Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)

Assistant Commissioner David Veness and Chief Constable Paddy Tomkins

27 OCTOBER 2004

  Q40Chairman: Those are the three new ones you refer to?

  Mr Veness: Yes, and it will reflect EU membership. It operates, in terms of the actual meeting arrangements, six-monthly in a different nation on each occasion. It last met in Poland in May of this year. There is an imminent meeting, in fact later next week, in Germany of that grouping. Each of the operational services will be represented. It tends to operate at a level which is below that of the European Police Chiefs Task Force. For example, among our UK representatives next week will be the Head of Special Branch within the Metropolitan Police, who is mandated to take forward that role. It is helpful to describe the various operational activities that have flowed from the working group's creation. Within Scotland Yard—but that is only a convenience on behalf of UK policing—the Police Working Group on Terrorism led to a body which is now the National Terrorism and Extremism Liaison Section, and that acts as a post-box by which urgent communication can be initiated, even on the most mundane inquiries—for example, who owns a particular motor car or about a recent crime—within each of the contributing states. Within the United Kingdom, there is that 24-hour capability of linking in with the other constituent organisations. There is then a structure, in terms of deployment of officers, which is known as the Counter-Terrorism and Extremism Liaison System—and I merely refer to the British example—whereby we deploy officers in locations abroad, notably within Europe. There are others in Australia and Canada, but the officers are mainly engaged in the European theatre in order to give us literally the day-by-day liaison that we need with our colleagues engaged in these duties around Europe. The reciprocal dimension of that is that a great many other European nations are generous enough to provide liaison officers to London, so what you see in London, day by day, is team work between the hub, our own National Terrorism and Extremism Liaison Office, and officers mainly from European police forces and other like organisations, who are either on the staff of that body or are in their embassies here in London. They are available in order to give us that direct operational linkage. Of course we would wish that network to be wider and broader and often there is a number of countries covered from one particular location, but that, broadly, is the method of operation.

  Q41Chairman: Is that hub within Scotland Yard?

  Mr Veness: It is, and that, in many ways, is a historical fact because of the original concept. Although it was a combined UK initiative, because the Special Branch facilities within Scotland Yard in respect of counter-terrorism statistically form one of the larger deployments it is a convenient location for colleagues throughout the United Kingdom to act on a co-operative basis.

  Q42Chairman: It is a very complex web that you weave. I do not know about my colleagues, but it is quite difficult to try to find out where everyone links in. I do not know whether a map of how that works would help.

  Mr Veness: We would be very pleased to supply that if that would be regarded as helpful. It will be illustrative for ourselves, I am sure!

  Q43Chairman: I know, whenever I have to look at anything complicated, having a map is just the easiest way. If members would be happy for that, we would be very grateful for that. How does it fit into Europol?

  Mr Veness: It invites Europol to be an observer as part of the structure of the Police Working Group on Terrorism. I think your question is extremely well placed because there is a timely opportunity—I believe and I know colleagues would agree—to look at how many of these institutions might be more closely interleaved in relation to their operational effectiveness. I mention the fact that the Police Working Group on Terrorism historically has arisen from an earlier phase. I genuinely believe that there is a chance for us all to link in, particularly with the new invigorated role of the European Police Chiefs Task Force, which has moved on transparently since the initiatives of March of this year, post-Madrid. I think it would not be too critical an observer who would say there appears to be a degree of overlap here. I would point to the fact that the European police chiefs have a much broader agenda—drugs, illegal trafficking of human beings and other European cross-border issues of key strategic importance, as well as terrorism—whereas the Police Working Group on Terrorism has had this historic focus and has well matured systems of liaison, but of course there is the opportunity to work more closely, particularly with drugs liaison arrangements. Again, at the heart of your point, my Lord Chairman, I think there is an opportunity to explore a greater integration of the Police Working Group with the new and developing Europol structures.

  Q44Chairman: It would be good for me if you could put that as a sort of footnote what the police chefs do, and then the more strategic roles.

  Mr Veness: The point that I had not addressed and that you raised in relation to how it actually deals with information is that primarily the working group operates on an intelligence-only basis, so its starting point will be to make inquiries, which might be quite mundane and routine, but nevertheless that gets the answer that deals with the imperative of taking action. Clearly what we are seeking to do is bring together information that reduces the risk of public harm. That is overwhelmingly what we are seeking to achieve. In an era when mass casualties would be the price that would be paid for not getting that right, that degree of rapid transmission is of course important. If one then moves into the slower time of using that information for court proceedings so it becomes evidence, then of course one would revert to the letters of request procedure by which the European and other nations will obtain that information more formally, but it does, of course, bring with it the practical advantage that you have already identified that the material you are seeking actually exists in France or Belgium as opposed to a speculative inquiry by way of letter of request.

  Q45Chairman: That is very helpful. It may be that members want to draw out a little more from that later. In the meantime, can I move on to my second question, which is about the European Council underlining the role of the European Police Chiefs Task Force in co-ordinating responses? Do you share the view that the role of the European Police Chiefs Task Force in co-ordinating their operational responses to terrorism is the best way forward?

  Mr Veness: It is, I would suggest, an additional dimension and an additional network and source of energy which, if properly channelled, can be a valuable asset. I think the dimension that the European Police Chiefs Task Force brings is literally contained within its title, in that it is a senior body, which seeks to bring together decision-makers, leaders of European services. Of course, within the United Kingdom, we are not obliged because we have not got such an individual who could be described as the UK Police Chief. That role is performed by the Director General of the National Crime Squad on behalf of us all, but, in order that we are addressing the counter-terrorism dimension, one of my colleagues actually acts as the counter-terrorism deputy to the Director General of the National Crime Squad, so that we ensure that the United Kingdom has not only National Crime Squad business but also counter-terrorism as part of the agenda. I think the role of the Police Chiefs Task Force has clearly been advanced by events since Madrid because it is at the heart of the recommendations made by Justice and Home Affairs Council and the European Council. I think we are seeing a period, particularly under the Dutch Presidency, where that is being given actual practical vigour and, in our view, a reasonable and achievable agenda of activities. The Dutch have delivered what they refer to as COSPOL, the Comprehensive Operational Strategic Policing Plan, which is to provide an agenda for the European Police Chiefs Task Force. We certainly, as the UK, are vigorously supporting the Dutch Presidency. We see one particular role as sharing with colleagues the benefit of hard-won experience here within the UK as to how operationally we respond to either the threat of terrorist incidents or the reality of terrorist incidents, because, sadly, the experience of dealing with bombs has been unhappily relatively commonplace here. That has led to an operation within the United Kingdom—and forgive me for all these labels—that is known as Operation Rainbow, and that is a spectrum of operational deployments that we can achieve. We are seeking to share that learning through the European Police Chiefs Task Force and the industry and the Dutch Presidency with our colleagues. I give that as one practical example of where that is being taken ahead at the strategic level.

  Q46Chairman: At the moment, it does not come under the Council's structures. Do you think it should do?

  Mr Veness: I think it is an omission and an opportunity. It probably is inappropriate for me to comment about where that would appropriately fit in.

  Q47Chairman: Would it be helpful?

  Mr Veness: There is a suggestion, given the seniority of the body, that something akin to the Article 36 strand of activity within the EU may be appropriate. Then I think there would be a need to align it with the administrative and strategic arrangements for Europol itself so that one had a clearer definition. No doubt that is a key role for Mr de Vries in his role as co-ordinator.

  Q48Chairman: We can ask him.

  Mr Veness: It is a very real opportunity because there is a post-Madrid gap in relation to how the European Police Chiefs Task Force is integrated within the system, and how that fits together with the Europol activities.

  Chairman: That will be a good question for next week when we go to Brussels and meet Mr de Vries. That is very helpful.

  Q49Earl of Caithness: The National Crime Squad has supported proposals to have small operational teams involving other EU countries, which is something that would follow on from improved Europol intelligence. Do you see this as a sensible way forward?

  Mr Veness: I think there are very real practical benefits to be gained by the concept, but I think the concept needs to be applied in a way that it adds benefit rather than in any way it contributes to confusion. Perhaps I can illustrate that. The way that the joint investigative teams were emerging in the broader context of organised and serious crime, which is not terrorism, is that they were looking at longer-term problems such as illegal immigration, illegal smuggling of human beings and drugs issues, which were amenable to rather longer-term investment. In the context of dealing with terrorism incidents, the focus has actually been on material which is being developed which might lead to a terrorist bomb or some other form of incident, and there I think we probably need to think more broadly than Europe. Certainly, reflecting on the cases that have happened within the United Kingdom, even in this current year, which have yet to come to trial, although there was a European footprint, there also was the need to deal with a great many other jurisdictions much further afield. I think the joint investigative team idea has many benefits. Another dimension of it is when an incident occurs, for example the attacks on the Madrid trains, and the fact that that had immediate application to a range of other European countries. I think there is an opportunity to address the interests of those other countries and ensure that the inquiries are pursued expeditiously, which would be very much akin to a joint investigative team. What one does not want is that every time there is a bomb in Europe, 24 other nations all contribute individuals who may or may not have a role to play. I think my colleagues would agree we want rather more refined and bespoke arrangements. There is a third requirement that this concept could deliver, and again I use Madrid as the example. As soon as those bombs had happened, there was very clear enthusiasm on the part of everybody engaged in terrorism in Europe: what can we do to make the trains safer; how did this happen; where did they get the explosives; who was involved; and what does it tell us about European networks active in Europe? All of those questions need very urgent answers. It is almost not a joint investigative team but joint investigative communication that we need so that we have measures in place to ensure that our European colleagues are very promptly informed of those lessons. We would imagine, in the context of the counter-terrorism theme, developing this down those three broad avenues. In short, this is a valuable notion and one which needs taking ahead in a thoughtful and constructive way.

  Q50Earl of Caithness: Looking ahead and following up that answer, you have mentioned things like added benefit and being more closely integrated. Do you see a need for an EU operational capacity? Are you differentiating between EU information, better and closer information, and then limited operational teams, or do you see it more as a big European operational capacity?

  Mr Veness: I think if one added a label "European operational capacity" it is difficult to see what that concept or function would deliver that could not be achieved by what are relatively well-established mechanisms of counter-terrorism at the national level. My doubt would be whether one would always guarantee that when you went looking for that capability within a given location, even within Europe, you might find it. Certainly my personal priority would be to invest more heavily in national capability rather than to create, as it were, a specific European operational counter-terrorism capability, which I think would be difficult to fit in with the way that nationals regard counter-terrorism as part of their national security jurisdiction, and so there is not an overwhelming case that it would add benefit.

  Q51Earl of Caithness: Changing to a slightly different tack, on the evidence that ACPO and the Metropolitan Police gave us, there was this interesting phrase "within existing national structures and the constraints imposed by the nature of counter-terrorism intelligence data". What limits and constraints are you talking about? Can we lift the veil a little bit on that?

  Mr Veness: On re-reading that sentence, I am conscious that it is not as happily expressed as it might be because it contains the words "it is difficult to see how co-operation could be improved on". I can think of a thousand ways to do that. If it conveys that sense of complacency, I apologise. That was not the intention. What we were seeking to convey in relation to existing national structures is precisely the point that I was alluding to in relation to capacity and capability. To be candid, there is a wide variation amongst even European nations in recognising the problem that post-9/11 terrorism confronts. Sadly, I think the cruel reality that we are seeing is that that understanding is coming about as a result of dire events rather than an intellectual process and a commitment to be fully engaged. I think the reality is that there is nowhere which we can exclude from the possibility of a terrorism attack being mounted, supported, recruited, provided with logistics, whatever, within the European theatre. We need to start with that understanding. I regret to say that is not yet fully developed. In terms of existing national structures, that is the point I am referring to: the political will based upon a clear understanding of the nature of the threat, a commitment to engage and to commit resources, and a commitment to address one's legal framework within that context.

  Q52Viscount Ullswater: As a supplementary to that, one of the first criteria that you identified in the role of the job that you do was that terrorism has now become global in the 37 months since 9/11. What we have been talking about are the sorts of European institutions. I wondered if you could just explain a little bit the role of Interpol and your work with Interpol, your connection with Interpol, because again you said that if there was an incident within the European Union, you did not want 24 people all gathering to try and deal with it. I think we have been told in written evidence that Interpol has what is called incident response teams, small numbers of people that can go and co-ordinate responses to events. Could you enlarge?

  Mr Veness: On that latter point, it links back to what I was describing as the breadth of the strategic challenge all the way from when one has the first nugget of intelligence about a possible terrorist incident through the incident, if one is unable to stop it, and then dealing with it afterwards. I think the contribution of organisations such as Interpol is to bring together a range of national talents, skills and resources, which for example allow you to recover from that incident or to address the immediate crisis. We all ought to be actively supporting and engaging in that to make sure that that could happen rapidly when the need arises. Interpol clearly in a more general sense has the overwhelming advantage that it is the one global policing organisation. I think the encouraging dimension is the way, particularly under its present leadership, and indeed the contribution that has been made in terms of executive support from the United Kingdom, that Interpol has moved from a position of merely being an information exchange to developing particular contributions on a thematic basis. The one I would give by way of example is its work in relation to forged identity documents and in particular its aspirational global register in relation to passports and travel documents. That is immensely helpful. The disadvantage of course is that if you are moving on a truly global basis, then there may be some challenges in the extent to which you can be completely candid in respect of the sharing of intelligence that certain nations might regard as particularly sensitive. Is there an opportunity to drive ahead the agenda in relation to the greater role that Interpol could play? Yes, I think there is.

  Q53Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: Could I ask a question about Europol at this stage? We are obviously very interested in how the institutional arrangements work. I wondered what you felt about that. Are you satisfied with the role of Europol and the role that is played in its fight against terrorism and what you believe about its powers: does it need more or can it be effective as it is at the present time?

  Mr Veness: I think even the most enthusiastic supporter would regard Europol as an evolutionary development. I think that is not being critical; it is being realistic. Seeking to move within a European policing cohesive body over the period of its development has inevitably been a challenge. To me, engaged in operational counter-terrorism within the United Kingdom, the one great advantage that Europol delivers immediately is that you have a range of European liaison officers from each of the constituent EU nations and they are actually there in one corridor or nearby; there is the ability to deal with a problem that might arise now with a European liaison officer from the United Kingdom being able to speak to somebody from Belgium and somebody from Sweden. Being able to address that issue is a very significant step forward. When one adds the number of different agencies that are now represented within Europol, and not only the police, in all their rich diversity within European states but also customs and immigration and in some cases security service officers, that gives a focal point, which I think is a very great operational asset. There are then the issues of the themes down which Europol can drive in order to assist. For example, after the Madrid bombs, it was the United Kingdom that engaged in a debate with Europol and said it would be a tremendous advantage to get together everybody who is responsible for transport and security both above ground and below ground in Europe to share what knowledge we have and what preventative measures we could take in relation to making rail transport safer. That was, I think, an excellent initiative taken by Europol in order to gather that degree of information. There is then the Counter-Terrorist Task Force, again reinvigorated after the Madrid bombings and contained in the declaration. We are vigorous supporters of that. I am proud to say that the United Kingdom is statistically the greatest contributor of information on that basis to Europol. The opportunity now falls, with the additional nations as part of the broader Europe, on development, training and demonstrating leadership as to how that can be brought together. I think some very real opportunities have arisen in terms of timing and the rather sad process of recent historical events and Europol is poised to make a valuable contribution.

  Q54Chairman: Can I go back to something that you said that I want to draw out. You said something like, "all Member States feel a real necessity to commit more resources to this and they all think the same and they feel strongly about it". That is not entirely my take on this. Are you satisfied that all Member States, even among the old Member States, are feeling equally anxious about getting this right?

  Mr Veness: No. If I have conveyed that, then I have misled you.

  Q55Chairman: That certainly is not my feeling.

  Mr Veness: To be candid, I think the problem of recognition of what this new dimension of threat means is patchily understood even within countries. One could say, purely from a counter-terrorist point of view, that one would hope there was a greater clarity of understanding of the situation. That was behind my comment to my Lord, that I think, if one looks at the record over recent months, indeed the last few years, understanding has actually arisen, sadly, when there has been a horrible incident rather than from some intellectual process of logic which has led people to do what is right, in our view, because that is the appropriate action. If I conveyed the impression that there is not scope for development within Europe, my view is very clear on that: we are nothing like where we need to be.

Chairman: That is enormously helpful because I have been quite concerned about one particular Member State that I would have expected to have been very focused on this but is not at all, to my way of thinking, and I will not name it. I am very grateful to you for clarifying that point.

  Q56Viscount Ullswater: So far we have talked about structures and co-operation but not to a great extent. Obviously what those structures do is exchange data. In your very helpful paper you noticed the difference between the data which is to be used partly for the judicial process and that which is to be used for intelligence purposes, and also of course there are the different legal views within the European Union as to the type of data that may be regarded as evidence, information and intelligence. Of course, we have that within our own structure within the United Kingdom too, just as a footnote. Do these various things hinder co-operation of data exchange?

  Mr Veness: I think the candid answer to that would be "yes". Clearly, the information that is of the greatest imperative is that information which can save life or reduce immediate risk to the public. That probably means that our greatest investment should be in the   intelligence channel, because that becomes intelligence which becomes information for action on which we can take practical steps. Of course, in an ideal world one would always want to move to a position where, in the vast majority of cases, one was mounting a prosecution and therefore one had the benefit of evidence which was admissible under the national rules applicable to that prosecution in order ideally that that would lead to the conviction of those responsible. Counter-terrorism, sadly, is a greyer business than that. There are inevitably going to be occasions—one particularly senses that with the range of dangers that are now applicable in respect of new threats—when you need to move on actionable intelligence, and if that saves life, that is the outcome and one has reduced the risk. If one is in a position where it is not possible in those circumstances to mount a prosecution or indeed the compelling evidence one would seek to adduce is not available, that seems to me the right balance of judgment. The net result is that a terrorist attack has been prevented or disrupted. I think the key problem we have with the latter it that the issues of different legal structures are problems in relation to evidential admissibility. For example, when can a given national organisation begin to conduct an investigation and when can it mount surveillance? One sees a whole range of different, as it were, trigger points around the European Union that certainly, from a UK perspective, we would regard as difficult.

  Q57Viscount Ullswater: Do you feel then that perhaps there is some need for a common EU concept of admissibility of evidence and intelligence? Is it something that the European Union is there for? Is it a concept that the European Union itself should be doing or is it something that national governments should undertake on their own account?

  Mr Veness: I think inevitably the initiative and the energy is going to be nationally led because of the understanding that this is a key element of each country's national security arrangements. Therefore, the imperative is to ensure that at a life-saving level, at the intelligence level, there is never the opportunity whereby a vital piece of information which would have saved a life in any country is reposing unaddressed and not being actioned. I think there is some benefit in work like the EU Plan of Acton, which has helpfully come out of the Madrid tragedy, and the concentration of effort by Justice and Home Affairs and the European Council. Achieving a common standard of admissibility of evidence, given the tension between common law systems, Napoleonic systems and others across Europe, would be ambitious in relation to the achievement, and perhaps it is not the absolute imperative if one is defining this mission as to save life.

  Q58Lord Dubs: I want to ask two questions. One is about information and the second is about intelligence, given what you have said about the importance of intelligence. This is about information: do you support the Commission's proposals for enhancing access to information by law enforcement authorities and the Swedish proposals for equivalent access to information? How will these contribute to the counter-terrorism effort?

  Mr Veness: Having seen both of those, our sense is that, yes, of course, this is the right direction of travel. In many ways, we are not the owner of that debate, which is strategic and political. We recognise that. We are vigorously engaged in contributing to the discussion and so both the Commission's proposals and the Swedish proposals seem to us to be encouraging debate. Where we would want to add our imperative would be to relate to the previous issues about ensuring on an intelligence basis that nothing is being missed in relation to an exchange of a potential nugget of information that, as I mentioned, could reduce harm.

  Q59Lord Dubs: You have almost anticipated my next question. I think ACPO suggests that police forces should have access to national security intelligence. Would the intelligence agencies agree to that? In practical terms, how would you envisage facilitating the exchange of data between law enforcement and intelligence agencies?

  Mr Veness: That may have arisen from Mr Tomkins.

  Mr Tomkins: My Lord, I think we might have framed our evidence to the Committee rather poorly in this regard because, of course, we do have access to national security intelligence through bilateral contacts with the security services, and that is vertical contact. What we do not have are lateral contacts between special branches; that is, the security intelligence if any in the domain of special branches. We work on the basis of making requests to the Security Service at Thames House and the reply coming back but we do not necessarily have the means to interrogate the intelligence already, in our case, in our neighbouring force, Strathclyde. You may be aware that there is a national special branch intelligence system but that is something of a misnomer. It is not actually a national system. It sets national standards for the management of intelligence by the individual special branches. Indeed, Her Majesty's Inspectorate in England and Wales, when they conducted thematic inspections of special branches in 2003, which they entitled "The Need to Know", recommended that there be an integrated IT system for special branches developed to allow this sort of mutual interrogation because of the mobility of the subjects, of the intelligence, and so on. Given the nature of human procurement and the development of these projects, we might need a considerable time span, and so in Scotland, and we recognise fully this is a virtue of our scale, we are looking to create a parallel structure to that which we already have in criminal intelligence, the Scottish Intelligence Database, for special branches within Scotland, so that we would have some mutuality of insight within Scotland to address these issues. I am sorry if that initial evidence was misleading.

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