Michael Matheson: Membership of EU police force is vital

Michael Matheson has called on the UK Government to commit to Europol
Michael Matheson has called on the UK Government to commit to Europol
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On Monday, Scotland’s law enforcement leaders and key partners considered the latest strategic assessment of threats to our communities and the actions needed to continue to tackle these.

Scotland’s Serious Organised Crime Taskforce discussed how best to stay one step ahead of the individuals, at home and abroad, who seek to peddle misery through sexual crimes, drug-dealing, human trafficking, extortion, fraud and other nefarious activities.

As Assistant Chief Constable Steve Johnson stated in these pages a fortnight ago, the exchange of information and intelligence with other nations has been key to the internationally recognised success of the Scottish Crime Campus at Gartcosh.

I updated the taskforce on my recent visit to Europol, where its director, Rob Wainwright, outlined how the European Union law enforcement agency is working with Police Scotland to tackle cross-border crime, terrorism and online threats.

Europol supports member states to carry out more than 18,000 cross-border investigations each year and supports police operations in Scotland such as targeted pan-European housebreaking, human trafficking, child sexual exploitation and cyber-crime.

I met several specialist teams at the Europol headquarters in The Hague, including the agency’s European Cyber-crime Centre (EC3) hub, led by Police Scotland’s former head of online crime. I also met the officer seconded from Police Scotland who is working with a range of national law enforcement agencies through the UK Liaison Bureau at Europol.

What struck me most about this shared European endeavour was the ability of officers from one national police service to walk just across the office to engage counterparts from any number of other European jurisdictions.

Seeing the Europol operation leaves me in absolutely no doubt about the critical importance of the face-to-face contact between law enforcement teams working together to safeguard communities across our continent.

Europol membership also gives our officers and specialists direct and instant access to secure Europe-wide information-sharing systems that greatly extend their reach in tracking down individuals and tackling crime.

It is for these reasons that I have urged the UK Government to act now and opt in to strengthened Europol arrangements by the January 2017 deadline and so retain our membership of this hugely sophisticated and effective network.

While Brexit negotiations loom large, and policing and security will be part of those, the issue of Europol membership cannot be left to the two-year negotiations that will only start when the Prime Minister decides to lodge Article 50 at some point in early 2017.

Failure to act in the coming weeks would mean that from next May the UK would no longer be a member of Europol, with serious implications for the ability of our police to share information and potentially impacting on live operations.

I have now made that point clear in a letter to the Home Secretary – who herself has stated how Europol has played an important role in keeping us safe.

I hope Amber Rudd can give a clear and positive response not only to me, but to law enforcement agencies working across Scotland, the UK and Europe to keep our communities, our continent and all of its people safe.