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Places of Worship: Security Funding

Volume 659: debated on Tuesday 7 May 2019

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about security in our places of worship. Yesterday marked the start of Ramadan, a peaceful time of prayer and reflection. Throughout the holy month, Muslims will come together in mosques to celebrate. The tragic events in Christchurch, New Zealand, will never be far from their minds, and the 51 innocent souls who were slaughtered in March will be remembered in many prayers. A terrorist gunned down these Muslim men, women and children as they prayed. A few weeks later, Christians were massacred by terrorists in Sri Lankan churches as they observed their faith on Easter Sunday. More victims were targeted in hotels, with a total of over 250 lives lost. Just days ago, a gunman stormed a synagogue near San Diego, killing an innocent woman on the last day of Passover. Each one of those atrocities was heartbreaking and tragic, and my thoughts are with every single person who has been affected. I know that the House will join me in condemning these hate-fuelled attacks on our freedom and values.

This slaughter has sent shockwaves through our religious communities. People are understandably worried. Many members of my own family contacted me after Christchurch to seek reassurance. They asked, “Just what are you doing to stop this happening here?” With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to answer that and provide some much-needed reassurance.

There can be no doubt that people have been targeted because of their religion in terrorist attacks around the world, but also in vile hate crimes on the streets of this country—sledgehammer attacks on mosques, a Christian preacher spat at in the street, and a brick thrown through the glass door of a synagogue. I condemn all these attacks with every fibre of my being. No one should be targeted because of what they believe. Everyone, of every faith, deserves the right to observe their religion without fear, and we are doing all we can to ensure that this remains the case in the UK and that our fundamental values are preserved.

Mr Speaker, allow me to update the House on some of the work that is under way to protect our religious freedom. First, I have increased the places of worship protective security fund to £1.6 million for 2019-20—double the amount awarded last year. Expressions of interest are now open for the next round of the fund, which will open in July. Since the scheme launched in 2016, more than £1.5 million has been awarded, with 63 grants to churches, 49 to mosques, five to Hindu temples and 16 to gurdwaras. They have paid for security equipment such as CCTV, security lighting, new locks or fences. Many more places of worship will now benefit after we made it even easier to apply this year, by removing the need to find multiple quotes and contractors. A separate £14 million grant also provides security for Jewish schools and synagogues against terror attacks.

Secondly, a new £5 million fund will provide security training for places of worship across England and Wales. This funding will support the physical security measures provided by the places of worship fund. It will share best practice and help faith organisations to understand how best to protect their worshippers.

Thirdly, we are consulting religious communities on what more can and should be done to help them. We will shortly announce a programme of engagement, to help us understand what they need and how to make it work in a faith setting. This listening exercise will inform how the £5 million security training fund is spent to ensure that it is effective and will help ascertain how we can best protect worshippers.

Fourthly, we are providing immediate help with a Ramadan package of support for mosques. We know that Muslims are anxious for their safety after the atrocity in Christchurch, and that tensions are heightened during religious festivals. So we are supporting Faith Associates to provide security training and advice for the Islamic holy month. Support is being given in 12 workshops around England and Wales, and guidance is being distributed to over 2,000 mosques, community centres and madrassahs.

Finally, our world-class police provide a vital protection role to all places of worship. Patrols near mosques were stepped up following the Christchurch attack to provide much-needed reassurance and the police have increased activity around religious festivals and holy days, including the Ramadan period. Our security services work tirelessly to disrupt all terror threats known to this country. This includes tackling the growing threat from the far right, with more than four such terrorist plots disrupted since the beginning of 2017. We are also using a range of other powers to tackle the threat of terrorism and extremism in this country. Our robust hate crime legislation has seen far-right influencers jailed for a range of offences, including religiously aggravated harassment. As Home Secretary, I can exclude foreign nationals from entering the UK if I believe that their presence would not be conducive to the public good—a power that I can and do use to stop hate preachers stirring up tension here. I have used that power eight times since I became Home Secretary.

Our Prevent and Building a Stronger Britain Together programmes work with and through local communities to challenge terrorist or extremist ideologies from Islamist to the far right.

Together, this comprehensive package of support provides protection for all our places of worship. We know that there are deep and genuine concerns in religious communities; we know that people are feeling vulnerable and scared, but have no doubt that I am listening to these concerns and we are responding. The diversity of this country and our shared values of tolerance and respect are what make us truly great. We will never allow those who seek to divide us to win. The freedom to practise any religion or none is a cornerstone of our democratic society. People must have the peace of mind to worship without fear, and I am doing everything within my power to make this possible. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Home Secretary for prior sight of his statement. The Opposition welcome his statement in principle, particularly the Ramadan package. We are aware that there is particular fear in some of our communities as we enter the period of Ramadan. However, we reserve the right to return to the subject as the detail of implementation becomes clear.

Across the world we are seeing a rise in terror attacks especially on people in their place of worship. The House should contemplate what it means to be gathered together to pray to your God and find yourself a victim of murder and terrorism. In Sri Lanka we saw more than 200 people die, including hundreds of people at Easter services in Christian churches. We all saw the images of the terrorist entering the church with the rucksack on his back, patting a small child on the head and then proceeding to blow up the innocent worshippers.

This followed the terror attacks in Christchurch on Muslim worshippers, which claimed the lives of 50 people and injured 40 more. The attack was livestreamed on Facebook. Most recently, a gunman stormed a synagogue, killing an innocent woman on the last day of Passover. The concern must be that, in this era of online, when someone can literally livestream their terror, there is a danger of copycat incidents. That is one of the things that has inspired fear in different communities.

On this side of the House, we want to make it clear that these terror attacks are murderous and vile, whether they come from admirers of al-Qaeda or ISIS or from admirers of tinpot Adolf Hitlers. As we move towards the European elections, sadly, we may well see a rise in far right activity, which may seek to mirror some of the terrorist attacks that we have seen. That is why we believe that this statement is timely and to be welcomed.

These terror attacks spread ripples of violence throughout communities and countries. The Metropolitan police report that racist and religious hate crimes in London hit their highest levels in a year immediately following the Christchurch mosque shootings. Tell MAMA, the Muslim community organisation, said that there was an almost sixfold increase in reports to its monitoring service immediately after the Christchurch attack. Separately, the Community Security Trust also reports rising incidents. My own Haredi Jewish community in Stamford Hill have seen a steep rise in attacks; sadly, they do not always report them to the police, although I am working with them to encourage them to go to the authorities after all such incidents. There have been similar reports from police forces and monitoring community organisations across the country.

The proposals that the Home Secretary has announced are both timely and appropriate, but we will follow up some of the measures. For instance, the Opposition will wish to know where the worship protection security fund is being allocated, and which organisations have applied for and been awarded the funding. My experience is that sometimes those who obtain Government funding are better at putting in applications, rather than necessarily being the organisations in most need.

We will want to know about where the £5 million fund to provide security training for places of worship is allocated—that the money is going to the appropriate communities in appropriate parts of the country. We will be interested to hear from Ministers about their consultations with religious communities and will want to know who is able to access and benefit from the Ramadan package of support for mosques. We are not accusing Ministers of bad faith, but we are saying that all too often, when it comes to allocating such funding, the people who know about it and are skilled at making applications benefit, although they may not necessarily be the most vulnerable and needy communities.

We welcome the fact that the police are providing vital protection to all places of worship, although I say gently to the Home Secretary that the situation is not helped by the cuts in police numbers since 2010. Our main point is that nobody should have to go to their place of worship and feel fear. Nobody should feel that horrible incidents such as we have seen internationally may be reflected in their mosque, church or gurdwara. We also say that some Muslim community centres are next to mosques; we hope that they can get some help, support and protection also.

The terrorist incidents that we have been seeing are both frightening and tragic. We as a House must assure vulnerable communities of our intent to support them, whether financially or in other ways. I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, but he can be assured that we will be following up how it actually unfolds in practice.

I thank the right hon. Lady for the tone of her remarks and for her support. I think it is reassuring for members of the public watching or listening to know that everyone in this House is united in the determination to protect people in all places of worship, whatever their faith, in every way we can. I very much welcome her comments.

The right hon. Lady rightly started by condemning the recent terrorist attacks around the world—in Christchurch, Sri Lanka and San Diego. She was also right to make a link between those attacks and what she called the ripple effect—the rise in recorded hate crime that we have sadly seen here in our own country. I know she shares our absolute determination to ensure we do everything we can where hate crime is reported. People must always feel that they can go ahead and report that crime. Letting the police know enables them to investigate it and take action.

The right hon. Lady said she would follow up on the package, and I hope she does. That is exactly what I would expect of her and I very much welcome it. She is very good at following up on things. That will help us, working together, to ensure we are doing all we can to support our communities. She was right to raise the issue of how we can ensure the fund is allocated as quickly and as efficiently as possible. That is why I referred in my statement to changes I am making to the application rules. In the past the fund has, I think, required at least three estimates for putting up CCTV from different certified contractors. I think we can simplify the rules. We are doing that and it will help to make it more straightforward.

The right hon. Lady raised the £5 million that I announced for training. I think we have a collective desire to ensure it is utilised quickly, properly and efficiently, and that all communities and all faith groups feel they have access and support. That is exactly why we have already started the consultation with faith groups, community representatives and others to make sure we are listening to them about the best way to use the £5 million.

All of us in this House share a determination to ensure that people in our country can worship without fear. We will do everything we can to make that a reality.

I very much welcome the Home Secretary’s statement and the action he has taken on this very important matter. This issue is not just about buildings. People of faith live out their faith day in, day out in their homes and in their communities, so will he confirm that he will continue to do all he can to ensure we remain an open and tolerant society, and that the principles of freedom of faith, freedom of worship and freedom of speech will continue to be upheld for people of every faith?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. He is right to highlight that this is not just about buildings—bricks and mortar—but the environment that people feel exists for them to practise and talk about their faith. The Prevent programme is there to safeguard young people against being drawn into extremism. There are a number of groups that both my Department and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government work with to try to create the all-important environment that gives people the freedom and security to practise their faith, no matter what that faith is.

I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of his statement. I join him and the shadow Home Secretary in condemning the hate-filled attacks he referred to. I echo what they both said about the sanctity of places of worship. Everybody should be able to practise and observe their religion without fear. Any sensible measure that will help to make that happen is to be welcomed. Listening to what our religious communities need is paramount, so I welcome in particular what he said about consultation. It is a tragedy that we are having to have this discussion on how to protect places of worship in 2019. One reason we are having to do so is that online space has been ruthlessly exploited by those who would peddle hate and encourage such attacks.

The SNP welcomes the fact that the Government have published a White Paper on online harms, but we cannot wait for legislative reform. It seems that we are still struggling to come up with a complete and co-ordinated response that addresses how to police online hate. It is a question partly of resourcing, partly of improving co-ordination—both internationally and among the police forces of the United Kingdom—and partly of drawing on expertise. Does the Home Secretary accept that we need more of all those things?

The ongoing review of the Prevent strategy is much needed. Some of what happens through the strategy is effective, but more can be done to build community trust and increase the strategy’s effectiveness. One criticism that has been made is that the strategy has never been fully tailored to addressing the dangers posed by the far right. Can the Home Secretary assure me that all the expertise and knowledge available are being fully exploited so that strategies to tackle the far right are having the maximum possible impact?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of online space and how to ensure that we do all we can to stop online platforms being used to preach hate. I am glad that he welcomes our White Paper, which I think it is fair to say is groundbreaking among all countries with respect to taking action—many countries are looking at how we are planning to handle the issue. The duty of care will make a difference.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to make the point that we cannot wait. Naturally, the consultation and legislation will take time, but it is good to see that some social media companies are already responding. I met several of them with fellow G7 Interior Ministers just last month, and they have pledged to take further action after the attack in Christchurch. That is good to see; I encourage them to do all they can now instead of waiting for legislation.

We are pleased to be having a review of the Prevent programme, because such independent reviews can help to build community confidence. It is also important for the review to look at how to stop far-right extremism; I can tell the hon. Gentleman that last year almost a quarter of Prevent programme referrals related to far-right extremism.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for his commitment to the security of places of worship. Will he join me in thanking our police and security services? They are the ones who work day in, day out to prevent attacks and we owe them a great deal. In other countries, police and security services are often used to clamp down on religious freedom; in our country, they are there to uphold it—and they do.

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in commending our police and security services for their invaluable work. We must remember just how many lives they have saved. It is already public knowledge that since the beginning of 2017, they have prevented or foiled 17 terrorist attacks, including four by the far right, that would almost certainly have led to loss of life. We owe a great debt to our security services and police.

I thank the Home Secretary for his statement and for his reassurance at the time of Ramadan and at a time when we have seen such awful attacks on churches, mosques and synagogues around the world. He is right to be very clear that no one should ever be in fear as a result of following their faith.

Will the Home Secretary clarify whether the funding that he announced today is a further development from the announcements in March? Will he say what is being done to address online radicalisation and online religious hate crimes? The Select Committee on Home Affairs has heard some very concerning evidence about those matters, both in our private session this afternoon and in public sessions over previous weeks. In particular, what action is he aware of to tackle the closed Facebook groups that still have huge numbers of members and about which there are real concerns that religious hate crimes are being pursued?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments. She asks whether the funding is new, further to what was announced soon after the atrocity in Christchurch. The £1.6 million for places of worship is not new, although there is more detail available on it today; I also announced the £5 million for training at the time. What is new today is the Ramadan package.

Like other colleagues, the right hon. Lady expressed her concern about how online platforms are being used. In particular, she mentioned Facebook. When legislation is in place, it will naturally be easier to take action. However, as I have said, there is action that online platforms can take today, including on closed groups. There has been a welcome increase in engagement, but I do not feel that it has been enough. I think more can be achieved by working with our international partners, who are taking this matter seriously.

I welcome the statement. The Home Secretary will be unsurprised to learn that I welcome the Ramadan package, as I was one of over 90 colleagues who wrote on behalf of our mosques to ask for extra protection during the holy month. I very much appreciate the announcement.

As the Secretary of State for Education is on the Treasury Bench, may I also raise the concerns that my constituents have expressed about safety around schools? In particular, Muslim mothers in traditional dress are highly visible as they collect or drop off children and are often vulnerable to abuse and hate attacks. Will the Home Secretary work with his colleague to advise and support schools to ensure that children and parents are safe whenever they attend school premises?

I support what the hon. Lady said about the Ramadan package and the work that she has done with her community and others to raise the issue. She is also right to raise the issue of schools. I mentioned in my statement that there is £14 million of support for the Jewish community, as there should be. Most of that is for Jewish schools. It is right that we take a fresh look at other schools and religious establishments where people of certain faiths gather. Schools and community centres would be included in that. I have asked my officials for further advice to make sure that we look at this issue again in the light of the recent terrorist attacks that we have seen internationally. I know that the Secretary of State for Education shares my determination to make sure that we are doing all that we can by working together.

I thank the Home Secretary strongly for his statement, especially in the light of the horrific attacks on mosques in Christchurch, churches across Sri Lanka and the synagogue in San Diego. I strongly welcome his words on hate crime, on which we need to take more action. Will he confirm for the House that all faith communities across the UK will be eligible to apply for this package of funding and support? Will account be taken of specific threats against particular communities, such as the Jewish community or the Ahmadi Muslim community, when applications are made?

Yes, I can confirm all those points for the right hon. Gentleman. On the places of worship scheme, the £5 million for security training is available to all faiths. I encourage any faith group or organisation that feels that that could help to apply. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned different parts of the Muslim community. We want to make sure that we consult all different viewpoints in each faith and take their concerns into account.

I too welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. I align myself with his words and those of the shadow Home Secretary against the murderous, vile, horrific, cowardly attacks against our faith communities. The thoughts and prayers of Members of this House continue to be with those who tragically lost their lives—men, women and children.

I want clarity on the Ramadan package in particular. As the Home Secretary knows, the holy month of Ramadan has begun. Many Muslims watching this statement will naturally be very anxious about the security of their mosques and other places during this holy month. Given that we only have a matter of days, how will the Ramadan package work in practice? How quickly will the money and security be available to those faith places?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. On the Ramadan package in particular, we are working with an organisation called Faith Associates, which has experience in this area. It is planning to hold a series of workshops across England and Wales with firms and in the community, and is also working on guidance that will be issued to the 2,000 mosques, Muslim schools and community groups. That is the first part of the package, but we want to align it with the other parts of what I have announced today. If as a result of that engagement an organisation feels that it needs to apply for enhanced security, we will consider it as part of the places of worship scheme, and if it feels that it could benefit from the training package, we will consider that as well.

There is huge religious diversity in my constituency. Concern has been expressed not only about local incidents but, obviously, about the global terror incidents that we have seen. There has been some concern about the length of time between March and the availability of the new funding in July. Given what the Home Secretary has just said about the Ramadan package and given that we are already in the month of Ramadan, will he tell us whether any of those workshops have taken place yet, and whether, to his knowledge, that guidance has been distributed?

I remain deeply concerned about the neo-Nazi, extreme-right organisations that are targeting communities throughout the United Kingdom, especially Muslim and Jewish communities. Can the Home Secretary update me on the organisation System Resistance Network, which has been active in my south Wales constituency? It is simply an offshoot of National Action, and I have called for it to be proscribed.

The hon. Gentleman has asked me specifically about the workshops in the Ramadan package, and about the guidance. If he will allow me, I will write to him, because I do not have the information to hand. As for the proscription of groups, whatever type of terrorism or extremism they preach, we take that incredibly seriously. The hon. Gentleman will know that ours was the first Government to proscribe a far-right organisation, National Action. If any proscribed organisation comes up with aliases or tries to get around the rules, we take that very seriously as well.

I thank the Home Secretary for what he has said this afternoon.

I encourage all places of worship in my constituency, including churches and mosques, to access this money, but on Saturday we will have our third Big Iftar in the town square in Batley. What training would there be for a public event like that, and how swiftly could someone who applied for it gain access to it?

The £5 million training fund was announced in the week after the atrocity in Christchurch, and we are trying to make it available as soon as possible. During our early discussions with some members of the community, we talked about what would be the best way to use that fund, and how it should be focused. The hon. Lady asked me about a specific event that will take place very soon. I gathered that she would attend that event, or had been invited. I think it is great that Members of Parliament are supporting iftars around the country. I will check on whether the training will be available in time for the event in the hon. Lady’s constituency, and if she will allow me, I will write to her.

The Home Secretary’s package is welcome, but he will know that the best way to prevent attacks is to ensure that we have strong, intelligence-led policing. What is his view of the capacity of police forces to engage further in the assessment of potential far-right and terrorist activity? In particular, will he look at the issue of closed Facebook groups, which was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)? In those groups, people continue to communicate with each other but the content cannot be seen by the police or the outside world, which can lead to attacks.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the issue of closed groups on social media—the more private groups—is being taken seriously, and is being looked at. He also asked about intelligence. As he will know, the gathering of intelligence on potential terrorist activities is led by Counter Terrorism Policing, a national policing command working with police forces across the country, together with the domestic Security Service. Its budget has been increased significantly over the last three to four years, and it remains an absolute priority to ensure that it has all the resources that it needs to gather that intelligence.

The London Borough of Redbridge has one of the most diverse communities in the country, with gurdwaras, Hindu temples, mosques, Buddhist viharas and churches of all kinds. We also have a very active faith forum. Will the Home Secretary encourage his officials to do more to pursue a policy of interfaith dialogue and co-operation because, ultimately, it is through understanding and co-operation that we will deal with these problems?

I strongly agree. It is important to point out the work the hon. Gentleman does as the representative of the local community through the faith forum, and the work of organisations that both my Department and my former Department, the Communities Department, have supported. In my Department, the Building a Stronger Britain Together programme supports over 50 different projects across the country, many of which focus on promoting interfaith dialogue, which is incredibly important to stop hate crimes in future.

The Prevent strategy is incredibly important for our counter-terrorism and counter-extremism work, but it is right that we periodically review it. The review of Prevent that is taking place now is important to learn lessons to see whether improvements can be made. But it also helps to build confidence in the whole strategy.

On a practical, basic level, one of the most important ways of ensuring security is to make sure that places of worship are adequately staffed with people in positions of authority who can be alert to threats, so will the Secretary of State urgently review his decision to prevent ministers of religion from applying for tier 5 religious worker visas, which is already putting huge pressure on Christian churches and other faith communities ensuring that they have an adequate supply of cover for ministers over the summer?

We are absolutely right to have a visa route for religious workers, which as the hon. Gentleman has identified is the tier 5 route, and it is important for us to make sure that at all times it is working appropriately. I think it is. If the hon. Gentleman thinks improvements can be made, I will be happy to hear them.

I listened carefully to what the Home Secretary said. I am a former parliamentary church warden at St Margaret’s and a lay canon at Wakefield cathedral, and of course I know from recent reports that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world at the moment. I spoke to fellow worshippers at my church on Sunday. They were very concerned about security of religion and security of churches and meetings. Does the Secretary of State agree that we have a tradition of open churches and open mosques, with people wandering in and perhaps saying quiet prayers during the day, and open access? Can we make sure we get the balance right? When there was terrorism that pinpointed aircraft, there was an immediate reaction, and a great deal of money flowed into security and protection. I do not see the urgency in the Home Secretary’s message to the House today that there is a real, imminent threat to religious worship in this country.

First, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of Christians who are being persecuted worldwide. That is why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was right to appoint the Bishop of Truro to look into this and report back to the House. There has been an interim report and there will be a full report later this year. The non-governmental organisation Open Doors estimates that there are almost 245 million persecuted Christians around the world, which shows the seriousness of this issue. The hon. Gentleman is also right to make the point about open churches and open mosques. In my own constituency I have seen churches that want to welcome anyone of any faith to come in and have a cup of tea and to meet people and members of the community. It is important that that is maintained. If it is not, the terrorists win. We must not let that happen.

I, too, would welcome clarity on the application criteria and on the allocation of funds. I know that Ramadan has only just started, but may I gently say to the Home Secretary that it would have been useful to know about the Ramadan fund prior to Ramadan? Finally, would he consider extending the criteria for the security fund to include such things as religious after-school clubs and madrassahs, which are not covered by the existing criteria but could be equally vulnerable?

The hon. Lady makes some important suggestions. This is exactly why we have launched the consultation already. We have been talking to members of various faith groups and communities and listening to them to find out how we can ensure that the existing funds are well targeted and made as easy to access as possible, as well as to learn whether more needs to be done.

There is a shortage of dedicated prayer space for Muslim communities, especially in London, where land and buildings are expensive, and Friday prayers often take place in community buildings, which, by definition, are open and therefore more vulnerable. Will the money, the training and the workshops that the Home Secretary has talked about be available in those circumstances where there is no dedicated place of worship?

The whole point of this funding is to ensure that it works for the communities and faith groups that it is intended to help. It must be flexible enough to try to meet those needs. That is exactly why we are working with and consulting faith groups to ensure that those needs are met.

I very much welcome the commitment made by the Home Secretary. Hate crimes based on religion were at record levels last year, partly due to antisemitism and to Islamophobic incidents. While security is absolutely necessary, I believe that there is a need for a two-pronged approach, so can he tell the House what has been done to promote freedom of religious belief more generally, so that there would be no need for extra security at places of worship?

I think the hon. Gentleman speaks for every Member of this House, and I wish we did not have to have a statement like this today because none of us felt that we needed to provide protection for places of worship. Sadly, that is not the case and I know he agrees that we are absolutely right to focus on this. At the same time, we need to continue to ensure that our laws and regulations and the environment for religious worship are as strong as they can be, and I hope that today’s announcement will help to give reassurance to people of all faiths that, where protection is needed, it will be provided.