Britain open to terror suspects in EU loophole
London Telegraph | January 21, 2007
Foreign terrorist suspects are free to enter Britain because an EU "wanted" list cannot be checked by British immigration officers.Police chiefs have warned Parliament that the loophole is putting national security at risk. Ministers have asked Brussels to grant Britain access to the list, but the request has been blocked by a legal wrangle. The revelation comes as a further blow to John Reid, the Home Secretary, who is battling to restore his reputation after it emerged his department failed to record on the police national computer the names of 27,500 Britons convicted overseas.
Details of the latest security lapse were revealed by the same senior police officer who blew the whistle on the overseas convictions fiasco.
The new row centres on a 15-country database which holds 15 million entries for suspected criminals including terrorists, individuals wanted for extradition, missing persons, crime witnesses and stolen cars and passports.
If a terrorist suspect wanted by French police arrived on a long-haul flight at a German, Spanish or Italian airport, for example, immigration officers could match his details to the database and he could be detained or turned away. But if the same individual landed in Britain, there would be no check on the database and he could walk undetected into the country.
Paul Kernaghan, the Chief Constable of Hampshire and spokesman on international affairs for the Association of Chief Police Officers, warned that travellers entering Britain "are not checked against a criminal record database or a police database. It is against immigration databases, so there is a gap. At this point in time we do not have effective border control."
Bill Hughes, the director-general of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, told the Commons home affairs committee that under the present system, an individual travelling from Britain to France could be stopped at the border, checked against the database and refused entry "on the grounds that the French officer is aware that he is a threat to national security".
"That French officer can turn that individual back without us having access to that same information," Mr Hughes said.
The database, known as the Schengen Information System (SIS), was introduced in 1995 as part of the Schengen treaty agreement, which also led to most EU countries dropping border controls for travel within the union. The countries participating are the pre-2004 EU members excluding Britain and Ireland, plus Norway and Iceland. During the first decade of SIS operation, France caught 1,900 travellers wanted in other countries, while 2,000 French suspects were detected abroad.
Under the last Tory government, Britain opted out of Schengen Agreement while retaining the right to take part in some of the associated projects such as SIS.
But a section of the treaty prevents some information on the database from being shared with countries which are not full Schengen members. A compromise deal has been struck whereby Britain is sent "alerts" about some individuals on the database, so they can be added to the "warnings list" used by British immigration officers.
However, police chiefs believe the system is hugely inadequate because foreign authorities only send alerts when they have particular reason to believe a suspect may try to enter Britain.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said: "There is no reason why we cannot co-operate with our allies and have access to this -information."
A Home Office spokesman said negotiations over SIS were "ongoing". But it has emerged that Joan Ryan, the Home Office minister whose job is on the line, sent a letter to Chris Mullin, the Labour MP, last June, in which she admitted: "The UK Immigration Service is unable to routinely access details of a European Economic Area national's personal information or criminal record in their country of origin."
Last week Mr Reid announced a "root and branch" review of criminal databases after a senior Home Office official was suspended over the conviction records affair. An internal inquiry has been launched.
Three terrorist suspects on control orders who were due to be deported to Algeria had their flights cancelled at short notice by the Home Office, sources said. No new date has been set. A fourth control order suspect has also agreed to go back to Algeria.
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