Execution of Orders Freezing Assets or Evidence

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Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is right. This only applies, as he will see, to cases not currently in the list in article 3.2. Matters outside that list are an issue for us to deal with. In fact, very few cases for freezing assets abroad are successfully applied for, and despite the fact that there would be a desire on our part to co-operate over non-list issues, the power will rarely be used in cases that fall outside the list.

Mr. Walter: May I draw the Minister a little further on an ambiguity in the document concerning judicial review? It seems to me that it is open to member states to determine what that concept means. There seems to be a possibility that, say, a police authority in Denmark or Finland being designated as competent to issue freezing orders, whereas that would not be the case in the United Kingdom or several other member states. Can the Minister throw some light on that?

Mr. Ainsworth: As the documentation says, the body would have to be a judicial authority—but there are states, such as Denmark, in which people who have judicial authority have policing responsibilities as well. As I have already tried to say, the principle of mutual recognition means that we accept that, and that decisions made in those states are taken correctly and are ECHR-compliant. That is what we buy into when we accept the principle of mutual recognition. Our own system has procurators fiscal in Scotland and a different system in England and Wales, so even our own two jurisdictions are not identical in terms of the powers that judicial authorities have.

Jane Griffiths: If an individual is an offender in more than one state other than the state in which he or she lives—in the case of internet crime, for example—which is the issuing state?

Mr. Ainsworth: We are dealing with evidence and property here, not offenders—although I know that there is another debate going on about the European arrest warrant, extradition arrangements and so on.

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The issuing state is the one that feels that, for the purposes of its judicial decision making, it requires evidence to be frozen and protected, so as to be able to ask for its return. The decision on whether it is eventually returned will be the subject of an application and mutual legal assistance, and will be dealt with as it always has been. The same will apply to assets. The issuing state will be the state that feels that there is a case for confiscation of assets held abroad, with regard to which it wants to bring a case in its own jurisdiction. The executing state is the member state within which those assets are located.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Minister says, in a very relaxed way, that of course that is what mutual recognition of judicial authorities means, and that is what we are buying into. Does he feel that British citizens who have been following with great interest the appalling injustice committed by a Greek court against the British planespotters would buy into the concept of mutual recognition in quite the same way?

Mr. Ainsworth: The Minister is never relaxed; the hon. Gentleman ought to be clear about that. I did not say what I said in a relaxed way, but in a practical way. To govern is to choose, as somebody fairly famous in my party once said. We have free movement of capital and labour within the European Union, and a framework of the European convention on human rights, with which all the countries are obliged to comply. We either accept that in the modern world, with the amount of free movement of people and assets that is possible, we cannot have effective jurisdiction, or we do something about it—and if we are to do something about it, I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept my contention that mutual recognition is preferable to any other methodology that I can think of. None the less, I would be happy to listen to any alternatives that he may propose.

The Chairman: If there are no further questions, I now call the Minister to move the motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed

    That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 6980/02, draft Framework Decision on the execution in the European Union of orders freezing property or evidence; shares the Government's view that the general thrust of the measure will improve the speed and effectiveness with which assets and evidence can be secured in cases of serious crime, acknowledges the amendments which have been included, largely at the Government's instigation to ensure that personal rights and freedoms are protected as far as is possible; and supports the Government's position on this measure.—[Mr. Bob Ainsworth.]

2.50 pm

Mr. Hawkins: The official Opposition do not agree with the motion, which says that the Committee shares the Government's view and supports their position. If it were simply the official Opposition who were saying that they did not support the Government, that would be no great surprise—but it is more than that.

The Minister has not mentioned the views of the European Scrutiny Committee, whose 23rd report outlines some serious concerns. Like all parliamentary Committees, its membership is dominated by the

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Government, yet its conclusions, on page 11 of that report, include the words:

    ''We thank the Minister''—

that is, the Minister who is with us today—

    ''for his letters and Explanatory Memorandum. Whilst these are helpful in explaining the Government's attitude to this proposal, they give us cause for serious concern.''

At least two of those concerns have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) in his questions to the Minister, but they were not appropriately answered.

I recognise that in the case of some very serious crimes there has always been a public interest in preventing the perpetrators of those crimes from salting away the proceeds of those crimes or disposing of evidence. Indeed, I may be the only member of the Committee who has been involved in such applications, which are known in the English courts as Anton Piller orders or Mareva injunctions, and in trying to ensure that assets were frozen and preserved to await the outcome of a case, so I understand the importance of the issues.

The same issues as I have raised from the Opposition Bench in a recent, not dissimilar, debate about the European arrest warrant, arise in connection with what we are discussing today. The concerns raised by the European Scrutiny Committee echo several of the concerns that we, and some Government Members, expressed in that recent debate—such as the vague nature of some of the crimes that some overseas jurisdiction may decide should lead to one of those orders being granted. No British court would have the power to do anything about that.

The Minister said that under article 11 of the document before us, anyone who may be on the receiving end of one of the new orders may be granted legal remedies, but without suspensive effect. In other words, the order will apply anyway, without anyone having the option to challenge it. It will simply take effect.

At the forefront of all our minds is the significant case of the British planespotters who have been outrageously arrested, charged and convicted. Most outrageously of all, they have been sentenced to imprisonment by a Greek court that simply had no understanding of a perhaps slightly eccentric but nevertheless entirely lawful activity. Nobody who has watched the progress of the case of the planespotters at Kalamata can have comfortable feelings about allowing the gradual process of accretion, of giving more and more powers to overseas jurisdictions to make orders binding on British citizens without anyone having the opportunity to challenge them.

As the Government-dominated European Scrutiny Committee has said, we have serious concerns.

Dr. Palmer: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins: Of course, but first I want to stress the Scrutiny Committee's conclusion about the European arrest warrant. Paragraph 1.27 of its conclusions, on page 12 of the 23rd report, says:

    ''we do not consider that the relationship of this proposal with the seizure powers under Article 23a of the European Arrest Warrant is

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    adequately explained. The provision in the European Arrest Warrant is not confined to evidence but applies also to property acquired as a result of an offence, so its subject matter is indistinguishable from the subject matter of a freezing order. Moreover, we do not find in Article 23a of the European Arrest Warrant, in the version deposited, any limitation to property which is physically associated with the requested person. The two provisions appear to us to have the same material scope, but to have different rules for such matters as appeals. This is notably the case for third parties, who have no rights of appeal under article 23a of the European Arrest Warrant where their property or rights may be affected. It may be that the problem has been caused by the last-minute insertion of Article 23a into the European Arrest Warrant, but we consider that the confusion which now arises should be resolved by the present proposal before it is formally adopted.''

When a Government-dominated Scrutiny Committee expresses serious concern, a proposal lists ''crimes'' as vaguely described as ''xenophobia'', and we have recent evidence of the fact that foreign courts may act in a way that is wholly incompatible with all the traditions of British justice, we are bound to have huge concerns, and we ought to reject the idea out of hand.

Dr. Palmer: The hon. Gentleman has several times referred to the European Scrutiny Committee as ''Government-dominated'', but those of us who serve on Select Committees try to resist the idea that we are dominated by anyone, be that the Government or anyone else. Does he not accept that the report from which he has quoted is further evidence that Select Committees think for themselves? Secondly, in his questions to the Minister he appeared to oppose the principle of mutual recognition. Is he committing the Conservative party to renouncing that principle if it is returned to power?

 
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