Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 13 Dec 2006

Vol. 629 No. 4

Europol (Amendment) Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Report and Final Stages.

Amendment No. 1 in the name of Deputy Ó Snodaigh is out of order.

Amendment No. 1 not moved.

I move amendment No 2:

In page 4, lines 25 and 26, to delete ", with any necessary modifications,".

On Committee Stage, I argued that we must ensure the Data Protection Acts we have passed in this House will have full effect over this Bill. Currently, the Bill contains the wording "with any necessary modifications" but it does not detail who decides the modifications or what might be necessary. This is the only time we will have a say in the Bill on the future conduct of Europol.

It is regrettable amendment No. 1 was ruled out of order, despite my arguing it on Committee Stage and raising the issue involved on Second Stage. The Ceann Comhairle has ruled that it is in conflict with the principle of the Bill. I do not believe that because it simply stated that the Bill should not come into effect until such time as the safeguards as outlined are in place. We do not oppose the Bill. I stated on Second Stage that I was not opposed to it as a whole. We support proper and effective cross-border communications and co-operation between police forces where such action strikes the correct balance between the need and the right of individuals and communities to be safe from organised crime with the civil and human rights of an individual. It is bizarre that amendment No. 1 was ruled out of order. It did not go against the Bill, it allowed this House further opportunities to ensure that before the Bill comes into effect, the required safeguards to ensure Europol members would be held to account are in place. I have not seen where or whether the members of Europol will come under the Garda ombudsman commission despite the ability that Europol investigation teams can operate within this jurisdiction.

The key data protection principle is that there is an onus on data controllers to ensure the data are updated and accurate. We must ensure that when we pass such legislation we are satisfied that the standards and protections we would require are also implemented in Europe. I do not want to leave it to some anonymous person to decide the necessary modifications to the Data Protection Act without this House being informed.

Already there are problems with data protection standards in various police forces. The gardaí failed last year to update their files on Frank McBrearty Jnr., who was denied entry to the United States as a result of that failure. Standards are not being upheld. In England it was disclosed that British files wrongly listed thousands of people as criminals, resulting in many of them being refused employment. We must be careful if data are being recorded that they are recorded accurately and that proper regulations are in place for data controllers. That is why we passed Data Protection Acts, although we have not been proactive enough in doing so. Usually the revelation of data passing between State agencies occurred to prompt data protection measures, a point I have argued on other occasions where we have dealt with European legislation.

Given the Government's failure to ensure the data protection rights of individuals are fully protected by our police force, how can we guarantee the rights they should have will be protected by Europol if someone unknown can make the necessary modifications? The Bill will allow Europol members to participate in joint investigation teams and there is a push at European level to give Europol more powers, including the ability to attend the scene of crime to search and confiscate. What will the channels of redress be should members of Europol breach the rights of an Irish citizen? Will the Garda ombudsman have the power to hold members of Europol to account to the same degree it will be able to hold members of the Garda Síochána to account at some stage next year when it is operational, although not on 1 January as we had hoped?

There are questions to answer and the two amendments I tabled, one of which the Ceann Comhairle misguidedly ruled out of order, would serve to ensure our laws are to the fore when dealing with this and that we have the necessary protections. Other than that there are questions about the Bill as a whole, which I raised on Second and Committee Stages, but the main problem we have is to ensure our existing protocols are maintained and that if we pass future data protection Acts and regulations, they will have an effect. I am worried about this. If data protection standards are improved in the future, will that require amendment by all 25 EU member states of their data protection legislation to bring in new or minimum standards? It has been argued in the House that there is a requirement to increase data protection to ensure when material is shared by various agencies, such as police forces in this case, it is not abused. If the information is found to be incorrect, it must also be ensured that the Garda has a channel through which it can immediately pass information to another police force, such as Police Nationale in France.

It should be obligatory on the Garda or Europol to forward the new and updated information immediately. If Europol officers find that the information they receive is false, misleading or slightly inaccurate, a mechanism should be in place to flag this to make sure the data is corrected and updated for the officers who accessed it. This would prevent officers using incorrect information and courts being misled because the information is inaccurate and concerns somebody else. I hope the Minister of State will take this issue on board so that, at least, he will provide clarification about who will be responsible for the "necessary modifications". This phrase could have many meanings and a more specific reference should be included.

Fine Gael is continually supportive of measures that help our police force and other European police forces to take on the enormous task they face dealing with major drug barons and people trafficking, which has emerged as a serious issue in recent times. Given the expansion of the Union, co-operation between police forces is particularly important. Our only reservation concerns whether the Garda would have the resources, manpower, linguistic skills and information technology to maximise its interaction with other police forces. We should always guard against the infringement of civil rights and perhaps the Minister of State will explain the phrase "necessary modifications", which is vague. However, we broadly support the legislation.

It is fortuitous that the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights is in the Chair for such an important debate. This is the only justice measure to come before the House on which I have not tabled amendments because it involves the enactment of protocols and international covenants under which Ireland has agreed to share information and ensure effective policing throughout Europe.

As all our business becomes more globalised, it must be ensured that the defences we put in place to protect ourselves from international crime are also robust. I welcome these measures and I am guided by the work of the Joint Committee on Child Protection over the past number of months. Major concerns raised at its meetings are the trafficking of people to Ireland and other member states and the movement of convicted paedophiles, particularly when their whereabouts are not known by authorities. These issues need more regulation and publicity.

In the past few days Ireland has been given a good reason to consider very carefully the international movement of drugs. The horrific double murder of two individuals yesterday, one of whom was plying his trade and was totally innocent, underscores the importance of ensuring a robust policing support system in the State. Drug lords based in Spain and the Netherlands are trafficking drugs into Ireland and it has become a billion euro business. The interdictions of drugs in the first ten months of this year highlight a tenfold increase in the volume of drugs seized by the Garda compared to the same period last year. While I congratulate the Garda on this magnificent success, unfortunately, it has not impacted on the availability or price of heroin on the streets. We have an enormous job to do and a robust response is needed to the expanding international drugs cartels, which are peddling death on our streets.

I support the legislation, which will be an additional weapon in the armoury of the Garda, as it will allow the force to share information. I hope the European Union will put in place as robust and unified a policing system as possible to monitor international crime.

Following consultation by my Department with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel on the matter, he has advised that the words "with any necessary modifications", which the amendment proposes to delete, are necessary to ensure our Data Protection Acts apply and have full effect. These words were included in the Europol Act 1997 and they are a common form in Acts such as this, which give effect to international instruments, for example, section 5 of the Customs and Excise (Mutual Assistance) Act 2001. The Deputy will agree the issues he seeks to address in the amendment are adequately covered by legislation and, therefore, I do not propose to accept it.

The legislation still does not outline who will make the "necessary modifications". I support the principle underpinning the legislation but it is a pity the Minister of State has not provided a satisfactory reply to my question. Is it envisaged that the protocols covered by the Bill will be subject to 25 different Data Protection Acts in the European Union? Will the Parliamentary Counsel make the "necessary modifications"? Have those modifications been identified? Is this only a case of dotting the i's and crossing the t's? If that were the case, I could understand it.

Other people in the European Union have a different vision from us and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform of the criminal justice system and the sovereignty of this Parliament over criminal justice issues. The Minister has argued for the retention of unanimity rather than a qualified majority vote. We must be careful in dealing with justice issues to ensure we do not give carte blanche.

In the Europol Act 1997 the same terminology, "with any necessary modifications", was included and the Office of the Attorney General is of the view that these words should be retained. It is a common word construction that is necessary to give effect to the relevant section of the Bill and one used in other legislation. I do not think the Deputy need worry about this issue.

I will finish the point I was making. The chairman's summary of the high level conference on the future of Europol of February 2006 stated that "ways should be found to enable Europol to exchange information also with countries that do not have the same data protection standards as those applicable within the European Union". This legislation will not allow for this because it is specific to what is in place, which suggests the Government is already looking for ways around data protection issues.

This legislation is vital. Deputy Howlin is correct that we must do everything we can to stop drug barons in this state getting weapons and drugs onto the streets and having a devastating effect. In this globalised world there is a need for data exchange to ensure the Garda will be increasingly successful in the capture of such shipments. Luckily for many, it has been successful in this regard in recent days, weeks and months. This is only the beginning of the fight against drug barons because it is internationally accepted that police forces capture only 10% of drugs trafficked.

We must have the highest possible standards of data protection. I have requested, on a number of EU justice measures in this House, that we prioritise data protection and put in place data sharing mechanisms. There should be a standard of data protection across the European Union that is even higher than that in Ireland because this would negate the possibility of mistakes such as those I listed on an international scale. In such circumstances the public could be confident that mistakes would not be made and that the data shared would have built in protection. Measures would be necessary to ensure that if mistakes were spotted in shared data, they could be corrected throughout the European Union.

I will not labour my point, as there does not appear to be much support for my proposal. The first amendment I tabled was of key significance and it is regrettable that the Acting Chairman ruled it out of order, despite the fact that it was not contrary to the purpose of the Bill, that I mentioned it on Second Stage and that I had argued the point on Committee Stage. It would have given greater effect to the points I was making than the amendment which seeks to provide for "necessary modifications".

Amendment put and declared lost.
Bill received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I thought the Minister of State might say something for three minutes about the importance of the Bill.

A Deputy

Rhubarb, rhubarb.

I thank Deputies for their contributions and the interest they have shown in the issues covered by the Bill. While it is short, it is very important in increasing the level of co-operation between member states in the fight against international organised crime, as recognised by Opposition Deputies. It is important that it be enacted without further delay and that the three protocols that are the subject of the Bill become Schedules to the Europol Act 1997 to facilitate ratification by Ireland.

Crime does not respect national borders. International networks are increasingly being used by criminals to carry out activities. The Government and its EU partners are aware that international organised crime cannot be tackled effectively by relying solely on national law enforcement agencies. That is why our participation in Europol is vital.

I appreciate the point made by Deputy Ó Snodaigh, but I am satisfied, as the Attorney General strongly advises, that it is adequately covered in the Bill.

I thank Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas for the support they have given to the Bill. I also thank the staff of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for the work they have done in bringing the Bill to completion, as it will strengthen our hand in tackling crime at international level.

I thank the Minister of State and his officials for dealing with the Bill that passed easily through the House with the Opposition's support. It is an important Bill and important issues must be addressed in international law enforcement. I hope the Bill will help in that regard.

I wish the Minister of State and his officials a happy Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.