I shall speak only briefly, and very specifically, about the implications of SIS II and the new regulation on the protection of children.
Police and judicial co-operation and the necessary cross-border infrastructures and mechanisms referred to earlier by Robert Neill, the Chair of the Justice Committee, are very important to child protection. Increasingly, victims of complex cross-border crime are children: they are victims of, for example, trafficking, sexual exploitation and online abuse. As the Minister said, the new regulation will support a more proactive alert system in relation to children who are at risk of going missing, and that includes cases of parental abduction. It will mean that pre-emptive alerts can be placed on the system to enable the authorities to act before a child goes missing rather than afterwards.
While I welcome the Government’s decision not to opt out of this part of the SIS and the increased protection for children, I am—like my hon. Friend Louise Haigh—concerned about the position if we leave the European Union in March 2019, and the possible uncertainty about the security and crime co-operation arrangements that will then be in place. I understand that the new measures that are currently being discussed in the EU are likely to be agreed before the Government’s intended exit date, but unlikely to be implemented until later. It is not clear whether they might be implemented during a potential two-year transition period, or even after that.
The Minister said that the Government want to be able to negotiate new arrangements for security law enforcement and criminal justice co-operation, but, as we heard from my hon. Friend Sir William Cash, who chairs the European Scrutiny Committee, has received a letter from the Minister which leaves us none the wiser about what specific measures such an arrangement might include.
Let me say very strongly to the Minister that the protection and welfare of children must be paramount in any new arrangements that are negotiated, and that includes seeking to maintain the benefits that we currently secure from our participation in SIS II and the stronger protections that the new regulation will introduce. There are practical questions about how that will be achieved. We heard about some of the circumstances relating to third countries that cannot create or enter alerts in SIS II, or use the infrastructure to search the system and exchange information. I understand that under article 62 of the proposed regulation, that will continue to be the case, and that, post-Brexit, the UK would not be able to benefit from the data that some offer, and to lodge data as we can now.
It is true, as we heard, that other countries have been able to agree specific access arrangements with the European Union. Does the Minister think that the UK could follow a similar route to maintain access, particularly in relation to child protection, and thus effectively remain within the ambit of SIS II? In that case, article 62 would have to be amended, or is the Minister thinking of some other arrangement for the UK to access and enter information? Failing such an arrangement with the EU if we leave in March 2019, does the Minister think it will be necessary, or indeed possible, for us to have bilateral arrangements with each of the 27 EU countries? If that is the route that he envisages we might have to follow, what assessment has he made of the risks it would pose to children and how would they be mitigated?
Finally, even if we are able to remain in some way within the SIS II system and continue to share and deposit information, there would be gaps in protecting children if we leave the EU and lose the provisions of Brussels II in relation to family law. Yesterday’s written ministerial statement in response to the Justice Committee report on the implications of Brexit for the justice system was quite complacent about alternatives to Brussels II. There are potentially catastrophic consequences for children and families as we face considerable uncertainty about the loss of provisions in Brussels II that govern choice of law and enforcement.
We are not talking about whether the EU is dictating and making our laws; we are talking about mechanisms that enable us to ensure that protections and enforcement measures and access to information and the sharing of information can continue to be used and enforced if we leave the EU. In particular, mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that there is no weakening of the protection currently available to ensure the safeguarding of children. I hope the Minister will in his concluding remarks be able to give some assurances that that will remain paramount in the Government’s thinking.