EU: Schengen Information System II (EUC Report)

– in the House of Lords at 1:19 pm on 12th October 2007.

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Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench 1:19 pm, 12th October 2007

rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the European Union Committee on Schengen Information System II (SIS II) (9th Report, HL Paper 49).

Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench

My Lords, those noble Lords who are frequent travellers and therefore make a habit of handing over their passports for the inscrutable gaze of a border control official may not have given much thought to the means by which that official acquires the information enabling him, or nowadays more often her, to decide whether you should be allowed to leave or to enter the country. I had not given the matter much thought myself until the sub-committee I chair embarked on the inquiry which led to this report. But the principle is clear. There is no difficulty for a single country like the UK to give all its border controls computerised information from the national police and immigration authorities, but when two countries abolish such checks at a common border, those controlling the external borders of the two countries need to be armed with the relevant information from both countries. And when the majority of the member states of the EU decided, as they did at Schengen, to abolish their common borders, a major computerised initiative is needed to supply all their external borders with all the relevant information. That initiative was the first Schengen information system. It began operations in 1995 and by 2001 it applied to all 15 member states except the United Kingdom and Ireland. The special position of the United Kingdom is a point to which I shall return.

The SIS is not merely an instrument for border control. The availability of information throughout the European Union has made it a major instrument for law enforcement. Let me give two examples. A car stopped in member state A has been listed as stolen in member state B. This will be clear from the check on its licence plates, so a police officer of state A will be able to detain the driver and inform the authorities of state B. A person who has escaped police custody in state C is the subject of a European arrest warrant which is listed on the SIS. If he is stopped in member state D, the police officers will be able to arrest him.

The subject of the report we are debating today—the second Schengen information system, SIS II—is needed for two reasons: to allow for the enlargement of the European Union and to enable biometric data to be included. Any European Government interested in policing and law enforcement would surely be eager to join the SIS and, as soon as it is up and running, SIS II, or so one might have thought. The United Kingdom obtained approval to participate in the SIS from the beginning of 2005. The UK database should have been ready by then but was not. We were told in evidence that the reasons were technical problems and related to an act of God—the fire at the Buncefield oil depot, next to which the police national computer and the UK SIS terminal were located. But as the fire took place in December 2005, I hope that the Minister will explain to us why the UK was not already in a position to take part in this important law enforcement tool at the beginning of that year, and why the Government have now abandoned any attempt to join the first SIS.

We know that the reason is not so that the UK can be among the first states to join SIS II. The start-up date for that was to have been later this year but is now to be December 2008. Yet we were told in evidence by Home Office officials that the UK's aspiration was to join in 2009, and expert witnesses subsequently put this back to 2010. The Government, in their response, agreed that the UK,

"should be ready and able to participate as early and as fully as possible", which I would have taken to mean December 2008. But in July the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office told us that the UK connection was,

"due to go live in 2010".

On "Channel 4 News", she subsequently said that the date would be April 2010, and confirmed this last week in a letter to my noble friend Lord Grenfell. In her Channel 4 interview, the Minister gave as a reason for the delay the unique technical difficulties for the UK of having 80 different users of the police national computer to connect to SIS II. The committee was allowed to see the list of those 80 users. Nearly all are simply different police forces, and I cannot see why the list should not be made publicly available.

In her letter to the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, the Minister says:

"This is a complex programme which we need to ensure we get right".

Is it really more complex for the United Kingdom than for other large member states? They, too, have to get it right. Why are these problems incapable of resolution within the next 14 months?

As your Lordships know, the United Kingdom has retained its own border controls so is not a full participant in the Schengen system, nor will it be a full participant in SIS II. It will not obtain access to SIS immigration data, the list of persons to be denied access to the Schengen states. There are legal objections. Even if there were not, the Schengen states would surely object to our obtaining this information without opening our borders. Yet some of the immigration data are valuable for purposes other than border control. They include, for example, alerts about aliens who, if admitted, might pose a threat to public safety or national security. We devoted a whole chapter of our report to the question of whether, without obtaining access to these data for border control purposes, we might nevertheless obtain access for policing and other law enforcement purposes.

The Home Office, in its written evidence to us, agreed that there might be operational merit in this; so did witnesses from the Serious Organised Crime Agency. The problem was the technical one of enabling the computer system to differentiate between data supplied for border control purposes and data supplied for security purposes. At present such differentiation is not possible, but no witness suggested that it was impossible. Access by the UK to this information would be valuable not only for the security of the United Kingdom, but for our EU partners as a whole. We urged the Government to see whether it would be technically feasible to devise the future SIS II system so that it could differentiate between these classes of information and, of course, we urged them to do so as soon as possible as the system was already in development. The Government declined to do so.

If the Home Office had followed our recommendation, I believe that they would have had support at the highest levels. In his Statement to the other place on national security, the Prime Minister referred to,

"the importance of enhancing existing co-operation to share more information between police and immigration services, and internationally across countries: within the European Union, to enable British law enforcement authorities to access immigration information on existing European Union databases".—[Hansard, Commons, 25/7/07; col. 843.]

But, as I say, the Home Office rejected our advice. It said, as is true, that there were legal problems about access to this information and added that the Government were challenging the interpretation of the relevant provisions in the Court of Justice. The response continued:

"If and when the UK is able to access these alerts we will explore with our EU colleagues the technical and operational issues which arise".

I find that incomprehensible. The time to explore the technical issues was six months ago so that if the UK was still legally unable to access all this information, it might still be able to access that part of it essential to national security.

What did the Government have to lose by beginning immediate discussion of the technical issues? At worst, they would have discovered that differentiation between the categories of data was not technically possible. They would then have been no worse off. I ask the Minister why his department took that attitude. It may still not be too late for him to see if the technical problems can be resolved. However, he may now be told that this might have been possible six months ago but that matters have now progressed too far.

Data protection issues also inevitably arise when an enormous volume of personal data, some of it highly sensitive, is held on a database accessible by law enforcement officers throughout the European Union. Here we have the problem that the immigration provisions of SIS II, being a First Pillar matter, are governed by a regulation that is itself subject to the First Pillar data protection directive while the provisions on co-operation in criminal law and policing are governed by a decision under the Third Pillar. Because there is as yet no Third Pillar data protection instrument corresponding to the First Pillar directive, the decision has its own tailor-made provisions. I think the late Lord Weatherill, who proudly carried his tailor's thimble in his pocket, would have agreed with me that the tailor who made those data protection provisions was not a master of his craft. They differ from those of the regulation, sometimes for good and comprehensible reasons, but often not. We criticise the provisions of the decision as being unduly complex. The Government disagree. We, however, have in support of our view the evidence of the Deputy Information Commissioner, who described it as a mixed picture that his office had difficulty in following.

The data protection provisions of the decision differ not only from those governing the regulation but from those governing other Third Pillar instruments, such as the decision transposing into EU law the provisions of the Prüm treaty. What is needed for the Third Pillar is a single data protection instrument, performing for the Third Pillar the function that the directive performs for the First Pillar. That instrument will be the long-awaited data protection framework decision, the DPFD, that we have been promised for some time. The first draft was published two years ago. Shortly after the publication of our report, a fresh draft of the DPFD was brought out and negotiations began again in earnest. The Portuguese presidency has said that it would like the DPFD to be adopted at the Justice and Home Affairs Council next month. Only last week, negotiations took place that may have led to a final draft. We have yet to see it, but I fear that it may do little to simplify this complicated issue, and in particular to clarify what will happen when there is a conflict between its own general provisions and the particular provisions of the SIS II decision.

The last main issue I wish to raise is biometrics. As I have explained, the inclusion of biometric data is one of the main reasons for the development of SIS II. Initially these are likely to be fingerprint and photographic data, but in due course also DNA profiles and retina scans. Biometric data are exceedingly valuable but not infallible, and the consequences of false matches can be serious. A case cited by the European data protection supervisor in his opinion on SIS II is that of a lawyer from Portland in the United States, who was wrongly identified as a terrorist and detained because his fingerprint successfully matched one found in the Madrid bombing. The match was subsequently shown to be flawed. The European Parliament also had reservations about the use of SIS to identify third-country nationals on the basis of their biometric information. So did some of our witnesses. Even the witnesses from the Serious Organised Crime Agency, who have much to gain from improved identification methods, told us that biometric systems can be designed only to search for an acceptable degree of similarity and can be set for a high, medium or low degree of correspondence.

The Commission is due to report on the availability and readiness of the relevant technology. I hope the Minister can tell the House whether biometric searches will be available as soon as SIS II becomes operational. Is he satisfied that when they become available they will be sufficiently reliable? What provisions will be in place to allow for cases of wrong identification to be corrected and for the protection and compensation of the individuals involved?

I hope our report has made it clear that the committee regards SIS II as an extremely valuable weapon in the fight against crime, and is disappointed that the Government apparently see so little urgency in signing up to it. However, we would also be concerned if, once it applied to this country, the right of the public to protection from crime was not adequately balanced by the rights of individuals to protection of themselves and their personal data. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us on these issues and on the others I have addressed. I beg to move.

J

The government claims that it needs the £400 million saved by freezing pensions for peoplpe resident in Australia etc to build schools and hospitals. It could save this amount of money by greater efficiency in the IT systems.

Submitted by James nelson

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Whip, Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 1:35 pm, 12th October 2007

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wright, for the way in which he chairs our sub-committee and the way in which this comprehensive report has come out. Anyone reading the report—as I am sure everyone here has, in full—might get the impression that it was about a dry subject, but it is not. To me, it is very exciting. It is about one of the three freedoms we have as part of Europe: the movement of goods, the movement of capital and the movement of individuals. Fundamentally, the subject of the report is the delivery of that third freedom to us as citizens of Europe.

There are three parts to that—three sides of the triangle. First, there is the obligation for the freedom of movement. To make that possible we need to ensure, in opening borders or giving that freedom, that we know something about the people who are moving, particularly third party nationals. We then have to ensure that those data are properly looked after and guarded in terms of their use. It is those areas that the report looks at.

Schengen itself was originally the result of five member states saying, "We want to make freedom of movement something that is meaningful to citizens, so that you don't just have the theoretical right but you can actually go from one member state to another without having to prove who you are or show identification". That was agreed in 1985, and it took until 1995 to deliver it with the Schengen states. I think they had to remodel Schipol airport four times before they could make it work with the new traffic flows that were needed. This is an exciting part of our freedom as European citizens. Regrettably, as UK citizens, we are completely excluded from it. We have to show our passports and are denied what many of our fellow European citizens are allowed.

The report brings out a number of key issues. One of them is, frankly, mismanagement. There are few other cases I have come across where the Council of Ministers has said to the Commission, "My goodness, you've made such a mess of this so far that when it comes to SIS II we're not going to allow you to be the management authority". SIS II is late in delivery. The contractual arrangements were disputed legally, and the Commission and the supplier had a public spat involving court cases. Already the expenditure is expected to be €150 million—although, with the paucity of information and assessment of the process beforehand, we do not actually know if that is the case or what the cost-benefit ratio is behind it. There are a number of areas of bad management; so much so that the Commission has had to invent an SIS I and a half, called SISOne4All, just to ensure that the new member states that joined in May 2004 can become, as we promised them, a part of this greater European concept of freedom of movement.

One of the things that I find staggering about this—it is an area in which Europe regularly fails—is that it could have been predicted. I used to be involved in regional funding in the European Union. When one period of regional assistance funding ended—as happened at the end of last year—suddenly there was a rush to make all the decisions to get the programmes in place for the next period. However, it was known back in 1999 that the next regional funding period would commence in 2007. As a citizen one wonders why the relevant people did not predict that event in 1999 and get on with planning for it. As regards this agreement, as far back as the mid-1990s we knew that member states would join the European Union and yet the Commission failed utterly, and the Council failed to a degree, to have this system ready when accession took place in 2004, let alone in 2007.

The noble Lord, Lord Wright, mentioned the important hybrid area of data protection. Frankly, no ordinary citizen can understand the difference between pillar 1 and pillar 3 in the European Union, yet we have no data protection worthy of the name within the European context except perhaps in the Council of Europe—a completely different body. I believe that under the reform treaty we shall, thank goodness, abolish pillar 3. Perhaps we can then have sensible data protection in all areas.

As regards Schengen more generally, I am very disappointed that the UK, and therefore the Irish Republic, do not participate in this system. That is very counter- political-culture and the Daily Mail has challenged all those areas. However, as a European citizen and taxpayer I see it as a benefit to be able to travel freely within the European Union. I should like to think that the British Government will rethink this big division that we have put up between us and the other member states in terms of our leadership of Europe and our aspirations to be a proper working part of Europe. We use our status as an island nation to excuse our stance on this. However, Iceland, which is not even part of the European Union, is part of Schengen, as is Greece with its many islands. If we belonged to Schengen and could participate in all the third pillar areas, we would have access to much more data which would make our lives more secure. I know British men and women whose spouses are third nation individuals who cannot holiday together easily in Europe as a family because the spouses cannot easily obtain Schengen visas. Therefore, the United Kingdom is at a disadvantage in this whole area because it is not a member of Schengen. It seems to me the ultimate irony that if there is one nation in Europe that is proud of its independence and its security vis-à-vis anti-terrorism, it is Switzerland. It is not even a member of the European Union, yet a couple of years ago it agreed through a referendum to become a part of this process.

A number of questions arise in terms of the United Kingdom and SIS II. It is a great disappointment that we never engaged in SIS I although we had the opportunity to do so. We appear to have no wish to do so either. I hope that that will change in terms of SISOne4All. Why are we not trying to become a part of that in the third pillar areas? In terms of SIS II we seem to be very much at the end of the queue. Once again we are not even playing a Championship League role in the European Union. Will we try to rejoin SIS I or SISOne4All given the delays elsewhere? Will we try to get ourselves in front of the queue rather than at the end of it for SIS II because it would give us the ability to have more security information? Will the Government move away from the tabloid risks and disquiet with freedom of movement and, like me, celebrate being a part of the European Union and try to be a whole member rather than a part-time member?

Photo of Lord Marlesford Lord Marlesford Conservative 1:45 pm, 12th October 2007

My Lords, the subject of this report is as esoteric as it is important, and it is as important as it is esoteric. It is not headline stuff but, my goodness, it is headline stuff if what it is about goes wrong. I pay special tribute to our Clerk, Michael Collon, whose clear mind has helped us to distil in the report the crucially important points in the SIS II controversy. I just hope that Ministers have read the report; if we were merely writing for a few defensive Home Office officials, we have probably been wasting our time.

I have faith in the potential of the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, who is to reply to the debate. He comes from a world where incompetence and lack of action and initiative can cost lives. That is a great asset that he brings to the Government. I hope therefore that, with the full support of the Home Secretary, who has made a good start, he is driving forward his own ideas and plans to protect the internal security of our country in what is already a period of very great danger.

The biggest threat comes from those Islamists who have perverted their religion into a political ideology and formed a Trotskyite-type political party—Hizb ut-Tahrir. The object of that group, which of course encompasses the mission of al-Qaeda, is to overthrow by subversion and terrorism the democratic system of the West and then to use military force to introduce a world caliphate. That it has not a hope of achieving this is clear. But it is equally clear that its efforts are already proving immensely disruptive to lives in the West and will result in much bloodshed. Anyone who doubts any of that should read The Islamist by Ed Husain.

I entirely support the Government in not signing up to the Schengen agreement. I fear that I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, with whom I agree on many other matters. The geography of the UK means that we can and must defend our borders at the points at which people enter or leave. Frankly, I prefer that system, which is more British, to the continental system whereby the borders may be open but you can be stopped down the road by checkpoints. "Vos papiers, monsieur", is a common demand in France but not yet—I am glad to say—in Britain.

There has been some resentment among Schengen countries that we are not full members. The other countries in the EU always object to our not taking a full part in everything European. They have used this to deny us full participation in the Schengen information system. The EU Commission is still preventing us from getting the immigration information that SIS II will collect. That is in spite of the fact that that the UK taxpayer is contributing a full share to the cost of the Schengen information system. We received a letter from Vice-President Frattini of the European Commission, telling us that the best way of guaranteeing full access to the Schengen information data is to participate fully in Schengen. That should be wholly unacceptable to Her Majesty's Government.

The response of HMG has been pathetic. Informally, we are told that they are relying on quiet diplomacy. In their response to our report they say that they will have to await the judgment of the European Court in the Frontex case, which is expected next year, and that, if and when the UK is able to access these alerts, they will explore with our EU colleagues the technical issues which arise. Frontex is the proposed European frontier force being formed to deal with the very real growing threat of unmanageable immigration at flood levels. I should explain that the EU commissioners are trying to prevent us participating fully in Frontex. The feebleness of dealing with these issues of access to information is Whitehall at its worst. I wish that when the Prime Minister invited my noble friend Baroness Thatcher to tea at No. 10 he had asked her for the loan of her handbag.

I might add that I am glad to say that Sub-Committee F has embarked on an investigation into Frontex and that, in addition to a highly skilled international lawyer as a special adviser for the inquiry, we have secured the services of a recently retired major general to advise us on the logistics of Frontex.

The Minister will probably realise that my chief interest in this subject is practical. I believe that this Government have been inexcusably dilatory as regards making our borders secure to prevent malefactors getting in or out. Only now is the e-border being introduced at points of entry and there is no sign of them yet at points of exit. Most of us have probably been in and out of the UK during the Recess and we have been able to observe at first hand the permeability of our frontiers.

I wonder if your Lordships realise that Hong Kong had electronic control of its borders two years before Britain handed over that territory to China in 1997. Although passports themselves were not at that time electronic, the details of every person arriving in or leaving the territory were entered into the Hong Kong Government's computer system before they were allowed to pass. I would like to make a practical recommendation to the Minister that he gets in touch with the British official in the Hong Kong Government responsible for the system up to the handover and seeks his advice on how we might proceed in this country.

I would underline the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wright, that the UK obtained approval to participate in SIS from the beginning of 2005—nearly three years ago. Now the Government have abandoned that and said they will join only SIS II. That is due to open in December 2008. Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright, told us, the junior Home Office Minister says that the UK connection will not be ready to go live until 2010. That is not good enough.

Your Lordships may be astonished at this delay. I am not. It is par for the course for the Home Office. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that on 1 October 1997, Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act came into force. It required the Government to set up a central register of all those who have applied for or been granted a shotgun or firearm licence. There have been years of Home Office sabotage. I use that word advisedly, having discussed the failure to implement the amendment with a succession of the Minister's predecessors—and that is the message they have given me. They have tried again and again to persuade the Home Office to implement the will of Parliament. Not until March 2006 was the National Firearms Licensing Management System rolled out to all 43 police forces. Even now, it is not linked to the police national computer, because police forces are still engaged in a data-cleaning exercise.

I have had a number of Parliamentary Answers from the noble Lord about the administration of the UK passport system, which is integral both to SIS II and to the security of this country. These Answers reveal several disturbing facts. I would like the opportunity of a discussion of these matters with the Minister outside the Chamber.

I urge the full and proper use of biometrics. The uncertainties of biometrics are directly proportional to the number of biometrics used. The impact of the error rate of one biometric for identification can made negligible if three biometrics are used. That is fairly elementary mathematics.

Finally, I recommend that the Home Office, in its search for using SIS II to protect our borders, makes the fullest use of algorithms, which aid the efficient use of multiple sources of information. I urge the Minister, if he has not already read it, to look at a piece on this subject on page 93 of the 15 September issue of the Economist.

Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Labour 1:56 pm, 12th October 2007

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, not only for so ably introducing this debate but for chairing our committee over a number of years with enthusiasm and wisdom, for which we are all grateful. In that, he has been well aided and abetted by Michael Collon and his excellent staff.

I have a lot of sympathy with the report as we have produced it and the opening speech by the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond. However, I have some sense of the difficulties that the Government face in dealing with these matters. The treaty exchanges and negotiations next week are only a background to trying to deal with such a difficult subject as the Schengen information system II.

We have an impoverished debate about the European Union in this country at the moment. The mood of Euro-scepticism has gripped not only most of our blinkered media but some of our political colleagues. One of the casualties of that has been our approach to many important issues on the European level, including Schengen, particularly the Schengen information system and now the Schengen information system II, which is the subject of today's debate. Instead of adopting a sensible approach in partnership with our European partners to tackling serious crime and heightening our internal security, we have had to compromise because of the need to placate the Euro-sceptics in the press and other media.

I base my own full-throated support for the European Union on the single European market, to which the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, referred. I believe that the single European market, which encourages the free movement of goods, people, services and capital, is the route by which we convince people that the European Union is worth while; it brings prosperity and jobs in that way. But I have heard less articulated the fact that, if you create a single European market that is beneficial, you also create a market for those who use the free movement to help organised crime, to traffic people or to present themselves as terrorists. That is why we so badly need a template of protection over that worthwhile single market—one that protects the market and, most important, protects the people moving within and around it.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, I have high hopes of my noble friend Lord West of Spithead, and perhaps he will accept my very warm but belated welcome to the Government Front Bench. In a former incarnation, he had the safety of the British people and this island at heart, and I, too, hope that he has not so changed, chameleon-like, as a new Minister that he has forgotten the importance of and need for those security objectives. I hope that he casts his cold analytical eye on these political issues and recognises that, if we absent ourselves from Schengen and the information systems allied to it, we may present less secure protection for our people than might otherwise be the case. I hope that he will be indiscreet in his reply and say that he, too, shares some of those worries.

I hope that my noble friend will also reply to the question about joining up late. Is it to be 2010, and what form is SIS II to take? I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford: it seems peculiar that, when we ask what the difficulties are, we are told that we need to consult 80 other organisations and there will be difficulties there. We discover that most of those organisations are our own police forces. It seems to me that it is a question of, "Physician, heal thyself". If we have not organised ourselves in this country the best to share information about criminals, how can we expect to do so at the higher level? I have always been an enthusiast for a national police force. We may not go there but we need to have a good system within our own country if we are to be effective at the European level—which, in time, I hope we will be.

Being outside Schengen and having a semi-detached status produce difficulties. Again, I hope that my noble friend will tackle some of those issues, or at least recognise that problems are associated with them. Another difficulty comes from excluding ourselves from access to immigration data while maintaining border control priorities. Sometimes the difficulty is defining which elements of SIS II will be available to Britain. That does not make life easy for those whom we charge with the important task of defending Britain.

Has my noble friend had further thoughts about what the Minister, Joan Ryan, said when she came before the committee on 29 November 2006? I asked her about the cost of the Schengen information system and the fact that we pay a pro-rata rate of 18 per cent without having full access to the information so produced. I asked her whether she felt that that was value for money, and clearly she did not. I said:

"I wholly agree with you about that, but do you acknowledge that we are missing out on information we might otherwise obtain?".

The Minister replied:

"I do entirely, and part of my brief is to access exactly that information we have been discussing today".

We are spending £0.5 million on the subscription to SIS II and £3 million to £4 million on increasing the infrastructure by which, in time, it is to be implemented, but will my noble friend report to us whether he is satisfied that that money is well spent or whether it could be better spent if we stepped over the line and joined Schengen and all the elements associated with it?

Can he say a little more about progress on the data protection framework decision, which has already been alluded to by our chairman and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson? Can he also say whether the European Commission is charged to promote an information campaign about SIS II with the national supervisory authorities? What intelligence can he give us about that? What, if anything, is being done on that score? Member states themselves—that is, us—are required to ensure that citizens are fully informed about SIS II. What is the UK doing? Does it apply to us? In paragraph 159 of the report we talk of greater transparency,

"in co-decision negotiations between the Council and the European Parliament", to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

We have always wanted to promote transparency within the European Council but in this area, we say that we are concerned about moving too far and too fast. We look to the six-month review to slow things down. I wonder whether my noble friend can bring us up to date on that as well.

We have also inquired as a committee—and have been rebuffed by the Government—about getting regular updates on the progress and preparations for SIS II. Can the Minister think about that again? It is important to have regular updates and not to wait until the end to know if progress is being made and whether it is going along the right lines. It gives the process a highly desirable momentum.

Reference has been made to the Irish Republic and its absence from the Schengen system. What is the state of play between us and our colleagues in Ireland? Are we discussing this matter actively? Are we thinking about their future, our future and the future of the European Union, which should see us sharing this vital information to rebut criminals of all sorts? We should be sharing this information together to offer the template of protection that is so urgently needed for the development of the single market.

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat 2:07 pm, 12th October 2007

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to take part in this debate on an excellent report from Sub-Committee F. I do not think that it is purely my national pride, which leads me to say that Lords EU Committee reports are much appreciated in Brussels. It is their quality that recommends them.

The consolidation of an area of free movement of persons is one of the key EU projects and SIS has been an essential compensatory tool for lifting controls at internal borders, offsetting it with not only the reinforcement of the common external borders but delivering security through the exchange of information.

SIS II is now essential to accommodate enlargement of the area of free movement and also to take advantage of developments in information technology. SIS II is intended to be more consistent, uniform and secure, but also more flexible, easier to manage, better performing and capable of integrating new data, new functions and the interlinking of alerts.

I am a member of the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the European Parliament and the SIS II proposals were carefully scrutinised by that committee not least because the European Parliament had a co-decision—on the regulation. We sort of got quasi co-decision on the decision. I also followed them closely because I am the Parliament's rapporteur—lead member—on the visa information system, which is a biometric database set up to improve the management of visa policy but also having spin-off security benefits. It was important to secure coherence between those two large-scale databases, which will share the same technical platform and will be managed in the future, we hope, by the same management agency.

The European Parliament, like the committee, was critical of the lack of an impact assessment for SIS II similar to the lack of an impact assessment for the daughter of the visa information system, which I am now dealing with, which is the measure on the collection of the biometrics for the VIS. It is rather perverse that, as a result of the European Parliament's input, there will be specific impact assessments on particular aspects of SIS II once it is functioning—on the transition to a management agency and, before biometrics can be used for identification purposes, one-to-many searches—but there was no global impact assessment on SIS II itself. Perhaps if we had had the global one, we would not have needed all the specifics.

Because the Parliament had co-decision, we were able to effect some considerable improvements, many of them in line with comments in the sub-committee's report. The first area was, of course, that of data protection and supervision of the system. Parliament's suggestions to improve data quality and limit retention periods were accepted. We succeeded in strengthening supervision, with an increased role for both the European data protection supervisor and national data protection authorities. We insisted that any use of the data for police investigative purposes—that is, other than that for which it was entered—must be linked to a specific case and be justified on serious national security grounds; in other words, to stop fishing expeditions and profiling. We also insisted on publication of the list of agencies allowed access to SIS II and a ban on transfers to third countries.

The report commented on the differing data protection regimes between the regulation and the decision; the noble Lord, Lord Wright, highlighted that in his introduction. This is partly because the normal "first pillar", as it is called, data protection directive applies to the regulation. For the decision, we had to seek ad hoc rules—principally, as was pointed out, because we suffer from an overall data protection regime in the law enforcement third pillar area. The European Parliament has been demanding this for the past decade. It is quite scandalous that we still lack it. We had a Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting in September which apparently reached some kind of agreement but a pretty unsatisfactory one, diluted from the high safeguards that this House and the European Parliament have demanded. Unfortunately, the European Parliament is only consulted on this; we do not have co-decision.

The European Parliament secured other safeguards. On IT security, we insisted that SIS II should be treated as critical infrastructure, so that it got that degree of protection. On management, as I have said, we insisted on a parallel solution for the Schengen information system II and the visa information system. This will allow consistency of provision by the European data protection supervisor. We insisted on regular evaluation reports, as well as the publication of statistics on alerts, hits and access given to the system. All of this will improve transparency and audit.

On biometrics, we secured that not only should there be quality checks before biometrics are entered, in order to reduce the risk of errors, but also that there should be this review, evaluation or specific impact assessment before one-to-many searches are allowed. Of course, before DNA or iris scans were ever to be entered into the system, there would have to be an amendment to the legislation, as was pointed out. Lastly, on the European Parliament, I would highlight the rights of information, the right to deletion of unlawfully stored data given to individuals and the right to know, subject to certain national security criteria, what is held on an individual.

I accept one reproach pointed out in the report: the lack of transparency in the negotiation process. We have been under pressure and have, to a considerable extent, accepted what are called "first reading agreements". Instead of going through the longer process of having a first reading, going back to the council and then coming back to the Parliament for a second reading, we concertina it all into one agreement which is then voted on by the plenary of the Parliament. We are quite new in co-decision for this justice area, and perhaps we need to look at how that is working and get some guidelines on good practice. Certainly, in handling the new report on the collection of biometrics to go in the visa information system, I will insist on a committee vote before we go into negotiations with the council because third parties will then be able to see what is being voted in the Parliament.

The European Parliament is not responsible for the delays in setting up SIS II. They were largely because of problems in the tendering procedures for procurement. We hope that the interim solution of SISOne4All will not be done at the expense of the development of SIS II, which must remain the priority.

On the question of UK participation, we are awaiting the judgment by the European Court of Justice in the Frontex and biometric passports cases. However, on 10 July the Advocate-General published an opinion that was not encouraging for the UK and essentially rejected the UK position. UK access to SIS II immigration data and the visa information system database for policing purposes depends on the outcome of the case because the council is making a declaration to accompany the VIS decision to say that while UK and Irish access would enhance the shared security of member states, which is the case, it would be kept under review while awaiting the jurisprudence. The "the UK cannot have its cake and eat it" argument is widespread, and we will have to work hard to overcome the feeling that the benefits of UK access in shared and reciprocal security outweigh the feeling that we are trying to cherry pick from Schengen.

The reform treaty is much needed to rationalise powers in legislative decision-making to produce consistency between the first pillar border and immigration area and the third pillar policing and law enforcement area. On the whole, that is expected to happen. However, the UK red lines and what the Government call "opt-ins" and some people call "opt-outs" will not bring the clarity, efficiency and accountability that many of us would like. I feel that that is regrettable and will weaken our influence and input in constructing the area of freedom, security and justice. If matters are complicated now with regard to UK participation in Schengen and other justice, immigration and policing measures, I fear we ain't seen nothing yet as compared with when the reform treaty is in place.

Finally, I fear that the position of UK MEPs taking part in co-decision matters in the European Parliament on Schengen and other JHA measures will come under creeping challenge. I wonder whether a British MEP would be able to be the rapporteur on a co-decision report when the UK is not taking part in future. That will weaken the ability of UK MEPs to advocate special treatment for the UK—which is unfortunately how it is seen—even though we will do our best to argue that the substantive benefits are worth the fact that we are not legally fully taking part.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 2:19 pm, 12th October 2007

My Lords, I rise as a member of the Committee of your Lordships' House that produced this report to speak briefly about some of its recommendations and, in particular, about our consideration of the need for a legislative impact assessment, the absence of which we regret, before the development and introduction of SIS II and the need carefully to monitor the impact of SIS and SIS II in use. I thank our chairman, my noble friend Lord Wright of Richmond, for his leadership. I much regret that following Prorogation he is obliged to move on. It has been a great pleasure serving under him.

The Schengen Information System is principally a large database. As such, it is a technical matter. Perhaps it has not received sufficient scrutiny in the past because the subject is rather dry by nature, but, as has been said by several noble Lords, it is crucial to the effective protection of the public that the system exists. So I am particularly grateful to our Clerk, Michael Collon, and the specialist adviser Professor Steve Peers for their assistance in making such a technical subject fairly easy to understand. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who, with his profound knowledge of immigration and data management, was of great assistance to me as someone who is new to the area. I know that he regrets being unable to speak this afternoon because of a long-standing family engagement.

I turn to the impact assessment. In his evidence to the committee, Mr Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor, said that,

"the absence of an explanatory memorandum is highly regrettable ... Moreover, one can only regret there has been no impact assessment study. The fact that the first version of the system is already in place does not justify this, since there are considerable differences between both".

That is SIS I and SIS II.

I was grateful for Her Majesty's Government's reply to our report, which noted that in future developments of SIS II there will be such an Explanatory Memorandum and impact assessments. Over the period 2007 to 2012, €114 million will come out of the EU budget to bring SIS II on line. The public deserve to know how their tax money is being spent. They need to know that careful consideration is being given to how it is used. Sensitive information is held in this database. To keep public confidence in the European Union, every effort should be taken to make plans clear to the public before they are implemented.

For the same reasons it is important that the implementation of the Schengen Information System is carefully monitored. In our report, we recommend specifically that:

"Full and clear statistics must be published at regular intervals, and should include ... the number and type of alerts per Member State ... the number and type of hits per Member State ... the use of the SIRENE system for each type of supplementary information exchanged by each Member State; and ... actions taken following a hit for each type of hit and for each Member State".

The reply of Her Majesty's Government highlighted that some of that information is already required. The final recommendation—that there should be information on action taken on following a hit—was rejected. I recognise that this is perhaps a complicated extra step, but we need feedback on how this is being used if public confidence is to be sustained.

I also highlight the important work of the Schengen evaluation team which provides ongoing assessments of each Schengen member, and their implementation. Their reports are not published publicly; a reduced version is given out. I encourage the Minister to ensure that as much information as possible is made public, and that every support is given to the Schengen evaluation team in its work—clearly it is politically sensitive—and that any concerns are properly responded to by the relevant states.

The Government provided us with a list of about 80 agencies in this country which can have access to the Schengen Information System. This we are not permitted to record in our report. It would be very helpful if the information on agencies with access to the Schengen Information System was made available as soon as possible. As my noble friend Lord Wright said, we really cannot see why that information should be so sensitive.

It is important that the Schengen Information System II is implemented and that we join it as soon as possible. I am sure that the Minister agrees that as soon as it goes live, we should be part of it. How is the legislative framework necessary to do so proceeding? I understand that the Minister's response to our report highlighted that it has become apparent that there is a legislative obstruction to that. How far have discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service proceeded to reassure us that there will be the capacity within the CPS to meet the new demands that will come with membership of SIS II? My noble friend Lord Wright of Richmond and the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, highlighted the importance of having as much access as possible to the immigration system. We recognise the limits on that, but if it is possible now to amend the Schengen Information System so that, although we cannot have access to border control information, we have access to law enforcement information, I think that the Minister will agree that we must take that step urgently.

The Schengen Information System II is dry and technical, except for someone as experienced in these matters as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, but it is also vital for the protection of the public from serious organised crime and contains sensitive information about our citizenry. I trust that the Minister can now assure us that we will be able to join SIS II as soon as it goes live and that there will be in place the necessary monitoring to ensure that information about the public is not misused.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords, Home Affairs 2:27 pm, 12th October 2007

My Lords, this report refers to the sub-committee's previous report in 1999 on Schengen and the UK's border controls. I was then the chair of the sub-committee that produced the report, before my noble friend Lady Harris of Richmond, and now the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, took over, and was thus deeply engaged in the earlier discussions about how far Britain's national interests were best protected by the complex opt-out, opt-in arrangements that we have achieved.

Years before that, when I was still a researcher at Chatham House, I recall chairing a seminar with some senior policemen in 1989 on European co-operation among police forces. I was very struck by the senior British police who argued very strongly that if the crime crosses the border, police co-operation has to cross the border as well. Some complained that the Home Office was very happy for them to do so, but did not want to make that formal because then it would have to admit what was happening to Parliament. So there is nothing very new in where we are now. I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, nodding as I make that remark, because it is a well-known story within the police forces.

Our concerns in that previous report were about how far Her Majesty's Government had protected Britain's national interest. The Labour Government had come in at the tail end of the Amsterdam negotiations, much of which had been conducted by a Conservative Government who were desperate to hide from the domestic media and from their own party how closely we were engaged in that level of co-operation. We were therefore concerned about the Government's contradictory—one has to say almost dishonest—approach of opting out, but then asking to opt back in again to as much as possible.

The problem that we had then and still have is of the gap between a political stance of assuring the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Conservative Party that British sovereignty remains unscathed by EU integration, while British law enforcement agencies recognise the necessity and desirability of active engagement because of cross-border crime, the rising number of British citizens living elsewhere within the European Union, the rising number of European Union citizens now living in the UK and, as the report makes clear, the increasing problems that arise from British families of mixed nationality, especially because we are outside the Schengen area.

Roughly speaking, some 1.5 million UK citizens are now living part time or full time elsewhere within the European Union, primarily in France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. Many of them are good, solid Eurosceptics, reading the Telegraph or the Daily Mail delivered to Andalucía, but who nevertheless want to take part in local elections to insist on their rights while they are abroad.

Around 1.5 million EU citizens from other countries now live in the United Kingdom. We learnt during the French presidential elections that some 300,000 French citizens lived and worked in London. A Dutch Minister told me some months ago that some 50,000 Dutch lived in London. There are Swedish and German schools in London which also contest that there must be substantial communities and, as we know, 500,000 EU citizens from the new member states of Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania now live and work here.

We have to accept that that has implications for the way in which British law enforcement authorities operate. I recall nine years ago when I visited the National Criminal Intelligence Service the enthusiasm with which senior British policemen talked about the possibility of recovering stolen property in trucks as they crossed the Franco-Spanish border because they could now get the information to the border authorities there before the truck arrived, and how much that improved Britain's crime solving capacity. My conclusions then were that, in the long run, it would be more honest and in Britain's national interest to join Schengen and then to negotiate an opt-out to maintain the British border checks, given the particular pressures from third-country immigrants to enter the United Kingdom.

I am convinced from the Amsterdam negotiations that we could have achieved that objective and that would have been more strongly in Britain's national interests. But it would have required Her Majesty's Government to admit to Parliament and the public the depth of their engagement in European co-operation in policing, immigration, asylum and data exchange. Instead, we have a highly complex and deliberately obscure set of arrangements. I managed to acquire from the Government some months ago a list of our opt-outs and opt-ins. It covered several pages and required very considerable reference to other documents. Of course, that makes it extremely difficult for anyone outside our own sub-committees to understand what is going on.

The United Kingdom does not have access to immigration data, although Tony Blair as Prime Minister once said that Britain's frontiers were now in the Mediterranean. I noted in the New York Times some months ago a report that Punjabis are now being flown to African airports in the hope that they can take boats in Senegal or further south to the Canaries and get into Britain that way. We see reports that there are camps around Cherbourg that threaten to repeat what happened some years ago in Sangatte. It is very clear that Britain has to co-operate fully with European border controls and European immigration because, as we well know, a large number of these immigrants from third countries want to end up in the United Kingdom. That is why we are a special case.

There are strong arguments for transparency and accountability throughout the European Union as a whole and within the UK, as the report makes clear, on matters of civil liberty and data protection. All member Governments share responsibility for the obscurity of these negotiation processes. Indeed, I recall that our last committee report was the first time that the Schengen acquis had been published. We had a great deal of difficulty getting hold of the Schengen acquis, which had been incorporated into the Amsterdam reform treaty. When we finally got hold of it, the bits that we had were in three different languages with very different typescripts.

However, there has been a particular British contribution to obscurity; that is, the British and French insistence that matters should be divided between the Third Pillar and the First Pillar, and that Britain should be allowed to be a semi-participant. As my noble friend Lady Ludford said, it is recognised that semi-participation leads to a loss of influence by Britain over the processes. We learn in the report that the German Government, for example, clearly over-enter names in the Schengen system, which causes problems for the rest of us. Our Government should be in there arguing about that sort of thing and ensuring that the system works properly for the benefit of the whole.

I note the immense irony in the Government's response to this report; namely, that Her Majesty's Government are going to the European Court of Justice to challenge the European Union's current interpretation of the Amsterdam Treaty and the protocols that we negotiated in 1997. HMG are trying to use the dreaded European Court of Justice, so feared on the Conservative Benches of this House and the other House, to gain rights within the European Union or perhaps to correct the mistakes that they made in negotiations nine to 10 years ago.

I regret that the Government have refused in their response to provide regular reports to Parliament on progress so far, but I welcome their statement that legislation may be necessary to implement this Bill, thus ensuring a degree of proper scrutiny and debate. The report makes clear that a range of UK adjustments are needed; namely, additional staffing for the Crown Prosecution Service, publication of the number and names of UK agencies with access to the SIS, clarification of the degree of overlap with Europol and Eurojust, and, as some of us have raised in other contexts, the arrangements made to allow the transfer of information held on the Schengen Information System to third countries, above all the United States.

In our previous committee report we recommended that Britain should recognise the degree of our integration with the European continent and the sheer scale of travel between Britain and Europe, by planning that ports of entry should be able in future to separate those arriving from within the EU and those arriving from outside the European economic area. That has not been done in the planning of terminal 5 and elsewhere, and it was a huge missed opportunity. We have to do a great deal more to address the rising number of mixed nationality families.

To conclude, British national interests are at stake in a world in which the number of people who cross the Channel has risen and continues to rise. The number of those who live across the borders of Britain and our neighbours also continues to rise. Sadly, the Government remain extremely cowardly about the British domestic media, leaving a wide gap between the practice of co-operation among border control agencies and law enforcement agencies and the pretence of Britain standing alone.

The Government response says:

"Member states are also required to ensure that their citizens are properly informed about the Schengen Information System II".

Hear, hear. I hope that the Minister will assure us that they will be properly informed.

Photo of Viscount Bridgeman Viscount Bridgeman Conservative 2:38 pm, 12th October 2007

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, and his committee for initiating this debate, for which we are very grateful. It is particularly heart-warming that so many members of the committee have taken part. From these Benches, I would also like to welcome the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, in what I believe is his first reply in a European sub-committee debate. These debates are such an important part of this House.

We on these Benches welcome the report and, broadly speaking, are able to support most of its conclusions. Of particular interest is the degree to which the Government are willing to follow the sub-committee's recommendations and their ability to give more precise assurances on the progress of our preparations to connect to the SIS II database.

I was encouraged to see that, in the Government's response to the committee's conclusion and recommendations, Joan Ryan MP stressed:

"The Government is fully committed to fighting cross-border crime".

Combating crime in a Europe with increasingly open borders should be a priority. The SIS database is, as most noble Lords would agree, an essential tool in that fight. Why then has it been two and half years since the Schengen provisions were put into effect? That question has run through our debate. The UK has been given permission to participate, but we are still not linked to the SIS database. Is the Minister not concerned that potentially dangerous criminals could slip through the net, as they have for the past two and a half years?

Has the difficulty which the Government have evidently experienced with regard to the database taught them anything about future large-scale IT projects, such as the national identity register? It is essential that the Home Office learn from the numerous problems that have occurred in the development and implementation of the SIS to avoid the mistakes that the Government are too fond of repeating.

Will the same problems delay the effect of the second generation of SIS? The Government maintain in their response that they are committed to providing the necessary resources to join SIS II as quickly as possible. I echo other noble Lords in saying that if after two and a half years we could not connect to the older SIS, then the Government's idea of "as quickly as possible" is not fast enough. The current timetable indicates that we might link into the information on the SIS database in 2010. How realistic is that timetable?

The noble Lord, Lord Wright, said in a press release that accompanied the report:

"The Government's fight to tackle cross border crime will be severely undermined by any delay in taking part in the second generation Schengen Information System ... The Government must do more to ensure the UK isn't left out in the cold".

Will the Minister inform the House of the potential stumbling blocks or delays to our accessing the information on that database?

I echo the sentiment expressed in the committee's report by insisting that more needs to be done, especially as doubts have been expressed about the Government's proposed timetable. Superintendent Mike Flynn, the director of the joint operational authority of SIRENE UK, expressed in his evidence to the committee the view that, even once the central SIS II was in operation,

"new Member States, of which the United Kingdom will be one, will have a staggered integration into the system, and we would reasonably expect this to be about 2010".

How right he was. The committee's report indicates that, in any case, the United Kingdom will be one of the last member states to join SIS II. It is my duty as the last speaker before the Minister to stiffen his resolve in answering previous questions, particularly those of the noble Lord, Lord Wright. Is he content for us to be one of the last states to join? It seems vital not only to express our interest in joining as soon as we can, but to be realistic about the timetable that would allow the United Kingdom to access important information about potential threats to our security.

Under the 1997 treaty of Amsterdam—regarding which the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, made his usual friendly comments about my party's participation 10 years ago; the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, mentioned it too—the United Kingdom pays a full contribution of 18 per cent of the €140 million budget which the European Commission says will be spent between now and 2014. In terms of cost to the Home Office, that amounts to a £39 million entry fee to the system, plus an additional £500,000 a year as a subscription. Additionally, estimates for operating the system in the United Kingdom run up to £4 million a year. Does the Minister think it fair that we are committed to paying this amount, a full contribution to the Commission in addition to our own operational costs, but still do not have access to all of the data? It is simply another example of one of the great features of this Government: they throw money at a problem without considering what is being received. Is the Minister content to continue sending British taxpayers' money to Brussels without receiving the benefit of this investment?

The United Kingdom's ineligibility to access immigration data from Schengen member states is codified in the treaty of Amsterdam and is essentially due to the fact that we have not acceded to the open border control aspects of Schengen. However, the report suggests that given the current climate, it may be desirable to attempt to access immigration data from other Schengen states—again, a point made during the debate. Will the Minister be following the report's recommendation to initiate immediately high-level discussions about the mutual exchange of immigration data between the United Kingdom and other member states? Indeed, does he believe that there is scope for amending the treaty of Amsterdam to allow access to SIS II data in this area? Again, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, spoke about that more fully.

Additionally, given the significant financial input, does the Minister believe that it is in his power to press the Commission for greater transparency regarding the process of implementation? Transparency also seems to be a problem in the United Kingdom. I noticed that in the Government's response to the committee report, they claimed that publishing regular reports on the implementation of and connection to SIS II would only slow down progress and should be dispensed with. How many times have we heard that reply given by the Government on the question of regular reports? Aware of the substantial financial commitments, it is very important to know precisely the rate of progress, and considering the gravity of the issues involved, to balance the issues of civil liberty and national security. It seems that the failure to connect to SIS fits in with the overarching theme of the Government's administration: botched computer projects. It is sadly becoming a platitude in this House to speak of the Government's history of failed attempts at implementing large-scale IT projects. With the amount of money being poured into the system, we need to be able to see how things are progressing, and the Government cannot be taken at their word regarding this large computer project. I therefore say it again that Members on these Benches thus believe that regular reports on the progress of SIS II are essential.

It is a disgrace that we must add our inability to connect to the SIS to the seemingly endless list of systems, such as the NHS, working tax credits, child support, the Rural Payments Agency, electoral registers and the Department for Work and Pensions. Indeed, an independent source notes that only 30 per cent of government computer projects could be called successes and has arrived at a figure of £14 billion annually spent on government IT, the equivalent of 7,000 new primary schools or 75 new hospitals. That comes from Computer Weekly. Is the Minister content that this Government's habit of failure has meant that we do not have control over the movement of potentially dangerous criminals?

Another serious issue regarding transparency concerns not only the progress of the project, but SIS II itself. I would like an assurance that the Government will be pressing for safeguards from member states about the use of information on the SIS II database. The Government's response to the committee report indicated that as the list of authorities that will have access to the database has not been finalised, they will not publish even a provisional list. Again, that was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wright. As access to such sensitive information, including biometric data, obviously must be rigorously safeguarded, will the Government consent to publishing even a provisional list, or at least prioritising the publication of a final list of authorities in the interests of opening it up to parliamentary scrutiny? The very least that Her Majesty's Government could do is to publish the conditions under which these authorities would have access to this information and ensure transparency in this increasingly problematic state of affairs.

This has been a fascinating debate and we await the Minister's reply with the greatest of interest.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism) 2:49 pm, 12th October 2007

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity provided by the debate to discuss the second generation of the Schengen information system, SIS II, not least because I have learnt a great deal about it over the past couple of weeks. To answer the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, I have read the report—in fact I have read it twice—to make sure that I understand what is in there. In a moment I shall try to address all the points that have been raised in what has been a very useful debate, but first I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wright, and commend the European Union Committee's valuable and thorough work in its scrutiny of European legislation.

The committee recognised in its report the value of the Schengen information system and the benefits which SIS II will deliver, to both the United Kingdom and all the other states which will participate in it. The Government are in agreement with the committee on this issue. As has been said, criminals do not respect borders, so it is vital that we develop a cross-border capacity to respond to crime. This includes co-operation with our European counterparts to share data such as those which will be held in SIS II.

It is worth reiterating that, when the United Kingdom is connected to SIS II, it will enhance our law enforcement capabilities into Europe by enabling professional counterparts across the Schengen area to act on information entered on to the system in the United Kingdom. It will improve the effectiveness of the UK's police forces and other end-users by providing information that was previously unavailable; it will complement and support other Home Office programmes by adding an international dimension to several Home Office initiatives that have focused on delivering increased safety and security to our United Kingdom systems, and will be crucial particularly for the work that is being carried out on e-borders; it will enhance the effectiveness of existing schemes such as the European arrest warrant and the provision of mutual legal assistance, both of which we use at the moment.

During the committee's inquiry and in the report which preceded this debate, the Government's commitment to the development of our SIS II connection was called into question, as, indeed, it has been throughout the debate. I reassure your Lordships' House that the Government consider SIS II extremely important as a crime-fighting tool and perhaps even more broadly than that. We are committed to delivering the UK's connection but we have to ensure that we get our connection right. The UK currently plans to connect to SIS II in April 2010, as has been stated. By being in place by then, it will give us added security for the Olympics and beyond that date.

I believe that during the committee's inquiry into SIS II, some noble Lords who were members of the committee noted that they had experience of running major IT operations. Those noble Lords will therefore be only too aware of how difficult such programmes have proved, not only in the public sector but in the private sector. Indeed, if one looks at these kinds of large IT programmes, one finds that the private sector is just as bad as the public sector. That is not an excuse for not doing these things well but, goodness me, they are extremely complicated. When one looks back to SIS I, there were lessons there and things were done that may not have been done as cleverly as they should have been. We have taken those lessons to heart and are making sure that they are implemented in SIS II.

We need very good programme management and continual review and refinement. I know from my previous incarnation, when I was heavily involved in some of these big systems, that it takes a very good programme manager to run them and we have got to ensure that one is in place.

We cannot implement SIS immediately because it is an extremely complex system, as I have said, and we have to have the right regime to develop and test a robust solution. This includes not only the connections but having in place, within the CPS and elsewhere, all the mechanisms with which to make maximum use of this system. Speeding up the implementation of SIS II is not only a question of resource—although I have to say, as an aside, that we are putting a lot of resource into it, financial as well as people. Of course, when it comes to people, there is no doubt that within our country, I am afraid, people with the skills to do this kind of thing are a very scarce resource.

It will curtail the timeframe for testing the solution if we do this wrongly with the police national computer, and that is the key work that has to be undertaken. We cannot run the risk of disruption to the operational effectiveness of the systems that SIS will connect to, and that is why we need to run through those programs. The PNC, as I am sure many noble Lords are aware, provides a vital day-to-day service to UK law enforcement services in their fight against crime and terrorism. We must make sure, through rigorous testing, that there is no chance of the SIS connection having an adverse effect on that computer.

Given the United Kingdom's population, the implementation of SIS II will make us one of the largest participating states. We are also, as one of the larger states, coming to SIS from a much more technically complex operating environment. As has already been mentioned in this debate, the police national computer is used by over 80 agencies and serves approximately 250,000 users. To put things in context, there are currently 8.9 million name records on the police national database, which is more than the total population of some other Schengen countries. We also need to take time to ensure that all the end users are properly prepared to use the system. They need the right business processes to deal with the volume of traffic from other Schengen users accessing the system. We have often got that wrong when we have tried to introduce new systems into organisations. We have to get that right.

I shall try to answer some of the specific questions that have been asked. The noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, mentioned specifically the delay to SIS I. I have touched on that already. I do not think we should be proud of what was done there. It was more complex than we thought, and the timing became such that there was no point in continuing to put money and effort into SIS I because of the extra things that were going to be required and the date it was due to come online. We could see that, because of complexities and delays, we would end up producing this system by the time the rest of Europe had moved to SIS II, and that would not have made any sense, which is why the decision was made to knock that on the head and move on. There were a number of reasons for that, one of which was the incident at Buncefield, not so much because of the loss of equipment in the fire but because it meant that the scarce resource of people who have to do this work were focusing on the PNC standby computer for business continuity, and could not then put their effort into the work needed for SIS I. The decision to chop SIS I was right. It was expensive—it cost some £35 million—but we have learnt a lot of lessons from it which have been brought forward.

We are putting resources into differentiating between police and terrorist data. It is quite difficult, but it is being looked at. We are trying to put filters in place, and there are some issues of legal approvals. We are putting work into it because I agree that it would be useful and valuable. We are looking at all these issues because we believe they will make us that much safer.

I am aware of all the complexities and risks of biometrics. A number of speakers touched on the possible need for three types of biometrics in order to be certain. I am convinced that biometrics are the way to go: once you go down that route you know who you have got and who you are dealing with, and that is not the case at the moment. That is one of the key reasons why we needed to jump through to SIS II, and it is right that we keep moving forward in this area. I would like the ability to carry three types of biometric data for certainty, because we will then be that much more secure ourselves.

I touched on SIS I, and I hope I have answered that question. Noble Lords referred to the ECJ case. We await the result of that case. We hope that it will give us access to the data that we do not have at the moment. That may seem like having our cake and eating it but I see it rather as letting the others have access to some of our data. There is benefit for both sides: it is not just one-sided. I prefer to think of it that way. However, we do not know how that case will be decided. Therefore, we are negotiating and looking at ways to get round parts of this measure to get data that we consider crucial.

Noble Lords referred to the data protection provisions. We believe that there are sufficiently robust measures in place in that regard. We do not agree that the rules are unduly complex. The right of access to data held in SIS II is subject to the national law of the country in which someone applies for access. This means that the UK subject access rights are provided in line with the Data Protection Act. When SIS II goes live, if someone wants to find out what information is held on them they will be able to send a request to the UK's SIRENE bureau within SOCA. They should be able to get the data changed or removed. If they do not consider that their request has been dealt with satisfactorily, they can apply to the Information Commissioner, who will assess whether the data protection principles have been broken. He can issue an enforcement order if necessary to ensure that something is done. Alternatively, the person can apply to a court to have the data changed or removed. Therefore, I believe that circumstance is adequately covered. However, as several speakers mentioned, we are not sure whether legislation may be needed in that area which we did not originally think was necessary. That is being looked at.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, referred to our not being a full member of Schengen. As a result of our geographic position and the threat posed to the UK by irregular migration and cross-border organised crime, we remain convinced that maintaining the UK's frontier controls is the most effective way to manage our borders. That is the Government's position. I am well aware of the concerns and difficulties that that causes but that is the UK Government's position and I am sure that it is the correct position for counterterrorism policy and other matters.

Can we move faster on SIS II? I have already touched on the complexities and difficulties involved. I fear that if we try to move faster we could make the sort of mistakes that we made with SIS I. Am I fully happy with that? I would be much happier if we could come in as all the other nations join but it is just not achievable. To try to do it in a rush would result in our making the same mistakes as we did before. We must get better at these programmes; there is no doubt about that. We have a lot to learn and we should be ashamed at some of our performances in that regard. We are getting better at tackling these issues but it would not be clever to rush this.

The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, asked whether I had read the report. As I mentioned, I have read it twice and I hope that I managed to get its import. It is an important piece of work, as noble Lords said. When I heard that I was to tackle this issue I thought that it would be an appallingly dreary thing to have to do. However, it is not at all dreary and is crucial, and I thank the committee for producing the report.

The 18 per cent that we give towards the SIS was mentioned and noble Lords asked whether it was worth the money. As we have not done well with SIS I and we must get a move on with SIS II, one could argue that this is not the cleverest use of that money. However, it would be wrong to try to pull it out temporarily and then put it back in again; that simply does not work. That is the reality of it.

There was mention of the investigation of Frontex, which I welcome. I am always pleased that people are making use of a major-general; that is always a good thing. I will ask my staff to find out who the Hong Kong official was and look into that; I am always willing to take advice. I am very happy to talk outside the Chamber about those issues and to respond in Written Answers.

My noble friend Lord Harrison touched on the 18 per cent issue, and I hope that I have answered that. I will look at promoting information campaigns about SIS II, which was touched on by some other speakers. Maybe we have not done that as much as we should. I did not have much knowledge of it, so I doubt that the average citizen has. I will look at how that can be done, because it is important to get this across. We are in regular contact with the Irish Republic to discuss these various issues. I hope that answers that point.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, very much indeed for explaining things a little from the European side. That covered some of the issues that I was going to cover. She touched on biometrics as well, and I hope that I have covered that point. It is important that we get them here; they are an important tool to identify people. They help in dealing with identity theft and in so many other areas. We have to be careful, as a number of speakers have said. We probably need three markers, and there is work to be done to achieve that. This will be ongoing, but it is important and we should do it.

A couple of speakers mentioned the lack of impact assessments. I was extremely surprised that there had not been any. Again, it comes back to the mechanics of how some of these things are done. We have learnt lessons, and we have to make sure that we do those things in future to get them right. I was asked whether I am going to ensure in my new role that I focus in the way that I might have done when I was head of the Navy and Marines to ensure that we look at terrorism. Absolutely. I worked through the summer on a number of studies, and there was a lot of work going on. I hope at some stage that we will be able to develop that and explain that to the House. There are already some things in place that have made us safer. I hope that we are achieving something useful there.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned the publication of statistics. That is highly complex. I will look at that with officials to see whether any more can be done. I know that our answer was a very abrupt "no". I cannot make any promises on that, because sometimes there are complexities. A number of speakers asked about the naming of the 80 agencies involved, and I will also see whether something can be done there. If it is possible, I agree that the more openness the better; and I will try to achieve that.

I will answer the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on a couple of points. I have not yet found that the Home Office likes to hide things from Parliament. If I did find that, I would not be very happy about it. The noble Lord referred to a case of some Punjabis being taken to north Africa to get into the UK. I consider that to be a good case for maintaining our borders as we do at the moment. We have to be careful about that. The noble Lord also made a point about citizens being properly informed about where we are. As I have said, we should try to do that, and I will look at how that could be done.

I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for summarising a number of those points, which really helped me to think about what points to address. I talked about the dates for SIS II. We now have a well planned programme. We are using all the industry standards. There are recognised programme management methodologies, such as PRINCE 2 and Managing Successful Programmes. We are putting in proper scrutiny and appraisal. I would like to be able to promise 100 per cent, hand on heart, that all those dates will be met. I can say that we are looking at every single way of making sure that we achieve what we said we would achieve. That is why trying to rush when I know that we would not succeed would be wrong. We all know that these matters are complicated. The system is expensive, as has been mentioned. It will cost £79 million by 2016. There are initial costs of £39 million, followed by running costs and so on. We are putting a lot of resources into the system because it is so important.

I hope that that covers most of the points raised. If I have failed to cover any, I will scan this debate and write to those noble Lords involved. I hope that I have addressed most of the concerns raised. We agree with the conclusion of the committee that SIS II will be of great benefit to the UK. I hope that I have conveyed how complex this programme of work is. Finally, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, and his team on this debate, which has been extremely useful. Thank you very much.

Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench 3:11 pm, 12th October 2007

My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I thank particularly my colleagues on Sub-Committee F for their participation, not only in the debate, but in the very useful contributions that they all made towards the production of this report.

I thank also the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, because this House is lucky in continuing to be allowed to have a Member of the European Parliament sitting on our Benches. We have benefited both from her wisdom as a Member of this House and from her considerable experience as a Member of the European Parliament who takes a close interest in this subject.

At the risk of impertinence, I welcome the Minister to the House. It is not long ago that we sat next to each other at dinner when the noble Lord was wearing rather different clothes. Like the Minister, I share personal experience of the horrific complications of IT programmes, of which I have previously spoken in the House. I have no doubt that this IT programme is as complicated as any. But I hope that the Minister's indoctrination into the subject of Schengen, which he said is only two weeks old—although I am deeply impressed that he has read our report twice—will enable and encourage him to keep a close ministerial eye on this subject. It is of enormous importance, as he acknowledged.

He probably does not yet realise how often Ministers on the Front Bench are asked to define what is meant by "as soon as possible". This has been a rare occasion when the Minister has defined that. I can say only that I am disappointed that it is not earlier than April 2010. I very much hope that the Minister will keep a close eye on this and, if possible, bring forward our involvement in SIS II.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at 3.13 pm