HL Deb 08 June 1998 vol 590 cc73-6WA
Baroness Amos

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What was the outcome of the Justice and Home Affairs Council held in Brussels on 28 and 29 May. [HL2173]

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary chaired the Council on behalf of the Presidency. My honourable friend the Minister of State (Joyce Quin) represented the United Kingdom.

This was a very successful Council, where agreement was reached on a number of outstanding issues. There was also full discussion on a range of issues relating to the justice and home affairs aspects of the enlargement process. The main matters dealt with were as follows.

Ministers signed the Convention on Jurisdiction and the Recognition and Enforcement of Judgments in Matrimonial Matters (known as the 'Brussels II Convention') and its Protocol relating to the European Court of Justice. This convention establishes grounds for court jurisdiction in cases of divorce, nullity and separation, as well as related parental responsibility orders securing care for any children involved.

The Council agreed as "A" points, among other things, a report on terrorist funding aimed at combating terrorism by cutting off sources of funding and countering terrorist fund raising; a report on football hooliganism; a report on the exchange of DNA analysis results; conclusions on encryption and law enforcement; a recommendation seeking to establish uniform levels of expertise and equipment for detecting forged documents at points of entry into the European Union: and a Council Communication concerning a uniform format for residence permits.

The Council held a wide-ranging open debate on organised crime, in which Ministers stressed concerns about the growing threat posed by criminal organisations and the need for member states to act both individually and collectively to combat the threat. The Council agreed that environmental and economic crime in particular were activities on which more work should be taken forward.

The Council noted a report on progress in implementing the Action Plan on Organised Crime which, subject to appropriate updating, will now be submitted to the Cardiff European Council.

Political agreement was reached on the Convention on Driving Disqualification, which will now be finalised and made ready for early signature. This convention is an important road safety measure which will enable a driving disqualification imposed in one member state to be enforced in another.

A Joint Action was agreed on good practice in mutual legal assistance. A further Joint Action establishing a European Judicial Network was also agreed, which will help to speed up gathering of evidence across jurisdictions and facilitate contacts between magistrates and prosecutors. This was one of the recommendations in the Action Plan on Organised Crime.

The Council noted progress in the preparations for Europol to begin working. The ratification by all member states of the Convention is expected to be completed soon. The Council agreed that the activities of Europol should be extended to terrorism in principle from 1 January 1999 and that the necessary preparatory work should be put in hand. We also agreed the Europol budget for 1999.

The Council had a wide-ranging discussion on the Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance, and reached agreement on some of the outstanding issues. However, further work remains to be done on several important issues, including data protection, interception of communications and the role of the European Court of Justice.

The Council agreed a Joint Action establishing a mechanism for collective evaluation of applicant states' implementation of the acquis in the Justice and Home Affairs field. A new expert group will be able to draw on the wide range of information already available and feed the results of its evaluations into the wider enlargement process. Conclusions on the "rule of law" were also agreed, which will provide guidelines to the applicant states on what they need to do to build democratic and accountable institutions as a necessary precondition for European Union membership. There was also a discussion of ways in which the applicant states might be associated with the practical application of the Justice and Home Affairs acquis before their formal accession, and this issue will be considered further.

The Council held a joint meeting with Interior and Justice Ministers from the applicant countries to approve the Pre-Accession Pact on Organised Crime, which was another of the recommendations of the Action Plan on Organised Crime; its approval six months ahead of the timetable set by the Amsterdam Council represents a significant achievement. Ministers also had a useful discussion covering organised crime, implementation of the pre-accession pact and the rule of law. There was full agreement on the importance placed on these issues, and members of the Justice and Home Affairs Council emphasised that they stood ready to assist the candidate countries in these areas.

The Council agreed arrangements for the exchange of information and best practice in crime prevention, in advance of the coming into force of the Treaty of Amsterdam. A report on European Union drugs activities was approved and will be forwarded to the European Council in Cardiff. This included elements of a post-1999 European Union drugs strategy.

The Council discussed, on the basis of proposals from Italy, the varying data protection provisions which exist in different Justice and Home Affairs instruments. Further work was commissioned to examine the scope and need for greater harmonisation of approach.

A progress report was presented on the Action Plan on the influx of migrants from Iraq and the neighbouring region. The incoming Austrian Presidency agreed to pursue the implementation of the Action Plan and to report to the next meeting of the Council in September.

There was a full discussion of outstanding issues on the Eurodac convention, which is concerned with fingerprinting of asylum applicants. It was agreed that a Protocol should be drawn up to extend the convention to fingerprints of illegal immigrants. This is intended to be adopted by the end of 1998, when the other outstanding issues on the Convention itself should also be resolved.

After the Council, the first meeting was held of the Committee of Ministers set up under Article 18 of the Dublin Convention, which lays down criteria for determining the state responsible for deciding asylum applications. The committee agreed on a Decision and a Programme of Action aimed at improving the operation of the Dublin Convention.