Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500 - 519)

WEDNESDAY 16 JULY 2008

Rt Hon Tony McNulty MP and Mr Peter Storr

  Q500  Chairman: I wonder, Minister, whether you have a view about the capacity of bilateral liaison methods to deal with information exchange requirements over the next 10 or 20 years?

  Mr McNulty: This is a very vexed issue in the sense that I should rather we had multilateral agreements on data exchange and information exchange as quickly as possible, but progress is, to say the least, slow. I think there is a function for bilateral liaison methods over the coming 10 or 20 years, but I do know that some suggest that if you develop or over-develop efficiently the bilateral methods, then that stymies the multilateral developments across the European Union all the more. It is a matter of balance but I do have to say it has been really quite tedious and slow to get anywhere in terms of EU-wide arrangements for information exchange, so I think the bilateral will still prevail. It is incumbent on all those involved in the bilaterals to try to ensure a push on progress with a multilateral, but it is a vexed issue.

  Q501  Chairman: Following that, national liaison officers at Europol have now a new ability to exchange information on crimes outside the competence of Europol, and that can strengthen the European Union objective of providing citizens with a high level of safety within an area of freedom, security and justice. How do you think that will work out?

  Mr McNulty: I think it should and has in the past worked very well, and of course it is not new. It was just clarified in the agreement because it was going on already and had to be seen as distinct from Europol's competence. That sort of liaison does go on; it goes on beyond the remit of Europol. I think it has worked successfully in the past and should continue to do so, and hopefully, as I said earlier, the more examples there are of good practice and good success around such information exchange, the more we may move towards what everybody wants and that is the development of a European information system that works. I am not saying there has not been progress; there has but it has been inordinately slow. I should point out to your Lordships that later on today we are publishing a report by someone called Magee, which goes to this very point and looks at the exchange of criminality information and other sorts of information across not just the UK Government but across Europe and across the broader international domain. It followed from the rather unfortunate discovery of 27,000 applications for mutual legal assistance in the Home Office in a room somewhere that nobody knew about some year or so ago and was a promise from the then Home Secretary, Dr John Reid, that we would look at as clearly as we could all these matters in terms of exchange of information around criminality and other matters. I simply say that is information that is coming out later today that might be of interest above and beyond your immediate concerns about Europol.

  Chairman: I think I have said enough about operations internally at the Home Office. I will not say any more.

  Q502  Lord Dear: I want to go back to what is in effect bilateral agreements. The classic simplicity, going back to the Director's relationship with the Management Board and the Council, is that the Council set up the Management Board and the Management Board deals with the Director. That is fairly easy and understandable. We wondered whether there are any instances that you know of where the Council actually, this is where the bilateral element comes in, are tasking the Director direct by whatever means, somehow or other cutting out the Management Board? Is there any evidence of that?

  Mr McNulty: None that I am aware of.

  Mr Storr: No. I think by and large the Council plays its role in setting the overall priorities based on the organised crime threat assessment, which is then translated into the five-year work programme of the Justice and Home Affairs Council and specific to Europol, but clearly the Management Board and the Director will take notice of priorities identified by Ministers at the Council level, but I am not aware of any instances of direct tasking to the Director of Europol by the Justice and Home Affairs Council, other than perhaps at the time of the Madrid explosion when the Council I think took the view that Europol needed to play a greater part in the fight against terrorism. Even so, it was not a direct tasking; it was simply identifying a very current and important issue with the expectation that Europol would decide what action it needed to take to fulfil the mandate that the Council had decided to give it.

  Lord Dear: We ask the question because there is, I suppose understandably, quite a lot of evidence about bilateral negotiations or contacts which cut out one part of the system. It would seem to us almost impossible to envisage a situation where somehow or other the Council did on occasion, perhaps quite rightly, seek to influence the Director in the margins in some way. In a sense of course that is perfectly acceptable. In another sense of course it does cut out the Management Board if indeed it is taking place. The question is asked really around the whole issue of bilaterality, if that is a word, taking place. It seemed to us a human dynamic that it is almost impossible to ignore. I think you have probably answered the question. I am not pushing you for the answer. You say you do not know it happened.

  Q503  Chairman: Can I go back a bit to when we were talking about crimes which are outside the competence of Europol. Would you like to see Europol's competence extended?

  Mr McNulty: No, I think we would take the view that where it is settled now is probably appropriate.

  Q504  Lord Teverson: Perhaps we could move on to evaluation and oversight. Clearly in an area like this where there is a lot of sensitivity about some of the information or outputs and how they have been achieved, it is quite difficult in many ways to get the right balance. Europol's objective is "to support and strengthen action by the competent authorities of the Member States". We would like to ask: who will assess whether Europol's activities have that desired effect within the UK's competent authorities and indeed your views on other Member States.

  Mr McNulty: From our end, principally SOCA is our conduit and representative back to Europol and from the European dimension the Europol National Unit has to engage with the competent authorities in the UK and develop the relationship. We have a very strong relationship with SOCA and would discuss these matters with them on a regular basis.

  Q505  Lord Teverson: Would they formally report to you as Minister in terms of the performance of Europol?

  Mr McNulty: I would have to check that. I am not sure in any formal sense they would. Principally my colleague Vernon Coaker is responsible for liaison with them as my colleague in terms of a policing portfolio. Whether it is strictly a formal report on how good Europol has been over the last year, I will have to get back to the committee, but certainly there are discussions.

  Q506  Chairman: It would be helpful if you could give us a note on that.

  Mr McNulty: Yes.

  Q507  Lord Teverson: How would you exercise your role as a member of the Council in terms of performance of Europol?

  Mr McNulty: I do not think again in any formal way they report on a regular basis. I think my colleague Meg Hillier goes to the Council rather than me.

  Mr Storr: The aspect of the relationship which is the most near to the formal one is when the Council looks at the Europol budget. In that particular case, the Ministers will take a particular interest in ensuring that what Europol is proposing to spend its money on conforms to the Europol mandate and does not go beyond, and also, in the same way as Ministers look at the way in which police budgets are put together, Europol is not assuming that every new task it is given demands new resources to do it.

  Q508  Lord Teverson: If I can pursue it, would you see in this world of judging things with key performance indicators that there are Europol key performance indicators or equivalent that would judge its performance on an annual basis?

  Mr Storr: One of the issues which slightly concerned the Home Office during the course of the year was a report—and I am sure it will be available to this committee—by an auditor into the way in which Europol judged its own performance that identified a number of weaknesses in overall management. I think we would be looking to the new Director significantly to try to sharpen up the way in which the performance of Europol and the management information indicating how good was that performance was put together.

  Mr McNulty: During the negotiations on the Council decision, we did push for the inclusion of an Article 48 that allowed the European Parliament to have a greater degree of scrutiny of Europol. I think that greater scrutiny by the European Parliament and indeed national parliaments would not do any harm at all.

  Q509  Chairman: I do not think we have seen the auditor's report to which you referred. Could we please have a copy of it?

  Mr Storr: I think it was I who referred to it. I would need to check the status of the document. We have certainly seen a copy of it. If it is permissible for us to share it with the committee, then of course we will do so. I would need to check with Europol exactly what the status of that document was.

  Chairman: Yes. If there are odd paragraphs which are sensitive, we would understand if they were blacked out, but I think we would like to see the bulk of it if you could possibly do that. Thank you.

  Q510  Lord Teverson: The next question is around the European Parliament and the Commission's desire for transparency. It comes on to that area of broader transparency. Following on from what you have said, whatever happens to the Lisbon Treaty, you would like to see a greater involvement by the European Parliament. How do you see national parliaments potentially getting involved either with Lisbon or without it?

  Mr McNulty: I think there is an ongoing scrutiny role for national parliaments as well, which is why I welcome, amongst other things, your inquiry. Collectively the Houses of Parliament need to determine whether for Europol or any other institution they should be doing that on a more formal annual or biennial basis. I would welcome that sort of scrutiny, too. Article 48 which we included in the Council decision again stands regardless of Lisbon. That was part of the Council decision around the new approach to Europol that affords the European Parliament the ability to scrutinise far more readily than it could and request the Management Board and the Director to attend and provide evidence in what we think is a far more efficient way than with the absence of Article 48. I think the scrutiny is absolutely appropriate. There is, as with all police forces, a distinctive degree in scrutinising operational matters, in which clearly I think there is a limited role, but in terms of its overall role, strategy, work plan, budget, these are more than appropriate matters for as much scrutiny as possible by the European Parliament or national parliaments.

  Q511  Lord Dear: Switching on to the sharing intelligence, the UK should be sharing intelligence with its EU partners and vice versa. Are you happy that that is being done to best effect, and particularly could you give us a view on what improvements might be made with particular regard to terrorism?

  Mr McNulty: I think it is being done to good effect, both in terms of crime and terrorism. We send representatives to Europol's twice yearly counter-terrorism high level experts meeting and make priorities to the work programme. As you will know, that is new but it is developing a much stronger focus and is working very well. I know from colleagues in the security services that outside the Europol dimension they have good and improving relations with all their equivalents. I am satisfied from two years looking at these matters that we do share, certainly on the counter-terrorism side, as much as we need to and in adequate fashion. Certainly post-Madrid and post-7/7, the urgency to do so was really enhanced and I think the European Union did step up to the plate, if I can use an ugly Americanism, in that regard and it has become a lot better since then than perhaps it was before 2005 and did not quite develop as it should between 2001 post-9/11 and 2005. I think it is in a very healthy place now. It can always get better of course, but I think the counter-terrorism side is in good shape and it is increasingly better on the serious and organised crime side through Europol.

  Q512  Lord Dear: That would apply to the new Members States as well?

  Mr McNulty: It is clearly less delivered there, to be frank, but it is improving and I would say it is on an upward trajectory.

  Q513  Lord Dear: I know you have answered this question already. We are looking to see that there is a will in the new countries to do it? The fact that they have to come up to speed is another matter.

  Mr McNulty: I think there is. I think the concerns there would be more around capability and capacity rather than will.

  Q514  Lord Marlesford: Some of us gained the impression when we visited Europol and in subsequent discussions in Brussels that the terrorism dimension was not as effectively linked up through Europol as perhaps the more non-terrorism aspects of policing, perhaps for two reasons: first of all because SOCA itself does not comprise, although it has links with, the security service; and, secondly, because of the inhibitions naturally that there are in sharing or having people inside Europol. I wonder whether you feel that if the liaison offices—and I am thinking obviously particularly of the UK liaison office—at Europol were to have a more direct link or indeed a presence from the security service, which would of course enable there to be total control over what information we gave, that would not actually make the use of Europol in fighting terrorism more effective. I certainly gained that impression.

  Mr McNulty: I think it may, but the emerging network of counter-terrorism coordinators within the European Union is working and working effectively. Part of that is under Europol and part not. I think you are right; in the first instance Europol's clear role is in the area of serious and organised crime and all those competences that are outlined there and defined, as I said earlier, in my terms adequately. I think it is satisfactory. I would not want to have it developed or heightened just for the sake of it. The emerging architecture across the European Union through the national CT coordinators and inside Europol works and works well in the circumstances. I do take your point and it might be worth exploring, and I shall certainly take it back, as to whether there should be a greater security service presence in the liaison role at Europol. It is a fair point.

  Q515  Lord Marlesford: This is in the liaison office in order to avoid any risk of sharing stuff between them.

  Mr McNulty: Surely, although again rather like all organisations—Europol, Interpol or whatever—there are clear protocols about what we share, how we share it and who with. Sensitivities can be got round in that regard whilst preserving security.

  Q516  Lord Mawson: Are you satisfied that there is sufficient visibility of Europol and other EU agencies in the UK competent authorities? The general public I suspect are completely unaware of how all this is working. It affects their security. I also know, having spent many years working in housing estates, that it often is about people connecting and knowing who is who and what is what that you get all the information about where the problem family or whatever is. I do wonder whether there is a point where there is a television series opportunity here to bring to the attention of the general public what is out there and the opportunities in all of this so it becomes more common knowledge. I suspect there is a lot of blindness about all of this out there.

  Mr McNulty: I certainly believe the starting premise that Europol could be more visible and clearly defined in terms of what it does and clearly defined in the public sense because I fear you are right; people either know nothing about it or, rather like Interpol, think it is what it is not. I think the popular perception is that Interpol is a sort of international rescue and Thunderbirds without the rockets and has this competence that goes all round the world and prevails at the cost of national forces. I do take the point seriously. I think Europol does good work and it would be very useful if that could be put more in the public face. It is not in my competence to suggest a TV series as a result. That may or may not work.

  Q517  Lord Harrison: My Lord Chairman, first I do apologise for coming late and I will explain why. You are old enough, but the Minister is not old enough, to remember Fabian of Scotland Yard, which was a TV series and he was often linked to Interpol, as I recall it. On this question of visibility, it was made very plain to us in the course of the inquiry that as it were everything stopped at SOCA. Even this morning the reason why I am delayed is to have heard an excellent briefing from one of your people, because I am going on a visit to Ukraine about Home Office issues, concerning Ukraine. He mentioned SOCA and the work that is being done there. I tell the Minister this because our own committee went to the Ukraine border and wrote a report about it. It was interesting that the official did not mention Europol, whereas you would have thought there might be some natural link in. This was all too brief a briefing, but I do think Lord Mawson's point is a very justified one and I welcome your positive attitude about trying to spread information, especially about an agency which does appear to be useful and certainly could and should be useful.

  Mr McNulty: Without getting into trouble, it is something I relate to SOCA too. I would rather like SOCA's profile to be higher in terms of relating to people exactly what they do and how they do it because again there are huge successes. There are ways to go but they are rather shy and retiring. Perhaps we can have a new Inspector Fabian of the Yard who is seconded to SOCA in the first instance and then to Europol. I am a member of the Fabian Society but it is not connected with Fabian of the Scotland Yard.

  Q518  Chairman: Let me go back to a question we did not ask with regard to police cooperation. Do you believe there is a political will to move away from a mentality of "need to know" over to one which might be described as "need to share" within a distinctive European Union cooperation framework?

  Mr McNulty: There is, and it is growing but it almost goes to many of the points that we have discussed about bilateralism versus multilateralism, operational versus strategic. I think we are moving in that direction, not least through other developments that, as I say I think are rather slow but nonetheless are there through Prüm, the framework decision for our criminal records and others, so there are parallel things developing elsewhere in the Union. Slow progress I think is the short answer, but, yes, a recognition increasingly that you do need to go from need to know to need share, not least given the growing utilisation of technology.

  Q519  Lord Teverson: Coming back to UK arrangements, one of the areas more broadly, as has been said, is that certainly for some Member States it is not the greatest of career moves to move as a serving officer or in one of the services to Europol. Are you happy that within the United Kingdom there is not a career blemish if you go to The Hague and that we are encouraging people to have that as part of their career structure?

  Mr McNulty: It is an interesting point. I am very happy that there is not a blemish involved and it is not seen as a downward move, but there are inordinate difficulties that go to human resources, pension arrangements and a whole range of other issues that are a complete nightmare, but I am doing my level best to correct so that I can actively encourage people as a matter of course to go on secondment whether it is to Europol or Interpol. We are getting round them but again that has proved to be quite a slog. I would start with the premise that it would not be a blemish but rather the opposite, an absolute benefit to go and get some experience in Europol, Interpol or with other international forces. We are almost there but it goes to really tedious things about pension arrangements and when you stop being a serving policeman and whether effectively you have to resign, go to Europol or Interpol and then come back again and what that means for your pension arrangements. We are slowly getting round it but it is difficult. I want it to be positively encouraged.


 
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