Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380 - 399)


Sir Ronnie Flanagan, Chief Constable Ken Jones, Chief Constable Ian Johnston and Assistant Chief Constable Nick Gargan

  Q380  Lord Young of Norwood Green: I just want to explore the point that was made by Assistant Chief Constable Gargan about the way that the embedded SOCA liaison officers do start to cross those cultural and judicial differences. It seemed to me, when we walked along that corridor where they were all stationed, that that really did make a difference. It seems to me that if the Met have a role in relation to counter-terrorism, well why do they not embed a liaison officer, or do they?

  Sir Ronnie Flanagan: Yes, that was the point I was making, they do exactly that. They have one and have imminent plans for a second one to be embedded.

  Q381  Lord Teverson: Let us move on to the European Parliament which will have to satisfy itself that Europol has a positive impact on UK forces in terms of "competent law enforcement authorities" for the purposes of the Europol Convention and Council Decision. Will SOCA be best placed to provide this information? I would be interested, within that context, to understand really how you would see the European Parliament oversight work.

  Chief Constable Jones: The bold answer is yes, SOCA are best placed, the mechanisms they use are transparent, they are open, we feel we have good access to them and there is a good two-way flow of information. The challenge will come as Europol, hopefully, increases its capacity and leverage over some of the critical threat and risk areas I mentioned earlier and whether that will be sufficient, but we currently feel absolutely it is. One of the problems of course is that, in terms of competent authorities, some agencies which are important to us, and Sir Ronnie has mentioned one of the issues is terrorism, are not regarded as competent. For example, some of our security agencies in the UK are not part of that group and that does need some thinking frankly. That was more critical a few years ago of course because MI5 had a remit around organised crime which it no longer has and they had an oddity where they were not a competent authority, but we managed around that. As terrorism becomes, and I agree with some of the recent assessment that it is, enduring and is probably going to be around for a generation then, the view of what is and what is not a competent authority will need to be looked at afresh.

  Q382  Lord Teverson: That sounds like that could be quite a critical area in a way in how this is structurally laid out.

  Chief Constable Jones: Yes, it is. It is one-way and when we get back to this visibility and the value-added of Europol more needs to be done to raise that and that will result in more challenge, more critical challenge and hopefully constructive and more improvement. Ultimately we are here to try to make neighbourhoods safer and if we are not, we are wasting our time and your money. There is this feeling that it does tend to be a bit one-way at times.

  Q383  Baroness Henig: What is your view of the added value of Europol's work in the area of counter-terrorism, and what value do you attribute to the Europol Terrorism Situation and Trend Report?

  Chief Constable Jones: There is a tremendous amount of value-added in our liaison, not just with Europol but through Europol to other agencies around Europe and it is particularly at the operative level. Sir Ronnie has already mentioned that the NPS have placed an individual at the heart of that and it is actually becoming more and more important now that we continue to improve and develop those links. In terms of TE-SAT, I have the report hot off the press. Although it is constructed from open source, it does give a very useful overview to the less well-informed about terrorism across the EU; it is a useful document but it does not really go into the detail which might be of value to operational people. However, it is very influential in terms of political oversight and certainly I have used it when I was chairman of the terrorism committee to influence people in that particular area, particularly a committee such as this. There is some very useful information in it, but it is open source at a very, very high level. It is a developing field and I return to my point about competent authorities: we cannot just exclude certain agencies because they do not fit the definition of what is or not a competent authority.

  Q384  Baroness Henig: I assume that a number of bodies deal with issues relating to counter-terrorism of which Europol is one, so it is quite a crowded field.

  Chief Constable Jones: It is.

  Q385  Baroness Henig: I am not quite clear how they all mesh together or how the liaison works. I was not in The Hague last week when there was a visit there and I get the impression that Europol is very much information exchange and bureaucratic centre, and I just wonder therefore how it ties in with presumably more active players in the terrorism area.

  Chief Constable Jones: Through one of the work files, one of the 18, it is becoming more of a node, more of a centre, more active but it has come to the party a little bit later than some of the other agencies. Then we get into this other issue about nervousness around compromising information and intelligence. I have to tell you that on some of the investigations that I am aware of, the liaison agency to agency that goes through Europol is incredibly effective but Europol's role in this is to facilitate and they need to be an authoritative source of who is talking to whom, which country is talking to which country. They do not need to know the content of that from our perspective, but an agency in this country is dealing with an investigation and I have seen them take in Holland, France and Spain and then an investigator in Spain needs to know from somebody where these investigative links are and then discussions around sharing the content of those enquiries can take place at the operational level. Europol needs to locate itself securely as that central flagging point in the way that we used to have the crime squad and now we have SOCA doing that for inquiries within the UK.

  Q386  Baroness Henig: Is there anything that needs to be done to enhance its role? From where you are sitting, is there anything that we perhaps might need to consider that could make that rather more effective?

  Chief Constable Jones: We do need to raise that issue up. It is done, but I am not able to say whether it is done effectively or ineffectively. My sense is that it is not visible and that is a challenge that needs to be made. I could not say with confidence this morning that it is working well or not working well but it is critical and those at the operational investigative leading edge in any country can go to a central point. It avoids what we call blue-on-blue, where investigations might cross one another. There are real concerns around the compromise of information because ultimately lives are at risk.

  Q387  Lord Teverson: In terms of trust levels, obviously there is even an issue between SOCA and the other organisations, which we presume is good, but given that a lot of very sensitive information could be disappearing in all sorts of areas, is there enough trust there or does one pull back to a certain degree on certain issues?

  Chief Constable Jones: It is a case-by-case basis really but we are getting smarter and quicker at dealing with other jurisdictions and overcoming those issues quicker. Certainly there are some people that maybe think that all information needs to be put in one database centrally somewhere and everything will be all right, but actually therein lie some real problems for us. It goes back to the human relationship issue, but we are getting much swifter at doing that. These jurisdictional barriers are real and they do take time to overcome.

  Q388  Lord Marlesford: I got the impression, visiting Europol last week, that the national liaison offices are very important for many reasons and it seems to me that one of the reasons is that it is possible, where there is suspicion or worry about the security of information, for the national liaison office to have things which agencies in the UK would not necessarily want Europol to have. I was rather struck because there did not appear to be any direct linkage between our security service and the national liaison office. I would have thought that would have been quite a good way of getting the right relationship in and of course various countries have different systems of policing whereby the security service, the analogues of MI5, are, to a greater or lesser extent, embedded in police forces whereas here it is pretty separate really. Certainly the French reorganisation which we heard about this week was an interesting one which seems to be a very big effort to integrate much more on the counter-terrorism front. Do you think, just purely in rather simple organisation terms, if the national liaison office, particularly the UK one, were to be strengthened with a pretty senior level of linkage with our security service with their own people in the liaison office, this would help?

  Chief Constable Jones: That is a question for the agency but certainly we see the liaison activity as critical and becoming more critical. I would agree with your broad point but perhaps I am not best placed to answer the question.

  Assistant Chief Constable Gargan: We could usefully make the point there that the DST and the RG in France are both part of the police so that is an internal reorganisation; that is not our way of working traditionally in the UK so it would be an altogether different question and a broader constitutional question.

  Q389  Lord Marlesford: I do not see a constitutional problem in the sense that one is not suggesting a change in the arrangements between the UK agencies inside the UK, one is merely trying to get a better relationship and flow of information without the inhibitions about security with Europol.

  Assistant Chief Constable Gargan: I guess the issues would be around what is an intelligence agency not an evidence agency, that is the security service operating with Europol, with judicial police forces that are evidential agencies.

  Chief Constable Jones: Our security agencies quite properly make great play of the distinction between intelligence and secret intelligence and they would see the need for a completely different structure to be place around secret intelligence rather than organised crime intelligence, for example. I agree with you that there is an overlap there and there is a linkage there that needs to be explored and that is becoming more and more critical.

  Q390  Lord Dear: An observation rather than a question and I would value your response to it. It goes back to the question asked about trust and in The Hague last week, if I understood the position correctly, on the counter-terrorist side the only information which is exchanged amongst the Member States is at restricted level, which is very low of course and is largely ex post facto anyway.

  Chief Constable Jones: Yes.

  Q391  Lord Dear: I can see enormous difficulties in trading high value, highly ranked intelligence on an ongoing inquiry, for all the obvious reasons about not knowing where it is going to go and who is going to use it or misuse it. It was nevertheless ex post facto and a very low level and I wondered whether you had an observation on that.

  Chief Constable Jones: At the investigative level the liaison is good because it depends entirely on the links that people have made and are already making around the current and old investigation. Above the level where you are going to start circulating and sharing secret intelligence, it is necessarily very, very difficult, hence your remark about restricted intelligence. I would not be surprised if there were greater interchange of higher grade material between the actual agencies concerned.

  Q392  Lord Dear: On a bilateral basis.

  Chief Constable Jones: Yes, on a bilateral basis.

  Sir Ronnie Flanagan: I just want to point out that there are other mechanisms for the exchange of much more highly sensitive material and when we talk about trust, it is not any lack of trust in the individuals or the individual Member States, it is rather a need to make sure that highly sensitive material is protected so that prosecution cases are not jeopardised, so that lives are not put at risk, so that methodology is not put at risk. The sort of mechanisms we are describing are not appropriate mechanisms for the exchange of information intelligence of that level of sensitivity.

  Q393  Chairman: Does that mean that we need other mechanisms or there are other places?

  Sir Ronnie Flanagan: No, you can be assured that other mechanisms are in place.

  Q394  Baroness Henig: We have heard that the current system places significant emphasis on bilateral communication. What are the obstacles from your point of view to the better use of the Europol Information System?

  Assistant Chief Constable Gargan: To the first part of that, yes, the current set of arrangements does indeed place a significant emphasis on bilateral communication. The Serious Organised Crime Agency send out about 5,500 requests per annum of which around 10% are routed through Europol, so there is that emphasis. In terms of the better use of the Europol Information System, I suppose a start would be to get properly connected to it, which we are not. The second thing is, if there are 62,000 entries on the system, we need to be confident that they are the right 62,000 entries and this is where the strategic intelligence assessment and the cyclical process of making an assessment, putting in place a control strategy, setting out in a concerted way to gather intelligence to fill your gaps and tasking and coordinating your effort to make sure you are doing the things that matter and that your chosen interventions are the right interventions, that is where that cyclical process really comes into its own. If Europol seeks to position itself, as it does, at the low volume high end of the criminal investigative market, it is critically important that those 62,000 entries are the right people. At the minute I guess there is obviously the scope for that database to become much larger; that is inhibited by the limited access that I have described, by a lack of confidence which is a discussion we have just had about respective doubts about security and a broad lack of awareness; again a theme of our earlier discussion, and that leads to a low level of contribution to the database.

  Q395  Baroness Garden of Frognal: We have already touched on some of the issues in my next question. Europol may be moving away from its task of facilitating information exchange in favour of providing analytical services. What is your view of the effectiveness of crime analysis carried out in the absence of a European intelligence cycle or other coordinating framework?

  Chief Constable Johnston: First of all, we do not sense that Europol is actually moving away from its task of facilitating information exchange and we do in fact welcome the growth in their approach around analytical services, which are extremely important in the future going forward. The work of the analysts on the Europol analytical work files is based on the NIM. During our presidency of the EU, we did manage to get lodged within something called the European Criminal Intelligence Model the principles of NIM which we regard obviously favourably as they are the principles that we have adopted in the UK and they are now generally accepted. The issue is the extent to which they are generally applied. Because of a whole range of cultural issues, and Sir Ronnie alluded to the difficulties in getting the model implemented across the UK, we have exactly the same problems getting that model implemented across all 27 countries in Europe who want to comply. We would say that there is a model, the model is giving us an effective product but it could be a lot more effective if it were applied more universally throughout the whole of Europe. I guess that is what we would be hoping others would do for us in the future. We are aware that there are improved mechanisms for feedback on the quality of the product being developed within Europol at the moment and we very much welcome those developments because it will give us the opportunity to apply pressure for a more common approach to NIM throughout Europe.

  Q396  Chairman: When we were in Brussels last week, we asked the Commission about the whole aspect of intelligence-led policing and they told us that an expected report was premature, which caused us to raise eyebrows. In the light of what you have just said, do you find that surprising?

  Chief Constable Johnston: Yes. We know from our experience within the UK that getting a shift in approach to issues both in a sort of procedural and cultural sense does take time so we are realists around it. We are encouraged that the model is there in principle, but we do recognise that in practice there is some way to go yet. This is hardly surprising and it will be a continuing problem as new countries join the arrangements.

  Q397  Lord Dear: Just for the record, I ought to declare the fact that I do have a previous interest in policing. As you all know, I served in the Police Service for a long time until 12 years ago and indeed had a very small part in the setting up of Europol back in the mid 1990s. I put that on the record. The ACPO written evidence, which was very helpful, said at one stage, Europol "aims to facilitate information exchange and provide high quality analysis ... ACPO sees more evidence of success in the former aspiration" that is the information exchange side rather than the analysis. That leads me directly into my question which is: do you see any gaps in the current information exchange mechanisms within the EU justice and law-enforcement communities? If there are any, what would you do or hope to see to address that?

  Sir Ronnie Flanagan: We see a number of gaps and they arise as a result of a number of different causes and those causes do need to be addressed. First of all, not surprisingly there is the whole question of application of appropriate IT systems and the truth is there are only some five or six countries which input data automatically to the central base. Until we address that, that is a potential for a real gap that exists at the centre. Of course it is work in progress and by something like April 2010, hopefully there will be very significant improvement in that whole question of automatically inputted data. Secondly, there is an irony in the very success of bilateral contacts and they work extremely effectively and are not, in my view, in any sense to be discouraged but there has to be a complementary inputting to the central database as well. Where Europol is particularly effective is where there are more than two Member States involved, where there is a plurality and it just could not work on a bilateral basis. However, the very success of bilateral approaches sometimes leaves Member States being quite happy on either side of that dialogue and communication but without the centre necessarily knowing what is going on and bringing therefore again a risk of a gap when others come in and have missed, because the opportunity to draw on the experience that has been successful bilaterally it is not centrally routine. The absence of some inputs does need some analysis of its own and we have certainly encouraged Europol and undoubtedly they will have plans for that analysis. My question is, when Ken talks about visibility, I just wonder how many chief constables would be familiar with the document that Ken has.? We could not say with 100% certainty that 100 per cent chief constables would be familiar with that assessment document. There is something in terms of from the centre, from Europol, asking Member States for their experience, seeking feedback. There is something for Member States to be more alert and more aware of the need, constantly be giving feedback to the centre and the absence of that brings about again a potential gap. Those are several examples of gaps that do exist and gaps that need to be identified and need to be addressed.

  Q398  Lord Marlesford: On the purely practical side of that, when there is a bilateral exchange between a UK police force and another country, is there, for information as it were, a note of that bilateral sent at least to the UK liaison office?

  Sir Ronnie Flanagan: Undoubtedly there should be. My fear is that there is not always.

  Q399  Lord Marlesford: When I was in Whitehall, I always thought the system of copying Foreign Office telegrams was extremely efficient. Even though it was not obvious that particular posts were interested, it did ensure that no balls were dropped, or helped to ensure.

  Sir Ronnie Flanagan: To go back to the first point, the absence of automated data input systems tends to work against it happening automatically. Mr Gargan earlier referred in a benign way to rogue bilateral interchanges which are not through the liaison structures. There is a whole range of other networks, for example there is the European chapter of FBI graduates, and that means that officers of pretty high levels in the police forces right throughout Europe have contacts and sometimes use those contacts and often to good effect. However, if it is not channelled through the centre, if it is not channelled through the mechanisms and structures we have created, there is a great risk that those gaps result in a less than efficient ability on the part of others, not originally engaged in a particular bilateral.

  Chief Constable Jones: We also need to make sure the liaison bureaux are actively sharing the contacts they have with us with Europol and I would hope that they are so we are getting the maximum benefit from the work files, for example. That is a question I cannot answer but I would anticipate and expect that that link was very strong and routine and we are getting the benefit at least from our liaison bureaux of bilateral contacts.

  Assistant Chief Constable Gargan: Perhaps I might just offer a word of reassurance about the contacts that take place involving SOCA liaison officers: that is centrally held and recorded at SOCA in London so there is no chance of the British representation in Europol not knowing what the liaison officers in France or Madrid or any other places do.

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