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Revealed: UK concealed failure to alert EU over 75,000 criminal convictions

The Guardian logo The Guardian 4 days ago Martin Beckford and Daniel Boffey
a close up of a person: A Border Force official at Heathrow. The scandal comes as the UK and EU consider their future security relationship. © PA A Border Force official at Heathrow. The scandal comes as the UK and EU consider their future security relationship.

The UK has failed to pass on the details of 75,000 convictions of foreign criminals to their home EU countries and concealed the scandal for fear of damaging Britain’s reputation in Europe’s capitals, the Guardian can reveal.

The police national computer error went undetected for five years, meaning that one in three alerts on offenders – potentially including murderers and rapists – were not sent to EU member states.

Authorities in EU countries were not informed of the crimes committed, the sentences given to their nationals by UK courts or the risk the convicted criminals posed to the public.

Because the details were not passed on, dangerous offenders could have travelled back to their home countries without the normal notification to local authorities of their presence.

Such is the scale of the scandal that the Home Office initially chose to conceal the embarrassing failure from EU partners.

Minutes of an ACRO criminal records meeting last May 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.”

A minute of a meeting held the following month said: “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.”

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Asked if the Home Office had resolved the problem in the seven months since the second meeting, a spokesman said: “Work is already underway with the police to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.”

The revelation comes ahead of crucial negotiations with the EU over the future security relationship with the UK, with Britain’s reputation as a trustworthy partner already under serious 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 border-free Schengen zone.

The British authorities had made “unlawful” full or partial copies of the database that were said by an EU report to pose “serious and immediate risks to the integrity and security of SIS data”.

In an earlier blow to Britain’s reputation, Belgian prosecutors concluded in 2018 that British spies working for GCHQ are likely to have hacked into Belgium’s biggest telecommunications operator for at least a two-year period on the instruction of UK ministers.

GCHQ © Getty GCHQ

During the negotiation with the EU over the post-Brexit relationship, the government will seek to convince Brussels that there should be continued data exchange with British authorities, operational cooperation between law enforcement authorities and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.

The UK will no longer be a member of Europol and its police and security services will lose access to key EU databases at the end of the transition period in December 2020.

Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch MEP on the European parliament’s committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs, told the Guardian there was a wealth of evidence that the UK could not be trusted.

“This is yet another scandal that casts a very dark shadow over security and law enforcement cooperation,” she said.

“After the revelations of deliberate abuse of the Schengen Information System, and earlier scandals like the hack of [the Belgian telecoms provider] Proximus by GCHQ, it is clear that the principle of ‘mutual trust’ will not work.

“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.

“The purpose of information exchange is enhancing security. If one side fails to deliver, security gains are zero and cooperation pointless. The UK government has to consider very carefully how it intends to restore trust, bearing in mind negotiations have to be concluded by autumn of this year.”

Officials believe the failure to alert EU partners is down to the police national computer, a database containing information on millions of convicted criminals and their jail 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 a body known as ACRO Criminal Records Office, responsible for international police data sharing.

ACRO’s annual report showed there were 35,881 “notifications out” sent about foreign nationals convicted in the UK during 2018-19, of which 31,022 were handed to EU states. Back in 2015-16, the notifications out figure was far higher at 46,210.

Last year, ACRO realised that a large number of the alerts that should have been given to foreign countries had been missed, many of which covered convictions of criminals who had 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 warned that an estimated 75,000 checks had not been done over the years.

A spokesman for ACRO said: “ACRO relies on the daily activity files from the police national computer to send notification messages to other countries in relation to cases where one of their nationals has been convicted in the UK.

“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).

“We can only provide an estimation of the numbers, though we believe it’s now more than 75,000.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Work is already under way with the police to resolve this issue as quickly as possible. Last year, the UK sent over 30,000 conviction notifications through ECRIS to EU member states and received over 16,000 from the EU, helping ensure serious criminals were brought to justice.”

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