I welcome the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, and his officials. The purpose of the meeting is to consider a motion referred to the joint committee by both Houses concerning a proposal for a Council regulation on procedures for amending the SIRENE Manual. Members have been circulated with copies of the proposal document and briefing material supplied by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I now invite the Minister to make a brief statement concerning the subject matter of the motion.
SIRENE Manual: Motion.
I thank the joint committee for making time available to discuss the exercise by the State of the option under the Fourth Protocol to the Treaty of Amsterdam on a proposal for a Council regulation on procedures for amending the SIRENE Manual. First, I wish to outline for the committee some background information on the Schengen convention, its practical operation, what the SIRENE Manual is and where it fits into the picture. Second, I wish to explain the rationale behind the proposed regulation and the reason it is necessary to lay the motions before both Houses of the Oireachtas.
The Schengen convention and acquis involve, in addition to the abolition of border controls between participating states, a series of measures designed to strengthen external border controls and address participants' security issues, including, for example, requests for extradition, missing persons and dealing with stolen vehicles. Following approval by both Houses of the Oireachtas on 27 February 2002, a Council decision approving Ireland's request to take part in certain non-border provisions of the Schengen acquis was adopted at the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 28 February 2002. All other EU members states, with the exception of the United Kingdom which applied to participate in similar provisions to that of Ireland, are full participants in the system, as are Iceland and Norway.
In order to support the operation of the convention, a number of operational procedures and systems have been put in place. Chief among these are the Schengen information system, known colloquially as the SIS, and the SIRENE Bureaux. The SIS provides for the electronic exchange of information between participating countries via a central system based in Strasbourg. The information exchanged using the system is set out in the convention.
Ireland has opted to participate in requests or alerts for persons and objects under the following articles of the convention: Article 95 - persons wanted for arrest for extradition purposes; Article 97 - missing persons or persons who need to be placed temporarily under police protection or in a place of safety; Article 98 - requests to locate or trace witnesses, persons summoned to appear before a judicial authority; Article 99 - requests for discreet surveillance or specific checks on persons and vehicles; and Article 100 - misappropriated, lost or stolen objects, for example, motor vehicles, firearms, identity documents and banknotes.
The information system only contains limited details of the persons and objects outlined above. Therefore, further information needed to positively identify a person or object is exchanged through an office known as the SIRENE Bureau. SIRENE is an acronym for Supplementary Information Requests at the National Entries. In the case of Ireland, both the implementation of the information system and the set-up and operation of the SIRENE Bureau will be carried out by the Garda Síochána. Work is under way in this regard.
The SIRENE Bureau handles the processing of information and carries out the actions required to be taken in respect of both incoming and outgoing requests. The SIRENE Manual is a set of operating instructions and procedures and describes, in detail, a common set of rules and procedures to be followed governing the bilateral and multilateral exchange of supplementary information.
Having explained the background and purpose of the SIRENE Manual, I wish to outline the change proposed in this regulation, the rationale behind it, and the reason it is necessary to move the motions in both Houses. When the Schengen convention was incorporated into EU law by the Treaty of Amsterdam, it was decided at the time that the SIRENE Manual would form part of the acquis. Consequently, this has resulted in a situation where when changes - no matter how minor - are required to be made to the manual, separate legal instruments are required to be drawn up and approved each time. Considering the operational nature of the content of the manual, such a cumbersome legal process is regarded as disproportionate and a more appropriate alternative is considered necessary.
The draft regulation proposes to alter this process by adopting the procedures specified in Articles 5 and 7 of Council Decision 1999/486/EC. This will have the following effect: the European Commission, assisted by a regulatory committee made up of all of the member states, including Ireland, will draft any changes to be made in the future to the SIRENE Manual and submit them to the Council for approval. The Council will be able to act by way of a qualified majority on the proposals. The Commission will also be required to inform the European Parliament.
Considering the purely operational content of the SIRENE Manual, it is clear that a more streamlined procedure for updating it is required. The change will not have a significant impact for Ireland as it should be borne in mind that the content of the manual is subject to the provisions of the Schengen convention and all actions specified in the manual must be in accordance with national law, that is, in the case of Ireland, Irish law. In addition, it should be noted that the SIRENE Bureau in each member state needs to operate under similar rules and procedures to ensure the system operates as effectively as possible. Taking everything together, I am of the view that the proposals in the draft regulation provide for a reasonable and sensible approach to what is the technical or operational updating of the SIRENE Manual.
Why is Oireachtas approval needed? This measure is a Title IV proposal under the treaty establishing the European Community. This means that it does not apply automatically to Ireland, or the United Kingdom. Under Article 3 of the Fourth Protocol to the Treaty of Amsterdam, to which the United Kingdom is also a party, we have three months from the date a proposal or initiative is presented to the Council to notify the President of the Council in writing of our wish to take part in the adoption and application of any such proposed measure. The approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas is required before such a notification can be made. Members of the Houses will be familiar with this process in the context of exercising previous opt-in options. I am of the view that this proposal for a draft regulation offers a reasonable and sensible approach for the reasons outlined. Therefore, I ask the committee to support the motion to allow us exercise the opt-in option in regard to this proposal.
That seems to be a reasonable and sensible approach. Does any member wish to comment? It is a bunch of regulations.
It is a manual for a system of co-operation.
It is an administrative system.
We are putting in place a new system for changing it from time to time. Unanimous decisions used to be required to change it but now it will be done by way of an accelerated process involving qualified majority voting or QMV.
Is this one of the items in the Justice and Home Affairs Council where QMV will be allowed?
Absolutely. Nothing can happen to us under this. The rules could be changed against our wishes but we would not have to operate them. It is voluntary. Therefore, it would not be a matter of concern if the rules were changed against our wishes.
Is there a timeframe for implementation?
I do not think so. Once all of the member states signify their agreement to a regulation, it will be unanimous. It is the last time unanimity will be required for a particular purpose.
Ireland has opted to participate in respect of requests for discreet surveillance under Article 99.
The French police force might ask the Garda to keep an eye on a person and note when he or she is travelling in or out of Ireland. It is a border type issue. It would not be a request to bug people. Discreet surveillance means keeping an eye on somebody or a vehicle.
I have no difficulty supporting this motion. Television programmes have dealt with individuals who fled the country because they allegedly broke the law, yet they appear to have immunity in some European states such as the south of Spain. Will this affect their possible extradition from those areas? Why can they not be extradited for their activities such as fraud and tax evasion? Are they outside the scope of Ireland's extradition arrangements?
Extradition arrangements in Europe are intergovernmental in nature under a European Union extradition convention. However, that is about to change. From 1 January 2004, the European arrest warrant will apply across the Union. Next Thursday I will publish the text of a Bill to incorporate this into Irish law. It means that rather than being an intergovernmental matter, it will be a court to court request for extradition, much like the system in operation between Ireland and the United Kingdom. There will be specified offences to which the European arrest warrant will apply. It will be an accelerated system of rendition rather than classical state-to-state extradition.
Article 98 deals with requests to locate or trace witnesses summoned to appear before a judicial authority. Some of the tribunals have reported difficulties in locating witnesses in other jurisdictions and in some instance have been unsuccessful in tracking them down. Does the article have a role to play in this scenario?
This measure covers criminal proceedings. Under the European arrest warrant, only those sought as suspects to be tried under Irish law will be liable to be extradited. It will not be a question of witnesses being forced to travel from one country to another. Article 98 provides that data on witnesses cover persons summonsed to appear before the judicial authorities in connection with criminal proceedings in order to account for acts for which they are being prosecuted or persons who are to be served with a criminal judgment or summonsed to report in order to serve a penalty involving the deprivation of liberty. While it may appear to indicate the involvement of witnesses, it applies to witnesses only in the context of being an accused person.
Article 99 deals with requests for discreet surveillance in respect of specific checks on persons or vehicles. Is suspected criminal activity a prerequisite for such requests? Will the regulations to be drawn up by the committee be presented to us before any decision is made regarding their adoption?
Article 99 concerns data on persons or vehicles and requires that they should be entered in accordance with the national law of the contracting party issuing the alert for the purpose of discreet surveillance or specific checks in accordance with Article 99.5. Such an alert may be issued for the purpose of prosecuting criminal offences and the prevention of threats to public security in two circumstances: first, where there is clear evidence that the person concerned intends to commit or is committing numerous and extremely serious criminal offences, or, second, where an overall assessment of the person concerned, in particular on the basis of past criminal offences, gives reason to suppose that he or she will also commit serious criminal offences in the future.
In addition, the alert may be issued in accordance with national law at the request of the authorities responsible for national security where there is clear evidence that the information related to in paragraph 4 is necessary to prevent a serious threat by the person concerned or other threats to internal or external national security. The contracting party issuing the alert is obliged to consult the other contracting parties beforehand.
For the purposes of discreet surveillance, all or some of the following information may be collected and communicated to the authority issuing the alert when border checks or other police and customs checks are carried out in the country: first, that the person for whom the vehicle for which an alert has been issued has been found; second, the place, time or reason for the check; third, the route and destination of the journey; and fourth, the person accompanying the person concerned or an occupant of the vehicle.
The European justice and home affairs theatre of operations is extremely paper driven. There must be a legal basis for everything. Ireland and Britain have been exchanging this information without manuals for many years but in the continental system, before any action is taken, the legal basis must be fully worked out. That is the difference between the two systems. There is a requirement for unanimity on something like this but if wrangles arise between two civil law countries which think their system is better, it can take months to resolve.
We might as well have signed up to the Schengen acquis.
When the system goes court to court, small courts may dismiss the situation in Ireland.
Will a special SIRENE section of the Garda operate this?
I thank the Minister and his officials for appearing before the joint committee and look forward to their reappearance in the not too distant future.