As part of my role as Shadow Police Minister, I took part in a recent debate on the European Arrest Warrant
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 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.
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.