Cross-border sex crimes spur EU countries to share criminal records

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The Independent Online

Spurred into action by a new child sex and murder case, three European countries agreed yesterday to exchange criminal records, and all 25 EU nations began planning a network to link their paedophile registers.

Spurred into action by a new child sex and murder case, three European countries agreed yesterday to exchange criminal records, and all 25 EU nations began planning a network to link their paedophile registers.

France, Germany and Spain want to have full exchange of criminal records next year, though their plan will be little help in vetting people before they gain employment with children.

Meanwhile the European Commission will come up with proposals by October on how cooperation can be boosted among all 25 member states.

The case of Michel Fourniret, a French forest warden who has confessed to nine murders on both sides of the Franco-Belgian border, has highlighted the lack of a common European register of convicted murderers or sex offenders.

Fourniret is being held for the killings of girls and young women in Belgium and France between 1987 and 2001. He moved to Belgium in the late 1980s after being jailed in France for child sex offences, but was given a job in a school by Belgian authorities who were unaware of his criminal record.

Although none of his crimes was connected to his school job, the case contains parallels with that of Ian Huntley in Britain, who was employed as a school caretaker, despite having been the subject of many sex-assault allegations, and went on to murder Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham.

There was agreement yesterday among EU justice and interior ministers on the need for swifter and closer co-operation, and on the need for a network to link national databases, rather than the creation of a new system from scratch.

France, Germany and Spain want their exchange of criminal records to start this year and go on stream in 2005. But because the EU has no role in police cooperation, data will have to be exchanged through countries' judicial systems. That will make the three-nation initiative important in sentencing, allowing judges in one country to take into account offences committed previously in others. But it will also mean that police will have to make requests to other countries through their own courts, making the system more cumbersome and time-consuming, and it will do little to prevent a repetition of a case such as that involving Fourniret.

The European Commission has been asked to focus on the practicalities of closer co-operation and to recommend solutions that can implemented speedily as well as longer-term answers. But the mechanics are proving difficult to set in place.

One difficulty is the incompatibility of computer systems. Another is that countries have different ways of storing records; for example the British criminal record system is based on fingerprints, whereas Spain's uses a series of different criteria. Data privacy legislation in some countries imposes restrictions on the use of records.

At yesterday's meeting of ministers in Brussels, Belgium asked for a network of inter-connected databases rather than one central system. That approach was backed by the European Commission and Piet Hein Donner, Justice Minister of the Netherlands, which holds the EU presidency. He said: "Rather it would be a system to have a link-up between the judicial records which do already exist in countries."

Earlier this year EU heads of government endorsed the idea of a European criminal record database, one of the ideas developed as part of a programme of co-operation on justice and home affairs which dates from 1999.

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