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Huhne: Tory plans to scrap EU criminal record checks would risk public safety

June 2, 2009 11:38 AM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

Conservative plans to scrap criminal record checks on EU citizens living in this country would put British citizens at risk, according to research by the Liberal Democrats.

Conservative MEPs voted against the establishment of the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), which standardises the format of criminal records in Europe and allows them to be exchanged quickly between police forces and high risk employers, such as airports.

ECRIS came into force in April and makes the exchange between EU countries mandatory. Previously it had been based on an unsatisfactory voluntary agreement.

Reactiong to the research, Chris Huhne said; "Once again, the Conservatives have proved themselves to be the friends of Europe's criminals."

The Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary went on to say; "David Cameron seems intent on tying the hands of the British bobby behind his back. This is letting murderers, paedophiles and rapists get away. It is simply outrageous that the Tories are prepared to put their swivel-eyed anti-European dogma ahead of our children's safety."

"It beggars belief that anyone would want to make it more difficult for us to check whether people coming to this country are dangerous criminals."

Chris concluded; "Even the Tory Justice Spokesman in Scotland thinks that something must be done and has urged Chris Grayling to take action. I have written to him to do the same." Dear Chris, I am writing to you about your party's opposition to the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), which Conservative MEPs voted against in October 2008 but which has now thankfully come into force, despite your opposition. The ECRIS has, according to the European Parliament briefing, allowed for the development of "a computerised system of information exchange. It should have a standardised format allowing information to be exchanged in a uniform, electronic and easily computer-translatable way." It provides for both a standardised format and the swifter exchange of criminal records. It also makes it mandatory "to notify other EU countries of convictions of its nationals and it will also be mandatory to respond to requests for the criminal records of EU national being proceeded against in another member state." The previous system had been a voluntary agreement that did not involve all member states. In justifying your party's opposition your spokesman, Charles Tannock MEP, said that it was on the basis "that it extends the national authorities' ability to extract information on criminal records without recourse to proper scrutiny." However, I would argue that the safeguards in place were more than adequate. Indeed, under the ECRIS "criminal records data should be stored solely in databases operated by Member States and there should be no online access to criminal records databases of other Member States. It seems astonishing to me that your party wants to make it more difficult for our police forces to check the criminal records of EU citizens living here. Surely, during the course of a police investigation or when working with vulnerable children, it should be easy for people in this country to check someone's criminal record? This has been made a great deal easier with ECRIS. The system is far from perfect and is still very much in development stage but it is a vast improvement on what was in place beforehand. How do you justify your opposition to this? I note that your Justice Spokesman in Scotland, Bill Aitken MSP, has raised this issue on a number of occasions, particularly after the convictions for murder of Marek Harcar from Slovakia and Vitas Plytnykas from Lithuania. Mr Aiken has called for a "joined up" approach to improve background checks on EU citizens coming to live in Britain. He has said that "it is clear that the UK needs a joined-up strategy to deal with what is often a hidden problem, emerging after something terrible has happened. There is no robust or comprehensive system for bodies in Scotland to run criminal checks with other countries ... We must be prepared to question the limits of our response because when lives are potentially at stake, there should be no barrier to protecting the public." I could not agree more. I understand that Mr Aitken has written to you demanding action. I am doing the same. Does your party continue to oppose ECRIS or will you guarantee that the system will remain in place in the event of a Conservative Government? Does your party understand that opposition to ECRIS actually compromises the safety of the British public and how do you justify this? What action does the Conservative Party intend to take to make it easier for the British police to check up on whether EU citizens coming here are dangerous criminals? I hope you are not going to come up with the usual commitment to "closer co-operation", as you well know that the old system based on voluntary co-operation did not work. Actions speak louder than words on crime, and I hope you will now change your party's irresponsible and dangerous position. Yours sincerely, Chris Huhne

Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary