HL Deb 27 January 1993 vol 541 cc1349-60

8.31 p.m.

Lord Bethell rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the activities of Europol receive proper democratic scrutiny.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I congratulate the Government and the other 11 governments of the European Community on their readiness to set up the Europol organisation. I believe that it will be a thoroughly popular measure in the United Kingdom which will contribute considerably to the fight against crime. In the area that I represent in the European Parliament, I have found great enthusiasm for the idea of a European police force and of co-operation across boundaries in the solution of crime and in the clearing up of offences especially in areas such as terrorism and drugs.

Some weeks ago I was able to visit just outside Strasbourg, the project team of Europol. A few dozen brave souls are putting together a European or international police force in embryo in what can only be described as a Portakabin with very few resources and without even a decision on where the site of Europol will be.

It has been said that Europol is a small child, a small beginning to what could be a substantial enterprise. At this stage it involves only the idea of pooling information about drugs-related offences. At present it does not include terrorism or other serious crime, but it involves principles of the utmost importance. I welcome the chance to discuss them with your Lordships today.

Provided that the Maastricht Agreement is ratified, and that Europol comes formally into existence, there will be a variation in the sovereign nature of the police force and of the constable. Once the Maastricht Agreement and the convention which will have to follow as soon as possible are in place, I presume that there will be the concept of a policeman working for many countries rather than only the country from which he derives his authority as a constable. I shall be grateful for the Minister's confirmation that I am right. It will mean a policeman working for an alliance of police against the criminal. It will involve certain increases in the power of the police, and in the power of the computer. In some European Community countries that is an extremely controversial matter. I refer not so much to the United Kingdom but to the Benelux countries and Germany, where the subject of data protection is extremely sensitive. However, if we are to go ahead with the project, we have to contemplate the idea of a British citizen possibly being arrested by Belgian police in Belgium on the basis of information fed into a central Europol computer by the Spanish police. If anyone finds that in some way objectionable, then he is an opponent of the Europol project. I find it a logical continuation of the fight against serious crime.

We should therefore consider the Europol idea as being an international police force in embryo and perhaps the catalyst for something greater in future years. It may well be that if Europol succeeds, it will spread its wings and take off into other areas of international crime, such as fraud, terrorism, serious theft, movement of goods illegally across frontiers, and so on.

When I was at the Europol project team headquarters, I was told by the team, which included a number of British policemen, that Europol is besieged by the media, parliamentarians and Ministers from all over the Continent. They were surprised that so little interest had been shown in Europol by the media and parliamentarians of the United Kingdom. I hope that more interest will be shown in the future. I am glad that the British police are particularly interested because it could mean a change in the status of some of them if the project becomes a reality. It could be an opportunity for them to work in a different way against the criminal. I declare an interest. I am the European adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales.

The issue is part of what is called the home affairs pillar of the Maastricht Agreement. At present there is no provision for democratic control over what the home affairs Ministers do or will do. It has been said in various letters by Home Secretaries and Foreign Secretaries that the European Parliament, your Lordships' House and another place will be informed of what is done at home affairs level and specifically on Europol. With the greatest respect, I do not believe that that is enough. It is not enough for this House, another place or the European Parliament simply to be informed of the decisions on Europol after the event.

I refer to Article K.6 of the Maastricht Agreement which states: The Presidency shall consult the European Parliament on the principal aspects of activities in the areas referred to in this Title and shall ensure that the views of the European Parliament are duly taken into consideration".

We no longer hold the presidency of the European Community; but as the previous president we are part of the troika of the presidency. I therefore hope that my noble friend will be able to confirm to me that it is the presidency's intention to consult the European Parliament fully in all respects before reaching decisions upon it, including one on Europol. I also hope that he will be able to confirm to me that the presidency and the British Government have no objection to occasional informal contacts between parliamentarians, whether European or national, and officials or police officers working from Europol. That will be a possibility if the Europol team remains in Strasbourg because of its proximity to the established seat of the European Parliament.

However, I should point out that there is a fair difference of view on the whole question of Europol being outside the European treaties. My noble friend may not yet have had the opportunity of taking on board the European Parliament's report on the matter which was passed unanimously by the assembly on 22nd January—last Friday. The report was by my Belgian colleague, Mr. Van Outrive, and it puts forward the idea that questions of home affairs should only be dealt with by member states within the context of the EC institutions. It invites the European Commission to take action to bring that about immediately under Article 235.

The report talks about an eventual transfer or improvement in the possibilities for operational duties on the part of Europol's employees. It deals with the need to control the transfer of data from one country to another and from one country to the central pool where the information will be held. It talks of the need to protect the individual and possibly of some kind of ombudsman who could intervene if an individual had reason to believe that there was inaccurate information about him on the central computer.

The report mentions the site of Europol. On that subject more than any other, I think it would be appropriate to consult the European Parliament in accordance with paragraph K.6 of the Maastricht Treaty. It mentions interestingly other areas to which Europol's activities might be extended. I wish to bring up one area in this connection which would be very appropriate—subsidy fraud. The matter has been frequently debated in your Lordships' House, and we have been frustrated from time to time by the large frauds committed by various organisations or even governments, on the basis of European Community subsidies. It may have been cattle moved across the Irish border or imaginary tobacco farms in Greece.

Perhaps my noble friend would give his view on whether it would be a good idea if that kind of offence could be put under the authority of Europol. We have been told in the past that the Commission does not have the resources to investigate subsidy frauds. Very well, let the resources be created under the Europol umbrella.

I shall be grateful if my noble friend will answer some of those points. Can he confirm that it is the Government's intention to keep your Lordships and Members of another place fully informed about developments? I do not believe that it is sufficient simply from time to time to provide a Written Answer to a planted Question on the subject. There should be the opportunity for debate both in the Home Affairs Committee and on the floor of another place and in your Lordships' House.

Will the noble Earl also indicate how he sees the timing for bringing about a convention on Europol, without which the system will not be able to operate properly? That is of course assuming that the Maastricht agreement is ratified. Perhaps he would care to comment on the—I agree highly unlikely—possibility that the Maastricht agreement should not be ratified. Would he care to speculate that in that event the Government would wish to go ahead with Article K with the home affairs pillar as a treaty between the 12 member states?

I hope that the noble Earl will have something to say about the conflict which will inevitably arise over the need to protect the individual against erroneous material appearing on a computer entry. As I mentioned, that seems to be a matter of the deepest worry in certain Continental countries; but it has not yet caught the deep concern of public opinion here. Nevertheless, I predict that it will arise once people realise what is happening and what I believe needs to happen if we are to maximise our efforts in the fight against crime.

Finally, for many decades it has seemed quite normal for British soldiers and British officers of our Armed Forces to work and fight in close alliance with soldiers from allied countries. It has seemed quite normal for British officers and British soldiers to take orders from foreign officers. Provided that the aim is the same and that the alliance is clearly defined, no one seems to mind. However, up to now that has never happened with police work, in the fight against terrorism, organised crime, drugs, organised murder and assassinations and where criminals cross frontiers—often with impunity—and where co-operation by the police is needed in order to oppose co-operation between the criminals.

I am grateful for the chance to put those questions to my noble friend, and I look forward with keen anticipation to his reply.

8.47 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, I speak personally on this matter but I am sure that the whole House is most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, for giving us the opportunity to discuss the question of European policing. My only regret is that his experience and knowledge of police matters over so many years have not stimulated more of your Lordships to contribute to the debate.

European policing is as complex as it is important and its concerns range from the Lockerbie disaster to the smuggling of works of art across national boundaries. Police and Customs officers must now, since the beginning of this year, be able to recognise a Picasso when they see it in a suitcase. They must know a Braque from a brick better than the Tate Gallery; yet the public throughout Europe is sublimely unaware of the huge new burdens that their police forces must now assume. I suspect that the average British citizen, if asked, "What is Europol?", would probably tell us that Europol is some kind of French parrot!

The difficulty of ensuring democratic scrutiny is not eased by the historical accident that international police co-operation has been started more than once. Indeed, there are currently no fewer than four major organisations in competition trying to secure business. They are TREVI, Interpol, Schengen and Europol.

The start of the century saw the beginnings of international police co-operation in the inception in 1914 of what is now called Interpol. That has grown into a large international organisation with 169 member countries and splendid new headquarters in Lyons in France. Eighty seven per cent. of the workload of Interpol is initiated within Europe and its working languages are now limited for the sake of simplicity to the four languages: English, French, Spanish and Arabic.

Despite its long and honourable history, Interpol has clearly not met every recent perceived need. By the mid-1970s it seems that new solutions had to be proposed for new problems. So, in December 1975, in response initially to increasing Irish terrorism on the UK mainland, the Council of Ministers set up an organisation subsequently named TREVI to develop European police co-operation. TREVI developed by 1985 into four groups, each with specific responsibilities. TREVI 1 dealt with terrorism; TREVI 2 with communication, police training, public order and forensic science; TREVI 3 with international crime and drug trafficking; and TREVI 4 with the exchange of information relating to the fire service.

In the field of international police information systems the TREVI group has sponsored the EIS or European information system, which is very similar in design and intent to the Schengen information system.

The particular characteristic of the TREVI group seems to have been achieved by its consideration of individual subject areas rather than broad policy. Yet it should be noted that the TREVI groups meet in camera, they publish no minutes of meetings, they have no permanent secretariat or budget. TREVI itself has no permanent headquarters and it meets only twice a year. Noble Lords may feel that democratic accountability is not at the very front of its agenda.

In 1984, the French and German Governments decided to force the pace of Europe, remove internal border controls between the two countries and rely upon each other's external checks. That agreement—known as the Saarbrucken Accord—was extended in 1985 at the town of Schengen to include the Benelux countries. While it was primarily concerned with the early removal of internal borders, it included a large section on police co-operation, constructing quite complex rules on cross-border chases and the like.

The agreement also arranged for the Schengen information system to be set up to enhance the exchange of information between member countries. The SIS (Schengen information system), based in Strasbourg, has not yet become fully operational because, among other factors, of what it calls "technical problems", which I understand include particularly difficulties in co-ordinating data protection legislation—one of the principal problems behind the whole of European policing.

While the idea of a European police force has been discussed over the past 20 years or so, the notion was not officially launched until it was launched by Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, in 1990. The TREVI group of Ministers was given the task of developing concrete proposals for discussion at the Maastricht Summit in 1991. At Maastricht the scheme was given official approval, and TREVI was told to develop Europol "as soon as practicable". Some people hope that Europol will develop into a European FBI. It is possible that the newly released headquarters of Holland's CRI in the Hague may be used to house the organisation. But there seems to be a certain amount of difficulty in deciding between the various places in which it could have its headquarters.

I hope your Lordships will pardon this brief history lecture—it is what I am made and programmed to do—but it seemed to me important to establish that Europol is not a simple and single concept and there are tensions, rivalries and vested interests which must be kept in mind in any consideration of democratic scrutiny of its as yet embryonic activities.

The problems are created by the fact that Europol itself was never really created; it evolved. It evolved from different sources; and it evolved leaving anomalous residues still active behind it. At the moment Europol is only present in a skeleton form, partly because of differences between EC member states on the whole business of policing policy.

The skeleton of the force is operating, as we have heard, in a suburb of Strasbourg. Europol's first aim is to co-operate on drug traffickers and it may be extended, we are told, to attack the Mafia. Informal co-operation has already grown up among Europe's police forces through the 1990 Schengen group, though the Schengen group is unaccountable either to the sovereign parliaments, I understand, or to the EC itself. Europol's provisional headquarters is at Strasbourg because the Schengen information centre is already there, and it is inconvenient. That is pragmatism in exercises, and it makes the establishment of checks and balances and democratic accountability very difficult indeed.

Let us be quite clear about one thing. No one would want to argue against the facilitation of police work to catch criminals who exploit European borders. But Europol, as it stands at the moment, raises certain civil liberty questions and problems of democratic accountability. That was demonstrated most recently when the Schengen group met behind closed doors and made European-wide asylum policy without having to account for its actions either to the EC or the parliaments of the countries involved.

Both the European Parliament and civil liberties groups are concerned about the democratic deficit when policies on asylum, police co-operation and the like are made by inter-governmental agreement rather than by EC law. The British Government made no great efforts during the Maastricht negotiations to make sure that democratic accountability on such matters was increased. No representatives of citizens or of consumers are involved at any level in these negotiations, although they directly concern their individual rights.

It is widely believed at the moment that Europol will model itself to some extent on Interpol. Yet Interpol has managed to persuade its resident country, France, to waive data protection laws. It has also encouraged a police culture in which exchange of data takes place without too many legal controls and in what can best be described as an informal manner. That raises certain worries about the way Europol will operate.

However, the British police, so far as I can understand, seem generally in favour of Europol, but they have some reservations because of the Ulster border with Ireland. For that reason they are not so keen on the role proposed for Europol in preventing terrorism. They think that their own secure systems already suffice. Presumably they also fear leaks, and who can blame them for that?

There are some other problems with the structure of Europol. There is definitely a debate going on inside different national police forces as to whether Europol should be an intelligence agency or also have operational duties, such as investigative powers. The German view seems to veer towards allowing investigative responsibilities, such as investigating a tragedy like the Lockerbie disaster. British officials, on the other hand, seem to favour Europol modelling itself on the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which gathers information for local police to use and has no powers to investigate or arrest. One senior British source is quoted as saying: Europol would never have got off the ground if there was any suggestion that it would be anything other than an intelligence agency". Yet other countries favour it developing into a body which can carry out arrests in conjunction with local police and according to local judicial regulations.

For those reasons the activities of Europol must be set in a context of proper democratic scrutiny. As the tree is bent, so will it grow. And just as politics is far too pervasive in human life to be left to politicians, so policing is far too important to be left to the police.

9 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the House will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Bethell for providing the opportunity for this debate. Although he is concerned primarily about the important question of the accountability of Europol, I hope that he will forgive me if I describe a little of the background to these matters before I answer the matters that have been raised. It is a complicated subject. This approach may be helpful to those noble Lords who do not have my noble friend's depth of experience in these matters. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, said that as a teacher he was giving us a history lesson. I may run down that track a little and I have no doubt that the history as perceived by both of us will be the same.

The idea of Europol is, I think, a typical European concept—and I bow to my noble friend's great expertise in the intricacies of European political life. I think though that it is also fair to say that Europol is a much-abused word, and I should like to be as precise as possible in setting out the Government's position.

A German proposal to establish a central European criminal investigation office was first adopted at the European Council in Luxembourg in June 1991, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. That has now come to be known as Europol. The European Council at Maastricht in December 1991 asked for Europol to be brought into existence as quickly as possible. An ad hoc working group on Europol was, therefore, formed to do that. That group of officials meets under the auspices of the TREVI Group and it is always chaired by the United Kingdom. Very good progress has so far been made and, indeed, the United Kingdom has received considerable acclaim for its work in preparing the groundwork for that organisation.

The United Kingdom Government see Europol as a body for co-ordinating intelligence on serious crime which poses a threat to two or more member states of the European Community. That view is now shared by other member states. The original German proposal, which continues to arise from time to time in public perception, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, envisaged giving Europol operational powers as well. But that has always been rejected. And it is not the intention to give operational powers to Europol now. A development of that nature would be a considerable departure from present policing arrangements which we have not only in this country but also in other member states.

Europol itself has though not yet been established. That will require a legally binding convention, and that will involve a lengthy and complex set of negotiations among member states. It would, however, be folly to hold back on the development of an important organisation such as this until the convention has been agreed as it could help us considerably in tackling crime, especially international crime.

My noble friend Lord Bethell said that he envisaged that a British person could be arrested in Belgium by a Belgian policeman as a result of information given by Spanish police on a computer. I am bound to say that the use of information provided by Europol remains to be decided. Europol will not have operational powers. However, in the example my noble friend gave it will be open to the Belgian police to arrest anyone on their territory in line with their own national law, irrespective of from where the information came—whether or not from Spain—or indeed how it came, whether by word of mouth or by computer.

The European Council has, therefore, agreed that the establishment of Europol should proceed in stages. The first stage will begin with the creation of a drugs intelligence unit. That will be known as the Europol Drugs Unit. A full-time project team to develop the Europol Drugs Unit was established on 1st September 1992 to undertake the detailed work which will be needed to set it up. In doing that the project team is also helping to develop Europol in the longer term. As my noble friend Lord Bethell knows only too well, the project team is based in Strasbourg.

The purpose of the Europol Drugs Unit will be to act as a non-operational team for the exchange and analysis of intelligence about illicit drug trafficking and the associated criminal activities which affect member states collectively. The unit's objective will be to help the police and other law enforcement agencies both within member states and between them to combat crime more effectively.

The urgent problems which are posed by international illicit drug trafficking—and the money laundering and organised crime which is associated with it—led Ministers to call for the Europol Drugs Unit to be established as quickly as possible—and, indeed, by 1st January 1993 if that could be achieved. I regret to say that that target has not been achieved. The stumbling block has been the need for a decision on the location of the Europol Drugs Unit and on the permanent headquarters of Europol. The pressures both of time and content at the European Council at Edinburgh meant that the Council was unable to take this particular decision and as a result we will now have to wait for the outcome of the European Council meeting at Copenhagen in June.

The Europol Drugs Unit can be established soon after a location has been decided. The prospect of establishing the Europol Drugs Unit raises, of course, the question of its accountability. The utmost care and attention is being given to that. It is covered in the draft ministerial agreement, and a more detailed paper is under consideration by the ad hoc working group on Europol.

The Europol Drugs Unit will operate under the authority of a ministerial agreement. Under the terms of the agreement the unit will be accountable to TREVI Ministers of the European Community member states. In this country that is my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. In practice though Ministers will delegate the responsibility for the day-to-day running of the unit to officials. That is likely to require the creation of an executive committee with representatives from each member state which will monitor the activities and the management of the Europol Drugs Unit.

The precise arrangements about the frequency of the committee's meetings and its detailed functions have yet to be worked out, but the co-ordinator—that is the name which is given to the person who will head the Europol Drugs Unit—will report via the committee to TREVI Ministers.

While we are working in that informal way, and before we have a legally binding convention, there will be considerable limitations on the extent to which information from one member state may be passed to and used by other member states. My noble friend Lord Bethell asked when the convention was likely to appear. It is difficult to speculate, but my guess is that it will be at least two years away.

The ministerial agreement, which will establish the Europol Drugs Unit, lays down strict guidelines on how information should be treated, and it makes it very clear that the exchange of information may only he carried out within the limits of national legislation, legal rules and any instructions which may be given by, or on behalf of, the competent Ministers in the various member states.

National data protection authorities will play an active role in the oversight of the Europol Drugs Unit, over the handling and the protection of data which are received by it. The unit will not, though, certainly at this stage, hold a central database of personal information of any kind.

The arrangements for accountability which have been proposed for the Europol Drugs Unit are likely to be very similar under the convention when it comes into force. They will be capable of being adapted to fit in with the new systems for interior and justice co-operation which are being set up under the Maastricht Treaty. The third pillar of the Maastricht Treaty—that which covers interior and justice matters —provides for police co-operation between the governments of member states.

Although the proposals for accountability of the Europol Drugs Unit relate to the system as exists at present, we realise that there will have to be a role for national parliaments and for the European Parliament when the treaty comes into force. Europol, of course, is part of the third pillar.

My noble friend Lord Bethel! was concerned about Article K6 of the Maastricht Treaty. He was quite right in saying that it states that the presidency will consult the European Parliament and that it must ensure that the views of the European Parliament are taken into account. I can confirm to my noble friend that the European Parliament will hold debates, and members may ask questions of the Council of Ministers, just in the same way as they may now ask questions—albeit in a less formal way—of the presidency of TREVI. I must make it clear to my noble friend that the presidency does intend to consult the European Parliament but the correct and proper route for this to be done is through the presidency. It might be considered not to be the correct route for members to have official contact with officials.

The Maastricht Treaty also has a declaration which encourages a greater involvement by national parliaments in the activities of the new European Union, including an increased exchange of information with the European Parliament. The Government have always thought that national parliaments have a very important role to play.

I can assure my noble friend Lord Bethell that all Ministers from all the member states of the Community are concerned about questions of democratic accountability—in the same way that they are concerned that all the member states should co-operate and should act rigorously against crime.

The Europol Drugs Unit will, therefore, not operate at all until the draft ministerial agreement has been signed by all 12 Ministers. There is no question of TREVI Ministers surreptitiously allowing the exchange of any information on the guidelines before that time. That agreement will be laid before Parliament.

Once the Europol Drugs Unit is established, it must abide by the arrangements for data protection, staffing, accountability and finance which are contained in the ministerial agreement. The unit's co-ordinator will be accountable to Ministers, who will each, in turn, be accountable to their own national parliaments.

It would be rash of me, particularly at this time when it is undergoing such close scrutiny in another place, to hazard a guess as to whether the Maastricht Treaty will be ratified before the Europol Drugs Unit is set up. Both events are hard to pin to an exact timetable. My noble friend asked me what will happen if Maastricht is not ratified. I would not wish to speculate on such hypothetical possibilities as that. The improved arrangements under a ratified Maastricht Treaty will, though, apply both to the Europol Drugs Unit and to Europol. In both cases, the involvement of national parliaments and of the European Parliament will be greater.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary will also continue to have close oversight over the negotiation and the development of the work towards a convention which will establish Europol. Home Office officials chair the ad hoc working group which is working on the convention, and the ad hoc working group reports formally on its progress to the relevant Ministers.

Your Lordships will, of course, also be involved in the process of the ratification of the intergovernmental conventions which will require to be agreed under the third pillar of the Maastricht Treaty. Parliamentary Questions, oral statements and debates will continue to be the means of keeping Parliament informed.

I am afraid that I cannot give your Lordships precise details of how Europol will operate. A complex negotiating process is at present under way. And the existing lines of parliamentary accountability will be likely to be further improved before Europol is fully operational.

I can assure your Lordships, and my noble friend Lord Bethell in particular, that the Government are fully aware of the need to ensure that Europol and the Europol Drugs Unit are fully and properly accountable to the parliaments of all the member states, including the Parliament of the United Kingdom. I hope that I have been able to reassure my noble friend Lord Bethell that that is the desire and the intention both of Her Majesty's Government and of the governments of other member states.