I am glad that a fellow member of the Home Affairs Committee has reminded me to say that people across the country need to become involved and have their say about what the right immigration options should be for Britain. We know that immigration is important for our future, but we also know that it needs to be controlled and managed in a way that is fair, and people have different views on how that should happen. My view is that there is rather more consensus than people may think, given the polarised debates on immigration that sometimes take place. We do indeed believe that all Members of Parliament should have their say as part of the process. We shall be holding regional hearings and evidence sessions around the country, and also urging Members to consult their constituents on what they want to happen as part of the future arrangements.
The policing Minister set out a very broad-brush approach to security. My hon. Friend Lyn Brown, the shadow policing Minister, gave a forensic response, posing a thorough and detailed set of questions that were not really addressed in the policing Minister’s initial outline of the position. He rightly talked about the value of our relationships and the importance of joint working, but we need much more reassurance from the Government that they are taking three crucial issues—Europol, the European arrest warrant and the databases—immensely seriously, because they will have huge implications for our security if we do not get this right.
There is no precedent for a non-EU member to be a member of Europol, but I should be grateful for confirmation from the Minister that there is also nothing in the treaties that would rule that out. If we are looking for a bespoke arrangement, perhaps he could confirm that there is nothing to prevent us from asking to continue our existing Europol membership, given the crucial role that Britain has played in shaping Europol in the first place, and in raising the standards of policing and cross-border policing in other countries across Europe to meet the standards that we have here in the United Kingdom.
As the Minister will know, the UK uses Europol more than almost any other country in the EU. We provide more intelligence, and play a leading role as well. Operation Golf, involving the Met and Europol, rescued 28 children who were being exploited by a Romanian-organised criminal gang network. Operation Rescue investigated the world’s largest online child abuse network and led to 12 arrests in the UK, safeguarding 230 children. That kind of work between British police forces and Europol is immensely important. I therefore urge the Government to pursue full membership of Europol, or at least something that looks, sounds and smells like it, so that it delivers exactly the kind of security arrangements we have at the moment.
We also need something that looks, feels, sounds and smells, and pretty much is the European arrest warrant, instead of reinventing something from scratch or having to renegotiate, as other countries including Norway and Iceland have done. It has taken them many years to do so, and the length of time involved in renegotiating those extradition agreements, whether with the rest of the EU or with individual countries, can cause huge delays and considerable legal uncertainty.
The Government are well aware of the importance of the European arrest warrant. Indeed, it was part of our discussion of justice and home affairs concerns over the past few years. I hope we will continue to make sure that we can respond to the up to 1,000 EAWs each year, which involve us being able to deport to other countries their suspected criminals, who would otherwise be able to find greater sanctuary here.
The most challenging area of all was raised by the police who gave testimony and evidence to the Select Committee: access to information and databases, and to that shared information across Europe. The temporary deputy assistant commissioner of the National Police Chiefs’ Council said:
“If we are curtailed in our ability to access intelligence systems that our overseas partners have put in place, we may risk people hurting children or committing harm because we cannot put that picture together. My response to you is yes, it increases the risk.”
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham gave a thorough account of the databases and the challenges they face, including the European criminal records information system, to which my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz referred; the second generation Schengen information system; the passenger name record directive; and the Europol information system. On that latter system, some of Europol’s co-operation partners can store and query the data in the centre, but cannot have direct access, which is what is so important.
If we are outside the EU and trying to set up a new bespoke arrangement, the European Commission will be forced to make an adequacy assessment. So once we trigger article 50 and are setting the new arrangements from outside the EU, we will expect an adequacy assessment by the European Commission under its current legal arrangements. However, as the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West pointed out, there are some challenges with getting that data adequacy assessment in place. While that ought to be solvable given our shared objectives and security and intelligence co-operation, it another reason why it takes time to get this issue right and why we cannot simply assume that, because we have the same shared objectives, it will all be solved and it will all just come out in the wash.
If our objectives are to stay in Europol and the EAW and to keep access to those crucial databases, it would be helpful if the Government said that, rather than simply make broad-brush statements that we want to continue with co-operation around security. That would give greater certainty to our police and law enforcement officers about what they should be focusing on and planning for. The Minister will know that, if we are not able to do that, it will be important to have transitional arrangements in place. Frankly, if we do not have that, people’s lives will be at risk.
Let me leave the Minister with a final thought about the way in which the negotiations take place. I have raised my concern about the Home Secretary and Home Office Ministers not being present, and because there is shared agreement on the objectives both in the House and across Europe, I am concerned that this matter will be treated as a lower priority in the negotiations. It is not as controversial an issue as some others, which we will all row about. It will not therefore be one of the main things on which the Prime Minister will continually keep her attention. However, it must be taken immensely seriously, otherwise it will just slip between people’s fingers and we will end up with the details not being ready in time and it therefore not being sorted out.
My other concern is that this issue must not be used as a bargaining chip in the wider negotiations. There will be all kinds of rows, debates and trade-offs across Europe around trade, immigration rules and so forth, but we should not have trade-offs around security. It would be better if issues around security co-operation could be treated as a separate part of the negotiations, and could be dealt with as rapidly as possible to get some early security and show that the Government are giving the matter sufficient attention. Our Select Committee will hold further evidence sessions, and I am sure other Select Committees and Members will also be scrutinising this subject in detail.
Britain voted to leave the EU, but nobody voted to make Britain less safe. I know the Government will take safety and security seriously, but they need to be taken sufficiently seriously to make sure that we do not inadvertently get a gap in our security arrangements which ends up putting lives at risk. In the end, we are talking here about terror, security and cross-border crime, so this is about any Government’s first duty: to keep their citizens safe.