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UK backs EU-wide PNR plan after 15 countries back extension of proposal to internal EU flights

The UK has opted in to draft EU proposals to track passengers on EU flights after its proposed amendments gained support from 15 other countries.12 May 2011

Original pan-EU plans to collect passenger name record data (PNR) applied only to flights to and from EU countries from outside the EU. The Government has opted in to the process only after receiving the support of 15 other countries for its amendment to the plan so that it applied to some flights within the EU.

Damien Green, the Minister for Immigration, said that the Government now backed the European Commission proposals.

Under the proposed Directive airlines would have to send information such as passengers' home addresses, mobile phone numbers, frequent flyer information, email addresses and credit card details to countries before its planes can land.

The UK, US, Canada and Australia already require PNR data to be sent, but the Directive would extend PNR collection across Europe for the first time.

"Opting in to this Directive is good for our safety, good for our security and good for our citizens. It is necessary and right. Opting in to this Directive will make Britain a safer place," Green told Parliament on Tuesday.

"Passenger name records help our law enforcement agencies to prevent, detect, investigate and prosecute terrorists and other serious criminals. Their power lies in the fact that, by using an automated system and interrogating it intelligently, we are able to sift data quickly and in such a way that they reveal patterns and make links that would otherwise not be readily apparent," Green said.

Green said that the US had used the system successfully to identify terror suspects to prevent them travelling.

"PNR data therefore have a proven capability to protect our citizens from harm. Along with advance passenger information ... PNRs are a crucial element of the UK’s own e-Borders system," Green said.

Green said that a movement within European power circles towards including the collection of passenger data from flights within the EU in a PNR Directive was "critical" to the UK's decision to opt in to the Directive.

"The European Council has given a clear political signal that it favours collection of data on intra-EU flights, following a UK amendment to that effect," Green said.

The UK had backing from the majority of member states when the Home Secretary argued for intra-EU flights to be included in the PNR Directive at the Council in April, Green said.

"At the Council, 15 member states supported the UK’s position to include intra-EU data collection. So, although we have reservations about some aspects of the directive that will need to be resolved in due course, we can enter into negotiations from a position of strength, knowing that we have the support of a majority of other member states on this key issue for the UK," Green said.

Green said that how the Council reported the official outcome of negotiations confirmed the move towards including intra-EU flights.

"The preparatory work on the draft PNR Directive will continue ... on the basis of the indication by the Council that the Directive should allow individual Member States the option to mandate the collection of PNR data with regard to targeted intra-EU flights," The Council of Europe said in April (3-page /24KB PDF).

The EU proposals have been criticised by privacy groups that have said the measures proposed are unnecessary and disproportionate to the threat of serious crime. The Article 29 Working Party, a committee of the EU's 27 national privacy watchdogs, criticised the proposed Directive last month.

"We consider that [the Commission's plans do] not provide a proper evaluation of the use of PNR and [do] not demonstrate the necessity of what is being proposed. Collecting and processing PNR data for the fight against terrorism and serious crime should not enable mass tracking and surveillance of all travellers," it said.

Damien Green said a new PNR Directive was vital to solving serious crimes and preventing terrorism and said the UK was taking measures to ensure the storage of personal data was proportionate.

"Our commitment to a proportionate approach is made clear by our proposal to collect data only on routes of high risk, whether these are between a third country and a member state or between member states. Our starting position is thus about reducing the amount of data collected rather than imposing blanket coverage on all routes from outside the EU as the directive currently proposes," Green said.

The UK's proposals would "help make costs manageable" for both airlines and the member states, Green said, and said the UK would strive to make sure individual's rights are protected.

"We will want to see stringent data protection requirements, overseen by independent information commissioners, so that people’s rights over their personal data are protected. We will also work to ensure that the Directive allows data to be retained only for as long as is necessary and proportionate to the task in hand," Green said.

Green addressed concerns about the UK giving up its sovereignty and said the Government was happy to work with other countries.

"The draft proposals are based on each member state collecting and analysing the data, and we will vigorously stand by that way of operating. Indeed, the current Directive would not allow for the creation of an EU-wide database. We must recognise that criminals are no respecters of national boundaries – they will exploit any perceived gaps or weaknesses within the EU – so it is our collective responsibility to ensure that we close loopholes, wherever and whenever we can," Green said.

The Immigration minister said that airlines would not be required to collect any more data than they already did as part of an ordinary business transaction and said the Commission had estimated that it would cost the companies less than eight pence per passenger for each flight.

"[This is] a small price to pay for increased safety and security," Green said.

Because the proposal relates to the areas of justice and home affairs, the UK can opt out of the Directive. In March a House of Lords Committee recommended that the UK opt in to the EU plans.

The European Commission expects to finalise the PNR Directive later this year.

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