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Security Co-operation

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 2 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the future of security cooperation across Europe from January 2021.

My Lords, we will continue to work closely with our European partners to tackle shared security threats, promoting the safety and security of all our citizens. We also continue to work closely with operational partners to ensure that we are ready for a range of possible outcomes at the end of the year. The UK will continue to be a global leader on security and one of the safest countries in the world.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we are threatened by cybercrime, other forms of serious crime, violent extremism and terrorism and that, if we leave the EU without a sensible deal on security co-operation, we will lose access to data, the European arrest warrant and Europol? On access to data, will she confirm that we use the Schengen Information System 600 million times a year? Surely our membership of the European Court of Justice, which is a government red line, is trivial compared to the need to keep our people safe and save lives in this country.

We have always said that there would be a mutual loss of capability in the event that the UK no longer had access to SIS II. That is why we have offered to reach an agreement with the EU that delivers a similar capability. The Commission has stated its view that it is not legally possible for a non-Schengen third country to co-operate through SIS II and that a future agreement between the UK and the EU need not provide similar capabilities. We regret this and have maintained our offer to the EU.

My Lords, the sharing of intelligence and the importance of close co-operation between the UK and our friends throughout Europe is well proven. I could cite several examples clearly showing that it keeps us all safe and has prevented terrorist attacks throughout the continent. What assurance can the Minister give your Lordships’ House that there will be no lessening of this close partnership after the end of the implementation period on 1 January 2021?

I assure the noble Lord that the UK will continue to work with our European partners to counter, as he said, the terrorist threats we face in Europe and beyond. We have world-leading expertise on counterterrorism and countering violent extremism, which we will continue to share with EU member states as appropriate.

My Lords, how much of our data exchange with EU member states now takes place through Europol? Does my noble friend agree that, having left the EU, we should rebuild our security and intelligence exchange arrangements on a bilateral basis with member states rather than exchanging sensitive intelligence through Europol, and that our security will be enhanced rather than diminished as a result?

My Lords, the UK is not seeking membership of Europol or Eurojust. That is not how third-country arrangements with these agencies work. We have not sought membership of either agency, but we are negotiating at what is clearly a very sensitive and late stage. In general, there is a good degree of convergence between what the UK and the EU have been seeking to negotiate.

My Lords, can the Minister give a clear assurance that, from 1 January, the police will continue to have unfettered access to the various EU databases which help them track and prevent transnational crime such as the trafficking of drugs, arms and people? Over 50 million requests are made of these databases every year from UK police forces. National security would clearly be at risk without access to them.

I agree with the noble Baroness about our capabilities. We are in the very late stages of negotiating an agreement on law enforcement, criminal justice and, as she says, those data exchanges that are so important. I cannot say more than that, but we have had some very useful discussions in this area and I am hopeful of a good deal.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that, once we are no longer part of the EU’s common security and defence policy, UK defence companies will not be disadvantaged in participating in and supplying to European defence projects?

The noble Baroness strays slightly into the area of defence, but I can say that the foundation of European security since 1949 has been the NATO alliance. Our intelligence services already have highly effective co-operation to build on outside those EU structures. We also have the Five Eyes group and the Counter-Terrorism Group. We are well placed going forward.

My Lords, is it not the case that, without access to EU databases and the European arrest warrant, in terms of security we are leaving the European Union on a wing and a prayer?

The European arrest warrant is used exclusively by EU members, obviously. We have proposed that an agreement with the EU should provide for fast-track extradition arrangements, based on the EU’s arrangements with Norway and Iceland but with appropriate further safeguards for individuals.

My noble friend has rightly stated that the safety and security of our citizens is the top priority and that the UK will continue to be a global leader in security. One therefore hopes that our European friends will continue to work closely with us to ensure the safety of all our citizens. In the unlikely event that we leave without a deal, can my noble friend confirm that there are well-developed and well-rehearsed plans in place to ensure the safety and security of the British people?

I can confirm that for my noble friend. I also reiterate his point that the safety and security of our citizens is the Government’s top priority. We are negotiating an agreement on law enforcement and criminal justice with the EU to equip our operational partners on both sides with the capabilities to protect citizens and bring criminals to justice.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council has warned that, post Brexit, with the loss of access to EU databases,

“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.”

The National Crime Agency has said that, in both a negotiated outcome and a non-negotiated scenario,

“the alternative measures are less automated and more unwieldy to use.”

Do the Government agree with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the National Crime Agency? If so, what do they intend to do about it?

I reiterate that there will be a mutual loss of capabilities for the UK and the EU in a non-negotiated outcome. I do not think I have made any secret of that in this House. We are therefore working very hard—I know it is late in the day—to secure a negotiated outcome.

My Lords, the Minister has confirmed that the security of their citizens is the number one priority of the Government. If that is the case, are we going to have access to the European Criminal Records Information System, which we make almost 200,000 requests to in a year? Are we going to have access to the Schengen Information System II, which, as noble Lords have said, has required access of up to 500 million times a year? What about Europol, which was mentioned? What about the European arrest warrant? Does the Minister agree that, deal or no deal, if we do not have these things, they represent a risk to public safety and security?

I can only admire the noble Lord’s ability to get about seven questions in his one question. Going back to SIS II, which we spoke about earlier, the Commission has stated its view that it is not legally possible for us, as a non-Schengen country, to co-operate through SIS II. As set out in the UK’s published approach to negotiations, we believe an agreement should provide for the fast and effective exchange of criminal records data between the UK and EU individual member states.

My Lords, I do not admire the noble Lord’s ability to get more than two questions in, because that is meant to be the requirement of Question Time. We now come to the fourth Oral Question.