The UK has until the end of this month to decide whether or not it will opt into the Prüm Decision, which will enable EU Member States to share DNA profiles, fingerprints and vehicle registration data held by the police.  Irene McMillan examines the arguments for and against and what it means for law enforcement authorities already pushed to their limits.

The Home Office published a business and implementation case on 26 November, stating the Government’s case for re-joining the Prüm Decision and inviting both Houses of Parliament to debate and agree.  The paper set out three options for consideration: to do nothing and maintain the current process of sharing information through Interpol with requests being processed manually by the National Crime Agency’s International Crime Bureau; to enter into the Prüm Decision in full; or, to consider either entering into an international agreement incorporating some or all of the Prüm Decisions (as Norway and Iceland have done) and entering into bilateral agreements with individual Member States.

Status quo v full scale reform?

The paper rejected maintaining the current status on the basis that it is slow, labour intensive and results in the UK missing out on opportunities to identify and apprehend foreign nationals committing offences.  It also rejected the alternative on the basis that no Member State is likely to enter into a bilateral agreement while the Prüm Decisions are on the table.  Therefore, the Government paper recommended re-entering the Prüm Decisions. 

The Business and Implementation Case focuses on Chapter 2 of the first Prüm Decision, which allows Member States to access other Member States’ fingerprint and DNA databases via an automated system, and to have direct access to vehicle registration databases.  Results of the fingerprint and DNA databases are on an initial ‘hit/no hit basis’.  Where a match occurs, further information can be requested via mutual legal assistance channels and is processed manually.  Vehicle registration information would be sent to the requesting state automatically.  Mandatory response times are 15 minutes for DNA, 24 hours for fingerprints, and 10 seconds for vehicle registrations.  Benefits identified in the paper include the simplification and encouragement of greater information sharing amongst Member States; an increase in identifying suspects in unsolved crime; the ability to identify suspects at a much earlier stage in an investigation; and access to the Eurodac, an EU database of asylum-seekers’ and irregular migrants’ fingerprints. 

Potential pitfalls – proportionality, safeguards and resourcing

The document also highlighted the potential pitfalls in joining Prüm, the greatest being the risk of individuals in the UK being identified as suspects in another Member State on the basis of a false match.  The Government has sought to address this by making sure that other Member States can only search the database for information on those already convicted of a crime in the UK.  With regards to DNA, only crime scene profiles where more than 8 loci have been identified will be automatically shared with other Member States and requests for further information on a match will only be provided where 10 or more loci have been identified. 

Another concern is that of proportionality and the risk that DNA or fingerprints which were initially obtained in connection with a minor offence are shared for a much more serious crime.  The Government intends to add a proportionality bar where minor offences are involved so that requesting Member States must use a Letter of Request for further information.

Moreover, with the cost of implementing the new system at £13.5 million, re-joining the Prüm Decision has also come under criticism because of the high volume of work that is likely to come with follow-up requests given that the UK’s DNA and fingerprint databases are significantly larger than those of other Member States.  The big question is whether this is likely to further stretch an already overburdened police force and undermine the very improvements it seeks to bring.