Thursday 17 October 2002
[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]
EU Action Plan on Drugs 2000–2004
[Relevant Documents: European Union Document Nos. 10207/01, 8305/00 and 8305/2/00, and European Union Action Plan on Drugs.]
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): On a point of order, Mr. Atkinson. Before the Minister starts, could someone tell us why the significant amount of documentation on this matter was not available until yesterday morning? No criticism of the Minister or the Government is intended.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Further to that point of order, Mr. Atkinson. I am enormously indebted to the Minister's private office, because I obtained the documents from there when I heard, just before the House resumed, that I was to appear on the Committee for the official Opposition. Otherwise, no documents would have come to me at all. I am not a member of the Committee, but I understand from those in my party who are that they had similar difficulties to those mentioned by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). I associate myself with the concerns he has just expressed.
The Chairman: As I understand it, all members of the Committee received the full set of documents, but others were given incomplete sets. It is not in the power of the Chair to do anything about that. One has to live with the error.
Mr. Hawkins: On a further point of order, Mr. Atkinson. This is the third time recently that I have appeared on this Committee in my capacity as an Opposition spokesman on home affairs, and the third time that the Minister has been involved. He can confirm that there have been problems with the documentation on all three occasions. Through the Chairmen's Panel, Mr. Atkinson, you might make representations to the powers that be and tell them that there seems to be a regular problem with the documentation.
Simon Hughes indicated assent.
Mr. Hawkins: I see that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is nodding. He was present on two of those occasions. It is clearly not a question of the House having just started to sit after the recess. It is not a one-off problem.
Simon Hughes: Further to that point of order, Mr. Atkinson. The problem has occurred in this Committee on three occasions, and the Minister has had the misfortune to be on duty on each of them. I have not found such a problem on other Committees, but it has now become a regular problem. Given that the documentation for issues that have been around for a long time is usually large—today's subject is an
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example in point—it would be extremely helpful if inquiries could be made about why it was so difficult to obtain the documents for this Committee and link that to any other such complaints. Concerns have regularly been expressed about this problem. It is very difficult to prepare when other documents have to be sought, people have to be asked for advice and so on. We cannot do our job as well as we should.
Mr. Hawkins: One further thought occurs to me, Mr. Atkinson. On the first of the occasions on which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and I were involved, one of your fellow Chairmen had to adjourn the Committee, which then had to be reconvened on another day, because the documents were so voluminous. That was the Committee on the crucial constitutional issue of the European Union arrest warrant. I thought it might help you, Mr. Atkinson, and the Clerks to look back and see the shambles that occurred on that occasion.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): There have been problems. I hope that the Committee will accept that they have been of a different nature to those complained about today. None the less, I would be more than happy to support a proposal that we consider who is responsible for the distribution of documents and how it is carried out, to make absolutely certain that the Department and the Committee are properly plugged in, and that documentation goes to Committee members and to representatives of the Opposition. There could be a difficulty, so we need to investigate whether liaison is as good as it should be, or whether it could be improved. I support what has been said to that extent.
The Chairman: If hon. Members are happy for me to take the matter up with House authorities—I can do nothing about it today—and for the Minister to take it up with the Department, perhaps we can agree to proceed.
Mr. Ainsworth: Opposition Members have already talked about the voluminous papers thrown at us on such occasions. Our debate is based on the European Commission document that describes how it intends to fulfil its part of the European Union's action plan on drugs for 2000 to 2004. The concerns of the Select Committee on European Scrutiny have led to the debate focusing on the action plan as much as the Commission's communication on it. The motion for debate after questions invites us to do three things: to take note of the Commission's document, to welcome the mid-term review of the action plan, and to urge the European Council to revise the plan to ensure that it delivers.
Mr. Hawkins: Will the Minister give way?
The Chairman: Order. There are no interventions in the opening statement.
Mr. Ainsworth: Good.
The EU's approach to the drug problem has three principal instruments. The drugs strategy agreed by the Helsinki European Council in 1998 sets out the structure of the approach, the action plan on drugs for
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2000 to 2004 implements the strategy, and the ongoing evaluation of the action plan includes both mid-term and final evaluations of progress at the EU level.
Are we getting results? The mid-term evaluation will be completed in about two weeks' time. That will give us a complete picture of how fully the action plan is being implemented and what the outputs are. However, the strategy is long term, and the action plan lasts until the end of 2004. The outcomes will become clear only in 2004 when the final evaluation is published.
There are some solid indications of progress. For example, a greater spirit of co-operation is enhancing the joint law enforcement effort. We have some concerns about the action plan, which I will set out along with what the Government are doing about them. I shall focus on some of the progress that has been made. Demand-side performance indicators have been developed, so that we can measure success in tackling the demand for drugs uniformly across Europe. We hope that agreement on tough, common, minimum-maximum penalties for drug traffickers EU-wide will be achieved soon. Progress is being made on closer co-operation on drugs with candidate countries; all have agreed to adopt the action plan as their delivery model for anti-drug action.
Europol provides an important conduit to encourage joint operations and exchange intelligence. The Justice and Home Affairs Council in June agreed a framework on the use of joint investigation teams between EU law enforcement services, which will make use of those teams easier and should lead to more effective co-operation between law enforcement agencies. Europol-based operations have made seizures of more than 10 kg of heroin, 113 kg of cocaine and 50,000 Ecstasy tablets in the past financial year. Frequent operations involving United Kingdom liaison officers based in EU countries last year resulted in seizures of more than 1,500 kg of heroin, 6,000 kg of cocaine, more than 2 million Ecstasy tablets and more than £460,000 in cash. Nearly €200 million has been allocated to help countries on the main trafficking routes to Europe, and a recent agreement between the EU and Turkey will help to control precursor chemicals.
In the aftermath of 11 September, the UK is co-ordinating international anti-drugs assistance to Afghanistan, while Germany is leading on police reform and Italy on judicial reform. The Afghan authorities have destroyed 25 per cent. to 30 per cent. of the 2002 poppy crop, so the EU approach to the fight against drugs is yielding some benefits. However, the action plan may not be fulfilling its full potential. Our concerns are practical and structural.
In practical terms, we now have common measures on the demand side of the problem. We must develop supply-side indicators quickly, as much more progress is needed in that area. Member states, and the EU as a whole, must strive for still closer co-operation on law enforcement. We now have the joint investigation team framework, and we must begin to use it extensively.
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We must build on the good progress that has been made with candidate countries, although inevitably many have a long way to go. More progress is needed with regard to Turkey. A pre-accession pact on organised crime lays down a framework, and that must be built upon. The UK has shown the way forward in disrupting Afghan opium cultivation, and Germany and Italy are playing their part. Other member states that have not yet provided assistance should aid the new Afghan administration. We shall press for faster progress on all those fronts.
Our concerns about structural issues relate to the action plan. The key to making progress on practical matters is to get the structures right. The EU should focus on what it can do best: achieving operational and judicial co-operation in supply reduction and enabling the sharing of best practice and information on demand reduction and prevention. The action plan has defined a coherent, balanced package that attacks both supply and demand. It is a common template to ensure that we all work in the same direction.
The report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, published earlier this month, suggests that that is now happening. It reports national and regional differences across Europe and a common recognition across the EU of what the problems are and how best to tackle them. There is a degree of convergence on the implementation of laws and policies to deal with the drug problem, but the plan could be more effective than it is. It is very broad. It contains a full list of measures to be taken by the European Union collectively—by its institutions and its member states—but it has little in the way of targets, success measures or priorities. That threatens to blow it off course.
As the plan contains no specific targets, it does not focus on how action at European level can add value. The mid-term review is our opportunity to introduce some purpose and direction into the plan, and we are working closely with the Danish presidency to that end. We have argued that key priorities should be distilled from the plan, with a target date attached to each. If the priority is for action by the European Union or by the relevant European bodies, specific action should be set out, with success measures attached. It should be in the areas in which the EU can add real value to the national effort—joint action in supply reduction and sharing best practice in demand reduction.
If the changes for which we are arguing are made, the EU action plan should be able to demonstrate a real achievement at its conclusion, and a joint European effort will have made some difference.