Twenty-ninth Report of Session 2012-13 - European Scrutiny Committee Contents

20   The Prüm Decisions: cross-border cooperation on terrorism and crime


COM(12) 732

Commission Report on the implementation of Council Decision 2008/615/JHA of 23 June 2008 on the stepping up of cross-border cooperation, particularly in combating terrorism and cross-border crime (the "Prüm Decision")

Legal base
Document originated 7 December 2012
Deposited in Parliament 13 December 2012
DepartmentHome Office
Basis of considerationEM of 9 January 2013
Previous Committee ReportNone
Discussion in CouncilNone
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decisionCleared; further information requested in forthcoming Explanatory Memoranda on measures subject to the UK's 2014 block opt-out


20.1  In 2008, the Council adopted two Decisions ("the Prüm Decisions") which implement, within the EU legal framework, most of the provisions contained in the intergovernmental Prüm Treaty concluded by some, but not all, EU countries in 2005.[84] The purpose of the Treaty, and subsequent Council Decisions, is to establish more effective mechanisms for cross-border police cooperation and the exchange of information to prevent and investigate terrorist and other serious criminal offences. The principal Prüm Decision (2008/615/JHA) requires Member States to establish national DNA analysis files for the investigation of criminal offences. It also:

  • establishes rules and procedures for the automated searching and transfer of "reference data" held in national DNA analysis files — these are data containing individual DNA profiles which may be used to establish a match or "hit", but which do not reveal the identity of the data subject — as well as fingerprint data, and certain vehicle registration data;
  • provides for the spontaneous exchange of information (including personal data) in order to prevent criminal offences and maintain public order and security for major events with a cross-border dimension;
  • provides for the exchange of information (including personal data) on individuals where particular circumstances give reason to believe that they may commit a terrorist offence; and
  • strengthens cross-border police cooperation.

20.2  A second Decision (2008/616/JHA) contains detailed technical measures to implement the principal Prüm Decision and includes, for example, guidance on the technical requirements for establishing DNA profiles.

20.3  Both Prüm Decisions were adopted under the pre-Lisbon intergovernmental or "Third Pillar" arrangements applicable to EU police and criminal law measures and took effect in August 2008. Most of the provisions were to be implemented by Member States within one year, but a three-year implementation deadline applied to those providing for access to national vehicle registration, fingerprint and DNA databases.

20.4  The Government informed us in February 2011 that the UK would not be in a position to meet the August 2011 implementation deadline for two reasons. First, UK policy on the retention of DNA and fingerprint data was about to change with the introduction of the Protection of Freedoms Bill, so it would be premature to implement the Prüm provisions on access to fingerprint and DNA data until the necessary legislative changes had been made. Second, there were insufficient resources within the current spending review period (2011-15) to prioritise work on Prüm implementation, but the Government would seek EU funding to begin work on the vehicle registration and DNA elements of Prüm.[85]

20.5  The Prüm Decisions are subject to Article 4 of the Protocol on Transitional Provisions, annexed to the EU Treaties, which allows the UK to decide, no later than 31 May 2014, to opt out of all Third Pillar EU criminal law and policing measures agreed before the Lisbon Treaty took effect on 1 December 2009 ("the 2014 block opt-out"). Current Government thinking, as set out in the Home Secretary's statement to the House on 15 October 2012, is to exercise the block opt-out and to seek to rejoin measures which it considers to be in the national interest. A decision to opt back into the Prüm Decisions would expose the UK to the risk of infraction proceedings brought by the Commission, once it is empowered to do so from 1 December 2014, if the UK continued to fall short in its obligation to implement them in full.

The Commission report

20.6  The purpose of the report is to review Member States' implementation of the Prüm Decisions and to identify the main operational difficulties encountered. The application of provisions on the exchange of vehicle registration, fingerprint and DNA data, as well as compliance with data protection standards, in each Member State is subject to a process of testing and evaluation by experts from other Member States, followed by the adoption of a specific Council Decision bringing the provisions into effect.


20.7  The report indicates that:

  • the provisions on the automated exchange of DNA data are operational in 18 Member States, and are likely to become operational in a further five Member States early in 2013;
  • the provisions on automated searching of fingerprint data are operational in 14 Member States, and a further seven Member States are expected to complete their technical implementation and undergo evaluations early in 2013; and
  • the provisions on automated searching of vehicle registration data are operational in 13 Member States, and a further four Member States are awaiting evaluation.

20.8  Greece and the UK are the only Member States to have made little or no progress on data exchange in all three areas, though Ireland, Italy, Poland and Portugal are experiencing difficulties in some areas. The UK is, however, compliant with the data protection provisions of the Prüm Decisions.

20.9  The report indicates that technical and funding difficulties are the reasons cited by Member States for the delays in implementation. The Commission highlights the availability of technical support, through the Prüm helpdesk at Europol and a mobile support team, as well as funding from the EU Programme for the Prevention of and Fight against Crime and concludes:

"What is needed above all seems to be political will and appropriate prioritisation to overcome barriers at national level."[86]

Operational difficulties

20.10  The report suggests that, for many Member States, "Prüm has become a routine tool in investigating crime with a potential cross-border dimension."[87] However, the Commission highlights the need for better statistical data to demonstrate not only how many matches or "hits" for each dataset are recorded, but how useful the data are in the context of criminal investigations. The report highlights four areas for improvement:

  • follow-up action after a data match has been found: although automated searches are effective in identifying matching datasets, any follow-up action to obtain personal data concerning the identity of the data subject is governed by national laws on mutual legal assistance and can be subject to delay;
  • unsatisfactory technical specifications for data exchange: a considerable number of Member States believe that the specifications for matching DNA data should be made more reliable;
  • the need to make better use of existing expertise and support: notably the Prüm helpdesk at Europol for operational Member States and the mobile support team (MCT) for those in the process of implementing provisions on the exchange of DNA and fingerprint data; and
  • operational police cooperation: the provisions on cross-border police cooperation for major events and joint operations are generally considered to be of some value, but little use has been made so far of those providing for the exchange of information to prevent terrorist offences.

20.11  The report concludes by urging Member States which have not implemented the Decisions in full to bid for EU funding and to make use of existing support facilities. It also calls for more accurate statistical data to demonstrate how useful data matches prove to be in the context of criminal investigations, and suggests that further work on procedures for more rapid follow-up on data matches would be of some value.

The Government's view

20.12  The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Security (James Brokenshire) describes the Commission's report as "a stocktake on Prüm".[88] He notes that the UK has successfully bid for EU funding to support implementation of the provisions on DNA data exchange, but adds:

"The report mentions some very real problems with the technical and administrative specifications for Prüm. These include the matching rules for DNA hits which, should the UK implement Prüm, potentially cause some major problems with adventitious matches.[89] This issue already exists for some other countries: we understand that the Netherlands already simply refuses to provide follow-up information should the original hit be one that is very likely to have been adventitious. Other technical difficulties exist in the fingerprint area; these include the possibility that verification rules around hits are not sufficiently tight and capacity problems with Member States' verifying authorities and within their Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) databases."[90]

20.13  The Minister questions the usefulness of other aspects of the Prüm Decisions, such as the requirement for each Member State to designate national contact points responsible for different elements of Prüm cooperation, adding that cooperation for the EURO 2012 championships was not based around the Prüm contact points for major events.

20.14  The Minister concludes:

"The Prüm Decisions are, of course, included in the list of police and judicial co-operation measures which are subject to the UK's 2014 opt-out decision. As the report does not propose new measures or changes to the legislation, this situation is not altered. The Home Office acceptance of funding for the DNA work does not in any way prejudge this decision and should not be taken as an indication one way or the other as to whether the UK will exercise its opt-out, or if it does so, that it will ultimately opt back into the Prüm Decisions. It will, however, help provide information about the costs, benefits and practicalities of exchanging DNA data with other Member States which might help inform that decision."[91]


20.15  The Commission report highlights the patchy implementation of the Prüm Decisions in a number of Member States and the apparent lack of progress made by the UK in implementing those aspects concerning the automated exchange of DNA, fingerprint and vehicle registration data. We understand that the delays in the UK are largely a result of financial constraints, rather than an unwillingness to play a full part in Prüm cooperation. However, the Minister gives no indication of the Government's view on the practical and operational utility of Prüm cooperation or, given the concerns expressed about the accuracy of matches based on DNA profiles, the implications of the Decisions for the protection of fundamental rights.

20.16  We note that the draft Decisions fall within the scope of the UK's 2014 block opt-out and are amongst the measures which the Government may seek to rejoin if it decides to exercise its block opt-out. In light of the important role which Parliament will play in debating and voting on the Government's block opt-out decision, and on any recommendation that the Government may make to seek to rejoin individual measures subject to the block opt-out, we consider that the Commission report should be drawn to the attention of the House.

20.17  As it seems that the report will not be discussed by the Council, we are content to clear it from scrutiny. In so doing, however, we remind the Minister that we expect the Government's forthcoming Explanatory Memoranda on measures subject to the UK's block opt-out to include a more detailed examination of the utility of measures such as these, as well as the costs involved in UK participation and the expected benefits.

84   The original signatories to the Treaty were Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain. Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Finland, Hungary, Estonia and Slovakia have since acceded to it. Back

85   See letter of 7 February 2011 from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Crime Prevention (James Brokenshire) to the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee. Back

86   See p.6 of the Commission Report. Back

87   See p.6 of the Commission Report. Back

88   See para 13 of the Minister's Explanatory Memorandum. Back

89   These are sometimes called "false positives" - in other words, the initial positive match turns out be a false one on further examination. Back

90   See para 21 of the Minister's Explanatory Memorandum. Back

91   See para 24 of the Minister's Explanatory Memorandum. Back

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Prepared 30 January 2013