Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-247)

Mr Philip Geering, Ms Carmen Dowd, Superintendent Mike Flynn and Mr Rob Wainwright


  Q240  Lord Marlesford: The decision on SIS II will allow the processing of data, other than for the purposes of acting on alerts, in exceptional circumstances. What use do UK authorities intend to make of this?

  Superintendent Flynn: At the moment it is difficult to envisage the use of the SIS in this way without looking at a particular set of circumstances on which to answer the question. Because SIS is very much a hit/no hit system where we are looking for specific individuals and we have a match or we do not have a match, there is very limited descriptive detail held in a Schengen alert. It does not lend itself very readily to investigative purposes. The reason for that is that the system is, we describe it as, table driven. Because in the UK we want it to appear in English on our screens and in Finland in Finnish, it is based on code tables, so you get a specific value and that value is translated into whichever is the language of the host nation. That limits the amount of detail you have in the system. I will try to think of an example. Say, for example, we had a terrorist outrage and we had a description of a potential suspect. The first thing we would do is look for somebody with those features within the police national computer, but if we were looking at a case like that we would immediately go to our colleagues in SOCA and ask for bilateral communication with the other Member States because we would be much more likely to get a match from them searching within their national systems than any opportunity to go trawling in the SIS, because the SIS is not at all sophisticated in that respect. The procedures are already in place. If we asked France and Germany if they would search their national systems for somebody of a certain description, we would go through SOCA to achieve this and the exchanges of information are already in place. Another example might be we would be looking for a silver Mercedes. We have half the index number. Nationally, we could search against the UK databases to see if we could find a silver Mercedes with a number like that. It would not be a reliable thing to do to search the SIS for that because the SIS only has stolen motor vehicles in there and not a complete vehicle database. Again, we would go to SOCA and establish bilateral communication to see if we could get other Member States to deal with that. Regarding incoming requests, these would be requests probably coming in through SOCA where SOCA would then contact the owners of the information. That could be one of the constabularies or one of the agencies. Again, in individual circumstances, if we were assisting another country with an investigation and they had set out the circumstances, the rules are already in place for the authorisations and exchanges of information. Again, we would use SOCA as our gateway. The issue for us here is that SIS is a compensatory measure for the removal of frontier controls and therefore it is very much a border focused, one-to-one match, hit/no hit system as opposed to a huge database that you would want to go trawling in for investigative purposes. It may be in future that we could agree with other Member States that there would be purposes we could use it for. The discreet check and specific check alerts, for example, clearly do have an investigative angle because you are looking to use those to trace the movements of people, linked vehicles and in the future linked containers, aircraft and vessels. There obviously is a move towards investigative in that area but I think there are much more reliable databases and partnerships already in place to allow us to do that.

  Q241  Lord Marlesford: To recap, we should always be thinking of SIS as a system of data for border control in one form or another and other investigations, be they criminal or terrorist or missing persons, are primarily done through other agencies, particularly SOCA?

  Superintendent Flynn: Yes, for border controls but I think very much for police and Customs checks carried out on your territory, because it gives you the opportunity to check if something is lost or stolen, if somebody is wanted or missing. Those are the types of purposes. It finds people and property that are of interest now. It does not have any history to it. If you want to go further on an investigation, then it is more reliable to establish a bilateral relationship via SOCA to do that. SIS tells you about people and property that are of interest to Member States now.

  Q242  Lord Marlesford: Going back to the American system of fingerprints at borders, in theory a UK law enforcement agency could ask the Americans, if they had a fingerprint of a particular person and they wanted to know whether it had arrived in the United States, "Can you check whether this person has recorded fingerprints on entry within this particular period?"

  Mr Wainwright: Yes, we certainly could and we do.

  Q243  Lord Marlesford: Do any other countries take fingerprints at the borders of the EU? Do any EU countries take fingerprints when you arrive?

  Mr Wainwright: I am not aware of any but I may be mistaken.

  Q244  Lord Marlesford: When they now swipe passports in most European countries, is that swipe recorded? It is after all essentially a Schengen information factor. Is that swipe recorded and therefore available? In other words, if you wanted to know if I had gone to Portugal, would you be able to say to the Portuguese, "Has Marlesford's passport been swiped?"?

  Superintendent Flynn: I think that might be an example of where you are looking at a specific person or a specific case and you would then go and ask for the permission of that country: "Do you have this information and within your legislation how would you release it to us?" It would be very much on a specific inquiry that you would be looking to get that rather than, "Please trawl your databases and tell us anything you find." On that, one would be pursuing an investigation and because of that it is very much not a general trawl of the system. We are asking somebody, "Do you have this information and are you entitled to release it to us?"

  Q245  Chairman: What if the SIS data becomes interoperable with other databases like Eurodac, for instance? Does this have implications for us?

  Mr Wainwright: It does. I can only think of positive ones in terms of increasing yet further the field of view effectively and cross-matching.

  Q246  Earl of Caithness: Given what you have said about the increase of benefit that SIS II will bring to you, what operational procedures are being instituted within the UK as well as other Member States, to your knowledge, to stop fishing expeditions and to concentrate on going for alerts and hits? With a bigger and better system, is there not a temptation to go on fishing expeditions?

  Mr Wainwright: I think there is that danger. You are absolutely right. Again, you are relying on the integrity of police officers in the Union. It is compensated by the fact however that a substantial part of the information relating to a particular case—certainly any sensitive information relating to that—is not stored at the front end. It is not available to the operator. It is stored as part of the SIRENE Bureau and the access and the backup that the SIRENE Bureau has. That gives us a measure of control over the most sensitive parts of the information.

  Q247  Chairman: Can I now ask a question of the Crown Prosecution Service? You said that SIS II was likely to be very important for you but I think we have the impression from the answers to our questions that in fact bilateral activity is probably at the moment more important to us than SIS links. Would you like to comment on that or indeed would you like to add anything else, because I think the bulk of the answers have tended to come from that side of the table and I am not sure that we have given you sufficient opportunity to express your views.

  Mr Geering: We anticipated that balance because the responsibility for setting up and running SIS and the links with other foreign jurisdictions is very much with the police and SOCA. We anticipated taking a lesser role, so no offence taken. Before SIS is up and running, the bilateral arrangements that we have within Europe are essential to plug the gap. The point is that SIS would provide a blanket, central European opportunity to put out an alert. At the moment we can only target the country where we think the suspect might be and not cover Europe in a blanket fashion; whereas SIS will provide that blanket coverage. If we were wrong and they had not gone to France but in fact had gone to Germany, we would still pick them up. That is pretty exciting in terms of prosecutors being able to take cases to court. We spend all this time conducting investigations, preparing a prosecution, lining up the witnesses. We are all ready to go to court and have a trial to bring some justice, a guilty or not guilty verdict, and the one person who really matters who preferably needs to be there—I suppose who has the least interest in being there—chooses to abscond. We cannot allow the system to be held up in that way. People do abscond and at the moment we rely on these bilateral arrangements to attempt to identify them, trace them and bring them back. SIS will give us a more proactive opportunity for tracing these people, having them located and brought back. In a way, that will be achieved more often and faster than current capabilities. That is really important. The sooner cases are brought to court the better, the better for victims to see some resolution of the matter, the better for witnesses whose memories will be fading and the better for the public to have confidence that the system is actually doing the job. That is very much what we want. That has been very much at the core of the reform of the CPS in the past couple of years under this director, Ken McDonald. It has been very much a part of seeing the CPS working in partnership much more closely with the police and much earlier in cases than was historically the case without letting go of our independence and continuing to respect the independence of the police, recognising that there is huge value in that partnership in delivering a better service.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. May I thank all of you for your very helpful answers to our questions? You will be sent a transcript to check that you are accurately recorded and if, on reading the transcript or indeed even before, you think there are things which it would be helpful for us to have in writing please feel free to let us have them. Thank you very much indeed.

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