Graeme Pearson: Independence a minef ield for national security

SCOTTISH Independence has the capacity to create a minefield of challenges for those who are responsible for our national wellbeing in terms of terrorism and also serious organised crime. In the land of the clandestine, though, nothing is easy to explain.

SCOTTISH Independence has the capacity to create a minefield of challenges for those who are responsible for our national wellbeing in terms of terrorism and also serious organised crime. In the land of the clandestine, though, nothing is easy to explain.

National security is currently a reserved issue ensuring that, for the most part, on the domestic front our security is maintained by MI5, with MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) guarding our interests internationally. Both agencies in London answer through Whitehall departments to Westminster. MI5 reports to Parliament through the office of the Home Secretary and is subject to oversight by the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament as well as a range of inspectors and, of course, the courts. In addition, since 2010, the National Security Council, chaired by the Prime Minister, has co-ordinated the work of MI5, SIS and GCHQ, the government listening post.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

No one doubts that key partners across the UK are the various police forces. In my experience MI5 works hard to ensure good relationships exist with all 51 police forces – eight of them in Scotland – as well as law enforcement agencies such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs investigations, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency and many others. Those relationships are managed for the most part through ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers) through its committee – Terrorism and Allied Matters (TAM). Scotland maintains places on the committee to represent Scottish interests.

ACPO (TAM) oversees and agrees guidance in regard to counter-terror operational policies and the broader issue of emergency planning and community safety. The Government’s ‘CONTEST’ strategy, designed to deal with the emergence of modern-day terrorist threats, was created and delivered with the assistance of ACPO (TAM). The committee’s decisions are implemented across the UK with Scottish Government officials maintaining a communications link with developments through a series of briefings at official and ministerial levels.

In the event that Scotland should vote for independence and separate from the UK, it is difficult to see how current systems of oversight and management can be maintained. An independent Scottish Government would want to see its national security capacity directly answerable to Scottish ministers. The notion that MI5 and SIS might engage with Scottish issues but report to Westminster ministers looks untenable. As we have seen from recent developments in London in respect of alleged extraordinary rendition, operational decisions can have serious implications for governments and their ministers even years later. It is difficult to see responsibility for decisions here being ceded to another country’s government.

The questions therefore are these:

Will a Scottish Government create its own national security departments and governance structures? How would these new structures link with the police service, thankfully soon to be one organisation, in Scotland? Is there an expectation that London-based agencies after separation would report on international matters to the Scottish Government and executive? Will Scotland’s police continue to liaise and pass intelligence (and receive it) from UK agencies? Who will be responsible for such exchanges? Who will decide primacy on cross-Border incidents and the subsequent international co-operations that arise? Will an inter-governmental committee be necessary to deliver on all these challenges? In the end, if it all goes badly wrong and life and property is lost through terrorist actions on the British mainland, how will we know who is responsible?

And, probably the most important question of all, can Scotland afford to finance all that is necessary to replicate what we have in place across the UK and beyond to protect our collective interests?

My policing experience taught me the lesson that too often the prevention of terrorist outrages and subsequent investigations fail not because the intelligence and evidence wasn’t available but because agencies, departments or divisions had failed – often due to the competition that exists between agencies – to share their knowledge effectively. The arrival of a possibility of Scottish independence, amidst the creation of a single police force, if not properly thought through, will go along way to creating more national “boundaries and hurdles” than ever existed before.

• Graeme Pearson is the Scottish Labour list MSP for south of Scotland and former director general of the Scottish Drugs Enforcement Agency