The decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union is likely to be the biggest political event of our lifetimes. Of course, some things never change: it’s raining in June, there was a muddy Glastonbury and England has been knocked out of an international football tournament. Nevertheless, for all that is constant in our national life, this vote will affect all of us in significant ways.
What will be the impact on policing?
First, Brexit is shaking the foundations of our political system. As I write the odds on who will succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister are fluctuating wildly and the Labour party is imploding before our eyes. It would be foolish to predict at this stage how this will end. But clearly many of the political parameters within which the police have operated for years will change. The traditional party system may fragment, the United Kingdom may break up and there are huge implications for the Northern Ireland peace process.
Second, this political explosion has shaken the world economy and is likely to require a significant fiscal adjustment by the UK government. The guarantees made to the police service in the spending review of a flat cash budget over this parliament will now be revisited, most likely in the autumn statement. Although it is very early to predict the hit to the economy, the Economist Intelligence Unit foresees a 1% contraction in 2017, an 8% decline in investment and a 3% decline in private consumption. The result will be higher unemployment, increased social transfers and lower tax returns. The fiscal deficit will grow and further cuts to the police budget look likely.
Third, the political tumult has led to a rise in social tensions that the police will have to manage both in the short and longer term. The degree of political polarisation during the referendum seems to have led to a horrifying increase in acts of racist, religious and xenophobic abuse. The police online hate crime reporting facility True Vision has seen a 57 per cent rise in reports since the Brexit vote. In the longer term if, for example, a UK government were to compromise on the question of EU citizens’ access to the UK labour market in order to secure a trade deal, there is clearly the potential for a voter backlash on immigration, with worrying implications for community cohesion.
Fourth, the legislative framework in which the police service operates will change. Focusing just on crime and justice we will lose the European Arrest Warrant making it harder to bring suspects back to the UK to face justice and the European Supervision Order which allows suspects to be released on bail to their place of residence. We would also on the face of it lose our current framework of European law enforcement cooperation through Europol, cooperation essential to tackling threats such as paedophile and terrorist networks. We could be pulled out of EU wide information sharing arrangements around DNA, fingerprint, vehicle registration, criminal records and wanted or missing persons. It is feasible that all of this could be retained as part of the renegotiation process, but it will now be contingent on that renegotiation.
Finally, the Leave campaign made much of the fact that by regaining control of our borders’ we would be safer. Putting aside the facts that we were never part of Shengen and we were part of information sharing arrangements around wanted people, it is unclear to what degree the UK will now withdraw from freedom of movement. There is likely to be a big trade-off between being allowed access to the single market with all the economic benefits entailed and gaining greater control over borders and immigration from the EU.
Taking a step back, post-Brexit it is impossible and unviable for the UK to somehow pull up an imaginary drawbridge and retreat from the world. The police know this better than anyone. With so much crime now taking place digitally across borders, keeping people safe in Britain has to involve unprecedented levels of cooperation between law enforcement in different countries. We will now have to renegotiate how we do this but do it we must.