The Europol Bill is an enabling Bill allowing Ireland to ratify the 1995 Europol Convention and related protocols. The convention provides a framework for law enforcement co-operation in the field of international organised crime. It provides for the establishment of Europol on a statutory basis to facilitate the exchange of information and intelligence between the law enforcement authorities of the member states of the European Union, and to carry out in-depth analyses of the crimes within its remit. Europol's central objective will be to assist member states in preventing and combating serious organised international crime affecting two or more member states.
As a small island nation on the periphery of Europe, we might like to regard ourselves as in some way immune to or removed from the full effects of international crime but he reality is different. There is reason to believe that our geography lends itself to Ireland being used by highly organised criminals as a gateway to and from the rest of Europe, thus leaving us particularly exposed to all forms of international crime. This is especially so in the area of drug trafficking, where Ireland's extensive coast line has been used for the importation of large quantities of illegal drugs for use not only in this country but also in other European countries, causing untold misery and sometimes even death to our young people. Also, we are recently beginning to see Ireland becoming a focus for illegal immigrant smugglers. It is all too clear to us that a small country cannot tackle these problems effectively on its own. We need to share information and intelligence with other countries regarding the operations of these criminals, theirmodus operandi, their networks and the routes they use.
Organised crime, particularly crimes such as drug trafficking which generate large financial profits, are especially hard to combat. These criminals have vast resources at their disposal, often exceeding those of countries. They are versatile and exploit weaknesses or loopholes wherever they exist. They have the resources to employ skilled people and to use a sinister carrot and stick approach, by way of bribery and threats, to overcome any obstacles in their way. It would be naive to think such ruthless criminals could be defeated by anything other than an energetic, pro-active and multi-faceted approach, embracing effective international co-operation and a zero tolerance policy in this country. My policy includes both of these elements.
The ratification of the Europol Convention, on which I will elaborate further, will be a milestone in development of co-operation between the 15 EU member states in the fight against international organised crime. It will not only enhance the flow of information and intelligence but will give significant added value to these through in-depth analysis with the aid of a sophisticated computer system.
As any police or customs officer will tell you, access to intelligence and information is essential for the tackling of organised crime, be it on a domestic or an international scale. It is absolutely crucial when crime goes beyond national boundaries. Criminals exploit differences in our legal systems. They use sophisticated aliases. They develop complex trafficking routes, often zigzagging through several countries, to avoid detection. National boundaries are no obstacle to them. In fact they are one of the tools which they use to defeat the law enforcement authorities. We must fight back. The pooled information which Europol will have and the added value which it will give to it through in-depth analysis of criminal organisations, theirmodus operandi, their ever changing trafficking routes and their personnel will be of major assistance to the member states.
The convention also includes provisions which will enable Europol to give information to and receive it from international organisations, for example Interpol, and countries outside the EU subject to certain safeguards. This will assist in tackling crime on a world scale. This is of considerable importance and particularly relevant in tackling drug trafficking and money laundering. With the exception of synthetic drugs and home grown cannabis, the illegal drugs abused in the EU are produced outside the EU. In the case of money laundering vast sums of money can be transferred in a matter of seconds by electronic wire transfer, not only from one country to another but through several countries and an intricate series of financial companies. Ratification of the Europol Convention will be a significant step in tackling these crimes.
With regard to international co-operation, I wish to congratulate the Garda and to express my appreciation for its vigilance which resulted in very significant seizures of drugs at the week end at Enfield, County Meath, and Dublin Airport. Such operations depend on international co-operation and highlight its importance.
The fight against crime on the international front is complemented by the Government's zero tolerance policy at home. The concept of zero tolerance is above all else directed at positive action against serious criminals, especially those involved in the drugs trade and organised crime generally. My objective is to provide the Garda with the means, equipment and manpower to investigate all crimes. My aim is to ensure that all crimes are investigated, where possible detected and, where the interests of justice and society so require, prosecuted. The victims of house breakers, burglars and car thieves do not regard these crimes as trivial or minor and neither does the Government.
I take seriously the duty of the State to protect the citizens' right to live in peace free of the fear of criminal intrusion. The worst form of intrusion at this time is generated by the bosses of drugs and other organised crime. They blight and often destroy young lives and, thereby, sentence entire communities in city and country to an intolerable existence. Recent research has shown that drugs are responsible for up to two thirds of all crime.
The Government's zero tolerance approach is about action on the ground and by way of legislation to curb the activities of drug dealers and other serious criminals. The citizens demand that and are entitled to it. I want zero tolerance to meet that demand in full. The Government is committed to providing 1,000 more prison spaces in two years; increasing Garda numbers to 12,000 over the next few years; giving agency status to the prison service and the courts to help them function more efficiently; encouraging various Garda operational initiatives to strengthen its hand in fighting serious crime and an imaginative legislative programme on which I will expand.
I am determined to fine comb the criminal laws to remove every obstacle to fast, efficient and fair administration of justice and to close off loopholes being exploited by criminals. As legislators we must ensure that the fight against crime is enhanced by our work. I will publish shortly the Criminal Justice Bill, 1997, which will contain measures on speedier trials; minimum sentences in relation to serious drug trafficking offences; the initiation by the courts of inquiries into the assets of persons convicted of drug trafficking and allowing technical evidence to be given by gardaí by certificate to courts, thus freeing up their time to attend to other duties.
In the context of the war we have launched against crime I wish to refer to the unprecedented increase in the Estimates for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; the increase is an unprecedented 10 per cent. Funding for the Office of the Minister will be increased by 20 per cent; the Prisons' Vote will increase by 18 per cent; the Garda Vote will increase by 5 per cent; the Garda capital Vote will increase by 80 per cent and the Courts' Vote will increase by 31 per cent. In monetary terms the total increase is £73 million. These are real increases in public spending in the Justice area for which the Government and I make no apology. The Government has identified crime as an issue of major public concern and the two parties in Government are delivering on their pre-election commitments in this regard.
An extensive programme of reform of the criminal justice system is under way. The announcement today of the figures for the 1998 Estimates underpins an unprecedented programme. In plain language, the Government is putting its money where its mouth is with regard to tackling crime and inequality. The Estimates include provision for new prisons at Portlaoise, Castlerea and Clover Hill as well as a new women's prison at Mountjoy prison and a new wing in Limerick prison. There is provision for prison staff to man these institutions. There will be three new probation and welfare service centres. A new courts service will be established, there will be additional courts refurbishment and a major programme of computerisation for criminal and civil case tracking. There is provision for a continuation of high profile Garda operations such as Operation Freeflow, Operation Dóchas and Operation Cosantóir, which is aimed at protecting elderly people in remote rural areas in the west. There is provision to continue the accelerated recruitment to the Garda Síochána as promised and for computerisation in the Garda. Provision is also made for a witness protection programme.
With regard to equality there will be additional funding of £1.176 million over the 1997 figure for the Legal Aid Board and £2.415 million for the Department's equal opportunities child care programme for the purpose of meeting the commitments in this area outlined in Partnership 2000 and the Government's action programme. An amount of £700,000 will be available to the Irish Council for People with Disabilities to facilitate action to improve the position of people with disabilities.
These proposals and the provision made for them will give urgent effect to a number of commitments contained in the Government's programme in the context of the zero tolerance policy, particularly, although not exclusively, against drug pushers and other serious criminals. There is an imaginative legislative programme to back up the resources which will be made available to the enforcement authorities.
Other criminal law reform Bills which I propose to publish in this session or early next year include a Bill to deal with child pornography. This legislation was promised by my party in advance of the general election. There will also be Bills to amend the law in relation to criminal insanity and to enable Ireland to co-operate with the International War Crimes Tribunal. Another Bill will deal with the UN convention against torture. Work is also underway on legislative proposals to deal with the substantive law on fraud. Extradition treaties with Canada and South Africa are being negotiated and work has begun on the preparation of legislation to enable Ireland ratify two EU conventions relating to extradition, one on the procedures to be applied where a person consents to extradition and another on improving and simplifying extradition arrangements between member states. A discussion paper to review the law on sexual offences is being drawn up. I hope this will lead to a full debate in society about the need for a register of sexual offenders. In addition, a review is ongoing of criminal law issues relevant to the fight against crime. Where the need for legislation is identified, it will be introduced without delay.
Regarding the Europol Bill, the approach taken is to give the convention and its two subsequent protocols the force of law in the State and to provide for certain ancillary matters. The Bill, therefore, is comparatively short. For ease of reference the convention and protocols are appended to the Bill in both English and Irish, the texts being equally authentic in both languages.
Before dealing with the detail of the sections, I intend to outline the background to the drawing up of the Europol convention and then to concentrate on the provisions of the convention and its subsequent protocols. The creation of the Single Market and the breakdown of borders in the European Union has facilitated an unprecedented increase in cross border crime. Just as honest law abiding citizens can move from one country to another in the Union, so too can Europe's top criminals. The Justice and Home Affairs Ministers of member states were acutely aware of the need for compensatory measures to prevent the exploitation of this free movement by criminals and to protect their citizens against organised crime.
This led to a decision to establish Europol by the European Council at its meeting in Maastricht in December 1991. From November 1993 onwards work on the draft convention continued within the structures provided for in Title VI of the Treaty on European Union. In December 1993, the European Council meeting in Brussels decided that Europol would have its seat in The Hague. It was some considerable time, however, before agreement could be reached among EU member states on Europol's precise role and powers.
Meanwhile, and in anticipation of the time it would take for the convention to be concluded and ratified, the European Drugs Unit — the EDU — was set up by ministerial agreement of the then 12 member states. The purpose of the EDU was to allow information to be exchanged concerning, initially, illicit drug trafficking and associated money laundering activities involving two or more member states. Its mandate was extended in March 1995 by the European Council to include illicit trafficking in nuclear and radioactive substances, crimes involving illegal immigration networks and trafficking in stolen vehicles. These crimes are of major concern to EU member states as they are frequently committed by the same organised criminal groups. Often the same trafficking routes and distribution networks are used by unscrupulous criminals who will smuggle into and around the EU drugs, people, stolen vehicles and radioactive substances, all for financial gain. The aim of the criminals is to get their hands on the vast sums of money which accrue from these criminal activities. The EDU's mandate was further extended in December 1996 to include trafficking in humans, following the horrific paedophile incidents in Belgium which were uncovered last year.
The EDU, now in its fourth year of operation in The Hague, has led to considerable successes, particularly in combating drug trafficking and money laundering. However, the EDU was only ever meant to operate as an interim measure, with the result that it operates on a far more limited basis than will Europol under the convention. Its most obvious drawbacks are that it has no legislative status and it cannot store personal information. Once in force, the convention will effectively replace the EDU. The advantages of supplanting the EDU with Europol will include not just giving it a firm statutory basis for its activities or the ability to store personal information but the provision of a sophisticated computer system, access to and analysis of pooled data and liaison with countries outside the EU and with international organisations.
Once the convention is in force, Europol's initial remit will cover illicit drug trafficking, trafficking in nuclear and radioactive substances, illegal immigrant smuggling, motor vehicle crime, trafficking in humans and associated money laundering activities, that is, the forms of international crimes already covered by the EDU. In addition, it will develop specialist knowledge of the investigative procedures of the relevant authorities in the member states, provide advice on investigations, provide strategic intelligence and prepare general situation reports. Within two years at the latest of entry into force, Europol's remit will be extended to terrorism. Furthermore, there is provision in the convention for Europol to take on a wide range of other forms of serious organised crime at the discretion of the Council of Ministers.
Regarding how Europol will achieve its objectives, I emphasise that Europol is established to operate as a non-operational team with the primary tasks of facilitating the exchange of information and intelligence between law enforcement authorities and carrying out detailed analyses in relation to the crimes within its remit. I mention this because, as some Senators are aware, it is likely that the role of Europol in the field of law enforcement co-operation may in the future be enhanced arising from provisions in the Amsterdam Treaty agreed by the Intergovernmental Conference last June and signed by member states last month. Any developments concerning the extension of Europol's competence would, however, require in the first instance consensus or unanimity among EU member states and, second, they would have to be dealt with by way of completely separate legislation. They do not, therefore, affect the passage of this Bill since it is concerned with giving the force of law to the 1995 convention as it stands.
The convention, in article 8, provides for member states to forward information to Europol concerning persons who are suspected of having committed or taken part in criminal offences in respect of which Europol is competent, or have been convicted of such offences, or in relation to persons who there are serious grounds for believing will commit such criminal offences in the future. In addition, Europol is to be informed of the means used in committing crimes, suspected membership of criminal organisations and criminal convictions of such persons.
The information will be collated by Europol in a central computerised data base consisting of three elements. The first element will be an information system with a restricted and precisely defined content which allows rapid reference to the information available to the member states and Europol, or, as it is sometimes referred to, an outer ring of information. The second component will concern more sensitive information, a so-called inner ring of information comprising work files for the purposes of analysis containing comprehensive information. Lastly, there will be an index system containing certain particulars from the analysis files. Specialists will analyse the information with a view to making connections and arrive at an overview, the results of which will then be forwarded to the member states concerned.
Member states will send liaison officers to Europol who will assist in the exchange of information and analysis work. Each member state must also set up a national unit to act as the centralised contact point for all relations with Europol. The liaison officer will represent the interests of his or her particular national unit. This is a formalisation of the arrangements which at present exist for the EDU. This system operates not only to communicate information but the liaison officers are also a valuable tool in overcoming problems which may arise between member states, for example, because of having insufficient knowledge of each others' legal systems.
In addition to liaison officers representative of each member state, Europol will employ analysts who will be under the Europol director's authority. The director will be appointed by the Council of Ministers for Justice and Home Affairs and will be accountable to it. There will also be a management board comprising representatives of all the member states of the Union.
Europol will only be as good as its information. It is imperative that adequate safeguards are in place to guarantee the confidentiality, the security and the accuracy of information exchanged and shared. In this regard the convention lays down extensive safeguards. It acknowledges that particular attention must be paid to the privacy rights of individuals and the protection of their personal information. It requires that, as a minimum, each member state must ensure a standard of data protection at least as high as that required by the 1981 Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data. That convention is implemented here by the Data Protection Act, 1988. In addition, each member state must appoint a national supervisory body to monitor independently, under national law, the communication of personal data to and from Europol. There will also be a joint supervisory body to monitor the activities of Europol as a whole to ensure that the rights of individuals are not violated by storage and processing of personal data.
Rules governing liability are laid down in the event of damage being caused by unauthorised or incorrect use of data. Finally, confidentiality is also protected by rules governing the dissemination of sensitive information and the obligation of discretion imposed upon employees of Europol and liaison officers.
There are two protocols to the convention, the first being the protocol on the interpretation of the convention by the European Court of Justice. One difficulty which delayed the finalisation of the convention was the failure of member states to agree on whether the European Court of Justice should have a role in relation to the Europol Convention. The protocol solved this outstanding problem by giving member states the option to declare to accept or not the interpretation of the convention by the Court of Justice by way of preliminary rulings. For those member states who did opt to accept the Court's jurisdiction, they could make a further declaration setting out the circumstances under which the jurisdiction of the Court would operate in their respective countries, that is, either at the request of all national courts or at the request only of courts against whose decisions there is no judicial remedy. We opted for the latter course so as to ensure, as far as possible, that there will be as little disruption as possible to the progress of a criminal trial once commenced.
The second protocol on the privileges and immunities of Europol, its organs, its deputy directors and employees is needed for the practical application of the Europol Convention once it enters into force. The purpose of the protocol is to grant Europol and all those acting on its behalf the same type of privileges and immunities as are usually granted to international organisations.
I should also mention that, in addition to the two protocols to which this Bill will give the force of law, there are a number of other legal texts necessary for Europol's actual operation. These deal with implementing measures concerning the rights and obligations of liaison officers, staff regulations, rules for analysis of data, confidentiality rules, rules of procedure of the joint supervisory body, Europol's budget, Europol's headquarters agreement between it and the Netherlands, and bilateral agreements between the Netherlands and member states concerning privileges and immunities of liaison officers and their families. Of those, still to be finalised are the confidentiality rules, the rules of procedure of the joint supervisory body and the headquarters agreement. All the measures must be formally adopted by the Justice and Home Affairs Council before Europol can take up its activities. However, while the legal texts are a prerequisite to Europol's entry into force, they are not necessary to the ratification process, and each member state can proceed with ratification of the convention and its two protocols without the various implementing measures being finalised.
That raises the question of when the convention will enter into force and when Europol will actually take up its activities. Its entry into force is dependent on all 15 member states having ratified it. As of now it has been ratified by only two member states — the United Kingdom and Spain - but several more ratifications are expected during the coming months. I intend that, likewise, on the enactment of this Bill, Ireland's ratification procedure would be concluded before the end of the year. This would keep us in line with the European Council's stated aim of ratification by all member states before the end of 1997.
I will not spend an inordinate length of time on the provisions of the Bill since the explanatory memorandum which was circulated with the Bill contains quite a detailed commentary on the individual sections and their related provisions in the convention.
The approach adopted in the Bill is to give the convention and the two protocols the force of law in the State. Section 2 contains this core provision of the Bill. Section 3 is concerned with the national unit which will act as a centralised unit within the Garda Síochána for the channelling of information and intelligence to and from Europol. The section proposes that the unit be headed up by a garda of at least chief superintendent rank and that it operate under the authority of the Garda Commissioner. The assignment of staff to the unit will not be confined to members of the Garda Síochána however. The Bill enables the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to appoint non-Garda personnel to be members of the unit, after consultation with the Garda Commissioner, the Minister for Finance and any other Minister, as considered appropriate, and, in relation to officers of Customs and Excise, with the Revenue Commissioners.
Officers of Customs and Excise clearly have a very important part to play in relation to certain types of crime within Europol's remit. I will, therefore, give attention to the appointment of a Customs and Excise officer to the national unit as soon as this legislation is passed so that such an appointment will come into effect as soon as the convention comes into operation.
Section 4 provides for the sending of liaison officers from the national unit to Europol. Again, liaison officers need not necessarily be members of the Garda Síochána and could potentially, for example, be members of Customs and Excise. In the case of non-Garda members of the national unit, this section provides that they will be sent only after consultation by the Commissioner with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and, in the case of an officer of Customs and Excise, on the nomination of the Revenue Commissioners and, in the case of other members of the national unit, on the nomination of such other Minister, as considered appropriate.
Section 5 is a technical provision amending certain sections of the Garda Síochána Act, 1989, so as to apply them to members of the Garda serving with Europol. Sections 6 and 7 are concerned with data protection. The main purpose of section 6 is to apply the Data Protection Act, 1988, to relevant provisions in the convention subject to modification where necessary. As I already mentioned, the 1988 Act gave effect to the principles contained in the 1981 Council of Europe convention on data protection, which is the standard of protection laid down by the convention. Section 7 designates the Data Protection Commissioner for the purposes of the convention so that he will be empowered to monitor implementation of the data protection provisions.
Section 8 gives Europol corporate status so as to enable it to enter into contracts and other commercial relationships and to sue and be sued in the courts. There is provision in section 9 for the application of the Official Secrets Act, 1963, to provisions of the convention which impose obligations of confidentiality.
Turning now to the protocol on the interpretation of the convention by the European Court of Justice, section 10 provides that judicial notice shall be taken in this country of any ruling or decision or expression of opinion by that court. There is provision in sections 11 and 12 for the making of ministerial Orders, to be laid before both Houses, which appear to be necessary and expedient for carrying out the convention. All matters of substance pertaining to the convention and its protocols are covered by the Bill and the purpose of the provisions in sections 11 and 12 is merely to enable incidental requirements to be met from time to time.
Section 13 contains the standard expenses provision. In this regard, the financial arrangements for Europol provide for annual estimates to be drawn up and approved by the Justice and Home Affairs Council. The budget will be financed from member states' contributions which are determined by reference to a formula of the percentage of GNP attributed to each. While additional cost will arise in respect of Europol's new computer system, in the absence of experience of operating the convention it is impossible to say what level of contribution we will have to make. Some indications, however, may be gained from our current contributions to the EDU's budget. The EDU budget for 1997, when savings made last year are taken into account, is ECU 7 million, 0.7 per cent of which we pay for from the Garda Síochána Vote.
The convention is a desirable measure which will provide a weapon to us and our EU partners for combating international organised crime. It will provide for greatly enhanced co-operation among the 15 at a level commensurate with the threat posed by the increasingly sophisticated techniques of today's organised criminals. I commend the Bill to the House.