My Lords, we are here tonight to debate the Prüm decisions, an EU agreement named after a small German town in which the original Prüm treaty was signed. Prüm is about the sharing, in strictly controlled circumstances, of DNA profiles, fingerprints and vehicle registration data with other countries in order to prevent and investigate crime.
Before I discuss Prüm in more detail, I wish to address concerns raised by the Home Affairs Sub-Committee of the European Union Committee about the Government’s engagement on this matter. I apologise sincerely if we have left an impression of falling short of, or have actually fallen short of, what is expected of us. That certainly was not the Government’s intention and we sought to make that position clear to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. The Command Paper we have produced is a document of great detail—it is some 250 pages in length—and quality, and I hope that noble Lords have had a chance to look at it properly. None the less, I apologise for those shortcomings and will endeavour to ensure that this does not happen again.
Let me now turn to the decisions contained in Prüm. It is important to be clear what Prüm is and what it is not. It is not—and this is an important point to remember—a centralised EU database. It is, instead, a system by which the front end of an existing manual process is automated so that more information can be made available for checking. This means that it would be quicker and easier for our police to check the national DNA, fingerprint and vehicle registration databases of 27 other member states, hugely increasing the reach of UK law enforcement. It is a system by which member states can find out whether a DNA crime scene profile is known to other countries, not after filling out manual forms, but automatically. It is a system by which the police, when arresting an individual, can ask other countries whether he or she is known to them by checking fingerprints. It is a system by which, in 10 seconds—rather than the months it can take at the moment—the police can find out details about a vehicle that is suspected of involvement in people trafficking. For DNA and fingerprints, Prüm responses are by way of a hit/no-hit system. Personal data are not exchanged as part of this process.
By way of example, for DNA, a crime scene profile is sent from one country to another, where it is automatically searched against the profiles held in that country’s database. If there is a match, the requesting country receives a “hit” report back. At that stage, no information is exchanged that would allow a person to be identified. Prior to any personal details being released, all hits must be verified scientifically. In broad terms, this is the same system for fingerprints, too. Hits are reported within 15 minutes for DNA and within 24 hours for fingerprints. With Interpol, the same manual process means the average time to report a hit is more than four months.
The House will be interested to know that we have run a small-scale DNA pilot to test the effectiveness of the Prüm decisions. I am delighted to say that that saw an impressive 118 hits, generating investigative leads for our police. That is nearly double the number of profiles our police sent abroad for checking in the whole of 2014. Crucially for the police, this is leading to the arrest of foreign nationals, which would not otherwise have taken place. They include an Eastern European arrested on suspicion of attempted rape as a direct result of the pilot; he is now in custody. Other cases have seen extradition papers requested.
However, noble Lords will be pleased to hear that the Government have listened carefully to the civil liberties concerns expressed by some and will ensure that stringent safeguards are in place. The Government will ensure that other member states can search against UK-held DNA profiles and fingerprints only for those who have actually been convicted of a recordable offence, thus avoiding innocent British citizens becoming caught up in overseas investigations. We will also legislate to ensure that we provide demographic details only if the hit is of a scientific standard equivalent to that which is required to report a hit to the police domestically, meaning that the chances of a hit being wrong are lower than one in a billion, so almost eliminating the risk of false positives. We will provide demographic details relating to minors only if a formal mutual legal assistance request has been made. Finally, we will establish an oversight board that includes both the information and biometrics commissioners in order to ensure that Prüm operates in a just and effective manner.
We know Prüm to be an effective crime-fighting tool, and I have just outlined how we will make sure that it operates in a proportionate manner. It is for these reasons that I support us signing up to Prüm, and I commend the Motion to the House.
My Lords, I speak as the chairman of the European Union Home Affairs Sub-Committee which prepared the report to which the Motion in my name refers. For reasons that I shall describe later, the report has been prepared at great speed, and I thank all the members of the sub-committee and the staff both of the sub-committee and of the European Union Committee for their assistance. I also thank the Minister for his helpful introduction to the debate, and of course I accept his apologies. It is important that it should be recognised that there have been difficulties in terms of the scrutiny process.
The European Union Committee has scrutinised the UK Government’s position in relation to Prüm decisions since at least 2007. We subsequently considered the decisions in the context of the UK opt-out decision taken in 2013 and again in 2014. We said that failing to rejoin the Prüm decisions would mean that UK law enforcement agencies would no longer have automatic access to relevant databases in other member states, thus hindering investigations and prosecutions. The Home Secretary committed the Government to revisiting the question of whether the UK should rejoin Prüm before the end of this year, and said that it would be a decision for Parliament.
As the Minister has just said, Prüm allows member states to search each member state’s fingerprint and DNA databases through an automated system, and to have direct access to vehicle registration databases. In the case of DNA and fingerprint searches, while the initial search will be automated, no personal data are exchanged unless the member state conducting the search makes a follow-up request.
The benefits of Prüm both in terms of public protection and operational matters are clear. Currently, law enforcement agencies may make requests for sharing fingerprint, DNA and vehicle registration data through Interpol. The current Interpol processes do not require a timed response and a simple request may take months to process. Last night, the Home Secretary made reference to a case in which West Yorkshire Police undertook an investigation through Interpol where it took two and a half months for a match to be reported. In the mean time, the investigation ran up costs of £250,000. By contrast, the automated processes under Prüm set out mandatory times for responding to searches: 15 minutes in respect of DNA, 24 hours in respect of fingerprints, and just 10 seconds in the case of vehicle data. This speed allows law enforcement agencies to target their follow-up requests for personal data, and these requests are more likely to be accepted. Because of the increase in speed, the UK will also be able to make many more requests than it would be able to do currently. The automatic exchange of data relating to criminal investigations could therefore assist in the identification of serious offenders who might not otherwise be detected. It will speed up the process of investigation by eliminating lines of investigation or establishing the identity of an individual much earlier. This will save on the length and cost of such investigations and could lead to earlier arrests, thus preventing further crimes.
Prüm would also increase the intelligence capacity of law enforcement agencies. The regular flow of data is likely to shine new light on otherwise unsolved crimes. At present, there is no effective alternative mechanism for investigating volume crime; that is, cases where one individual commits a number of crimes. Only through Prüm can the bulk exchanges of data be made which help to facilitate the investigation of such crimes. Evidence also suggests that Prüm can help law enforcement agencies to identify patterns of crime or criminal associations that would not otherwise be apparent. Moreover, in the wake of the dire attacks on Paris last month, we are particularly conscious of the need to fight terrorism. Those attacks have been a reminder that terrorists operate across borders, therefore an increased capacity to identify individuals as early as possible, to conduct investigations and to detect patterns of international crime is essential in this fight.
However, Prüm is not without risks. We are particularly concerned that UK citizens may be identified as suspects of crime in other member states on the basis of false matches. The implementation of Prüm is likely to result in massive changes in how law enforcement bodies process data. While this will greatly help the police, the volume of data exchanged must come with safeguards. We must ensure that there is a balance between law enforcement and the protection of civil liberties. We therefore support the Government’s plan to implement safeguards.
We welcome the safeguard which would limit searches by other member states of fingerprints and DNA samples to those who have been convicted in the UK. The UK has the largest database of DNA samples in the EU. We believe that it is right that this and other biometric data should not be available for inspection by other member states in the case of UK citizens who have not been found guilty of a crime. The Government’s proposal to adopt higher standards on the accuracy of DNA matches than the minimum stipulated in the Prüm decisions is also welcome. This will reduce the probability of false positives. We also support the additional safeguard requiring other member states to prove that they are investigating a crime of sufficient seriousness before the personal data of minors are shared. However, I ask the Minister for confirmation that the additional safeguards that the Government propose to implement will be consistent with Prüm, and will not lead to any infringement proceedings by the Commission against the UK in the European Court of Justice.
Finally, we recognise that the increase in the volume of data requests will have an impact on police resources and that there will be other costs. However, we believe that the additional burden will be outweighed by the benefits to law enforcement of rejoining Prüm. It would be helpful if the noble Lord could confirm that the cost of implementation is likely to be less than was originally anticipated.
The committee agrees with the Government’s assessment, which is consistent with the views we have expressed over a number of years, that rejoining Prüm would be in the national interest. We therefore urge noble Lords to support the Government’s Motion.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, outlined, although the UK was previously party to the agreement, because this Government decided to opt out of all criminal justice co-operation with European partners in May 2014 and were ill-prepared to opt back in to it when opting in to many other criminal justice measures in November 2014, we are only now considering this measure. The right honourable Keith Vaz MP said in the other place:
“Think of the number of criminals we could have caught, or potential terrorists we could have found if only we had joined a year ago”.—[Hansard, Commons, 8/12/15; col. 924.]
Previously the Liberal Democrats had serious concerns about sharing fingerprint and DNA data because the police were retaining the fingerprints and DNA profiles of innocent people, some of whom had not even been arrested, let alone charged or convicted of an offence in the UK under legislation passed by the previous Labour Government. Because of the actions of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition Government, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 made the holding of fingerprints and DNA profiles of innocent people illegal, save in exceptional circumstances. Having deleted innocent people’s records from the databases, we are far more relaxed about information contained within UK databases being shared with our European partners.
Of course, there will be profiles of those arrested and still awaiting charge, or awaiting court cases on the database, so we also welcome the fact that only the subsets of the database containing the profiles of those individuals convicted of recordable offences will be shared with other EU countries.
We also welcome the fact that the higher UK scientific standards to ensure far more accurate fingerprinting DNA matches will be adopted, and that there is instant notification if there is a DNA or fingerprint match, but details of the pension identified are shared only once a manual request for that information has been made and once both sides are satisfied that the relevant criteria have been fulfilled. The Prüm decisions will also allow instantaneous checking of foreign registration vehicle marks, as the Minister said.
I have some sympathy for the Home Secretary, who finds herself in a bit of a dilemma on this—on the one hand, apparently positioning herself as the leadership candidate of the right of her party, and, necessarily if she is to maintain that position, to be Eurosceptic, but on the other hand apparently claiming that UK citizens are safer within the EU. She said yesterday in the other place:
“Recent events in Europe, particularly in Paris, have highlighted a very real need to co-operate with other countries in order to keep citizens safe and to hunt down criminals and terrorists”.—[Hansard, Commons, 8/12/15; col. 914.]
Can the Minister confirm what the Home Secretary said yesterday: namely, that the exchange of information that opting into the Prüm decisions enables will make UK citizens safer, that the Prüm decisions are a European Union initiative and, therefore, that the Government believe that the UK is safer as part of the EU than it would be outside?
With the additional safeguards that the Government are proposing, we support the opting in to the Prüm decisions.
My Lords, I think this will be the shortest speech I have ever made. It is absolutely clear that the majority of the law enforcement community in the United Kingdom has been outraged by the decision of the Government not to be in Prüm. If we are to come back into Prüm, that is fine. It will save lives. End of.
My Lords, this has been a short but illuminating debate, and I had not intended to participate. I rise first to thank the Minister for his generous apology about the misunderstandings that have arisen. They are not the first ones with his department but we hope that we will now have a better basis for understanding. Particularly on a matter on which we are entirely at one with the Government, it is helpful to have that confirmation in good order. The by-product of this rather accelerated procedure was that I had to take, on behalf of the Select Committee, executive action to approve it in order to facilitate this debate and get the Government’s timetable met as it needed to be. I regretted having to do that because we might have had more time for consideration of the issue. Of course, the merits speak for themselves in my view, perhaps subject to the safeguards that have rightly been called for.
Before making two other comments, I shall say, first, in generosity to my sub-committee chairman, that the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, has devoted a great deal of attention to this matter. It is highly technical and the House should be grateful to her and her colleagues for their input, and for that of the staff to this. It is not a simple matter that comes off the page. I have two other simple points. First, as a lay person, I understand that this will really allow for information to be available automatically and in real time to police officers who may be going about their business catching criminals. Frankly, if they have to wait months for that information they might as well not bother, so it will make a critical difference to their operational effectiveness in being able to see where there is a potential problem, and build that in just as they have access to the police national computer for UK-registered vehicles. It is particularly sensitive in relation to the Irish land border, where I know this has been highlighted.
My second point, which I make advisedly, is that this may be very useful to the UK—which is a proper motivation—but it is also, subject to safeguards, very useful for our colleagues in other member states of the European Union in terms of meeting information requests for their own criminal activities and their own law enforcement. My own rather simple view after recent events is that the more we can do together to ensure the safety and security of our continent as a whole, the more it will be to our mutual benefit.
My Lords, it was just under two weeks ago that the Government announced their intention to ask both Houses of Parliament to agree that we should rejoin the Prüm decisions, which are two European Council decisions under which the police forces of the EU member states are able automatically to share DNA, fingerprint and vehicle registration data. Since this is necessary for participation in the Prüm decisions, the Government also seek agreement that the United Kingdom rejoin the framework decision on the accreditation of forensic service laboratories, which recognises the validity of DNA and fingerprint analysis from other member states.
As has been said, yesterday the House of Commons debated and agreed to the Government’s proposal to rejoin the Prüm decisions. Would the Minister say whether there is a reason for the wording of the Government’s Motion before this House appearing significantly different from the terms of the Government’s Motion in the Commons?
The Home Office seems to have a poor record in the eyes of both your Lordships’ European Union Committee and the committee looking at statutory instruments over the way that it prepares and progresses important legislative matters that require consideration by those committees. Today’s matter is no exception. I was going to quote in full paragraph 2 of the introduction to the European Union Committee’s report that we are also considering in the debate, which was published just two days ago, but in view of what the Minister said in his opening comments I will not do so. I will, however, quote paragraph 3 of the report, which was much shorter and stated:
“It is deeply regrettable that the Home Office, following its mishandling of parliamentary scrutiny of its decision to opt into 35 justice and home affairs measures in late 2014, is now again treating parliamentary scrutiny in such a disdainful manner”.
Whenever we draw attention to the strong concerns about the failings or attitude of the Home Office expressed in EU Committee reports or reports from the committee considering statutory instruments, we are usually told by the Government that they will take, or have taken, steps to rectify the situation. Clearly, whatever those previous steps have been, they have not made much difference. I will wait to see what the response is this time from the Government on what action they actually intend to take that they have not taken already to avoid such situations in the future. The Minister did not address this point in his opening comments.
We should, of course, be grateful to the European Union Committee for the work that it has done on the Prüm decisions and for the information it has provided to the House. The European Union Committee has scrutinised the UK’s position on these decisions for the best part of a decade. In a report in the 2013-14 Session, the committee expressed concern that not rejoining the Prüm decisions would mean that UK law enforcement agencies would no longer have automatic access to relevant databases in other member states, hindering investigations and prosecutions—a concern supported, as the noble Lord, Lord Blair, said, by law enforcement advice.
The reason that the Government gave for not opting back into the Prüm decisions, along with 35 other Justice and Home Office measures, was because they had neither the time nor the money to do so. Would the Minister confirm that the sum of money we are talking about is just £13 million, which, frankly, seems a very low price for improving the security of our citizens—an improvement that the Government declined when they decided originally to opt out of the Prüm decisions?
We welcome and support the Government’s change of heart. The last Labour Government supported the Prüm provisions and we opposed the initial opt-out from these measures during the previous Parliament. Like the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I, too, wonder how many additional criminals could have been caught, or potential terrorists found, if we had not opted out of these decisions. Certainly the pilot exercise undertaken by the Government involving DNA samples from more than 2,500 unsolved British murders, rapes and burglaries being automatically checked against European police databases in four other countries made an overwhelming case to opt back in. They were automatically checked in a matter of seconds, minutes or hours, compared with months at present through Interpol, which currently hardly strengthens the hand of the law enforcement agencies in promptly identifying and apprehending those responsible for national and international crimes.
Even though the Government have decided to drop their “time and money” argument on the Prüm decisions—or is it nearer the mark to say that the Government have now decided to put enhancing national security ahead of deferring to their own Eurosceptics?— the Prüm application process and development requirements mean, as I understand it, that the UK will not be able to join before 2017 at the earliest. It would be helpful if the Minister could say a bit more about the timescale for giving effect to the decision that the Government seek tonight, including how long it is expected to take for the new arrangements under the Prüm decisions to become fully operational.
It is crucial that there is better and greater European-wide co-operation over the sharing of data and information, since criminals and terrorists do not recognise national borders when carrying out their serious and often lethal acts. There is a need, too, for safeguards to be established alongside these new arrangements as the Government propose, including against the potential for UK citizens to be identified as suspects of crime in another member state on the basis of a false match. It is also right that we send information abroad only about people actually convicted in the UK, although would the Minister say who will make the decision to share personal information if a match is made? We also support the appointment of an oversight board.
The safeguards are, of course, referred to in the lengthy business and implementation case. The Government’s intention is apparently to incorporate several of these safeguards, where needed, into domestic legislation, although there appears to be nothing in the Prüm decisions that needs to be transposed into domestic law.
Will the Minister confirm that what I have said is the case? Will he also indicate when the expected domestic legislation covering the safeguards is expected to come before the House? Will he give an assurance that this House will be able to debate the adequacy or otherwise of these legislative proposals that are to be incorporated into domestic national legislation, and that these legislative proposals will be consistent with the Prüm decisions, as the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, also asked?
The proportionality test is mentioned in the implementation case but does not appear to be in proposed draft legislation. Is that the case—and, if so, why? Will the Minister also give some examples of the kind of situations in which the proportionality test would prevent personal information from being sent abroad due to the offence under investigation being insufficiently serious?
The manner in which the Government have handled this issue is unsatisfactory, to put it mildly. Explanations are needed from the Minister in response to the comments of the European Union Committee and its blunt view, for which there is a lot of supporting evidence, that this episode shows that the Home Office,
“is now again treating parliamentary scrutiny in such a disdainful manner”.
I appreciate the apology that the Minister has given, which makes the position a lot easier. However, I ask again that the Government now tell us what steps they are taking which they have not already taken to prevent a similar situation arising again, because this is not the first time we have been in this position. Frankly, I think that we have got past the stage at which words from the Dispatch Box are sufficient. I think that we need to know from the Government precisely what they intend to do to prevent these difficulties that have occurred on more than one occasion in respect of Home Office matters and in respect of more than one committee of your Lordships’ House.
However, I repeat that we support the Government’s proposal that the United Kingdom should rejoin the Prüm decisions and the related framework decision on the accreditation of forensic service laboratories.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, for moving her Motion alongside the one which I moved commending the decision, and for presenting the report of the sub-committee on home affairs. I also pay tribute to the work done by that committee in an incredibly short time, but with great thoroughness. That work is extremely helpful as we move forward.
I shall deal with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, under the broad heading of how we can improve the way in which the Home Office works with your Lordships’ House and interacts with it in these matters. We have dealt with this issue before. The noble Lord, Lord Boswell, has been very patient with us and we have had a number of meetings with the clerks. We are conscious of existing commitments and the scrutiny of European decisions—matters contained in the Companion. We want to respect those, so those issues are improving at an official level. However, often this is a fast-moving situation, or it can be. For example, decisions on the speed of adopting the measure and on moving ahead at a quicker rate resulted from meetings of the Justice and Home Affairs Council which took place in November. Therefore, these are fast-moving areas but we want to improve our performance. One of the ways in which I believe we can do that is to have more meetings with the noble Baroness and the committee she chairs to discuss projects in the pipeline that are coming upstream. However, we are conscious that we need to improve our performance.
That is a very helpful suggestion. I know from experience that where we have had informal discussions with the Minister’s department that has been useful and has not led to any form of “producer capture” or any other potential moral hazard. It is important to realise that it is not simply a matter of fast-taken decisions at the end of the process; this is often preceded by a period of stasis where nothing has happened. As the Minister acknowledged, it would be very much better if we could have a reasonably easy flow of work and some advance heads-up as to things that are coming through, perhaps on an informal basis, so that we could plan our response and get the whole thing considered in a better timetable instead of this stop and start which has given rise to these difficulties in the past.
I agree. I undertake that we will work hard on that. I realise that we will be held to account for our performance in these areas and it is right that that should be the case. As regards the point made by the noble Lords, Lord Paddick and Lord Blair, on why we did not do this a long time ago, we should also remember that what we are implementing now is perhaps a better approach, as set out in the Command Paper, because we have had the benefit of that year and of the business case implementation trial. As a result, we were able to come forward with a number of stronger safeguards. The noble Baroness referred to the one on DNA requiring 10 loci matches rather than six or eight, and that was accepted. There is also the provision of an oversight board and the particular way in which we are working.
There is a great piece set out in the Command Paper, which I urge noble Lords to consider, all about how the technical side of this actually works. One reason why the cost has fallen for an IT project is because the Government have not been idle since indicating that they wanted to join. They have been building the biometrics gateway, which means that now all we have to do is add on the additional element to connect with the different countries. That trial process of connecting with France, Spain and Germany enhanced that process significantly as well.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked who would actually look at the transfer of personal data. The answer is the National Crime Agency. In terms of the timing, we expect it to be operational by late 2017. In terms of legislation, affirmative resolutions will come before your Lordships’ House. We have set out in the Command Paper what that draft resolution will be. But again, that is something that will be under review and will be brought forward, normally about six months before the point of implementation.
Another safeguard is the fact that we have the Biometrics Commissioner and the Information Commissioner, so people in this country will have the opportunity to appeal. If they feel that information is being released wrongly, they will have the opportunity to respond to that and seek redress. In terms of costs, we have received funding from the European Commission of some €10 million towards the cost of implementing this.
The noble Lord, Lord Blair, asked why we were joining now. The answer is that we are opting in at this stage. If we had opted in last year with the rest of the justice and home affairs package, our systems would not have been ready and there was a real risk that we would have been subject to infraction proceedings for being unable to meet the performance criteria that are set out, which would have cost a great deal of money as well. That was another reason why that happened.
The Government gave their reasons for the Prüm decisions not being among the 35 as time and money. Is the Minister really saying that the cost was such that it prevented the Government opting back in to the Prüm decisions earlier? Is he really saying that a Government who were determined to opt in and stay in as far as the Prüm decisions were concerned could not have done so in less than five and a half years—or what actually is now going to be seven years—during which this Government have been in office?
These are not easy issues. As the noble Lord will know, the Labour Government signed up to this in 2007 and did not even put pen to paper between 2007 and 2010 on the Prüm decisions. This is not straightforward. It is not as if we have not been doing anything. We have the ECRIS criminal records information-sharing scheme with our European counterparts. We have Eurodac, which is about border security. Of course, we have also signed up to the Schengen information-sharing system, Schengen II. These are all elements which further build the case, I am happy to say to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for how a key part of our security comes from working closely with our European colleagues. Sharing information of this nature will make us all a great deal safer. The fact is that we can do that in a European context, whereas when it comes to Interpol there are 189 members. The prospect of perhaps exchanging DNA-sharing databases with the Russians or one other member might be a little more difficult for us to propose in your Lordships’ House. The reality is that there are safeguards there and we are working with our European colleagues. We believe that the system being proposed—
I am immensely in favour of the decision that the Government have taken, but is it reasonable to say that it will take another two years? I really do not understand that decision. If the Minister was able to do so, I would like him to write to me and to others to say why it will take two years from now. He was talking about late 2017. We have seen the events in Europe. Why cannot the Government now advance this at speed? Two years is simply an unsupportable position.
I hear what the noble Lord says. I would be very happy to set up a meeting with officials from the Home Office technology team who are working on this to explain the complexities. They are in part technological but are also to do with how we interact on devolved matters with other parts of the United Kingdom, where there are some particular sensitivities and agreements to be reached, for example with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Police Service of Scotland. That is one reason why both those parties will be present on the oversight board. Rather than going into it here, it might be helpful to all concerned if that meeting were to be arranged. We could then hear and understand a bit more about the complexity of the task, which I am in no doubt is significantly complex.
We have set out in the Command Paper some of the processes that need to be gone through from a technical point of view but I am happy to set up a meeting so that we can assure ourselves that everything is being done, once the decision has been taken to implement this as quickly as possible. The European Commission also needs to undertake inspection visits to ensure that we are capable of meeting those stringent criteria so that that can happen. With all that, I am grateful none the less for the home affairs sub-committee’s support. I am grateful for the contributions of Members of your Lordships’ House and very happy to continue a dialogue on this, as we move forward to something which we all agree will improve the safety of the people of the United Kingdom and of Europe.