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25 Mar 2003 : Column 243—continued

5.36 pm

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Now that we have reached the final stage of scrutiny of the Bill in this House, it is appropriate that we should reflect on some of the key points that have emerged from our deliberations. The first point that I want to put on record is that nobody has sought to defend the United Kingdom's present extradition system. That has not been a point of contention between us. It simply cannot be right that fugitives can frustrate the system by bringing appeal after appeal, raising the same point each time, with the result that their cases can take years to resolve. The case for reform is overwhelming.

The second point of note is that the proposals in part 2, which deal with extradition outside the European Union and away from the European arrest warrant, have been broadly welcomed. I am grateful to the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats for their support for that part of the Bill. Similarly, the provisions that spell out for the first time how we should make outgoing extradition requests, and those that deal with the powers available to the police in extradition cases, have proved largely uncontentious. We have hardly had to deal with them at all during the passage of the Bill. It is fair to say, therefore, that the bulk of our debate has centred on part 1, and it is on that that we ought to concentrate once more, as we try to make a case for the part 1 proposals and the European arrest warrant.

Given that the status quo is untenable in an age in which travel around Europe is so easy and cheap, I would ask the Opposition to tell the House how they would address the issue of extradition in those circumstances. Are they in favour of the full-scale harmonisation of our criminal justice systems? No, they are not—as they have confirmed and as we all recognise. They are clearly equally not in favour of mutual recognition. Let us be quite clear that, from my point of

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view, those are the only two realistic options. The Government are quite clear that mutual recognition is the way forward. In Committee, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) repeatedly described part 1 as "draconian". No matter how many times the hon. Gentleman repeats that claim, it will not be true.

I shall set out the safeguards in part 1. Anyone who is subject to a European arrest warrant will be arrested by a British law enforcement officer. That was always the case and I hope that the Opposition have the good grace to accept that it is now in no doubt, as we have made it explicit in the Bill. They can no longer make spurious claims that foreign police officers could make such arrests.

Once a person has been arrested, he must be brought before a UK judge as soon as possible. At the initial hearing, the judge will check that the person is indeed the subject of the extradition warrant and decide whether to grant bail. For the first time in extradition cases, there will be a presumption in favour of bail.

The main extradition hearing, at which the judge will consider whether extradition should take place, will be held soon after the initial hearing. Extradition is barred if the double jeopardy rule applies and if there are no specialty arrangements in the requesting state, or if the extradition request has been made for the purpose of punishing a fugitive on the grounds of race, nationality, religion or political opinion. No country that retains the death penalty will be accepted under our part 1 arrangements.

Lady Hermon : I apologise to the Minister and to the House for not being present at the beginning of the debate.

The Minister referred to the double jeopardy rule. Will he kindly elaborate on what the Government now mean by double jeopardy? As he knows, the Criminal Justice Bill, which was in Committee at the same time as this Bill, makes huge changes to the double jeopardy rule. What does that rule mean in the context of the Extradition Bill? Does it mean that new and compelling evidence will be taken into account, or not?

Mr. Ainsworth: The measures that apply to extradition will be those that apply in our justice system. If changes are made to the double jeopardy rule they will be reflected in our extradition arrangements. At present, the double jeopardy rule applies. If Parliament decides to amend it, that will have ramifications for extradition.

Extradition cannot take place if it would be unjust or oppressive by virtue of a fugitive's mental or physical condition. Most important, it cannot take place when it would breach a fugitive's rights under the European convention on human rights. The Bill provides an impressive package of measures and it seems to me that only a perverse definition of "draconian" could apply to them.

Ultimately, the difference between the Government and the Opposition comes down to dual criminality. That matter has been at the base of all, or almost all, our discussions. I make no apology for the fact that the Bill removes the dual criminality requirement in certain limited circumstances where a request has come from an EU country.

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No one will be extradited for conduct that occurs in the UK that is not contrary to our law. I reiterate that, because people constantly allege that that is not true: nobody can be extradited for conduct that occurs in this country that is not contrary to British law. What is the great constitutional principle that holds that we should not extradite a person who breaks the law of another EU country just because we happen not to have an exact equivalent offence in UK law? We are talking about EU countries which are mature democracies and ECHR signatories.

If a person committed an offence in another EU country and was arrested there, we should not object to them being put on trial. Indeed, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) confirmed that in the Standing Committee on 9 January 2003, at column 36. So why should the fact that such people manage to cross a border before being apprehended allow them to evade justice? Why should the UK be a sanctuary for those who have committed crimes in another EU member states? Of course, that cuts both ways.

As the then Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen said on Second Reading, not all our EU partners recognise the same serious offences as those on the UK statute book. If people come to this country and commit one of those offences, we would expect to be able to put them on trial. We would certainly not accept the excuse that the conduct happened not to be an offence in their home country. Equally important, we would want to be able to extradite such people to stand trial if they had managed to get away and leave our country. The partial abolition of the dual criminality requirement will allow us to do exactly that.

As long as the Opposition remain wedded to the idea that there must be absolute dual criminality in the EU, it follows that they are effectively suggesting that people should be able to come here and commit offences such as incitement to racial hatred, or indulge in fraudulent trading with complete impunity. [Interruption.] Well, so long as such people can cross the frontier before our police apprehend them, that is exactly what Conservatives Members are saying. I do not know what their justification is, but I suppose they think that it is a price worth paying that people should be allowed to commit those offences with impunity. That has almost come out on a few occasions. Those are the consequences of the line that they are taking, and it is no good their trying to deny it. That is exactly what would happen.

Finally, I wish to say why the Government have decided to remove the dual criminality requirement for all list offences that attract a one-year penalty in the requesting state, rather than just for those that attract a three-year penalty—the minimum required under the framework decision.

The basic threshold for extradition has been set at 12 months imprisonment for more than 100 years, and no one has seriously suggested that we should change that. However, if it is accepted that 12 months is the threshold for extradition, it would not be sensible to set a different threshold for the application of the dual criminality rule. That would be a recipe for confusion. Moreover, if the Conservative party takes the view that dual criminality is an important and necessary safeguard to prevent injustice when dealing with requests from other EU

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countries, that safeguard should apply not only to those offences that attract penalties of one to three years, but to more serious offences where the person concerned could face a much longer prison sentence. It would be illogical to impose a dual criminality requirement at the lower end of the offence scale, but not at the upper end.

The plain fact is that the European arrest warrant is a worthwhile measure. It will enhance co-operation between European states. It offers very real advantages to the United Kingdom and law-abiding UK citizens. We will be able to bring back more speedily those accused of serious crimes in the UK. No longer will some of our European partners be able to avoid extraditing their own nationals. It is the only mechanism available to encourage countries such as Austria to be prepared to extradite their own nationals. They are not prepared to do so currently, which can detract from our ability to offer justice to the victims of crime in our country.

No longer will those countries be able to refuse to extradite for fiscal offences. No longer will they be able to refuse to extradite where their statutes of limitation have expired. All of those real weaknesses in the current extradition arrangements have caused us real difficulties. Criminals have not been slow to exploit them. The introduction of the European arrest warrant will sweep away those loopholes.

The Bill that will leave the House is better than the one that entered it: the House agreed earlier to a number of changes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South and the other members of the Home Affairs Committee for the considerable effort that they have put into scrutinising the Bill. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), other Conservative Members who served on the Standing Committee, the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) and my hon. Friends who served on it.

This is an important Bill. It will ensure the swift and efficient return of those who are subject to extradition while safeguarding the rights of all such people. It will mean that our extradition arrangements will move from the 19th century framework, which is totally unacceptable and which no one defends, into the 21st century where they belong. It gives me great pleasure to commend the Bill to the House.

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