area cannot get bail because they do not habitually reside in those countries? They are denied a right that would be almost automatic in the UK.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Because of the different jurisdictions, legislation and applications of law in those countries, it is extremely difficult. The people who really benefit from the European arrest warrant are the highly paid lawyers—I declare an interest as a non-practising barrister, and I have never done an extradition case—who do well partly out of the uncertainty that people face. When they are told they are about to be arrested, they obviously they seek legal advice. They may have to pay a huge amount of money and may in the end not even face charges.
What the issue boils down to is that the automatic transmission of people is the problem—the lack of a test allowing the courts in this country to look carefully at what is happening. I know, although I have not seen his speech, that in replying the Minister will definitely and correctly claim credit for the fact that, when she was Home Secretary, the Prime Minister introduced a bar that had to be reached before people could be extradited. There is no doubt that a court test is now applied, but it is not high enough and it does not give the protection required.
The hon. Member for Monmouth does a terrific job in his official capacity as a special constable—it is one of my dreams that one day on the tube I will meet him in his full regalia. He has visited places in the EAW area and says that some of them have better detention facilities than ours. I cannot believe that, because we are the best in the world, and I am extremely jealous to think that any other country’s detention facilities are better.
That is a huge loss to British policing. I will not say it is because of the cuts, because obviously there was an ethical issue, but the hon. Gentleman will be missed, and I hope there will be an opportunity for Parliament to acknowledge his great success. We must put up a plaque or something to recognise his great achievement. He will be sorely missed by British policing and we will look carefully at the next set of crime figures to see whether they have gone up as a result of his retirement.
I have one final point—I hope the Minister will cover it because there is time—about foreign national offenders, including some in our prisons and some subject to the European arrest warrant. I cannot understand why that great invention that allows people to be transferred immediately before they have been convicted of any offence has prevented the European Union from taking back its own nationals from our prisons. The latest figures show that there are 4,217 EU offenders in the UK, costing £169 million a year to the British taxpayer. The top three countries are Poland, with 983, Ireland with 764 and Romania with 635. The EAW is a device by which nationals can be removed immediately, without any restraint, subject to the limited bar that the Prime Minister introduced when she was Home Secretary, but all those foreign national offenders are sitting in our prisons and cannot be removed to other countries, although they cost the taxpayer a huge amount of money. I hope that, at the very least, the Minister will tell us what is happening, and that it will be that there is light at the end of the tunnel with respect to offenders and those who have been arrested.
Unlike other Members present for the debate—I know that the Chair is impartial, so we will not mention how he voted—I did not see many opportunities in Brexit, but in the present instance we have a big opportunity to go into the negotiations and iron out the problems. I am for keeping the principle of the European arrest warrant, but we should iron out the difficulties that obviously exist, so that we can reassure parliamentary colleagues, many of whom have raised the matter of the EAW in the past, that, post-March 2019, we will have a good system that recognises the need to arrest criminals, but that also recognises the rights of people who have committed no offence and who, under the present process are, in all innocence, being arrested. Let us keep the benefits and reduce the burdens.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who as ever speaks incredibly knowledgeably on such topics. I welcome the debate and thank the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) for bringing it to the Chamber. The Scottish National party is fully behind the idea of a European arrest warrant and wants the UK to continue to participate in the scheme if that is at all possible. However, the hon. Gentleman has done us—all six of us—a favour by bringing the topic here for debate and highlighting important flaws in the scheme. I believe that there are key questions that the Government must address, about how they will seek to secure continuing participation in the EAW scheme or at least something similar.
The UK was of course hugely influential in shaping the EAW system. It has brought welcome benefits for law enforcement agencies and victims of crime. As the hon. Gentleman said, it does so by simplifying matters and speeding up the repatriation of suspects and criminals from other EU countries so that they can face justice. In the old days, when extradition proceeded under the 1957 European convention on extradition, it took an average of 18 months to extradite someone. Under the current system it takes 15 days in uncontested cases and 45 days if a case is contested. Today it takes three times as long to extradite from EU countries as from outside the EU. Some countries would previously have refused to extradite their nationals at all.
The hon. Gentleman is nevertheless right to remind us that, while the system often works perfectly well, it is not without flaws. There have been too many cases, some of which have been highlighted today, where the use of warrants has been frankly ridiculous. That stems from the fact that a proportionality test is not applied in some states as it is in others, such as the UK and Germany. That is behind quite a lot of the problems that the right hon. Member for Leicester East highlighted—I am talking about the imbalance between the number of requests that the UK makes and the number that it receives. The hon. Member for Monmouth highlighted differences in criminal procedures and standards across the EU. Those are also valid points.
From our point of view, the answer to the criticisms is to be part of the system but to seek reform, not to ditch it altogether and push for something else. We do not often say that any part of our criminal justice system is perfect, but of course we do not just rip it up and start again; we seek reform and improvement.
I am going to tease the hon. Gentleman a little. Let us say that Scotland became an independent country. Scotland would want to retain the European arrest warrant, because that is how it would be able to track criminals, but the Scottish Government and the Scottish people would want some kind of bar so that Scottish citizens would not automatically be transferred, especially if they wanted to appeal to the judicial system in Scotland. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is necessary to have some kind of bar before people are handed over?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Yes, in an independent Scotland, we would seek participation in the European arrest warrant system. As I have acknowledged, it is not perfect, and we would push for reform, but from within the system; I will come to the issue of a bar in a moment. I cannot see how we are any more likely to be able to overcome the problems by starting again and trying to negotiate either 27 bilateral agreements or a new agreement in the way that Norway and Iceland have done. The easiest way for us to keep the benefits and bring about improvement in the system is from within, by continuing our participation.
There is evidence that continuing to participate and to push for reform and take part in dialogue can realise some progress. For example, raising concerns with Poland has brought about some change, including the introduction there of an “interests of justice” test. Before, it was almost automatic that a European arrest warrant would be sought. There is awareness and, I think, acceptance in EU institutions that more must be done to ensure proportionate use of the warrant system, although debate continues about exactly what measures are needed to make that happen. Meanwhile, changes to the Extradition Act 2003 mean that courts in the UK can apply a proportionality test and refuse to execute a warrant if the test is not passed, although I acknowledge the criticisms about whether it is appropriately robust.
As regards ensuring standards of justice, it is absolutely fair to say that more must be done to ensure that people extradited to certain EU states are treated fairly and that there are proper standards in relation to pre-trial conditions and detention. Again, however, change is possible. We have heard already that the 2003 Act does now set down a human rights bar, although I accept that there is also a debate about whether that test is robust enough.
Again, there is awareness at European level that there have to be improvements. For example, in February 2014, the European Parliament resolved to support proposals to include a ground for refusing an arrest warrant
“where there are substantial grounds to believe that the execution of the measure would be incompatible with the executing Member State’s obligation in accordance with Article 6 of the TEU”—
the treaty on European Union—“and the Charter”, which is the charter of fundamental rights of the European Union. For its part, the European Commission has said that it would prefer to adopt legislation on minimum procedural rights standards and action on implementation of the judicial co-operation instruments such as the supervision order and European investigation order. I am not saying that more cannot be done, but it is fair to recognise that the door is open to making progress and resolving some of the issues highlighted today.
In short, we should continue to want the UK to be involved in the European arrest warrant system. We should work to find solutions from within the system rather than starting again from scratch. I say that because the alternatives would be very difficult. Negotiating 27 separate bilateral agreements would be a hugely significant task and almost certainly would not bring the same benefits, while retaining many of the same problems. A separate deal with the EU as a whole is possible, but we know from the experience of Norway and Iceland, despite their both being Schengen countries, that that can also be an incredibly long process and the resulting system could involve variations from the main system that would make it weaker than what we have as a member of the system itself.
The Government have said that they, too, see the benefits of the European arrest warrant process. However, we need to hear more about how they intend to get there. After all, the current Prime Minister warned when she was Home Secretary that Brexit likely meant no EU arrest warrant participation at all. Her fixation on excluding any involvement of the European Court of Justice seems to be the biggest barrier to continued participation in the arrest warrant system. The Government must get their priorities right and not allow that fixation to scupper the bigger goal. We need to ask these questions. What precisely are the Government seeking to secure? How will they do that? And will they let go of their fixation on the European Court of Justice if that is what is necessary to secure ongoing participation in the arrest warrant scheme?
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and to follow such distinguished and learned speakers. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) on securing the debate. It is no secret that my concerns about the way the European arrest warrant works probably come from a different starting place from his, but I was very interested in what he had to say. He raised really important issues about the human rights of UK citizens extradited to other countries. Those issues deserve to be debated and taken very seriously. I will address some of the human rights issues in my remarks. I must admit that I have no knowledge of the cases that the hon. Gentleman raised today. I look forward to learning more about them.
Labour’s starting point is that the UK’s membership of the European arrest warrant system is an invaluable and effective tool for the British courts to catch fugitives, both in the interests of our country’s security and to provide justice for those of our constituents who have had the misfortune to be the victims of crime committed by those who can catch an easyJet flight and disappear. I know that the hon. Gentleman who instigated the debate would not forget that this mechanism—this warrant—enabled Hussain Osman to be brought to justice after he fled to Italy following the failed suicide bombing in London in July 2005. The most recent Home Office data show that the UK has used the mechanism of the European arrest warrant to bring some 2,500 individuals from outside the UK to face justice since the system was introduced in 2004.
I believe that the principle of the arrest warrant is right and that we should look to iron out any difficulties that exist. As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who speaks for the Scottish National party, said, we should work from within the system—that is the better way to do it—rather than starting again from the beginning.
However, the most urgent issue for us to discuss right now is whether it is possible for us to maintain membership of this very valuable system when we leave the EU. One of Labour’s key tests for the Brexit deal is whether it protects national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime. We know that as recently as a year ago the Prime Minister herself considered it necessary to remain in the European Union to retain membership of the European arrest warrant system, because she said as much. That was one reason why she concluded that
“remaining a member of the European Union means we will be more secure from crime and terrorism.”
The Prime Minister has been facing the challenge of proving herself wrong and ensuring that this country remains as secure as it is today. Perhaps the Minister can update us on that. I hope to see him back here in the coming months, but I look for promotion for him, because I think that he has done a sterling job in this role and the one before, so I am not necessarily hoping, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) is, to see him back in this role, although he does do it particularly well. Perhaps the Minister can update us on the progress that the Prime Minister is making, in terms of ensuring that this country remains as secure as it is today, with the negotiations about our remaining in the European arrest warrant system.
As far as I can see, the Conservative party’s real problem is that even if it were theoretically possible to negotiate continued membership of the European arrest warrant system from outside the EU—I think we all agree that that would be a tall order—that would mean accepting in principle the right of the European Court of Justice to arbitrate in cases of disagreement, and the Conservatives have made it clear that they seek to be outside the purview of the ECJ in all matters. Does the Minister agree with Labour that it is in the interests of our country’s national security to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the event of disagreement over the European arrest warrant? Can he give a specific answer to whether it is possible to have associate membership of the EAW system without being subject to ECJ arbitration? Perhaps he agrees with Mike Kennedy, a former chief operating officer of the Crown Prosecution Service and a former president of Eurojust, who said recently in evidence to the Home Affairs Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the European Union in the other place:
“Any sort of alternative to the court is going to be quite difficult to negotiate and agree. I just do not know how long that would take, but I suspect it would take longer than is available.”
We know from experience that negotiating third-country access to the European arrest warrant is notoriously difficult. Norway and Iceland spent 15 years attempting that, and both countries are in Schengen and the European Economic Area, but I understand that there are no plans for us to be members of either. Moreover, their surrender agreements are weaker in two ways. First, they require the alleged offences to be the same in both countries, thus losing the flexibility that comes from member states agreeing to respect the decision of one another’s criminal justice systems. Secondly, they allow countries to refuse to surrender their own nationals, making it tricky, for example, if a national of another EU country commits an offence on UK soil and then jumps on the same easyJet flight back home.
In contrast, the strength of the European arrest warrant is not only that it allows suspects to be returned to the UK, even if the crime they are suspected of committing has a different legal basis from the law applying in the country they fled to, but it has strict timescales that are effectively enforced, so that fugitives are returned to face justice speedily. Those two factors make the European arrest warrant far more powerful than any other extradition procedure anywhere in the world.
I heard the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East and the hon. Member for Monmouth, and I am always up for better protection for human rights.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. The security of our country is so important, especially from terrorism. Does she agree that when we are all back—if we are back, subject to the electorate, after 8 June—this should be a priority? The Government’s stance on Brexit at the moment is very much to do with immigration, but security and protecting our people is the Government’s first task. Making sure this agenda is pursued is extremely important. Does my hon. Friend agree?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is a foremost priority. The major priority for any Government is to protect their citizens. Everyone in this Chamber will recognise that people will not forgive us if we negotiate away the very things that keep them safe if, God forbid, at some time in the future something happens that could have been prevented if we had remained within the European arrest warrant system and the basic constructs of the EU. They have meant that we have been able to share information and to have other partnership arrangements to keep people safe thus far. They will not forgive if we negotiate away their right to life, their freedoms and their security. They will not forgive.
If we leave the European arrest warrant system, the alternative is to fall back on previous extradition treaties, which are far more cumbersome and in some cases have become so out of date that they will require EU countries to change their own laws in respect of the UK, which is an unlikely prospect.
Labour’s question to the Minister is simple. What guarantees can the Government give that the current benefits that we get from the European arrest warrant system will be maintained when we leave? While I am on the subject, can he reassure us that we will also retain access to the many pan-EU data and information-sharing systems and exchange systems, such as for fingerprinting, airline travel, foreign convictions and intelligence data, which our police forces routinely use? I look forward to his reply, given that he has quite a lot of time to entertain us.
I said that I would respond to some of the human rights issues raised by the hon. Member for Monmouth, who spoke passionately of the concerns about treatment of UK citizens who are passed over to other jurisdictions under the European arrest warrant, and the possibility that the system might be used to extradite political opponents. If we believe that an individual’s human rights are being threatened during the process, that is absolutely a matter for concern, but it is fair to say that it is a concern for the European authorities as well.
I mention that because the hon. Gentleman spoke about the conditions in which people are being held. In a speech outlining her priorities on 25 April last year, the European Commissioner for Justice, Vera Jourová, stated that her priority was to improve pre-trial detention safeguards, because
“poor detention conditions can indeed lead to refusal of extradition under the European arrest warrant, as the European Court of Justice has recently made clear.”
It is therefore possible for prison conditions in the destination country to be taken into account when a European arrest warrant is executed. I am delighted that the European Court of Justice has played a useful role in clarifying that point.
If prison conditions in other countries are unacceptable, of course they should be improved, but I differ from the hon. Member for Monmouth, in that I see the European Union structures as a good mechanism by which to achieve some sought-for improvements. There have already been some attempts to do so—for example through the European supervision orders, which are designed to reassure courts that they can release foreign nationals on bail without fear that they will abscond—but further action absolutely needs to be taken, not least because article 7 of the European treaty contains a commitment to protect human rights. My concern is that our position outside the European Union will undoubtedly weaken our opportunities to keep pushing for such improvements.
In conclusion, we must ensure that UK citizens accused of committing crimes in other EU countries are treated decently, and we should use whatever influence we have to achieve that result, but the priority today is for the Government to provide greater reassurance about how they will ensure that our security is not compromised by the decision to leave the European Union, because our constituents will not forgive us if they do not. I look forward thoroughly to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. From the closing remarks of the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), I feel some pressure to perform at a high level. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) for the opportunity to discuss this important subject. I will come in a moment to the points that he raised, and to those made by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). To respond to the Chairman’s comments about literature at the start of this debate, I think it was Alfred Tennyson who said, “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.” The quality of this debate highlights that that has possibly never been truer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth and I have had a number of useful discussions regarding the European arrest warrant, and I know that he shares the Government’s strong commitment to practical co-operation on security, law enforcement and criminal justice. Over the next few minutes, I want to outline my response to his comments about how the European arrest warrant works. I will then move on to some of the points raised by other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for West Ham, about the future and where we are going as we leave the European Union and deliver what people voted for last year.
Members have referred to individual European arrest warrant cases. I am sure that they and the House will appreciate that I am not able to reflect on ongoing cases, although I will touch on a couple of specific points in relation to non-ongoing cases. It is also useful to note and worth putting on the record clearly that, as hon. Members will be aware, Ministers have no involvement in decision making in respect to European arrest warrants. Instead, it is left to our independent judiciary, which makes decisions following an initial decision by the National Crime Agency on whether to certify a case, as I will explain.
We believe that the European arrest warrant, with the stringent safeguards that we have implemented and the changes that we have recently made, which I will come to, remains an effective tool for co-operation with our European partners. I will outline what some of those safeguards are in light of the changes, to reassure anybody looking at what we say today. In the last Parliament, the Government reformed our domestic legislation to improve the European arrest warrant’s effectiveness. We established new provisions to prevent extradition in prosecution cases where it would be disproportionate, and to ensure that dual criminality must be established in all cases where part of the conduct took place in the UK. As such, a case will not get as far as the court for a decision unless the NCA is satisfied, first, that the alleged conduct would be a criminal offence in the UK and, secondly, that proceeding with the extradition is proportionate. That is the certification process I mentioned.
Those safeguards work, and the National Crime Agency has refused to certify incoming cases that are obviously trivial or do not meet the dual criminality requirements. Colleagues have made points about the facts and figures, so I will give an example. Between July 2014 and May 2016, the NCA refused some 53 European arrest warrant requests for being disproportionate, and 249 for failure to meet the dual criminality bar.
Members also mentioned Andrew Symeou’s case and the legitimate concern about people being detained for long periods overseas before being charged or standing trial. The new provisions ensure that individuals cannot be subject to lengthy periods of pre-trial detention when extradited under the European arrest warrant, because in general a decision has to be made by the issuing judicial authority to charge and to try the requested person before an arrest warrant is executed. That backs up the point made by the then Home Secretary, our Prime Minister, when discussing this provision in the House in 2014, when she said that the principle was that we would no longer see people being surrendered and having to wait months or years for a decision to be made on whether to charge or try them.
I do not have those figures with me, but I will get them and write to the right hon. Gentleman before Parliament dissolves. I will ensure we get those to him and the hon. Member for West Ham over the next few days, so that they have a record.
When extraditing people from the United Kingdom, it is important to ensure that the conditions in which they will be held respect their human rights. That touches on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth in his reference to prisons—I am sure we would all like to see them and it sounded interesting. The UK works closely with member states to ensure that, when concerns arise, appropriate assurances are given to ensure that we are able to protect individuals’ rights. On occasion it is correct to say that evidence suggests that member states would not meet the standards expected of them. If a judge is not satisfied that extradition is compatible with human rights, whether because of prison conditions or other reasons, they must, and indeed do, refuse the application for extradition. That is an important protection afforded to individuals who would otherwise be extradited from the UK to EU member states or other countries.
A swift and fair extradition system is an important element of our UK law enforcement. It protects the UK by ensuring that potentially dangerous criminals are extradited, including those who are wanted for murder, rape, trafficking or child sex offences. It likewise enables us to have alleged UK offenders swiftly returned to face justice here at home, which is why police forces and law enforcement authorities throughout the country value the European arrest warrant. Respected law enforcement professionals have publicly highlighted that it is a cost-efficient and quick system compared with the available alternatives, and that it is seen as a vital crime-fighting tool.
When we think about co-operation tools such as the European arrest warrant, it is important to keep in mind the threats we face. The perpetrators of crime and terrorism do not respect borders. The threat they pose is becoming increasingly transnational—the borders and lines we draw mean nothing to them. We know that international organised crime groups exploit vulnerabilities such as inadequate law enforcement and criminal justice structures. Furthermore, in a technologically interconnected world, threats such as cybercrime and online child sexual exploitation are international by definition. When I have been with police forces looking at this work, I have seen at first hand how quickly and easily people can move around the world online. We need the ability to deal with crime globally.
In the face of these common threats, it is difficult to see how it would be in anyone’s interest for our departure from the EU to result in a reduction in the effectiveness of security, law enforcement and criminal justice co-operation. In debates in the main Chamber over the last few months, the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and I have been clear that we want, and believe it is right, to deliver what the British people voted for last year. We will leave the European Union, but nobody voted to be less safe. Our job as the British Government is to continue to ensure that our public, our residents and indeed our friends and partners around Europe remain safe.
I do not profess to be an expert on the justice system of every European state. That is why it is important, as the right hon. Member for Leicester East outlined, to have a high bar in this country to ensure that cases meet the standards that we would require and, more to the point, that our judges—our independent judiciary—would look for.
That leads me neatly to my next point, which is about what happens next for law enforcement and the European arrest warrant as we leave the European Union. Leaving the EU will of course mean that our relationship with it will have to change. We are now examining the mechanisms currently in place to support practical co-operation in the fight against crime and terrorism, to help to identify potential options for working with our EU partners in the future.
In answer to the very good question from the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), is the Minister telling the House that his understanding is that a judge in an extradition warrant case will have access to a report about the standards of justice in the country where the warranted has been requested? We realise that this is a matter for judges, not for Ministers, but is he telling the House that his understanding is that judges will have such a report and will make their decision based on it?
No, that is not what I was saying at all. I was saying that I am not an expert on other systems and that it is the independent judiciary who will take a view in an individual case. They will look at the evidence in front of them and make a judgment that they feel is appropriate, looking at a range of issues including human rights and proportionality, as I said earlier. That is a matter for the independent judiciary. I will not prejudge what a judiciary that is independent by definition would do—that would be wrong.
Looking ahead, we will need to negotiate the best possible deal with Europe. I absolutely support the Prime Minister as the best person to get the right deal for our country with our partners in Europe, including thinking about the tools and mechanisms for co-operation with EU member states to help all European citizens, including our own, to remain safe. The hon. Member for West Ham asked me to outline how we are progressing with that work. I am sure that she appreciates—she has a twinkle in her eye—that she is tempting me to give a running commentary on our negotiations with the European Union, which is a temptation I will resist just for a little longer.
The hon. Lady’s intervention anticipates the point that I was just about to make. In a few of her questions, including the one she has just asked, she is asking me to prejudge the negotiations, which I will not do. We will go through some complicated and, no doubt, at times difficult negotiations in the months and years ahead.
We are not pushing for a “running commentary” on negotiations. All that we are asking for is a reassurance that if the best deal for securing safety and participation in the warrant also involves participation in or operating under the jurisdiction of the ECJ, we will not say no to such a deal purely because we are so set against being under the ECJ’s jurisdiction.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that in saying I will not prejudge what the negotiations may bring, I mean that I am not going to prejudge what the negotiations may bring. My own experience of negotiations—in Government, as an MP and before that in my life—is that it is always difficult to prejudge a negotiation. That is not only because we do not want to give away to our opposite numbers in those negotiations what we are looking for, what we want to do and what our position is, but because things develop and change. We have to be able to consider what the right situation is.
What we have been very clear about—the hon. Member for West Ham touched on this, and I think that the right hon. Member for Leicester East also mentioned it—is the priority when the House returns. I would gently point out that one of the very first debates we had, some months ago—I opened it and I think the hon. Lady responded to it—was on law enforcement, linked into us leaving the European Union, and there will no doubt be more such debates. Those debates, which include today’s debate, all feed in comments and views from hon. Members and hon. Friends, which will form part of the work we are doing as we consider what is possible and what is right for our country and our European partners, as we negotiate to make sure that we keep everybody safe.
It would be wrong to prejudge where we will get to, however, for all those reasons and not least because these negotiations are yet to start and we must ensure that we get the best deal for this country without prejudging what that may be.
The Minister is being incredibly generous in giving way again. The shadow Minister has opened up a very important area. Of course we cannot have a running commentary, especially in the middle of an election—I would imagine that there are currently no negotiations going on. The reason we are pressing the Minister is that I am sure he will be clutching his copy of Hansard, with the marvellous reference that the shadow Minister has given him—that he should be promoted—and saying to the Prime Minister, “I need a better job.” That is why we are pressing him. Is the Government’s position, “We like the principle of the European arrest warrant and therefore we will fight hard to try and keep it,” or is this part of the all-or-nothing arrangement—“If we don’t get a deal on the European arrest warrant, we’re happy to come out”? What is the Government’s overarching position? I am not asking for the detail, but is it, “We like the European arrest warrant and we want to keep it, but we will have to negotiate around it”? If he could set that out, most of us will be able to go back to our constituencies and go to bed tonight feeling very happy.
Whenever I am speaking in the Chamber, it is always my aim to ensure that colleagues are able to go to bed happy in the evening, so if it helps the right hon. Gentleman, I will repeat something I said a few minutes ago. We do believe that the European arrest warrant, with the stringent safeguards that I have outlined and that we have implemented, remains an effective tool for co-operation with our EU partners. However, we have got to go through these negotiations.
The Prime Minister is right to want to have a clear and strong mandate to have those negotiations—I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that my view is that she is the right person to handle those negotiations to get the right deal for our country—and part of that process is about ensuring that we keep our people safe and that we have a strong relationship with our partners overseas as well, in all countries. Indeed, one of the things we need to think about as we leave the European arrest warrant—it is one of the opportunities we have with all these law enforcement structures—is that crime is becoming more global. That is why our relationships with our European partners are so important and why they work, but it is also why we need to have those relationships with more countries than just our European partners.
When extraditing people from the United Kingdom, it is important that we ensure that we can show our citizens that those who should face justice do, but with their rights properly respected. As the Minister responsible for extradition, I am very clear that our position as a Government is that the European arrest warrant assists the United Kingdom in meetings its commitments to strong practical co-operation with EU partners on security, law enforcement and criminal justice, but that that is not at the expense of human rights. Our current processes, with the specific safeguards, meet both those important legitimate points.
May I add my thanks to you for how you have chaired this debate, Mr Evans? In closing, let me briefly say that there is a surprising amount of agreement in the Chamber, considering that we are on the verge of what I suspect will be a rather fiery election campaign. Representatives of various different political parties have spoken in agreement with the general principle, but with concern that human rights should be adhered to. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald)—my old friend, if I may put it that way—the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and the Minister. We have an opportunity to make some changes—if the right hon. Member for Leicester East is right, we have an obligation and will have no choice.
I absolutely support the principle that anyone who has committed a crime—whether they are a UK national who has committed a crime abroad or a foreign national who has committed a crime in the UK—has to face justice. I absolutely accept that we live in an age where terrorism is sadly an ever-present threat, and we need to be able to protect ourselves. I also think we have a duty to balance the protections we all need with protections for human rights. I am not absolutely convinced that we have the balance right at the moment.
I would press the Minister on this: I noticed that he was unable to say clearly whether he believed that the standards of justice in all the countries that are part of the European arrest warrant match the standards that apply in the UK. He may not be able to say what he thinks about that, but the European Commission has said that in two instances—Bulgaria and Romania—it is not satisfied with the standards of justice that apply there. Various MPs have given different examples and different cases, some involving those countries and some not, which back up that contention.
All I would say in closing is that it is important that we get the balance right. I very much hope that the Minister will be back. I hope he continues in some capacity to use his expertise of Home Office matters to develop a new partnership with the European Union that will protect the safety and the human rights of UK residents.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the European Arrest Warrant.