EU wants UK to provide more data before giving access to crime control system

The UK should be denied access to an EU crime-fighting system until it agrees to share more fingerprint data with member states, a European parliamentary committee has said.

The vote, in the European parliament’s justice and home affairs committee on Thursday, is not binding on EU decision-makers, but could prove influential as the UK seeks to negotiate a permanent deal on the exchange of fingerprint, DNA and other data as part of a long-term security relationship with the EU.

Spanish socialist MEP, Juan-Fernando López-Aguilar, who chairs the committee, told the Guardian after the vote that the main problem was the UK government’s refusal to share some fingerprint data collected by British police, despite EU counterparts giving full access. The EU’s data-sharing should be based on “the goodwill of reciprocity” he said.

“We would like the UK to move our way … to move forward to European Union standards for the sake of building up a future relationship that is mutually beneficial and thus not giving any space for the advantage of not being a member of the European Union and yet enjoying all the information tools.”

British government officials say the UK makes huge volumes of data available in comparison with other member states.

Amid the turmoil of Brexit, the British government quietly agreed in June 2019 to begin exchanging DNA records with other EU member states, following a 2015 decision by Theresa May when she was home secretary to opt into a key plank of the EU’s crime-fighting system.

The DNA exchange system enables British police to check the genetic code of EU criminals and criminal suspects in 15 minutes, compared with 143 days through the Interpol process.

But the British government does not fully comply with EU rules: British authorities are sharing DNA data from British-based criminals, but not criminal suspects, although it gets full access to equivalent data on suspects from other EU countries.

The government is required to submit a report to the EU by 15 June, setting out whether it intends to comply with EU requirements on sharing fingerprints and DNA of suspects.

While the DNA exchange is up and running, the fingerprint exchange is pending a final decision by EU member states. The question will go to a full vote of the European parliament next week.

The data-sharing policies stem from the Prüm convention, a 2005 agreement named after the small German town where seven EU member states first agreed to exchange fingerprints, DNA and car-number plates of criminals and suspects. The agreement has since become EU-wide policy, spawning numerous bilateral exchanges of data. But the system has also come under fire from civil liberties campaigners, who say there is a lack of democratic oversight.

The latest European parliament vote reflects growing discontent at the perceived unequal exchange of information between the UK and EU27. In recent months MEPs have condemned British authorities for failing to pass on details of 75,000 convictions of foreign criminals to their home countries, while accusing the government of “deliberate violations and abuse” of a vast EU database used by police and border guards across Europe.

The European commission – in charge of running Brexit negotiations – also opposed British attempts to join EU crime-fighting systems without full reciprocity, ie without sharing suspects’ data. But EU member states overruled these objections when they decided in June 2019 to approve the British request to be part of the DNA system without guarantees of reciprocity.

That decision could be overturned in the coming months. “The lack of data on suspects has been recognised by all member states as a remaining obstacle, [to continuing the agreement]” an EU source said.

But any decision to cut the UK out of the existing DNA sharing agreement would see EU law enforcement lose access to the UK’s DNA database, which holds profiles of more than 5 million people and 500,000 samples from crime scenes.

A government spokesperson said: “The safety and security of our citizens is the government’s top priority. It is in everyone’s interest that we reach an agreement with the European Union that equips operational partners on both sides with the capabilities that help protect citizens and bring criminals to justice.”