Timothy Kirkhope: Flying in the face of our national duty

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THE horror and disgust we all feel over the brutal beheadings of David Haines, Alan Henning and other innocents throw into sharp focus the political grandstanding of some MEPs over some key issues affecting security and intelligence.

As we ponder the grave consequences of ISIS’s callous barbarism, it is right to point out missed opportunities to arm ourselves better against the menace of Islamist extremism.

Only last year, the European Parliament’s home affairs committee rejected an EU-wide agreement to share airline passenger information. So now we face the consequences, as this short-sighted dismissal of a practical and effective agreement has left us with holes in our intelligence armoury when we seek to prevent radicalised foreign fighters from returning to the streets of Britain.

The threat to the UK and the rest of Europe has plainly increased since the parliament threw out these plans, and as the parliament’s lead MEP on the proposals, I intend to bring them back.

The Passenger Name Records (PNR) system is wanted urgently by EU leaders. When they met in Brussels last month, they called for its introduction by Christmas. Far from draconian, the plans would simply require the sharing of basic pieces of information on airline passengers, such as payment method, name and booking number. A small price to pay for our greater safety. Frankly we hand over more information on our Tesco clubcard.

So imagine my disappointment to see Liberal Democrat and Labour MEPs voting to reject a PNR deal, putting our security at risk. Conservatives are the first to fight against needless regulation and to protect the civil liberties of the individual. After all, it was a Tory government that rolled back the draconian anti-terror laws and stop and search powers of the last Labour government. But the threat we face is imminent and we need tools in place that are proportionate to the risk.

The war against ISIS is not just a war that is being fought on the other side of the world; it is a threat on our streets. Those being radicalised are British, French and Belgian, and they are travelling to Syria and the Middle East to learn skills solely designed to cause death and destruction on their return. We often have no way of tracking their movements. This agreement would close holes in the net, and it would create strong levels of security over our data as well.

This is not some abstract debate. Countries that have used PNR data have found it invaluable for catching paedophiles, rapists and drug traffickers. We already transfer this data to flights leaving for the US, Canada and Australia.

Currently we have a safety net with huge gaping holes. An EU-wide system that collects and shares basic airline passenger data will help close these gaps. It’s not a silver bullet in the fight we face against radicalised foreign fighters, but it is an important weapon.

When it comes to the protection of British people, we need a practical and balanced approach rather than an abstract academic debate. MEPs were wrong to reject this proposal last year. It protects lives and improved liberties. As I re-introduce it, I hope that Labour MEPs and the last remaining Liberal Democrat MEP will not obstruct its progress again.

Nobody wants to play fast and loose with the very civil liberties that differentiate us from the terrorists. We will never give up the cherished rights and values which define our civilisation and which contrast with ISIS’s wicked cruelty and intolerance. I for one will never look the other way when our freedoms are genuinely eroded or threatened.

But that is simply not the case here. The proposals in PNR are simple, transparent and painless for citizens, airlines and security services alike. Yet they can deliver a huge boost to the safety of individuals and the security of our nation.

People really must think twice before once more shunning such an obvious “easy win” over the terrorists, just to promote a morally-skewed view of the proper balance between privacy and public protection.

• Timothy Kirkhope is a MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber. He is the Conservative home affairs spokesman in the European Parliament and a former Home Office Minister.