By Andrew Woodcock, Press Association Political Editor
The ability of UK police to tackle serious and organised crime could be “significantly impacted” by a no-deal Brexit, the chief of the National Crime Agency has warned.
NCA director-general Lynne Owens said she was “deeply concerned” that withdrawal from the EU without a deal could deprive UK police of the use of tools like the European Arrest Warrant and the shared Schengen Information System law enforcement database.
Ms Owens also warned that the structure of policing in England and Wales was getting in the way of fighting modern problems like cyber-crime, human trafficking, modern slavery, child abuse and “county lines” operations taking drugs from the cities to smaller towns.
She called for changes to “layer” policing at local, regional and national levels to ensure that all aspects are sufficiently resourced.
Asked about the potential consequences for policing of a no-deal Brexit, Ms Owens told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are working very closely with our policing partners because we are deeply concerned about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit.
“We have been clear from the very beginning that our ability to share intelligence, our ability to jointly investigate – in this world where there are no borders because of technology – could be significantly impacted, particularly through the use of the Schengen Information System, European Arrest Warrants and our ability to deploy overseas.”
She suggested that post-Brexit co-operation which may be favoured by police chiefs in the UK and EU states could be blocked for political reasons.
“Whenever I talk to my operational partners overseas, they see there is two-way benefit, but, of course, we aren’t politicians,” she said.
Ms Owens said the existence of 43 police forces in England and Wales encouraged chief constables to concentrate on responding to concerns over crime at local level.
“We currently have a very localised policing response – 43 police forces in England and Wales, 43 chief constables and 43 police and crime commissioners,” she told Today. “Of course they are focused on the very local.
“My deep fear is that, if we don’t properly understand the threat from serious and organised crime and build new capabilities at regional and national level, we will continue to react to crime, which will take us away from the core principles of the British policing model, which is about prevention.
“I have huge sympathy with my chief constable colleagues. The demand into 101 and 999 has grown exponentially, so it’s inevitable that they will seek to service that command. What is valued in our communities is a visible local policing presence, neighbourhood officers who work ceaselessly to make a difference.”
The NCA recently launched a county lines co-ordination centre to tackle an estimated 2,000 operations distributing drugs from big cities like London and the West Midlands to county towns like Blackpool, York and Telford, said Ms Owens.
“My fear is, if we focus on the very local within these 43 boundaries, we won’t tackle that sort of offending,” she said.
She denied that she was simply lobbying for funding to be switched from county-based police forces to the NCA.
“My fundamental leadership responsibility is to make sure that the whole system is sufficiently funded, from the very local to the regional and the national, so that we can build the right capabilities to defeat the current threats,” she said.
“My plea is that we consider a different way of structure. One solution would be to regionalise the number of police forces, but we know that that doesn’t currently enjoy political support.
“The alternative is to layer capabilities at local, regional and national level, and we are working with police chiefs in the run-up to the spending review to establish what that might look like.”