Brexit: Police warn of ‘major operational impact’ when UK loses access to EU crime databases in January

Key information systems will be lost even if a security deal is struck before 31 December, National Crime Agency says

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 17 November 2020 22:21 GMT
Brexit briefing: How long until the end of the transition period?

Police have confirmed that post-Brexit the UK will lose access to EU databases used millions of times a year, warning of a “major operational impact”.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said the alternatives, which were initially drawn up as a contingency plan in the event of no deal, were all slower and less efficient.

In a letter to parliament’s Home Affairs Committee, chair Martin Hewitt said: “The loss of some or all of the tools will mean that, even with contingencies in place, the fallback systems will be slower, provide less visibility of information/intelligence and make joined-up working with European partners more cumbersome.”

Negotiations over a potential security deal continue but the National Crime Agency (NCA) said that even if an agreement is struck, access will still be lost to vital databases and legal mechanisms.

During a terse exchange on post-Brexit security with Theresa May in the House of Commons last month, the cabinet office minister claimed that the government “can intensify the security that we give to the British people”.

“There are many areas in which we can cooperate more effectively to safeguard our borders outside the European Union than we ever could inside,” Michael Gove claimed.

But the NCA appeared to dismiss that claim, with Mr Rodhouse writing: “Whilst new powers at the border, such as the provision of advance data on EU goods, will have a positive impact on Border Force’s targeting ability, this may not fully offset the overall operational deficit.”

Mr Hewitt said the NPCC had been “quite clear” on the need to retain EU tools since the 2016 EU Referendum.

“In both a negotiated outcome and non-negotiated scenario, the alternative measures are less automated and more unwieldy to use,” he added.

Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, called the letters “extremely serious and frankly very troubling”.

“Mr Gove told parliament that the UK would be able to ‘intensify our security’ even in the event of no deal, yet these letters tell the opposite story,” she added.

“National security should be the number one priority for the government but we are now just seven weeks away from the end of the transition period, with serious concerns about a significant security downgrade.

UK access to Europol is one of the tools expected to be lost on 1 January

“Ministers need to now explain urgently what they are doing to ensure there is an agreement on security cooperation, whatever the final outcome on trade or other issues.

“They need to level with people about the potential security downgrade that the police are warning about in these letters and explain urgently what they plan to do by 1 January to address these problems.”

Letters published on Tuesday said British authorities would no longer be able to use the Schengen Information System (SIS II), which contains 4.6 million UK alerts relating to people and objects.

Steve Rodhouse, the NCA’s director general for operations, wrote: “There is no legal basis for the UK to retain access to SIS II post-December 2020 and this is reflected in our planning assumptions.”

SIS II is integrated with Britain’s Police National Computer (PNC), meaning that officers search the databases simultaneously hundreds of millions of times a year.

Its replacement will be Interpol notices and diffusions, but that system was little-used by British authorities historically and holds less relevant information.

Interpol’s system must currently be searched manually and Mr Rodhouse said: “There are capability gaps affecting both sides which will reduce our ability to dynamically exchange real time alerts and data on persons and objects of interest.”

Mr Hewitt said the loss of SIS II would have a “major operational impact” on British policing.

“It will be slower and lack the capability of SIS II,” he added. “Because of the differences between SIS II and Interpol, forces will circulate far fewer persons and objects.”

The NCA said the UK would also be cut out of the European Arrest Warrant because it was “not seeking to participate as part of the future relationship” and seeking fast-track extradition agreements instead.

Between 2009 and 2019, there were around 16,000 arrests in the UK and 2,000 arrests of wanted criminals abroad under the system, including murderers, terrorists and paedophiles.

If a Norway-style extradition deal is not struck, the UK will have to fall back on the 1957 European Convention on Extradition.

The UK also faces losing access to the Prüm database for DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration data.

Between July, when the UK joined, and September over 89,000 data matches were made by UK law enforcement.

The European Criminal Records Information System (Ecris), on which the UK is the most active member state, may also be lost and replaced with a 1959 convention.

“Capability will be notably reduced as responses to UK requests will be significantly slower, impacting on public protection and judicial decisions,” Mr Rodhouse said.

The NCA warned that the UK would have less access to information on terrorists and gangsters trying to enter the UK if Britain is removed from the Passenger Name Records (PNR) database.

Britain’s participation in Europol, an umbrella body bringing together EU enforcement partners, is still under discussion.

The NCA said being kicked out was the issue it was most concerned about regarding serious and organised crime.

It is preparing to transfer hundreds of live investigations onto bilateral channels and hopes to scramble “international liaison officers” to European capitals next month.

A government spokesperson said: “The safety and security of our citizens is our top priority, and the UK will continue to be a global leader on security and one of the safest countries in the world.  

 “We are focused on reaching an agreement with the EU and there is a good degree of convergence in what the UK and EU are seeking to negotiate in terms of operational capabilities.

“In the event that it is not possible to reach an agreement, we have well-developed and well-rehearsed plans in place.”

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