The Deal in Detail 1) Security, intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism

29 Dec

Richard Walton is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and a former Head of the Counter Terrorism Command at New Scotland Yard.

There will be no notable change to the UK’s security and safety as the post Brexit agreement is implemented on New Year’s Day, 2021. Criminals and terrorists will not be waiting their moment to seize upon a new window of opportunity to take advantage of a weakened United Kingdom. Our nation’s safety has never depended upon our membership within the EU.

Close cooperation and collaboration between our police and intelligence agencies with EU states will continue as normal with most international investigations, whether for serious crime or terrorism, extending well beyond Europe to nations across the globe.

The landscape has clearly shifted. After returning from a tense EU summit in Brussels in February 2016 (having negotiated the UK’s latest EU ‘settlement’), our then Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced the date of the referendum to the nation, placing security front and centre of the justification for remaining in the EU: “I believe that Britain will be safer, stronger and better off by remaining in a reformed European Union.”

Despite strenuous attempts by some politicians in the subsequent debates, justifying the assertion that Brexit would hinder the ability of the nation to protect itself, few operational leaders from the police and intelligence services appeared overly concerned or vexed – the EU was a trade body not a security alliance. The public were not convinced either, and fears relating to security did not sway the decision to leave the EU.

Now, five years later, the Government has secured a deal with the EU that buries all fears that the UK will be less secure after fully leaving the EU.

Intelligence sharing

The UK’s engagement and collaboration with EU member states on crime, security and counter terrorism has always been mutually beneficial, which is why special arrangements on collaboration and the sharing of information from important databases have been agreed.

Crucially, the UK will retain full access to two of the most important, the Passenger Name Record Initiative (PNR), which shares passenger airplane data and PRUM, an increasingly important DNA and fingerprint database.

The Agreement also enshrines the ability of the UK and EU states to share information relating to wanted and missing persons and objects as well as criminal records. A new Specialised Committee on Law Enforcement and Judicial Cooperation will oversee the arrangements.

The one area of information sharing where the UK will lose out will be automated access to two databases linked to Schengen, the Schengen Information System (SIS II) and European Records Information System (ECRIS), but it is hard to see how this will markedly affect operations on the ground, especially when bilateral cooperation between police and immigration officers across national borders is so routine and strong.

It remains to be seen, however, whether alternative routes to obtaining this information will be as quick and seamless as current arrangements. In time, the UK and EU may revisit this arrangement as the flow of information from these databases is currently two-way so the EU states may lose out as well as the UK, access being mutually beneficial.

Counter Terrorism

The UK provides a role model for EU Member States for countering terrorism threats, which is why close cooperation will undoubtably continue. At a time of heightened threat of terrorism across Europe, EU member states will continue to seek access to the UK’s experience, intelligence and operational resources used in countering terrorism after the 1st January to prevent an increase in terrorism across Europe and further afield.

The UK’s longstanding counter terrorism strategy entitled ‘CONTEST’ (first developed in early 2003) is one of the most comprehensive of any country in the world, and has been used to shape and inform both the EU’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy and that of the United Nations.

The UK will continue to engage with two long-established information sharing fora within Europe that have been dealing with national security and counter terrorism since the 1990s: the ‘Berne Group’ or ‘Club of Berne’ and the Police Working Group on Terrorism (PWGT).

Both have evolved over several decades and include EU member states and non-EU member states alike. For example, both groups include Norway and Switzerland which are not members of the EU. Neither group operate on a formal charter and both work outside of the formal institutions of the EU.

Intelligence relating to terrorist suspects and terrorist operations will remain on national security (classified) databases in individual countries and shared on a case by case basis and effective counter terrorism operations will continue to rely on bilateral and multi-lateral state-to-state intelligence sharing, often global in nature.

Unlike EU states, the UK will continue to have full access to the ‘Five Eyes’ – the closest international intelligence sharing arrangement in the world, a platform that enables the routine sharing of highly classified intelligence relating to security threats and terrorism between the ‘5 eyes’ states of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Arrangements for sharing of intelligence on terrorist financing and asset confiscation have also been enshrined in the agreement.

Europol

The UK will continue to have access and engagement with Europol although, like its sister agency Interpol (that represents over 192 member states rather than just 27), it is not a law enforcement agency in the conventional sense, has no executive powers, makes no arrests, does not proactively collect intelligence and does not undertake operational activity.

Nevertheless, the UK will be able to second liaison officers to Europol and vice versa with our National Crime Agency, attend operational meetings and take a full part in analytical projects and Europol Heads of Unit meetings. It will also be able to second a liaison prosecutor to Eurojust who will be able to attend strategic and operational meetings.

Replacement for the European Arrest Warrant

A new detailed surrender agreement replaces the European Arrest Warrant, with clear provisions set out for mutual legal assistance and time restraints for responding to requests. This provision means that the UK and the EU will not need to revert back the dated European Convention on Extradition (1957).

Conclusion

The security agreement between the UK and EU states enshrines the vast majority of existing arrangements into law, ensuring that close collaboration and cooperation continues unhindered. Brexit has not been detrimental to our security or safety, nor to that of EU states. There is a great deal of mutual respect between the police and intelligence agencies of the UK and EU states and this will continue to strengthen, as it always has, regardless of the UK’s EU membership.

As articulated in 2016 by the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd” “In the national security context, however, the threats and challenges to UK national security have not fundamentally changed as a result of the decision to leave. The UK remains fully and strongly committed to Europe’s defence and security and we continue to play an active role in security and defence cooperation across Europe.”

As we head into 2021, on matters relating to crime and security, it will be business as usual; a spirit of continuity will prevail with our neighbouring EU states.

This is the first in a series of pieces from Policy Exchange looking at specific issues that arise from the Brexit trade deal.

Richard Walton: The Government must act to prevent Coronavirus fraud

12 Jul

Richard Walton is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and a former Head of Counter-Terrorism Command of the Metropolitan Police.

In normal times, the NHS loses £1.27 billion a year to fraud, which is the equivalent of fulfilling the Conservative Party’s manifesto pledge of employing an additional 50,000 nurses. New research by Policy Exchange in a paper entitled Daylight Robbery – Uncovering the true cost of public sector fraud in the age of COVID-19 has found that fraud and error during the Coronavirus crisis will cost the Government an eye-watering sum about three and half times that – in the region of £4.6 billion.

Fraud is only exacerbated in a crisis, such as the pandemic we are facing now. It has been well documented that disasters are a magnet for fraud, as crisis management involves an outpouring of government aid, typically accompanied by low levels of due diligence to allow funds to reach recipients quickly.

In a foreword to the report, David Blunkett warns that criminals will use the Covid-19 crisis to “dip below the radar in order to be able to take advantage of unusual and unforeseen circumstances, and bank on attention and resources being focused elsewhere”.

Detecting and preventing fraud is a key element of sound public finances, and should therefore be a priority for this Government. It is not reasonable to expect the public to hand over a share of their income month after month if it’s not responsibly managed. Considering the pressure that will emerge after the Coronavirus crisis to keep costs down, reducing fraud will be one of the most equitable and achievable options available and will help the Government to achieve other objectives, such as levelling up the UK economy.

Unlike Covid-19, there is a dangerous perception that fraud does not have much impact on victims. There is a particular tendency to see public sector fraud – fraud committed against the government – as a crime that doesn’t affect ordinary people.

This is wrong. It affects the future of children when income tax is diverted from their education and is funnelled towards organised crime networks. It affects the most vulnerable in our society when they have to wait longer to receive benefits, because the Department of Work and Pensions is busy filtering through the almost one in five Universal Credit applications that are fraudulent.  It can even result in substandard treatments from an NHS doctor who lied about his qualifications on his CV. The Government believes that fraud and error cost the taxpayer anywhere between £2.8 billion and £22.6 billion in 2017-18 alone. This level of fraud is damaging to the fabric of society and cannot be allowed to continue.

While the Chancellor’s rapid action to save the economy has been a welcome necessity, the generosity and speed with which support schemes were introduced has left them open to exploitation by fraudsters. Furthermore, the increased use of third parties and digital channels have raised the opportunities for fraudsters to infiltrate the system.

For example, the speed with which Bounce Back Loans are approved (82 per cent of loans approved compared to 50 per cent for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme), and the potential to make multiple applications poses a particular fraud risk, which is compounded by the poor quality of Companies House data.

When face-to-face assessments for Universal Credit (UC) were suspended in July 2018, there was an almost 15,000 jump in the number of monthly referrals of suspected advances fraud over the course of the following year, costing up to £150 million. We can therefore expect the decision to suspend face-to-face assessments again due to Covid-19 to have a similar effect.

The Government has implemented a range of measures to try and tackle this, with the Cabinet Office forming a Covid-19 Counter Fraud Response Team and the NHS Counter Fraud Authority, the Home Office and the National Cyber Security Centre offering advice.

Nevertheless, over the course of the Coronavirus crisis, HMRC has already received 1,800 reports of furlough fraud and the NHS has been subject to numerous PPE scams. Last week, the HMRC Fraud investigation team arrested an individual in the Solihull area as part of an investigation into a suspected £495,000 fraud of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

The issue of tackling fraud is compounded by the difficulty of detecting it, and the complex nature of recording and reporting it. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, almost two thirds of fraud goes unreported, and the Government believes that it is currently detecting less than two per cent of public sector fraud. The services available to report fraud are linked to a complex web of organisations, which must be streamlined to become more effective. Even when fraud is eventually detected, it is underreported as unwittingly complicit employees fear the stigma around fraud, while government departments are wary of the negative media attention it attracts.

Fighting fraud effectively is expensive, but it is imperative that the Government continues to invest in this field, regardless of other fiscal pressures. It will be essential that the Government conducts thorough post event assurance in the wake of this crisis, a process that should be overseen by a new ‘Covid-19 Economic Crime Hub’, run by the National Economic Crime Centre, with a Minister for Economic Crime appointed and accountable for the outcomes.

According to Sajid Javid, who also backed the report, “now is a good time to join up counter fraud measures to keep it to an absolute minimum”. Technology will play a critical role in enabling investigators to operate at a sufficient scale and the Government must make use of the latest innovations in anti-fraud technologies, while ensuring the Covid-19 Economic Crime Hub has access to cross-government data.

Looking beyond the pandemic, it will be vital that the Government learns the lessons from this crisis, which has exposed weaknesses in the UK’s digital infrastructure. In particular, the limitations of public sector identity assurance systems has enabled fraud at a larger scale than necessary.

The Government should therefore accelerate the creation of digital identity solutions, such as the Departmet of Work and Pensions Confirm My Identity scheme. Furthermore, the use of AI and Document Review Technologies, which are the most promising counter-fraud measures available, should be encouraged. In one Serious Fraud Office case, these saved 80 per cent of the costs and time required for an investigation, which settled for £671 million.

However, these programmes rely on high-quality data to operate effectively and their success will also be dependent on improved public and private sector data-sharing practices. The constantly evolving nature of fraud will require continuous investment and commitment from the Government to fighting it.

Chris Greany, a former UK National Police Coordinator for Counter Fraud & Economic Crime described to Policy Exchange the scale of the challenge of public sector fraud as needing a joined up effort with “real bite”  to “recoup lost funds, prevent further crime and deter others from this unlawful and immoral behaviour”. The Government will need to act quickly to prevent fraud scandals emerging from the embers of the Coronavirus crisis.