HL Deb 12 January 1998 vol 584 cc168-70WA
Baroness Pitkeathley

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will comment on the outcome of the Justice and Home Affairs Council held in Brussels on 4 and 5 December.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My right honourable friend and my honourable friend the Minister of State represented the United Kingdom at the Council, together with my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Lord Chancellor's Department. The main matters dealt with were as follows:

The Council agreed as "A" points, among other things, a resolution on marriages of convenience, the organisation of future work on revising the Brussels and Lugano Conventions on recognition and enforcement of judgments in matrimonial, civil and commercial matters, and a joint action on a mechanism for evaluation of the fight against organised crime. Several regulations relating to Europol were also agreed, dealing with its computer system, its budget for 1998 and its relationship with third countries and international organisations.

Political agreement was reached on a text of the "Brussels II" Convention on jurisdiction, recognition and enforcement of judgments in family matters. The Convention will enhance procedures for the recognition of marriages, divorces and adoptions within the European Union. The text will now be considered further, taking into account any views expressed by the European Parliament, with a view to signature of the Convention by June 1998.

The scope of the draft Convention on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters was discussed. This Convention covers the giving and receiving of assistance and evidence during criminal investigations and prosecutions. The Council agreed that the Convention would not contain provisions on cross-border investigation techniques, which would be the subject of a separate Protocol, along with provisions on search and seizure. Initial negotiations on the terms of the Protocol could begin under the United Kingdom Presidency, before the Convention itself was finalised.

Discussion on the draft convention on enforcement of driving disqualifications revealed that a number of member states had unresolved problems which required further work. Progress on the Action Plan on Organised Crime was noted. Two elements in particular were touched on: finalisation of the Naples H Convention on mutual assistance and co-operation between customs administrations, which is due to be signed before the end of the year, and ratification by all member states of the Europol Convention, which is on course for early 1998.

The Council took stock of the position reached on the draft joint action to establish a European judicial network, which seeks to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of current arrangements for requesting and granting mutual legal assistance through a network of contact points. It was agreed that member states would notify the Council informally of the contact points which they intended to nominate, pending a decision at the next meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council in March 1998.

Some progress was made on the draft joint action on making it a criminal offence to participate in a criminal organisation. A number of difficulties still remain, particularly concerning the definition of the conduct to be criminalised. The joint action was remitted to the Committee of Permanent Representatives for further work.

The Council agreed a draft joint action establishing a funding programme for training, visits and exchanges in the fight against organised crime (the FALCONE programme). The Council also approved a report on organised crime in the European Union in 1996, for submission to the European Council.

The Council took stock of the position reached on a draft resolution on a strategic action plan for customs co-operation in the Third Pillar. In the absence of agreement on the territorial application of the resolution, the Council instructed the Committee of Permanent Representatives to find a solution.

The Council approved a report on the internal and external threat from terrorism, for submission to the European Council; took note of a draft report to the European Council on drugs; and approved a report for the European Council on implementation of the joint action of December 1996 on approximation of laws and practices to combat drugs.

The Council agreed in principle to amend the definition in the Europol Convention of "trafficking in human beings" so as to include trafficking in child pornography. This was necessary to enable the Europol Drugs Unit to collect and analyse data on the subject. At the request of one member state, the K4 Committee was instructed to ensure that Europol's remit was extended to cover terrorism as soon as possible, and at latest within two years of Europol beginning its work.

The Council agreed that a further action plan should be drawn up making specific proposals for countering a recent increase in illegal immigration from Iraq. Justice and Interior Ministers would take stock of progress when they met informally in Birmingham at the end of January.

The Council discussed the draft EURODAC Convention for exchange and comparison of the fingerprints of asylum seekers. Agreement was reached in principle on some outstanding questions concerning the storage and erasure of data under the Convention. The working group will now begin drawing up the technical specifications for the system.

The Council also discussed a draft joint action establishing a programme for training, exchanges and co-operation in the fields of immigration, asylum and the crossing of external frontiers (the Odysseus programme). In the absence of agreement on the provisions concerning crossing of external frontiers, the Council remitted the issue to the Committee of Permanent Representatives for further consideration.

The Council held meetings, as part of the Structured Dialogue, with Ministers of the associated Central and Eastern European countries (CEEs) and, separately, with Cyprus. Discussion with the CEEs centred on mutual legal assistance, particularly in the areas of extradition, money laundering and the Lugano Convention on jurisdiction and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters. The question of illegal immigration from Iraq was also raised, as well as asylum matters. In the meeting with Cyprus, Ministers from Cyprus set out the measures that it had taken to combat money laundering and described the position in Cyprus with regard to illegal immigration and Iraqi refugees.

At the Council, the Luxembourg Presidency hosted an informal joint lunch of Justice and Health Ministers to exchange views on drugs matters. The discussion highlighted the range of measures currently taken within member states to combat drugs abuse and the value to be obtained from the exchange of information and ideas.