Calum Steele: Brexit would threaten cross-border policing

The ability of police forces to co-operate across borders is a big advantage in the battle against international and organised crime, including terrorism and people trafficking. Picture: Getty Images
The ability of police forces to co-operate across borders is a big advantage in the battle against international and organised crime, including terrorism and people trafficking. Picture: Getty Images
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In the latest part of our series on Scotland’s future, Calum Steele of the Scottish Police Federation warns of threat to vital co-operation

One of the strongest non-political arguments for the creation of the Police Service of Scotland was that criminals don’t respect borders and as such the police should not be constrained by them either. There can be no doubt that this is completely true.

What is also true is that it is the most serious of criminals – those who engage in drug and human trafficking, child exploitation and paedophilia and terrorism – who take the greatest advantage of the legal barriers and confusion that borders create.

Another truism is that all of these activities do impact on the day-to-day lives of all of the citizens of Scotland, even if this happens in ways that are not immediately apparent to most of us. At its most basic level, the resources needed to tackle criminal activity take many millions of our tax pounds and the resources to care for, counsel and treat those exploited and victimised by crime, countless millions more.

On a more local level, organised criminal activity and addiction to drugs can have devastating impacts on entire neighbourhoods and result in certain areas of our country being synonymous with hopelessness and despair. It is in all our interests to ensure we face no hurdles in making Scotland a safe and secure country in which to bring up, educate and nurture our children and to ensure we have vibrant, thriving communities in which we all want to live and work.

Whilst many may observe that the arguments surrounding the merits or otherwise of a Brexit are analogous to the arguments during the independence referendum, when it comes to policing there are particular differences. The different legal systems north and south of the Border have evolved over centuries and have consistently allowed for co-operation and indeed collaboration to be at their core. This evolution between two distinctly different legal systems could not be easily unpicked whereas the relatively embryonic co-operation between the 28 equally unique legal systems across the member states would struggle to credibly make the same claim.

The pressures to co-operate with a neighbour with whom you share a land border are almost unavoidable. The same pressures do not exist and to the same extent, with those you do not. It is precisely because of this latter fact that we need to work hard at developing systems of co-operation to not only assist, but to enable the effective delivery of safety, security and justice.

If we look to Northern Ireland, which shares a land border with the “European” Republic, it is the personal relationships that make the challenges of working across judicial systems, with different rules concerning information sharing, to the extent currently enjoyed, possible.

In his recent evidence to the Northern Ireland affairs committee, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland commented on the sheer importance of these relationships in making the judicial processes work efficiently. He made clear that their existing strength would ensure co-operation continued regardless of the referendum result but it would almost certainly make policing slower, more complicated and more costly if the UK voted in favour of Brexit.

This matters to the UK as, even though the Republic of Ireland is not within the Schengen zone, it is within the common travel area and offers a direct route to the rest of the UK through the North.

This is not a migration point, as ultimately migration is largely a political consideration, but it does serve to reinforce that, even as an island nation, we have dependant relationships that are crucial for our own domestic safety and security.

Without question the greatest asset any police force has in its fight against crime is information and intelligence. The ability to share that information is as free a manner as possible is what has allowed the fight against organised crime and terrorism to have advanced as far as it has in recent decades. There can be no complacency that what has been achieved is either enough or is as far as co-operation can go, not least as the speed with which crime is evolving is breath-taking and police services are often left playing catch up.

Nowhere is this demonstrated most starkly than in the arena of cyber-crime where perpetrators need nothing more than a wi-fi connection to be able to spread their misery. Member states have differing domestic views on the amount and type of information they gather and hold and indeed are prepared to share. At this time the Schengen Information System is what allows UK police forces to share and, importantly, receive information from other police forces across Europe and it has taken years, much negotiation and treaty adoption to enable its establishment.

The data and information sharing necessities or dependencies are seldom considered by the average citizen whenever policing is discussed. There are simply assumptions that such things automatically take place and always have.

Criminal intelligence, particularly in the sphere of serious organised crime and terrorism, is like building a jigsaw. Each member state and each organisation within each member state holds a piece of that jigsaw. It is only by having as many pieces as possible that the picture of what is being dealt with can be understood. Prevention of crime is not easily demonstrated. Disruption is seldom advertised as it can undermine ongoing investigations or expose sources of information. Where circumstances permit, however, the persuasive abilities of what may or might have happened carry considerably less weight than the certainty of actual events where prevention has failed.

There are, however, more visible and quantifiable examples of the benefits of co-operation and collaboration in the form of the European arrest warrant. No longer do we see the spectacle of complicated inter-European extradition hearings to bring offenders to justice. Indeed the complexity and costs of these hearings often meant it was only the most extreme forms of criminal activity that were pursued.

In the past seven years the UK has received more than 55,000 European arrest warrant requests from member states resulting in the arrest of over 10,500 suspects, including 143 for murder. In return the UK has made over 1400 warrant requests, securing the arrest of 900 suspects, including 48 for murder and 102 for child sex offences.

Simply put, ever-increasing policing co-operation has meant more UK criminals have been brought to justice and equally importantly has seen the removal of 1,000s more from our shores. These successes have been as a consequence of and not in spite of the European policing institutions and systems that have taken so long to establish.

Whether the UK would continue to have access to organisations such as EuroPOL or systems and processes like the European Arrest Warrant and the Schengen Information System database are ultimately political decisions. The director of EuroPOL has, however, warned that there are no certainties. In a large part, however, all of these things may be academic as there is seldom any legal or constitutional problem that cannot be solved if the political will exists to solve it.

Politics is, however, a messy and fickle business. Our own domestic experiences with the different parliaments in the UK more than demonstrate that the ceding of any form of power or authority is something that is almost always fiercely resisted. That comparatively non-controversial issues like drink drive limits or road signs were years in negotiation should indicate that issues like data sharing would likely stir some fairly weighty emotions. There is also an inherent danger in assuming what we currently have will be kept. It is easy to envisage that each of the remaining member states would wish to reaffirm their own sovereignty to some degree or other in their dealings with a country that has effectively acted to do the same.

It is not beyond comprehension to consider that the pursuit of wider political concessions, outwith the policing arena, could impact on any negotiations that have the appearance of a pick and choose. It is also unimaginable to believe each member state would not enjoy a veto on any aspect of any future European policing co-operation with a nation that does not fully ascribe to its own values and ideals. This could leave the UK in the invidious position of having to negotiate separate agreements with each of its European neighbours.

The question that needs answered is: does anyone believe these arrangements would be easily secured and be at the very least on a par with what is currently in place?

• Calum Steele is general secretary if the Scottish Police Federation