HL Deb 09 December 1996 vol 576 cc908-11

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey rose to move, that the draft order laid before the House on 13th November be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, first, I take this opportunity to remind the House that in July 1995 European Union member states signed a draft convention based on Article K.3 of the Treaty on European Union on the Establishment of a European Police Office; or familiarly, the "Europol Convention". This convention was published as a Command paper (Cm 3050) and laid before Parliament on 8th December 1995.

Under the convention, Europol staff will have no operational powers, but will focus on the exchange and analysis of intelligence relating to serious international crime. A single national unit in each member state will be responsible for providing Europol with relevant intelligence and for acting as the link to law enforcement agencies in the member state. The National Criminal Intelligence Service will undertake this role in the United Kingdom. Europol staff, assisted by national liaison officers, will be responsible for centralised analysis of information obtained and for disseminating the results of this work. The national units will remain under national control. The Director of Europol will be its legal representative and he will report to a management board comprised of representatives from all member states.

The convention also makes detailed provision for the protection of data held by Europol and will establish an independent joint supervisory body drawn from national data protection supervisory bodies.

These terms are confusing and questions were raised in another place as to their meaning. Therefore, perhaps I may explain. The national unit is the sole contact point in each member state for communicating with Europol. The UK's national unit will be the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) with which this House will be familiar from the Police Bill currently in Committee. Each member state shall also have a national supervisory body. This shall monitor the data exchange between the national unit and Europol. We intend to designate the data protection registrar as the UK's national supervisory body. A nominee from each member state's national supervisory body shall make up the joint supervisory body. This shall have the task of monitoring Europol's compliance with the data protection regime set out in the convention. I hope that that explanation is of some help. I thought it important to tackle it at the outset.

The convention will come into force when ratified by all EU member states. The United Kingdom fully supports the establishment of Europol and is committed to creating an organisation that can work effectively and add real value to existing European police and customers co-operation. To emphasise this support we wish to be among the first member states to ratify the convention and to make an announcement to that effect at the forthcoming European Council in Dublin on 13th-14th December 1996.

To do so, however, we must first make an Order in Council under Section 1 of the International Organisations Act 1968 to enable us to give effect in UK law to Article 26 of the convention which provides that Europol shall enjoy legal personality in each member state. We propose to do so my means of the European Police Office (Legal Capacities) Order 1996, which is the sole purpose of the draft order before the House today.

I very much hope that your Lordships will approve this draft order, enabling us to achieve earlier ratification of the convention, and thereby underlining our commitment to Europol. I commend the draft order to your Lordships' House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th November be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Chalker of Wallasey.)

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for that introduction and particularly for the way in which she extended the introduction to clear up some of the questions which were raised in another place. As she knows, we fully support the objectives of the order; we support Europol and British participation in it, and we support the intention of the Government to act quickly enough to be able to be the first member state to ratify membership of Europol at the Dublin Summit.

The Minister will also know that we support the proposal that the National Criminal Intelligence Service should be the national unit for this purpose and that the Data Protection Registrar should be the national supervisory body for that purpose. She may also have been instructed that there was debate on this issue when the Police Bill was considered in Committee at the beginning of last week, when an Opposition amendment which I moved sought to clarify the role of the Data Protection Registrar and to clear up what appears to us to be a fault line between the role of the Data Protection Registrar and the criminal records agency which is to be set up under Part V of the Police Bill. It is our view that the role of the Data Protection Registrar, as the national supervisory body, should be brought into line with the role of the criminal records agency. The Police Bill provides that there shall be a criminal conviction certificate—that is the simplest form—which will in certain circumstances make it possible for employers of any kind to require applicants for jobs to produce a certificate setting out their unspent criminal record. The problem with the data protection registry is that what is called enforced subject access applies and allows employers to force employees to use their rights under the Data Protection Act 1984 to gain access to their own criminal records and thereby reveal them to prospective employers. The problem which in turn arises from that is that the records which are available under enforced subject access go wider than the information which is to be provided by a criminal conviction certificate. The difficulty is that we have these two provisions side by side: enforced subject access under the Data Protection Act and the criminal conviction certificate proposed under the Police Bill.

I appreciate that this is not her area, but I hope that the Minister will not mind my saying that this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. If the Police Bill were to get rid of enforced subject access—as it is the view of the Data Protection Registrar and indeed the view of the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons that it should be got rid of—then the situation would be much clearer. I have taken advantage of this order, perhaps unfairly, which we support, to raise again the issue of potential conflict between the responsibilities of the Data Protection Registrar and those of the Home Office, as the home of the criminal records authority. With that proviso, we support the order.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, my party welcomes and supports this order, while making two caveats and notes. This is a further pooling of British sovereignty. I note that various Members of this House, who perhaps ought to be in their place to oppose it, are, oddly, not here on this occasion. There has been very extensive growth of co-operation between police forces, customs services and others over the past 25 years across Europe, largely without any means of accountability or reporting to national parliaments. I welcome this regularisation of what was already taking place.

The problems of accountability and transparency are not entirely resolved in this convention as it stands. As the Minister will know, we were strongly in favour of the European Court of Justice being more closely associated with Europol. What will evolve under the Europol Convention may still leave a very considerable gap between what happens and what may be reported to this House and other national parliaments. With the Government's preference for intergovernmental co-operation, this may fall between national accountability and European accountability.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for the welcome they have given to this order this evening. We should recognise that it is an important step forward for Europol. Criminal activity has never been constrained by national boundaries, and, as time goes by, the techniques utilised become more and more sophisticated. That is why we need effective joint action to deal with these problems. That is the real opportunity which Europol itself provides.

The United Kingdom along with, so far as I know, only one other European country—namely, the Netherlands—and a few others in the rest of the world, has already developed its own advanced criminal intelligence system. Europol was essentially our idea; we wrote the very first draft of the convention. Why? First, because in the fight against international organised crime the key to success lies in targeted action, based on effective intelligence; and, secondly, because it is enormously important to ensure that the experience and expertise we have gained in crime analysis and the benefits to be derived from it are not limited by our national boundaries or, perhaps more to the point, those of any other country, especially when it comes to our near geographical neighbours.

It is equally important to say that I emphatically share the view that the benefits which come from this type of co-operation in tackling serious transnational crime must be balanced by real protection of the rights of the individual and proper democratic accountability.

I understand very well the points that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, made. Regarding enforced subject access my noble friend Baroness Blatch has agreed to look at this matter at the Report stage of the Police Bill.

I should add, in view of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, that, throughout the negotiations leading to the signature of the convention and the present negotiations over implementing measures, we have never ceased to emphasise the need for effective avenues of redress through national courts where an innocent individual has suffered injury. That is the very purpose of the order we are debating today. I know that this has been a matter of concern, perhaps to others outside your Lordships' House, but I think it is worth underlining the point in this short debate.

Maintaining the balance of operational effectiveness and protection of the individual is a proud tradition of our British criminal justice system. I can assure your Lordships that we are maintaining and promoting that tradition in the important work that we are undertaking. We are doing so with other member states because we want to promote more effective police co-operation, which will help us to defeat international crime. We shall do so in the subsequent supervision and regulation of the activities and development of Europol. My colleagues and I will be answerable to this House for the activities of Europol as we are for our own National Criminal Intelligence Service and our police services.

This has been a useful short debate. I am grateful to both noble Lords for their comments. I hope that I have adequately addressed the points that they made. I commend the order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.