British citizens will be less safe if ministers fail to retain access to “mission critical” European intelligence services after Brexit, according to the former Metropolitan Police commissioner Lord Condon.
Speaking to the The Independent, Lord Condon said that losing access to the cross-border flow of data after Brexit would severely impact the ability of the police service to deal with terrorism, serious crime, drug dealing and people smuggling.
The former Met commissioner’s comments came as a report by the House of Lords EU home affairs sub-committee, which Lord Condon is a member of, warned access to intelligence sharing through the Europol law enforcement agency and to the Schengen information system, which holds an 8,000-name watchlist of suspected terror suspects, is at stake.
Lord Condon also made clear that Theresa May would have to concede some ground on European Court of Justice (ECJ) red-line in the Brexit negotiations as the data sharing agencies fall under the court’s jurisdiction.
Asked what the consequence of crashing out of the European Union – a threat posed by ministers on various occasions – would have on security in the UK, he added: “I’m sure that the British police and the European police forces and the whole databases would find a way to make it work and protect their citizens. But the reality is our citizens will be less safe under that regime than they are under the current regime.
“What the Government has got to work hard to do is provide a regime that either replicates the current arrangements or gets as close to them as possible. Anything less than a full replication of what we have will mean that our citizens are less safe than they currently are.
“It impacts the ability of the police service to deal with terrorists, terrorism, terror suspects, serious crime, organised crime, drug dealing, people smuggling – at the moment what police forces and national agencies have is the ability in real time to do checks that can combat terrorism, organised crime and drug dealing.”
According to the all-party Lords committee, the most effective way to achieve the Government’s ambition of “unhindered” and “uninterrupted” flows of data would be to secure an “adequacy decision” – confirming the UK’s data protection rules offered an equivalent standard of protection as the EU’s.
If one is not secured, the peers warn, then there will be no apparent “fall back” options for law enforcement purposes that would enable data to be shared with the EU. “The committee therefore urges the Government to ensure that a transitional arrangement is agreed, to avoid a cliff-edge for data transfers when the UK leaves the EU,” they add.
But, Lord Condon added, all of the databases are subject to ECJ scrutiny and the Government’s intractable red-line on its jurisdiction “is probably the main reason why they are not yet able to say how all of this is going to work”.
He continued: “At the moment they can’t say we’re not going to let the ECJ have anything to do with all of this once we leave… and expect to have the current access to all these databases, to be a member of Europol. Why would Europe say you can have access to all of this, you can be a member of our most intrusive club but you’re not prepared to accept the jurisdiction of the ECJ?”
“Our fear is they [the Government] are over relying on a number of things. They are over relying on the fact that we at the moment are right at heart of all of this – we helped set, the Brits set a lot of it up. The current director of Europol is a Brit. I guess they are relying on almost an assumption that Europe needs us almost more than we need them because we are there right at the heart of it.
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While Lord Condon said he “applauds” the Government’s ambition to retain access to the data sharing agencies, he added: “We are growing increasingly concerned that they are not sharing any sort of route map or detailed plan as to how these things are going to be achieved.”
Lord Jay, the committee’s chairman, said: “The volume of data stored electronically and moving across borders has grown hugely over the last 20 years. Between 2005 and 2012 alone, internet traffic across borders increased 18-fold. The maintenance of unhindered data flows is therefore crucial, both for business and for effective police cooperation.”