Government 'complacency' over EU security deal is putting public safety at risk, MPs warn

The government’s “complacency” over a security deal with the EU is putting public safety at risk, MPs have warned.

The Home Affairs Committee said that even if Theresa May’s proposals are accepted by MPs next week, it will be “near-impossible” to reach an agreement allowing Britain continued access to vital databases by the end of the transition period.

And a no-deal Brexit would create a security “cliff-edge” where police and intelligence agencies would be locked out of EU systems overnight, they added.

Yvette Cooper, chair of the committee, said the draft withdrawal agreement would cause a “security downgrade”.

“It doesn’t include the key criminal databases that the police and border force check 500 million times a year to keep us safe,” the Labour MP added. “Nor is there a security backstop to make sure that the transition arrangements don’t run out before a new security treaty can be implemented.

“The government isn’t being open about the implications of this deal. Continued police and security cooperation is in everyone’s interest, but there is far too much complacency.”

Britain’s continued access to databases including the Schengen Information System (SIS II), which is used by British police 539 million times every year, is still being negotiated as part of a separate security treaty.

The draft withdrawal agreement that MPs will vote on next week extends the UK’s use of databases, the European Arrest Warrant and other tools until the end of a 21-month transition period.

But with the deal opposed by both pro-Remain Tories and Brexiteers, its passage through parliament is uncertain and the government has been mounting what critics have dubbed “project fear 2.0” to rally support.

Ms Cooper pointed out that the agreement could still see the UK eventually kicked out of Europol and other systems without any assurance of replica arrangements.

“We know that this would mark a significant downgrade of our security and policing capabilities, and the police have made clear we would be less safe as a result,” she added.

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“We’ve heard that it would be impossible to negotiate and ratify a new security treaty before December 2020, yet this deal has no security backstop to ensure continued cooperation once the transition period has ended, and the government still hasn’t even set out a timetable outlining when it wants to see a treaty agreed.”

Ministers have celebrated a political declaration on security cooperation that was agreed by all 27 remaining EU states last week, but the Home Affairs Committee pointed out that it does not include any detail on Europol or access to specific databases.

Police are continuing to make contingency plans, with a dedicated unit preparing to train officers who may have to dramatically change the way they work.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said the loss of EU systems would force it to revert to “slower, more bureaucratic and less effective” tools including Interpol, bilateral channels and Council of Europe conventions.

Leaders said that the alternatives will reduce their capability to track terrorists and criminals, share alerts for wanted people, access criminal records, deport suspects or catch those hiding abroad.

As well as a loss of intelligence and operational capacity, police are also bracing for potential protests, public disorder and border disruption.

John Apter, chair of Police Federation of England and Wales, said: “Brexit is an unsettling time for policing. It is therefore vitally important that security and law enforcement, both within the UK and internationally, is a priority.”

The Home Affairs Committee also condemned the government’s “troubling lack of clarity” about future customs and border arrangements.

Members raised concern about an “own national” exemption for extraditions to the EU during the proposed transition period and questioned what it would mean for victims of rape, child sexual abuse and other serious crimes.

Ms Cooper said it was “ridiculous” that MPs were expected to vote on the deal without seeing the government’s Immigration White Paper, which was first promised 18 months ago.

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A Home Office spokesperson said: “This deal delivers the broadest security partnership in the EU’s history and provides a framework for a future security relationship between the UK and the EU to keep people safe. 

“It is in everyone’s interests to combine efforts on security and, whilst our relationship with the EU will change, we have agreed to share vitally important information, including passenger name records, DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration. 

“We will also be establishing a streamlined extradition process so that our law enforcement agencies can quickly investigate and prosecute criminals and terrorists.”

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