Karen Bradley Speech at the SOMEC Conference

Speech given by Karen Bradley at the SOMEC Conference on 6 November 2014

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Karen Bradley MP

Thank you, and good morning to you all.

I’m delighted to be here today to speak at this event.

Over the next two days you will be addressing an important issue that affects all Member States: how to prevent serious crimes from being committed by mobile offenders across the EU.

And I am personally interested in this.

And no, not just because I am a member of the UK Government, and that the first duty of any government is to protect its citizens.

Yes, that is clearly important and it would be remiss of me to suggest otherwise.

But I am first and foremost a member of the public, and just like you, I want to feel safe and secure, and feel that my family is safe and secure wherever they are -

Know that action is being taken against those with a propensity to offend, whether they be from my country or elsewhere.

And feel that government is on my side, not that of the criminals.

That is why this work is so important.

And why success will not be judged today or tomorrow – because this is hopefully just the start - but by what action we take as a result of today and tomorrow.

And what things look like, and feel like, in two, five, ten years time.

And I know all of you here understand that while much has been done recently to try to tackle this problem, we must do more.

Free Movement issues

But before going on to say what more we must do, it may be sensible to just reflect on what has been achieved already and why that was necessary.

Firstly, there should be no doubt that any country that is serious about stopping crime being committed from being committed by mobile offenders cannot do so alone.

We must work together.

Secondly, we must all face up to the fact that whilst Free Movement is seen by many in Europe as having only positive impacts, there are some very clear negatives.

Not least of which is the ability of criminals to exploit this freedom to further their own illegal activities across borders. This negative impact is a source of deep public concern, not only in the UK, but in many other Member States.

And when I consider that nearly 15% of all arrests made in London are of EU nationals – and 30% of all arrests are foreign nationals – I can understand where these concerns come from.

So if we are to tackle this problem properly the free movement of information needed to tackle criminality must work as effectively, and ideally more effectively than the free movement of criminals.

That is quite a challenge.

2014 measures and their importance

And governments have recognised this.

Cooperation nowadays is at levels that would have been unthinkable only twenty years ago.

And much of that is to do with measures that Member States have come together to agree at the EU level.

Measures that have been the subject of much debate back in the UK recently, but which I, and the UK government, are clear are absolutely necessary to combat the problem of cross-border crime in all its guises.

Whether that be child sex offenders, foreign fighters or modern slavery.

At this time, what law enforcement needs is more information not less.

Stronger, not weaker, tools.

So that threats can be dealt with effectively by our authorities wherever they may originate from.

It is simply irresponsible to suggest otherwise.

Public protection must not get lost in a wider debate about the UK’s place in Europe.

And that is why the UK government is fully committed to remaining party to these measures in the future.

Failure to do so would send us back to the dark ages of being unable to find out anything about foreign criminals who have moved to our country, making it impossible to act against them. There is no doubt that this carries a serious public protection risk and could even cost lives.

More must be done to stop offenders like paedophiles, rapists and murderers exploiting free movement rights to slip unnoticed into another nation where they can prey on unsuspecting new victims.

It is vital we know when these predators arrive on our shores.

We need more powers to tackle them, not fewer - that is why it is in the public interest, and is essential, that the UK remains a part of key European measures that deal with cooperation.

I am talking about measures like the European Criminal Records Information System, or ECRIS for short -

Where Member States now have fast and reliable access to criminal records data from across the EU.

In the UK there can be no doubt of the value of ECRIS as an effective crime fighting tool – and on a huge scale, with almost 40,000 foreign offences disclosed to the UK , including those committed by murderers, rapists and paedophiles.

By identifying transient offenders, including those wanted for serious offences through a fast and simple process, the opportunities to intervene and protect the public are now far greater than ever before.

A good illustration of this took place in the UK when an EU national was arrested for the relatively minor offence of shoplifting but the investigating officer used ECRIS to make a request for his previous offending history from his home country.

This request, which included fingerprint details to check identity, revealed that not only did he have previous convictions for rape and assault, but that he was also using an alias in the UK.

As a result of this simple and quick process a serious offender was unmasked and steps were taken to protect the UK public from the immediate and serious threat he posed, including placing him on the UK Sex Offender Register.

But the sad fact is that in order to find out about this case and those other 40,000 previous offences disclosed via ECRIS, many further crimes will have taken place and many further victims will have been created in the UK.

The question we should all consider today is how many of those crimes, especially those at the most serious end of things, could have been prevented if Member States routinely and proactively exchanged data on serious mobile offenders?

And what about organisations like Europol?

An organisation I consider vital, brilliantly led by its British Director Rob Wainwright.

Its intelligence gathering capability has been hugely enhanced over recent years.

And it is now possible for a Member State to make an enquiry about an EU national of interest to law enforcement officers and to quickly access intelligence uploaded to Europol’s database by other Member States.

This might reveal similar activity by that individual elsewhere in the EU and enable officers to intervene at the earliest opportunity, creating a hostile environment for serious and organised criminals to operate within.

That sort of cooperation can only be seen as positive.

And co-operation continues to evolve and improve as shown by the recent development of the second generation Schengen Information System - or SIS 2 for short.

This enables Member States to issue real time alerts to each other about any persons of interest, including those wanted for serious offences, and those who clearly pose a risk to the public.

And over 1,500 SIS 2 alerts have been issued in association with national security and foreign fighters, greatly assisting in the identification and detection of such individuals returning from countries like Syria, making all of us in Europe safer as a result.

In the SOMEC context, it could be used in a similar manner to track serious violent and sexual offenders.

SIS2 is also used to issue Arrest Warrants, which have been crucial in ensuring that increasingly mobile criminals can be apprehended wherever they travel to within the EU to do no good -

And made to face justice without unnecessary delay.

In the UK alone nearly 5000 foreign criminals have been surrendered on an arrest warrant in the last 5 years – over 95 per cent of them foreign nationals.

That is rapists, murders and drug dealers taken off UK streets and put into European prisons.

And during that same period, the UK has had over 600 people returned to face justice –

Removing UK offenders from other Member States and making them safer.

No longer are wanted criminals able to travel to another Member State and hide behind a web of complex extradition law.

The Swedish Initiative is another important mechanism for co-operation, which makes it explicit that information necessary to protect the public should be made available to other countries law enforcement agencies so that they are fully equipped to deal with threats that cross borders.

In theory, therefore, the local police in one country should know as much about a mobile child sex offender as the local police in the town he came from and offended within.

However, this tool is rarely used in this way – often because law enforcement agencies do not have access to necessary data from other internal agencies, such as probation, which could provide the basis for wider exchange.

This situation needs to change if our citizens are to be protected from those who would cause them harm.

I mention these measures because it is important to recognise what has been accomplished to tackle cross border crime already and to understand, as the UK government does, that without this co-operation and the benefits it brings, the risks posed by transient criminals would be far more severe than is the case today.

Where the need for improvements has been identified we have worked together to find solutions though the types of measures I have mentioned, and of course there are many others.

The challenge and next steps

So much has been done, but we must do more.

The excellent work of the project team has identified that much very clearly.

Because even today a serious and unreformed criminal can travel from Latvia to Lisbon, from Stockholm to Sicily, and from Aberdeen to Athens without any proactive information sharing taking place.

And tragic events continue to remind us of the real and devastating consequences of this situation.

In the UK, we have experienced a further stark reminder which has reinforced the critical focus my government places upon resolving this issue.

In September we discovered that a convicted murderer from another EU Member State, having served a seven year sentence for the brutal murder of his wife, was exercising his free movement rights in the UK.

We were unaware of his murder conviction when he arrived in the country.

Indeed it only came to light following police enquiries made when he became the main suspect in the disappearance and subsequent murder of a 14 year old schoolgirl.

I want to stress that we have received excellent co-operation with that Member State on this case.

And indeed they have made significant improvements in the way they now monitor and manage serious offenders in the community.

But the public in the UK have quite rightly asked why a convicted murderer was allowed to travel to, work in, and reside in the UK without our authorities being notified or checks being carried out.

Why, in a Union of free movement, was less information about someone available to our police force simply because that person was a citizen of another Member State?

Why should he be treated differently simply because his original offence was committed abroad?

And this is not the first case to raise such questions in the UK.

Those of you who attended the opening SOMEC conference last year would have heard an incredibly moving contribution from Mrs Beatrice Jones, who is here today, about the devastating effect that her daughter’s murder has had on her family.

Moira Jones was attacked and murdered by a national from another Member State in Scotland in 2008, and her killer had an escalating history of violence -

Which, again, was unknown to the UK authorities when he arrived in the UK.

These are deeply tragic cases, and the UK is not alone in suffering the effects of crimes committed by cross border criminals: the Robert M case here in the Netherlands and the Fourniret case in Belgium show that these events are not isolated to one or two countries.

And sadly they will not be the last until we collectively change our approach to mobile serious offenders.

And that is why the draft recommendations of the SOMEC project that you are discussing today must be taken seriously, must be taken forward and why action must be taken by all Member States.

It says that, for the most part, we have the tools we need, but that we must use them more effectively.

Crucially, we must share information more proactively.

This is absolutely vital.

Really, very important.

Because it cannot be right that by exploiting free movement rights, individuals with criminal records in their Member State of nationality - or indeed elsewhere in the EU - can simply move to another Member State, to evade supervision or otherwise hide their criminal history from the community that they live in and the agencies that help to protect us.

In the absence of any co-operation between countries to proactively share data and manage the threat they may pose, these persons have found virtual safe havens to continue their offending behaviours within a new community.

I do not underestimate the challenges facing us.

The draft recommendations suggest that fundamental change may be needed in our domestic approach to serious offenders. For instance it may require our Justice and Interior ministries to share information internally to a much greater extent than has historically been the case.

It relies upon countries accepting that not all criminals emerge from prison as fully reformed model citizens and that it is necessary to put in place systems to assess the risk that offenders may pose when they have been released into the community on supervision or beyond.

Of course, in making such changes there are sensitive and important issues to work through which should not be overlooked.

I am aware that the role and responsibilities of law enforcement, prisons and probation do not always neatly overlap.

And, of course, rehabilitation of offenders and public protection are key values in our society and must be balanced.

However, this is a dilemma that the UK Government has long deliberated over, as it is vital that we balance the civil liberties of those who have previously offended against society, and their successful rehabilitation back into society, with the need to protect our citizens from those who continue to pose a risk of serious sexual or violent harm.

But at the moment the balance, regarding serious violent or sexual EU offenders is not in the right place – we need more action, not less.

And our response to SOMEC needs countries and their Governments to take the initiative both domestically and internationally, to show leadership and use the tools that I have talked about - that are already available - to share information proactively on serious offenders with other Member States.

For some that may mean sorting out internal data sharing arrangements, perhaps meaning changes to domestic law.

And of course the UK must start by continuing to be party to criminal data sharing powers necessary to protect the public.

But we must make a start, and if Governments don’t act here nobody will.

All of this is a necessary and proportionate step to ensure that an appropriate level of free movement can happen, whilst ensuring that we keep our citizens safe from harm.

As I said earlier, it is not acceptable to allow serious criminals who pose a risk to the public to move freely around the EU, without ensuring the corresponding free movement of criminality information to our authorities.

Much greater use must be made of avenues that already exist for the exchange of information on those who pose a risk to our citizens.

Let us consider how it might work:

An EU national is convicted of a serious sexual offence in the UK.

We notify the country of nationality via ECRIS about what that person has done and transfer the person, using the Prisoner transfer Framework Decision, to serve their sentence in their home country.

That country, wishing to protect its own citizens when the offender is returned, uses the Swedish Initiative to find out everything the UK police know about the offender.

As a result they recognise the ongoing risk this offender poses and takes appropriate steps to protect the public domestically, but also adds a discreet marker to SIS 2 so that they are aware when the offender travels and can notify other Member States of his movements.

Three simple steps that can take place today using existing systems and existing legislation and which would go a long way to reducing the risk posed by serious mobile offenders.

These are powers that will be lost to the UK if we do not remain a part of the vital EU measures I’ve outlined.

But if we keep these powers and make this process routine practice we will be on the front foot, able to prevent serious crimes across the EU more effectively rather than simply reacting to them and dealing with the devastating consequences.

But the UK cannot act alone.

So I hope today will help persuade others to join us in proactively sharing information, and protecting the public.

The draft recommendations that you will be discussing over the next few days will set the landscape for this work, both internally in Member States and across the EU as a whole for the foreseeable future.

They focus on a number of key, yet pragmatic issues: the provision of training and guidance; risk assessments and offender management practices across the EU; identifying which offenders are the ones we are most interested in, in terms of their capacity for serious offending; and clarification over exactly what we define as ‘serious’ offending.

All of these issues are practical, common sense responses which need to be established and embedded at a national and European level as a matter of priority.

I am pleased to say that the co-operation between Member States needed to make this happen has already started to take place.

The UK, The Netherlands and Latvia are already discussing ways in which they can exchange information on the most serious sexual and violent offenders from each country.

I hope an agreement can be reached as quickly as possible.

These are encouraging developments, but of course we are but 3 countries out of 28.

We need collective action to deal with this issue comprehensively across all Member States during the course of the next work programme.

This is an ambitious target, but it is critical that we respond to the challenge and deliver, SOMEC has laid down the foundations, we now need practical action.

The victims deserve nothing less.

The UK is ready to fully play its part in this, and I hope others will be too.

Thank you.

Published 6 November 2014