Britain failed to alert EU about 75,000 criminals
Britain has failed to pass on the details of 75,000 convictions of foreign criminals to their home EU countries and concealed the error for fear of damaging Britain’s reputation in Europe, the Guardian can reveal.
The EU’s trust in Britain on security issues sank to a new low last night after details emerged of the apparent cover-up, prompting calls for an investigation in Britain and a warning from one senior MEP that a Brussels inquiry was inevitable.
The police national computer (PNC) error, revealed in minutes of a meeting at the Criminal Records Office, went undetected for five years, during which one in three alerts on offenders – potentially including murderers and rapists – were not sent to EU states.
Authorities in EU countries were not informed of the crimes committed, the sentences given to their nationals by British courts or the risk the convicted criminals posed to the public.
As a result, dangerous offenders could have travelled back to their home countries without the usual notifications to the relevant authorities.
The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, joined calls yesterday for a “full urgent investigation” into the decision to keep the error from European partners, with the Liberal Democrats also saying the Home Office had “serious questions to answer”.
Minutes of a Criminal Records Office (ACRO) meeting in May – deleted from the ACRO website after the Guardian story appeared online – state: “There is a nervousness from Home Office around sending the historical notifications out dating back to 2012 due to the reputational impact this could have.”
Minutes of a meeting held the following month said:
‘It seems there was an attempt at a cover-up. When did ministers know about these failures?’ Diane Abbott
Shadow home secretary
“There is still uncertainty whether historical DAFs [daily activity file], received from the Home Office, are going to be sent out to counties [sic] as there is a reputational risk to the UK.”
Asked if the Home Office had resolved the problem in the seven months since the second meeting, a spokesman said: “Work is already under way with the police to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.”
The backlog of 75,000 notifications has still not been sent to European law enforcement agencies, insiders confirmed. “It’s an ongoing glitch that we need to fix. We are working towards getting that done,” one admitted.
Abbott told the Guardian: “It is bad enough to have made serious errors in relation to sharing information on criminals, but it seems that there was also an attempt at a cover-up.
“Ministers need to come clean. When did they know about these failures, why did they not make them public and how are they going to prevent any repetition? A full, urgent investigation is needed.”
Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee in the last parliament, called the revelations “deeply disturbing”. She said: “It is clearly a problem if the police computer system failed to pass on information to other countries about foreign criminals who might go on to commit crimes in their own country. But it is even more troubling if the Home Office then covered it up and chose not to pass on the information even once the problem had been spotted.”
The revelation comes ahead of crucial negotiations with the EU over the post-Brexit security relationship, with Britain’s reputation as a trustworthy partner already under question.
This month, the European parliament’s justice and home affairs committee was given evidence of “deliberate violations and abuse” by the UK of the Schengen Information System, an EU database used by police and border guards across the borderfree Schengen zone.
British authorities had made “unlawful” full or partial copies of the database material that were said by an EU report to pose “serious and immediate risks to the integrity and security of SIS data”.
Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch MEP on the European parliament’s committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs, said she expected an urgent inquiry by her committee, adding that the revelation would be raised with the European commission in a resolution.
“This is yet another scandal that casts a very dark shadow over security and law enforcement cooperation. This cover-up could have exposed EU countries to security risks and should urgently be investigated by the Schengen scrutiny group in the European parliament. Certainly, we will add this to the already long list of issues that need to be discussed with the UK in the context of the future relationship.
“This revelation of the failure to alert authorities on criminals and the cover-up afterwards casts serious doubts on the UK as a reliable partner.”
An EU official confirmed the issue would have undermine trust in British authorities. The source added that the revelations also undermined British claims that a UK loss of EU databases would be mutually disadvantageous.
During negotiations over the postBrexit relationship, the government will seek to persuade Brussels that there should be continued data exchange with British authorities, operational cooperation between law enforcement authorities and judicial cooperation in criminal matters. Britain will lose access to important EU databases at the end of the transition period in December 2020.
Officials believe the failure to alert EU partners is down to a problem with the police national computer, a database containing information on millions of convicted criminals and their prison records. It generates daily activity files of the latest updates, and any relating to foreign offenders are meant to be forwarded to the European Criminal Records Information Exchange System (ECRIS) by ACRO, responsible for sharing international police data.
Last year, ACRO realised that a large number of the alerts for foreign countries had been missed, many covering convictions of criminals with dual nationality. ACRO’s strategic management board was briefed last May about the “ongoing issue dating back to 2015 regarding notifications out for foreign nationals and that the current DAF reports are missing about 30% of foreign nationals”. The board was told an estimated 75,000 checks had not been done over the years.
A spokesman for ACRO said: “The issue arose when it was noticed that not all relevant DAFs were sent to ACRO, for example in cases where the subject had dual nationality. As a result, a software script has been developed at Hendon, the PNC headquarters, and is due to be released in the next software update schedule (the date of which is yet to be confirmed).”
‘It is a problem that the police computer failed to pass on the information – and even more troubling if it was covered up’ Yvette Cooper Committee chair
▲ Police officers during training. News of convictions of EU nationals was not sent to their home countries