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Criminal Records Notifications Disclosure

Volume 801: debated on Wednesday 15 January 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking following reports that criminal record notifications were not disclosed to EU Member States of 75,000 convictions.

My Lords, Britain is one of the leading contributors to the European Criminal Records Information System. We are currently working hard to upgrade our legacy systems. The central authority for the exchange of criminal records is working at pace to implement the technical fixes which will ensure that all the correct data is shared with EU members.

My Lords, this revelation is both shocking and worrying. Does the Minister accept that this is a huge failure on the part of the Government and that it is possible that dangerous offenders have returned to their home country without the UK making proper notification to the authorities? When the error was discovered, it was not corrected—shamefully—because of the risk of reputational damage to the UK. Can the Minister give the House a timescale for clearing the backlog of these notifications? What is his department doing to review procedures to eliminate the scandalous situation which was discussed at meetings but not acted upon?

The noble Lord is entirely correct: this is a very serious matter and the Government take it very seriously. We cannot duck the importance of getting this right. I shall say a few words to explain the context for this incredibly complex and technical matter.

Britain remains one of the leading contributors of data to ECRIS. Interestingly, the UK sent 30,000 conviction notifications through ECRIS to EU member states in the past year and received 16,000, which gives an idea of the balance of contributions. In the UK, we are dealing with legacy systems that are profoundly out of date, and with many EU agencies and 27 EU nations, so the complexity of this task is enormous.

I reassure the House that throughout this period ECRIS’s dynamic system was working as well as expected and delivered a fine service to our EU partners. The problems involved were connected only with dual-national citizens—those with British and EU passports—and those who did not have fingerprints in their files and therefore were probably connected with minor crimes. Following this revelation, we are working our hardest to get to the bottom of the problem. It is not possible to provide a concrete timescale at the moment, but I reassure the House that a considerable investment is being made through the national law enforcement database that will considerably enhance our ability to deliver good data to our partners.

My Lords, is it the case that this goes back as far as 2015? However far it goes back, when was it actually discovered? The underlying question is: how can we expect co-operation from other states, which is necessary for the security of the UK, if we are not open with them when things go wrong?

The original database was put together in 2012, and records suggest that the problem was first identified in 2015. When I asked about these dates, I shared some of the surprise in the House at these extremely long time periods, but I reassure noble Lords that our partners are understanding of the problems we face, because every country has legacy police database issues of its own. All countries are trying to meet the needs of the 21st century, particularly by turning archive and legacy data into something that is usable today. It is noticeable that when the alert was shared at the Council of Europe working group which discusses mutual collaboration on policing issues, there was positive and understanding feedback from our EU partners.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me the Government’s position on future collaboration with other EU police forces after we leave the EU, because this is an important issue?

My noble friend is right, and police collaboration after Brexit is one of the big priorities of this Government. That is why in the implementation period, we will be discussing this with the EU and our partners. The political declaration envisages a relationship spanning operational and judicial co-operation, data-driven law enforcement and multilateral co-operation through EU agencies. Those three important silos will be the basis of our ongoing negotiations.

My Lords, we all appreciate that the Home Office must be a difficult government department for Ministers to supervise and control. I can think of a former Home Secretary who felt obliged to offer his resignation over these sorts of matters, and my noble friend Lady Hughes resigned because of failures within the department. The former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, also had to resign because she had inadvertently misled the House of Commons as a result of poor information. Can the Minister tell us—in answer to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, which was not answered—precisely when Ministers were notified that this failure had occurred, and who took the decision that it should not be made public on the basis of reputational damage? Are any Ministers contemplating their positions?

The paper trail is extremely complex, and I am not in a position to give the kind of blow-by-blow account that the House would like. I sympathise with the question, and I would like to be able to give the noble Lord more detail. I am afraid that these issues are a necessary part of upgrading our technical and data arrangements. This is a complex and ongoing project, and while this mistake is extremely regrettable, at no point has there been any suggestion that those involved have not behaved with best intentions.

My Lords, unfortunately this issue appears to go not only to competence—it paints a rather sorry picture of a Home Office-related database—but to trust. The question of when the police and Ministers knew about this problem, which was asked about previously, harms our reputation. Unfortunately, it comes swiftly on the heels of another revelation that is being pursued in the European Parliament, which is that the UK is being charged with the illegal copying of data from the Schengen Information System on to a national database and then sharing it with private companies. An internal report from the European Commission makes very interesting reading, but I do not know whether the Commission is pursuing infringement proceedings. However, none of that will help with the subject that we will be discussing later today —the question of seeking a data adequacy assessment from the European Commission. We are not exactly scoring 10 out of 10 on either competence or trust in our handling of European data shared under data-sharing arrangements.

The data arrangements that Britain is committed to are handled with great delicacy by this country. Ministers are thoroughly committed to trying to make them work, and Britain has a very good record on both technical delivery and trust. I go back to the statistic that I shared earlier: 30,000 conviction notices were sent through ECRIS to our European partners, whereas 16,000 were received. That is an indication of what a strong and energetic partner we are in these matters, and I reassure the House that that remains the commitment of the Government.

The Minister should be aware of the reports by the Brexit committees that I and other Members of the House have been on concerning the importance of the security issue, particularly after we leave the EU at the end of this year. It is profoundly important and has been discussed time and again. What we need to hear now from the Minister is not just the important answer to my colleague’s Question but whether the Government will make a full Statement to this House as soon as they have all the facts—he says that he does not have them all available at the moment. We need to know those facts. They are profoundly important for our negotiations with the European Union on the whole issue of security and the European arrest warrant and all that goes with it.

The noble Lord is quite right to emphasise the importance of this matter, but the correct channel for communication with our EU partners is through dialogue with COPEN, the European Council working group. My understanding is that it is the intention of the ACRO Criminal Records Office, which is the liaising agency with COPEN, to maintain a dialogue, to keep COPEN up to date and to respond to any concerns from our EU partners. Those concerns have not come through in a meaningful way. Although I am keen to be here and to keep the House up to date, it is really through that channel that we should keep our EU partners up to date.