Draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (The Convention on Mutual Assistance and Co-operation between Customs Administrations (Naples II)) Order 2001

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5.35 pm

Mr. Clappison: I do not intend to delay the Committee much longer, but I should like clarification from the Minister on one matter. As she made clear, this has been a fairly consensual debate—at least concerning the objectives of Members on both sides of the Committee. I am grateful for the Minister's acknowledgement that the problem is growing. As the Government's document ``Tackling Tobacco Smuggling'' makes clear, there has been a step change in the past few years in the extent of the smuggling of tobacco, in particular, and of other goods.

The Minister quoted a figure for the proportion of cigarettes that have been smuggled. The latest figure for this year is 21 per cent., which is set to rise a little before, I hope, falling in future years. We regard it part of our duty as the Opposition to scrutinise all measures such as the convention that are designed to bring about that fall. As I said in my opening speech, it is sad that the decline in tobacco consumption, which has been occurring for a number of years, has apparently been levelling off in the past few years. I cannot draw a connection—it may be difficult to do so—but there may be one between that levelling off and the cheaper tobacco that is available on the streets, the way in which it is sold and its relative availability to children and young people. That is a clear evil, as are the other forms of smuggling mentioned by the Minister.

I have dealt particularly with the situation in Northern Ireland—as it has a land border with the Republic of Ireland, and the measures are therefore especially relevant—and with tobacco smuggling. In not mentioning other evils or in mentioning them generally, I hope that I did not underplay them. I certainly accept that pornography, for example, is another important issue. Customs and Excise is in the front line and often brings people to book as a result of pornographic materials intercepted as prohibited items crossing borders. They are all important issues, and we must give Customs and Excise as much support as we can.

I shall deal specifically with the Minister's points about hot pursuit and cross-border surveillance. I hope that I made it clear that I accept that there are wider considerations in relation to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. For that reason, I did not press the Minister very hard on the question of hot pursuit across borders. In addition, if article 20 were fully accepted, it would enable customs officers from one country to cross into another, carrying firearms—unless the country had opted out. It would also give them the power to detain people on the other side of the border, in the territory of the other member state, until the authorities of that member state arrived. To detain someone and deprive him of his liberty for a time is an important step and consideration.

In all fairness, such a power needs to be distinguished from that under article 21 of title IV, which relates to cross-border surveillance. I will ask the Minister only one or two more questions, not as criticism, but merely to establish the situation regarding cross-border surveillance. It is one of the important techniques under title IV and is particularly important, together with controlled delivery, as a way of getting at the people behind the trade, as opposed to those who are apprehended carrying the goods at the border. I think that the Minister accepted that. It enables us to see who is doing what, where the goods end up and who really benefits from and organises the trade. As we have said, they are often organised criminals.

Under Naples I, customs officers from one member state do not have the right to cross a border to engage in cross-border surveillance in the territory of another member state, although they can request the authorities of the other member state to keep a special watch on individuals. In some prescribed circumstances, they can accompany the authorities of the other member state, but they cannot continue their own surveillance.

The Government's explanatory note I apologise for quoting from it, but do so to establish the importance of the matter at stake—which was submitted to the House of Lords, states:

    Likewise, because of our geographical separation the Government does not see any operational necessity to provide for cross-border surveillance without prior approval. It intends that the UK should opt to be bound only by that part of Article 21 which allows cross-border surveillance with the prior approval of the Member State in whose territory the surveillance will take place. This means that the UK will retain the right to refuse requests for surveillance; will be able to set strict conditions before allowing surveillance within our territory; and HM Customs and Excise will always be in a position to supervise any surveillance activity by law enforcers from other Member States in this country.

I quoted at length from the document because I wanted to establish from which part of article 21 the Government are opting out. Will it still be possible when the convention is adopted for Customs and Excise authorities from another member state—the Republic of Ireland, for example—to carry out cross-border surveillance in the north with ``prior approval''? The Government propose to opt out of the provisions relating to the carrying of firearms; indeed, it is expressly contemplated. The Minister and the explanatory notes seem to indicate that the Government are not prepared to allow cross-border surveillance without prior approval. Is that their intention? If so, will the Minister say more about the mechanism by which such approval will be given, the procedures that will apply and how they will be established?

The convention, which enhances international co-operation, is important. Mention of Europe brings to mind certain considerations, but what is proposed is an important form of co-operation. As far as Ireland is concerned, we often talk about cross-border co-operation as part of the many agreements relating to the border. Although wider considerations are at stake, people on both sides of the border will expect as much co-operation on this issue as possible, especially given the special circumstances in that part of the world.

5.43 pm

Dawn Primarolo: The Government no longer intend to opt out of any part of article 21. The position has changed; the policy was changed due to the Schengen negotiations and we will allow cross-border surveillance. The hon. Gentleman asked me to be specific about the circumstances, which are as follows: cross-border surveillance will be permitted in the United Kingdom only under tightly supervised conditions. Foreign officers will be able to take part in an accompanying role only; they will not have any powers to incept or carry out enforcement activities in the UK. They must comply with UK law at all times. They will never be allowed to carry their service weapons in the UK under any circumstances.

I repeat that the Republic of Ireland also intends to opt out of the hot pursuit articles. No hot pursuit will be allowed across the land border. Surveillance will be supervised under the tight conditions that I have described.

Mr. Clappison: When the Minister says that there will be supervision, does it mean that a customs officer from this country will accompany any officer from the Republic of Ireland—with or without higher approval?

Dawn Primarolo: The answer is yes: their officers will be accompanied by ours.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (the Convention on Mutual Assistance and Co-operation Between Customs Administrations (Naples II)) Order 2001.

Committee rose at fifteen minutes to Six o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Cummings, Mr. John (Chairman)
Allen, Mr.
Beard, Mr.
Clappison, Mr.
Davey, Mr. Edward
Davis, Mr. Terry
Luff, Mr.
Mudie, Mr.
Pickthall, Mr.
Pond, Mr.
Primarolo, Dawn
Smith, Miss Geraldine
Wray, Mr.

 
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Prepared 17 January 2001