What? Will UK government ignore security as it walks away from EU?

Theresa May shouts “What?” – Source: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/AFP/Getty Images

Theresa May’s exclamation of ‘What?’ as Michael Gove effectively dismissed the idea of an EU security co-operation agreement, was a moment of truth.

The former Prime Minister has expressed her concern that the government is ignoring security issues in its hardened drive to leave the EU without any agreement – and indeed, without honouring the Political Declaration that she and her team negotiated. Official communications from the government, fail to mention security, including a letter from Prime Minister Boris Johnson to MPs and Peers on 16th October (seen by the author).

Speaking in Parliament on 19 October, Mrs May pressed Mr Gove on the risks of ‘no security deal’ for  law enforcement authorities and their ability to fight cross-border crime, saying that police would lose access to vital online data from European police forces. Mr Gove’s response was that an agreement on security co-operation with the EU rested on a requirement to “accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, adding “we cannot accept that”. In other words, we should not expect a security co-operation agreement. However, he claimed there are “many areas in which we can co-operate more effectively to safeguard our borders outside the European Union than we ever could inside”. He suggested there are other options to ‘intensify’ security in the event of no agreement with the EU, without specifying what they are.

Mr Gove’s response begs the question that the government is ignoring how policing is done in an era where crime is planned and frequently carried out, online and across national borders.

Theresa May’s reaction – letting out an audible ‘what?’ – was caught by the microphones. If anyone knows what is and is not possible on cross-border security, it must surely be Mrs May – former Home Secretary and former Prime Minister. The Political Declaration that she had negotiated alongside the Withdrawal Agreement included a Security Partnership. Reading between the lines, it suggests that the government is taking a cavalier attitude towards security issues, in support of an ideologically-driven policy. 

Theresa May’s concerns are shared by many experts on security

Mrs May’s concerns have been underscored by the former reviewer of terrorism law Lord (David) Anderson, who told The Guardian [source Guardian]  that UK police will be ‘increasingly unable to cope’ if there is no data-sharing agreement with the EU going forward from 1 January. Lord Anderson’s cautionary words are especially salient as he had an early career role in the office of Lord Cockfield, the British European Commissioner who established the Single Market.

He follows other recent warnings expressed by Sir John Scarlett, former head of MI6, and Sir Julian King, former EU Security Commissioner, as reported in the Financial Times. Sir Julian King said that UK data could be wiped from the European systems.

So what do we stand to lose?

Criminals and terrorists do not restrict their activities to inside the UK, they operate across borders into the EU and elsewhere. It is possible to commit crime in another country from a laptop in your bedroom. Access to vital online data from European police forces that helps our police to tackle their activities. The loss of that access will affect everything from day to day policing matters like crime scene matches and criminal record searches.

The EU has set up a number of crucial databases that help police and intelligence services to identify, across borders, criminals and track their activity for example missing persons (who might be trafficked or kidnapped) and stolen property. These databases include the Schengen Information System (SIS II), the DNA database Prüm, European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS) and the Passenger Name Records (PNR) system. They provide UK police with a facility to run instant checks on criminal records across Europe. They can get fingerprints and DNA data from European police forces in as little as 15 minutes.  The speed of these checks can be crucial in some crime-fighting situations.

To give some idea of the scale and importance of data sharing, the UK currently exchanges over 4,000 criminal records a week with EU police forces, according to Richard Martin, Deputy Assistant Commissioner: “with a single key we can enter information and know it is available to police forces in 27 other countries”, he told a Parliamentary Select Committee.

Combined with the European Arrest Warrant, these facilities enable police to track down criminals more quickly and arrest them on the spot if necessary. The European Arrest Warrant facilitates the extradition of criminals, so the UK can send wanted persons to another EU country where they are wanted, and vice versa.

That whole system is thrown into jeopardy if there is no agreement.

Whilst Mr Gove asserted that there are “variety of methods and arrangements open to us” such that “we can intensify the security that we give to the British people,” the evidence from law enforcement experts suggests that any such alternatives will be very much slower. It will be rather like asking them to chase criminals down the street with their feet bound in a sack.

The risk is that UK police slip backwards to what they had to before these databases were in place. Some of these exchanges used to take months.

An underlying issue is data protection and commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (see my previous article Britain unplugged: the security risk of no-deal). The government has been refusing to commit to anything that requires positive support for the Convention. It says it does not intend to withdraw, but continues to hedge its intentions.

If it really does mean to press home a ‘no deal’ on security, that will raise some very serious questions indeed about the safeguarding of the rights of the British people. 

Ed: This article first appeared in Dr Horten’s blog which can be accessed here.


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