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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Even Theresa May finds plan for post-Brexit national security difficult to believe

I have written a number of times here about the impact of Brexit on our national security and international crime, so it is disappointing to see that Ministers are still such a blasé view of the issue.

As a reminder, back in March 2018, the Independent reported on the belief of the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons that unless a deal is struck to maintain security and policing cooperation with the EU after Brexit, then the UK could be sleepwalking into a crisis. 

They said that there are “serious legal, constitutional and political obstacles” that mean an agreement will not be easy to reach, but failure to “urgently” resolve these issues will “seriously undermine” the UK’s security.

In particular, the committee said failure to continue using the European Arrest Warrant and instead having to rely an earlier extradition treaty would be a “catastrophic outcome.” They called on the Government to begin negotiations on a security and policing treaty immediately, and said the UK should be willing to sacrifice its “artificial red lines”, including on the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

In May 2018, the Times reported that despite Ministers saying Britain’s participation in the so-called Prüm Convention is “clearly in the national interest”, that is now in doubt. The government wanted a guarantee that it can continue to access and share vital DNA, fingerprint and vehicle information with other European countries after Brexit. This system allowed French and Belgian authorities to identify the terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks in November 2015. As the paper said:

Prüm is one of a number of EU crime-fighting tools, including the European Criminal Records Information Exchange System and the Schengen Information System (SIS), that Britain wants to continue to use.

British police disclosed that they had carried out 539 million checks on SIS in 2017 and warned that month about being frozen out of the “critical” databases. Steve Smart, director of intelligence at the National Crime Agency, told a parliamentary hearing: “The impact of losing access to those datasets is that more bad people will get into the UK and it will be harder for us to find and deal with them.”

And then in June 2017, the Independent reported on a speech by Nick Clegg, then the Liberal Democrats Brexit spokesperson, in which he said:

"Theresa May has vowed to pull Britain out of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, a decision which means we would no longer have access to vital EU-wide databases of criminal activity.

“So where are the contingency plans when our police forces find themselves unable to check the databases of 28 EU countries at the touch of a button? If only she would deign to tell us, then maybe we could judge.”

“Just last year, a not-so-distant era when Theresa May made perfectly rational arguments against leaving Europe, she warned that being in the UK makes us “more secure from crime and terrorism.”

The paper pointed out that data experts feared the Government is failing to recognise the danger to businesses and the fight against terrorism from losing information-sharing rights. They said Britain risks a wait of up to three years to be granted an “adequacy decision” from Brussels, threatening to stop the flow of data immediately unless a temporary deal can be struck.

Crucially, separate agreements may have to be struck with individual police forces and intelligence services – with the danger that vital information will “fall between the cracks”, one expert was quoted as saying.

Fast forward to today, and the Mirror reports that Theresa May has poured scorn on Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit security commitments as she warned of the dangers of a no-deal scenario:

The Conservative former prime minister repeatedly said “what?” in disbelief and appeared to mouth “utter rubbish” as Michael Gove outlined how the UK will be expected to boost its security outside the EU.

Cabinet Office minister Mr Gove claimed there are “many, many areas” in which the UK can co-operate “more effectively” to protect its borders after Brexit.

Speaking in the Commons, Mrs May warned: “The Government appears resigned to the prospect of no deal, yet one area which they should not be resigned to the prospect of no deal is in security.”

Mrs May said neither Mr Gove nor Prime Minister Mr Johnson had mentioned security in recent statements.

She added: “Will (Mr Gove) confirm that, if the UK walks away with no deal, then our police and law enforcement agencies will no longer have the necessary access to databases, such as PNR (passenger name record), in order to continue to identify and catch criminals and potential terrorists in order to keep us safe?”

Mr Gove said “significant progress” has been made over security co-operation, adding: “But it is the case that the EU are insisting that, before we have access to systems, like the Schengen Information System, we have to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – we cannot accept that.

“The second thing I’d say is there are many, many areas in which we can co-operate more effectively to safeguard our borders outside the European Union than we ever could inside, through a variety of methods and arrangements open to us, open to Border Force and open to our security and intelligence services – we can intensify the security that we give to the British people.

“The third thing I’d say to (Mrs May) is that I agree with her: when it comes to everything, security and other matters, no deal is better than a bad deal.”

Despite all the warnings, the government has learnt nothing. If anything the prospect of a no deal Brexit leaves us even more exposed. That Theresa May has raised these issues in the Commons may be the final indicator that irony is well and truly dead.

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