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David Blunkett: European warrant is fair, but it is open to abuse

Nothing gets up the nose of those outside this country more regularly than our assertion that the English judicial system is the best, fairest and most reliable in the world.

We’re rightly proud of the history of our laws and freedoms built up over centuries and the rights asserted from the late 17th century onwards. But it’s almost as if we’re stuck in a time warp. That is why there has been more debate about the development of the European Arrest Warrant here than in other countries on the Continent.

Whilst I believe I was right as Home Secretary in the post-11 September era to agree to the EAW, I was insufficiently sensitive to how this might be used not only for misdemeanours carrying greater sentences elsewhere than they would here – but also to the vagaries of time.

The decision of Gary Mann to carry his case to Strasbourg has been valuable. Looking back, I was unfair to Mr Mann – not in terms of the law that was agreed, but in terms of my own insensitivity to the likely overuse of powers which were designed, in particular, to tackle organised crime and terrorism.

Extradition arrangements had existed for generations, but they were clumsy, time-consuming, obstructive and open to abuse. Take the case of Rachid Ramda, first arrested in London in 1995. The French tried for 10 years to extradite him on charges of terrorism. The sophisticated use of our appeals system resulted in a dangerous breakdown of trust between the French and UK governments on the issue of rooting out and dealing with the terrorist threat.

This is a two-way street. When we want people returned to Britain for trial, we’re all in favour of a speedy but robust and fair arrest warrant system. When the boot is on the other foot, then the “superiority” of our system comes to the fore.

We now need greater clarification of comparative charging arrangements and of the length and nature of sentences applicable in the country of origin (as a threshold for triggering the applicability of the arrest warrant) – and to consider the crucial matter of the time elapsed.

Where someone has not been apprehended in the country in which the alleged offence has taken place, time should not be a bar to due process. But where someone has been in custody and released, there must surely be some sensible “sunset” arrangements that do not allow for matters to drag on, lives to be blighted and bureaucratic delays to take precedence over common sense.

It’s rare in life where there are not lessons that can be learned and good intentions re-examined in the light of experience. As the Liberal Democrat MEP Graham Watson has rightly said, over the last seven years, justice has been done for British victims and their families, without perpetrators escaping by moving from country to country.

Now our task is to make sure that in righting one wrong, we do not inadvertently ignore another.

David Blunkett is the MP for Sheffield Brightside and a former Home Secretary