Chief Executive Rob Price on the risks of no-deal Brexit
Managing risk is central to our ability as a law enforcement agency to safeguard communities here in the UK and across the world.
The challenge of Brexit has always been the uncertainty of what exactly will happen once we leave the EU. It’s this uncertainty that makes it so difficult to precisely identify and manage the associated risks.
That’s why it’s important for me, for ACRO and the wider policing family to focus on what we do know and explain the potential impact of Brexit on the way in which we protect the public.
ACRO is the UK’s Central Authority for the exchange of criminal records. All EU Member States have one; they communicate with each other hundreds of times per day, sending and receiving information that’s critical to the decisions made by police across the continent.
If an EU national is arrested in the UK, it's fundamental to the police investigation whether or not that person has convictions back home. The information helps safeguard vulnerable people, bring offenders to justice and ensure they’re properly sentenced in court if convicted.
Most Central Authorities communicate with ACRO via ECRIS, the European Criminal Records Information System. Currently, it takes on average six days for Member States to respond to requests. In the case of records with no-convictions, a response can come back in minutes.
If we leave the EU with no deal, our access to ECRIS will be switched off. This will have a significant impact on our ability to make this country, and our European partners, safer. The response time could rise to 66 days, the current average time it takes for ACRO to receive a response from non-EU countries. In addition, there’s no guarantee of a response at all, because we’d be relying on a 1959 convention to underpin this work, one that places no obligation on Member States to come back to our requests.
In my professional opinion, this risk concerns me greatly because I truly believe important information will be missed as a result. And at some point we’re going to have to explain that to the public, to witnesses and to victims.
In the UK we're working to mitigate the risk by partnering with the NPCC's International Crime Co-ordination Centre, set up to support police forces through a no-deal Brexit.
With Member States, ACRO is committed to maintaining current exchange levels as much as possible. Co-operation between international law enforcement agencies and the ability to share volumes of information quickly and efficiently is the lifeblood of what we do. With the EU, that equated to more than 160,000 exchanges last year alone.
Some people have suggested police can just pick up the phone to our European counterparts. But imagine having to do so 160,000 times a year and you’d begin to realise how inefficient that would be (even assuming the call can be answered, and if both caller and receiver speak the same language).
ECRIS does all of that: it sends, it receives, it translates, it responds, and it does so effectively, efficiently and securely.
And not just about foreign nationals in the UK, but also about UK nationals convicted overseas. ACRO currently manages the records of more than 600 British citizens convicted of sex offences overseas. We make sure they’re met by a police officer when they come back home so they can be managed in the community in exactly the same way we would a sex offender convicted here in the UK.
We only find out about those convictions if they’re sent to us by overseas partners or if we’re able to access exchange systems. There’s no other practical means of obtaining this information, and without it, we’d be in the dark and unable to manage the risk each of those individuals poses.
There are of course opportunities for the future. My team in ACRO is working to set up bilateral agreements with every EU country, and I’m pleased to say we’re receiving assurances from Member States that they will continue to respond.
Setting up agreements, rebuilding what we have, takes time. A deal would likely give us until the end of 2020 to do so while continuing to use the current systems. But it’s the same cliff edge, just a slower pace.
I was interviewed by the Independent about this very issue earlier this month. The journalist quite rightly asked me whether what I was saying was so-called ‘project fear.’
My answer is that I would rather speak out now than look back in three months, six months or a year and have to answer ‘where were you? You knew the risks, why didn’t you tell us?’
Because if we are to manage the risk, and do so responsibly, we must also communicate them and articulate them clearly.
I owe it to my staff, to our law enforcement partners, and to the communities we serve to do so.
Rob Price is ACRO's Chief Executive Officer and the NPCC's national lead for Foreign National Offending and International Instruments
12th February 2019