The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Sir Roger Gale 

Blackwood, Nicola (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con) 

Brokenshire, James (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)  

Buckland, Mr Robert (South Swindon) (Con) 

Burley, Mr Aidan (Cannock Chase) (Con) 

Connarty, Michael (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab) 

Johnson, Diana (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab) 

Knight, Mr Greg (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)  

Rees-Mogg, Jacob (North East Somerset) (Con) 

Ruddock, Dame Joan (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab) 

Shannon, Jim (Strangford) (DUP) 

Ward, Mr David (Bradford East) (LD) 

Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab) 

Winnick, Mr David (Walsall North) (Lab) 

Simon Patrick, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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European Committee B 

Monday 10 September 2012  

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair] 


4.30 pm 

The Chair:  Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Hon. Members may remove their jackets if they wish to do so. It may be helpful to the Committee if I explain the procedure, not that I think that anyone is particularly unaware of it. I shall call a member of the European Scrutiny Committee to make a brief statement for about five minutes if they wish to do so. Mr Rees-Mogg has indicated that he does. I shall then call the Minister to make an opening statement, which should, it says here, be largely factual—personally, I would prefer it to be wholly factual. That will last for about 10 minutes. It is like a ministerial statement: no interventions are permitted during it. After that, there will be questions for a time, and when the questions are over, I shall ask the Minister to move the motion formally. We will then enter the formal debate. The proceedings have to finish by 7 pm. I hope that that is all clear. 

4.31 pm 

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con):  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to give the report from the European Scrutiny Committee. 

The Eurodac database contains the fingerprints of third-country nationals or stateless people aged at least 14 who have applied for asylum, entered illegally or been found illegally present in an EU member state. It has been operational since 2003 and is generally regarded as an essential part of the Dublin system for determining which member state is responsible for examining an asylum claim. The UK participates fully in the Dublin system and has opted into three previous attempts by the European Commission—in 2008, 2009 and 2010—to amend Eurodac, all of which have failed. 

This is the Commission’s fourth attempt, and many of the changes proposed are uncontroversial. For example, they would extend the scope of Eurodac to cover claims for subsidiary protection as well as asylum, introduce a 72-hour time limit for the transmission of fingerprint data and include additional safeguards to ensure the safety and accuracy of data. Far more contentious is the proposal to include new provisions to enable Europol and designated national law enforcement authorities to seek access to Eurodac to compare fingerprint data for the purpose of preventing, detecting or investigating a terrorist or other serious criminal offence. 

The Commission says that its proposal 

“addresses a structural information and verification gap”, 

because there is currently no EU database that enables law enforcement authorities to determine which member state holds information on an asylum seeker with a view to identifying suspected perpetrators of terrorist or other serious crimes. However, the European Scrutiny Committee thought that the Commission’s latest proposal

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was symptomatic of a broader trend to allow law enforcement access to EU databases that were not originally designed for that purpose. In particular, it questioned whether the Commission had adduced sufficient evidence to demonstrate that access to the Eurodac database would make a significant contribution to closing the information gap. Indeed, in 2010, the Government told us that the absence of a provision on law enforcement access to Eurodac data would not raise significant operational issues for UK law enforcement agencies and would reduce costs. 

The Commission’s latest proposal is subject to the UK’s title V opt-in, and the Government have indicated that one factor in determining whether the UK should opt in is whether participation would be “of net benefit” to the UK. The Government have told us that law enforcement access to Eurodac data would be useful and that the conditions governing access to fingerprint data are proportionate and should ensure that Eurodac is not perceived to be “a criminalising database.” The calculation of net benefit is made more difficult by the inclusion of new references to the so-called Prüm decisions, which apply to fingerprint and other data held in national databases established for the purpose of preventing and investigating criminal offences. 

Under the Commission’s proposal, law enforcement access to Eurodac data may be requested only after an automated fingerprint comparison has been carried out under the Prüm decisions and has yielded a negative result. The Government have already told the European Scrutiny Committee that the UK would not be in a position to implement the Prüm decisions before 2015 at the earliest. Therefore, UK law enforcement authorities could not request access to Eurodac fingerprint data before 2015. Moreover, the Prüm decisions are subject to the UK’s 2014 block opt-out. It seems that if the UK were to exercise its block opt-out, UK law enforcement authorities would lose any opportunity to request access to Eurodac data. 

Those practical restrictions on Eurodac data appear substantially to diminish any net benefit to the UK. I therefore look forward to hearing the Minister’s assessment of the practical benefits and disadvantages of UK participation in the latest draft regulation on Eurodac. Will he tell us whether the UK will seek to remove the provisions on law enforcement access if, as they have done on previous occasions, the Government determine that the UK should opt in? As past negotiations have stalled on that issue, what are the prospects for agreement this time? 

Finally, the European Scrutiny Committee has underlined the need, if the provisions on law enforcement access to Eurodac are retained, to clarify the circumstances in which Europol may request access and the purposes for which data may be used. Will the Minister state whether any progress was made in the latest Council working group meeting on 6 September? 

4.35 pm 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire):  I welcome you to the Chair, Sir Roger. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset for introducing our consideration and for framing the issues so well, and I also thank the European Scrutiny Committee for selecting this measure for debate. 

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As the former Minister for Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), made clear in his explanatory memorandum of 18 June, the Government will opt into this or any other EU proposal in the justice and home affairs field only if participation would benefit the UK. We are confident that such is the case with the existing Eurodac regulation because, together with the Dublin regulation, it plays an important role in tackling asylum shopping, but we cannot simply rely on old decisions. Therefore, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset rightly highlighted, with the publication of this fourth proposal, particularly the Commission’s decision to provide law enforcement authorities and the Europol with access to the Eurodac database, a fresh evaluation is required. The opt-in decision must be taken by 27 September, and the Government have yet to finalise their view—this debate will inform our consideration—but I can indicate some key factors. 

As Committee members will know, the Dublin regulation provides clear criteria for determining responsibility for an asylum claim and also provides a system for effecting the transfer of an individual to the appropriate state. However, a return is possible only if a member state knows where an asylum claim was first made. Eurodac enables that by providing the evidence to identify whether an individual has already illegally entered or claimed asylum in another member state, and if he or she has done so, we can consider returning them to that state under the Dublin regulation. 

The value of the existing Dublin and Eurodac regulations to the UK is clear: since 2004, the UK has been able to remove more than 10,000 individuals under the Dublin regulation, with Eurodac allowing us to identify those individuals. We have not only made significant savings in relation to the costs of processing and supporting those cases, but sent a powerful message that the UK can and will act against those who try to abuse our asylum system. It is therefore welcome that the proposal contains several improvements designed to increase efficiency that we hope will enable the Dublin transfer system to operate even more effectively. Continuing participation in the Eurodac regulation would provide significant benefits to the UK asylum system by preventing it from being abused by individuals seeking to hide their immigration history and abuse our hospitality. 

In principle, the Government support the sharing of information between countries if that makes our citizens safer and appropriate safeguards are in place. Like members of the European Scrutiny Committee, we also have some reservations about the extension of access to the Eurodac database to law enforcement authorities that were included as a result of strong lobbying by other member states. That has significant data-protection implications, as information collected to facilitate immigration control would be used for a different purpose. However, that use will happen only if member states’ criminal fingerprint databases have been searched using the Prüm Council decisions and no identification has been made, which should ensure that Eurodac is not seen as a criminalising database. 

As the Committee will be aware, the UK has not implemented the Prüm Council decisions, so we will not be able to access Eurodac for law enforcement purposes. We do not believe that that will create significant difficulties for our law enforcement authorities, because the police can approach Interpol to ask member states for access

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to their specialist fingerprint collections, provided that intelligence links the crime to a particular country; nor do we believe that it will diminish the asylum benefits of the proposal. We have in the past been careful about the way in which we negotiate and thorough in our analysis of the text, and we will continue to be so in the future. Given the strong member state support for the access provisions, there was a real possibility that the text might have placed further obligations on the UK to implement the Prüm decisions. I am pleased to say that that is not the case. 

Law enforcement authorities in other member states believe that the mobile nature of the threat from terrorism and from perpetrators of international crime makes Eurodac valuable. For example, the database is a useful tool in cases in which individuals have provided false identities, and it also helps to link an individual to a crime scene. The Government support a strategic approach to data sharing and the use of data in the areas of justice and home affairs. We see no reason to object to the inclusion of such provisions in principle, even though their direct use by UK law enforcement authorities will be limited unless the Prüm decisions are implemented. 

The European Scrutiny Committee has referred to Europol’s access to Eurodac. The proposal would allow that in two circumstances: first, in supporting an individual member state’s investigation. That is similar to the right of access that member states have, except that there is no requirement on Europol to make a Prüm check first, because Europol does not have access to Prüm arrangements. That right of access reflects the fact that, although Europol cannot conduct its own criminal investigations, it does operate to support member states’ national law enforcement authorities in their work and in that context can receive information from third countries that it may wish to check against Eurodac. 

Secondly, Europol could have access to Eurodac when that is necessary for the purposes of an analysis of a general nature or of a strategic type, provided that the analysis falls within Europol’s mandate. Member states would not be entitled to use Eurodac for that purpose. The European Scrutiny Committee has expressed unease with that proposal, suggesting that it might allow inappropriate data mining. On first consideration, we do have some concerns about the breadth of that proposal. 

The proposal would help Europol to fulfil its mandate, which requires it to prepare threat assessment, strategic analyses and general situation reports on criminal activity within its remit, as well as to support member states’ individual investigations. It is important to ensure that the proposal, if it is adopted, contains appropriate protections against abuse. One safeguard that could usefully be added is a requirement that any data obtained from Eurodac for the purpose of analysis would be anonymised and stored in a form that prevents identification of data subjects, in the same way as is required of data obtained by Europol from the Schengen visa information system. Of course, in taking the opt-in decision, we are weighing those concerns against the considerable benefits to our management of the asylum system that we obtained from our participation in Eurodac, and I look forward to receiving questions in the forthcoming session. 

The Chair:  We now have until 5.30 for questions to the Minister. The questions should be brief and asked singly, although I may well permit sequential questions if it seems appropriate to do so. 

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Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab):  I thank the Minister for his clear explanation and the hon. Member for North East Somerset for setting out so clearly the issues of the European Scrutiny Committee. As we have not opted into Prüm, what benefit would this regulation have for us? I am not clear about what the Minister was saying. I understand that he has not yet said what the Government’s position is on opting in or out, but what would be the reason for supporting this measure? 

James Brokenshire:  I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the letter that my predecessor sent to the European Scrutiny Committee on 6 August. In essence, the proposal would ensure the more effective operation of Eurodac. Clearly, the benefits that we attain, as I explained in my opening remarks, are in relation to how that facilitates the enforcement of the Dublin regulations and the return of asylum seekers who may have sought asylum in a first state. Therefore, fingerprint identification obviously supports the effective operation of the Dublin regulations. We have said that we agree with the European Scrutiny Committee’s analysis of the operation of the provisions of the relevant measure and whether we could use it because we have not adopted the Prüm measures or followed through their implementation. We regard the benefits of participating in Eurodac as positive, as the hon. Lady said, but we have not made our final decision. In the context of the Dublin system and a stronger and more effective Eurodac, benefits would accrue to this country. 

Diana Johnson:  I am sorry if I am not making myself clear. We benefit from the current regulation. The proposed regulation allows law enforcement agencies to access the database when the Prüm protocol has been gone through, but the British Government would not benefit from that, because we have not gone through the Prüm process. Will the Minister make it clear whether we are paying for something through the European Union that we will not benefit from, when we already have in force the regulation that allows the Dublin convention to be properly scrutinised for asylum seekers’ fingerprints in the first country that they reach? That seems to be absolutely fine, but I do not understand the Government’s position on the revised regulation. 

James Brokenshire:  As the hon. Lady may be aware, the previous Government recognised that improvements to the operation of Eurodac would be beneficial in the operation of the Dublin convention. In essence, this is a repeal-and-replace measure, so we must establish whether there is any risk to our continued ability to access the database and to operate it for the benefit of Dublin convention purposes if we do not participate and the new measure goes through. Those are the considerations that the Government are weighing carefully in the context of the Dublin system. Certainly, the measure includes improvements in how Eurodac will operate, including the speed with which fingerprints will be taken and loaded on to the Eurodac database and therefore the operation and effectiveness of that database to support the underlying Dublin proposals. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  May I follow on from that? If the 2000 establishment of Eurodac is repealed and recast and we do not opt in, will we maintain such benefits as we have under the old system, or will repeal of that system mean that it no longer exists? 

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James Brokenshire:  We are seeking to weigh up those issues. My understanding—I am sure that I will be corrected if this is not the case—is that we would remain bound by the original measure, and our position in relation to the repeal-and-replace arrangements would be clear. The question is whether, having adopted that process, it would give us the same leverage and ability to implement the direction of Eurodac moving forward. Those are the considerations that the Government are weighing carefully. 

As my hon. Friend knows, this Government and the preceding one opted into the preceding three measures. I understand that in legal terms this measure is not technically within the 133 2014 block opt-out measures, but that our title V base to determine whether to opt in applies. That is obviously a factor that we must weigh up carefully, and part of our consideration at the moment is whether the Government should, on this fourth attempt, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, determine whether to opt in. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  May I ask a supplementary question? The Minister said about the block opt-out in 2014 that this measure is part of our block opt-out if we opt in to the new measure. Is that understanding correct? 

James Brokenshire:  I asked my officials about that before coming to the Committee. The advice that I received was that, because there is an historic asylum or immigration-type legal base, the measure falls within title V under the new arrangements. Under the pre-Lisbon arrangements, it did not fall within the third pillar—as my hon. Friend knows, it does not fall within the 133 that are caught there—but our title V opt-in decision under the new legal base applies. So the advice that I have clearly received is that this is not one of the 133. 

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab):  Can the Minister tell me whether he has visited or discussed the issue with Europol, which is led by a UK officer at the moment? Has he discussed it with the SOCA successor, the National Crime Agency, and can he tell me whether it thinks that we should be opting in and using it for the advantage of identifying people who might be a threat to the UK or who should not be in the UK? 

James Brokenshire:  I have visited Europol and met Rob Wainwright, who heads it on our behalf. Although I have seen the operation there and understand its context, I have not specifically discussed this point with him. The advice that I have received, however, is that there are other means of addressing some of the law enforcement issues, as I said in my opening remarks—with Interpol, as well as with bilateral arrangements with individual countries. Therefore, this is not something that has been represented to me. Yes, the proposal is certainly helpful and potentially useful, but it not something that has been set out as absolutely required or of huge significance in that broad context. I hope that gives some framework. This is not something that we are considering in isolation. Certainly, we will consider and continue to reflect on any representations that we receive on the matter. 

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Michael Connarty:  The Minister has therefore heard different information from me. I am continuing an attachment to the British police at the moment and have been in SOCA recently—I have been to Europol wearing my other hat—and I get different advice. They believe in all such measures—because crime is now internationally organised, they require every instrument possible. Therefore, the Minister seems to be playing politics by taking a Eurosceptic position when he should be taking a supportive one, so that we can protect our citizens, instead of scoring political points. 

James Brokenshire:  I have not said anything to score political points on this measure. The Government have not formed a view as yet—we are still within our time period for considering whether to opt in. The hon. Gentleman is aware that, in respect of the third measure, the Government opted in. We are considering things carefully. I certainly support such practical co-operation between our law enforcement agencies and other European partners, recognising the transnational impact that serious organised crime and other criminality can have. I hope that that will indicate the Government’s approach in considering such issues carefully in the national interest. 

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con):  If the Government decide to opt in on the basis that we have not yet adopted Prüm—so there is no risk of criminalisation at this stage—but then later adopt Prüm, what are the options for addressing the concerns about criminalisation that have been expressed? 

James Brokenshire:  Clearly, Prüm is one of the 133 2014 block opt-out decisions that we need to take. The Government are considering each measure carefully and, when we have finished our analysis and any debate or discussions have taken place, we have committed to a vote in both Houses on the block opt-out. Obviously, that covers Prüm and 132 other measures. 

My hon. Friend asked about criminalisation effects. The measure, as currently stated, clearly envisages that care should be taken. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset flagged up the issue of what happened at the meeting of 6 September, which I am conscious that I have not yet addressed. In some ways, my response might assist my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon too. At that meeting, unfortunately no additional information or formal paper, which had been expected, was tabled. We will continue to press on that issue and, when we receive any further information, we will update the Committee. The issue concerns the access of law enforcement agencies, which is limited with regard to the check that will need to be done against the existing criminal databases before Eurodac can be accessed. In relation to Europol, as I have already indicated, we think that parallels can be drawn with the Schengen visa information system on anonymisation. The role of Eurodac and Europol in looking at strategic analyses and threat assessments may be a way of giving further assurance on those issues. 

Diana Johnson:  Page 9 of the bundle refers to the Government’s concern about fingerprint data being held for only one year. Will the Minister explain that further? 

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James Brokenshire:  I am happy to do so. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to page 113 of the explanatory memorandum. We maintain our concerns about the one-year period; that has been quite consistent. That matter was also recognised by the previous Government. In particular, I draw her attention to paragraphs 17 and 18 of the memorandum, regarding the time period beyond which hits may be received and thus the ability to ensure that we have as strong a position as possible to enforce the Dublin arrangements. Clearly, we will continue to focus on that. Should a decision be taken to opt in, we will surely continue to address that issue. We think that the time period beyond a year is still relevant in the context of these measures. 

Diana Johnson:  A note on page 8 refers to costs. Based on 2009 estimates of the previous regulation discussed, it is calculated that there are €2,415 million non-administrative costs, or €2,771 million, including administrative costs. Are those figures up to date? Is that what the Minister expects that this would cost? 

James Brokenshire:  I am not aware of any updated numbers. If numbers are available I am happy to write to the hon. Lady as well as share them with the European Scrutiny Committee. Paragraph 3.20 states: 

“Funding will be found from existing home affairs budget lines.” 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  May I return to the title 5 question? When we discussed the matter in the European Scrutiny Committee we were advised that if a bit of it was under title 5 then the whole thing was brought under title 5, so the opt-out would apply. Will officials look into that to determine whether it is definitely not under the block opt-out? The other point is that, if we have not adopted Prüm provisions or used the block opt-out, we will not be able to use the criminal side of the database anyway, so the major change in the document would not be of any benefit to us. 

James Brokenshire:  I am happy to discuss the legal base further with officials. My understanding is that the title 5 legal base triggered our opt-in but that did not change the historical arrangements in relation to the original measure. Although I have had the pleasure of taking part in a number of such debates, I would not offer myself as a complete legal expert on this technical area. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that I will write to the Committee to confirm that point for its consideration of the measure. 

My hon. Friend highlighted the issue of benefits. He will be aware that the third measure—this is the fourth—did not contain law enforcement provisions. It was still judged to be of benefit in terms of the overall Dublin regulations and seeing whether the Eurodac system operated effectively, so it is not true to say that there would not necessarily be any benefit to this country, even if we were not able to participate fully in the law enforcement aspects of the measure. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  If I may, I will continue to speak on the benefits. The criminal element is the one that increases the cost. In negotiating, will the Government be inclined to remove that part due to the increased cost? Just to clarify, once we have opted in—if that is

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the decision—the development will be by qualified majority vote, whereas before we decide to opt in, we effectively have a veto. 

James Brokenshire:  I hear the point that my hon. Friend makes about the criminal aspects. The law enforcement measures were introduced in the fourth measure as a result of significant lobbying by a number of member states. That is why changes were made and why the third measure in many ways stalled in negotiations. It did not progress as a consequence of those strong feelings. 

We do not object in principle to information being shared for national security reasons or to combat terrorism and serious crime. My hon. Friend will note that the regulation—in, I think, paragraph 20 or 21—limits such sharing to law enforcement agencies and limits what such information can be used for. We are clearly concerned to ensure that there is an appropriate balance with privacy and data protection. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  Does the Minister share my concern that the law and order element is an extension of the reason for having the database in the first place? It continues the process of centralising power in the European Union. Unless there is a very clear advantage to the UK from doing this, we should be careful about proceeding along this route. 

James Brokenshire:  I hear the point that my hon. Friend makes and I recognise the points that the European Scrutiny Committee has highlighted on the measure. We are clearly considering the benefits, and in particular the benefit that attaches to the Eurodac system operating more effectively in the context of the Dublin regulations. As I indicated, we have concerns about the extension of law enforcement use of the Eurodac database. If we decide to opt in—that decision has not been taken—those issues would be part of our negotiating framework. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  The Committee will be glad to know that this is my final question. I join the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North in expressing concern about the reduction of the time limit from two years to one year. The UK Border Agency considers the two-year period to be useful, which is noted in the papers. Is it in the Government’s interest to reduce the ability to check on asylum seekers? Will the benefits from the recast Eurodac be big enough to counter the loss of that extended time period? 

James Brokenshire:  The Committee has consistently highlighted that point—it highlighted it in respect of the previous measure, as well as this one. My hon. Friend knows that we have continuing concerns about the storage time period. We are examining the overall benefits in the context of a speedier, more efficient and more effective Eurodac system against retention periods and the overall operation—whether we are to stay out or be part of it. We recognise the Committee’s point, which we flagged up in the explanatory memorandum. 

Motion made, and Question proposed,  

That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 10638/12, relating to a draft Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the establishment of ‘EURODAC’

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for the comparison of fingerprints for the effective application of Regulation (EU) No.[.../...] (establishing the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an application for international protection lodged in one of the Member States by a third-country national or a stateless person) and to request comparisons with EURODAC data by Member States’ law enforcement authorities and Europol for law enforcement purposes and amending Regulation (EU) No. 1077/2011 establishing a European Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT systems in the area of freedom, security and justice; and supports the Government’s recommendation to exercise the right to decide whether or not to opt in to the Directive in accordance with Title V of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.—(James Brokenshire.)  

5.5 pm 

Diana Johnson:  It was remiss of me at the outset not to welcome the Minister to his new position and say that I am pleased to see him as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. I also welcome the Government Whip. 

I want to express my concern that we are having this debate just a few weeks before a decision has to be made on the proposal, as the Government’s position is not entirely clear. What is even more worrying is that I listened carefully to what the Minister just said about looking at the net benefit of whether to opt in and, again, the Government seem hazy on whether there is a net benefit. I am surprised that we are in this position so close to a decision having to be made and that the Government have not made a clear decision on what their action will be. 

5.6 pm 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  I would, of course, urge the Government to be cautious. As a general principle, opt-ins should be taken on only when there is a clear and substantial advantage to the British Government or to the safety of the country. It is quite hard to see what that is in the recasting of Eurodac. We get some idea of the difficulties because this is the European Commission’s fourth go at doing this. It is clearly something that does not jump off the page as an obvious step for Europe to take. The Commission has therefore had to go back and reconsider and re-evaluate what it is doing. It has put the issue of law enforcement in and has also taken it out, because it is contentious and complex, as well as expensive. 

However, it is, and always should be, a concern when the European Union is using one measure to extend its field of competence into another area. The database was set up to help with asylum seekers, who are not considered to be criminal in any way other than possibly that their immigration papers may not be properly in order. To criminalise a large number of people, against whom there is not necessarily any evidence at all, and treat them in the same way as people who have come under suspicion of breaking the law is not necessarily something that we should feel at all comfortable with if we believe in liberal democracy. 

Yes, I know that we are told that the measure will be used in the fight against terrorism, but one has heard that before. Such arguments are always made when the state wants to extend its powers; it is always for our greater security. However, there are many thousands of people on the asylum database, none of whom, as far as we know, are accused of any terrorist activity. It is a

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classic example of a power being extended because it may be convenient at some future time. I am suspicious when the United Kingdom does that as a state on its own, but I am even more suspicious when the European Union, as an overriding superstate, tries to accrue powers. 

In that light, I have some concerns—the Minister dealt with them in his comments—about the additional abilities given to Europol. It is interesting that the centralised law enforcement body in the European Union should have additional powers over and above those of member states. That makes it look as if Europol is being set up as the biggest, most powerful police force in the European Union, so it must have more authority and powers than the police forces of individual member states. Again, I would be very suspicious of that, because I do not wish the Government to allow the European Union to add to the EU’s existing accoutrements of the state. 

We have discussed some of the drawbacks that may result from reducing from two years to one the length of time for which fingerprint data may be held. This is always an important point with anything that is decided at European Union level: how much of our freedom of action do we give up by collaborating with other European Union member states? Is it better for us to develop our systems of data retention and of law and order, and to develop our existing bilateral arrangements and our relationships with Interpol and Europol to garner information? Might they suit our nation’s law enforcement activities better than having a one-size-fits-all approach across Europe? When we are looking at the disadvantages and advantages we should always bear in mind what the Minister said, namely that we do not see many advantages in the law enforcement part of the measure—our law enforcement agencies have not said that it is crucial to their activities—because much of it can already be done. That is important, and it allows us more freedom of action than if we were to give it up. 

There are questions outstanding from the European Scrutiny Committee about the significant extension, the use of the database for a purpose for which it was not intended, our law enforcement authorities’ view that they do not particularly need it, and the whole matter of our block opt-out. I would certainly encourage the Government not to opt in to something that it will effectively opt out of in two years’ time. I hope that the Government, or at least the Conservative elements in the Government, are looking strongly towards the block opt-out—I would be surprised if many Conservatives thought that we should do anything other than exercise our block opt-out—so there does not seem a great deal of point in signing up to something that in two years’ time will be redundant. 

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There is a very nice chart on page 81 that sets out how to take fingerprints and how many millimetres of space that involves, which is all remarkably helpful and useful. I am not sure, however, that we ought to have a standardised spot of 50 mm by 40 mm—2 inches by 1.6 inches, if one prefers the imperial system—as a means of tackling a European law enforcement problem that does not seem to exist, but which is another bit of the classic argument for garnering more power to the state, and the superstate at that. 

5.12 pm 

James Brokenshire:  I thank hon. Members for their contributions, and I thank the Opposition spokeswoman, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North, for her comments. The Government are sometimes criticised for coming up with a decision and having a debate without due consideration for the scrutiny process, but debates such as today’s are intended to aid the Government’s consideration of opt-in decisions. Although I appreciate the hon. Lady’s chiding of me about today’s debate, scrutiny is improved when hon. Members consider measures such as this one in Committee and the Government reflect on the statements that they make. 

To provide some context for the Eurodac measure, the historic regulations have enabled the UK to remove more than 10,000 individuals since 2004 and I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee recognise that the Eurodac arrangements have been helpful; the previous Government also reflected that. Questions have been asked about the current measure, however. I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset that we share a number of concerns raised in the European Scrutiny Committee’s report, including the fact that the rationale for Europol to have direct access needs to be set out more clearly. As I made clear in my opening speech, I believe that if the new regulation will allow law enforcement access, it is important that appropriate safeguards are in place. We will continue to make those concerns heard, and I take on board the comments that have been made on law enforcement and on Europol’s access to Eurodac. 

I welcome the discussion that we have had this afternoon; it has been helpful. Benefits would accrue to a more efficient and effective database, such as its ability to operate more effectively in the future. We will consider this afternoon’s debate and use it to inform the Government’s final decision on whether to opt in to this measure and, should we opt in, the approach that we might take in subsequent negotiations. 

Question put and agreed to.  


5.15 pm 

Committee rose.  

Prepared 11th September 2012