Skip to main content

Contest: UK Strategy for Countering Terrorism 2023

Volume 736: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on Contest, the United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism 2023.

Yesterday, the Government published an update to our counter-terrorism strategy, Contest. A written ministerial statement was laid alongside the Command Paper in Parliament.

Contest has a clear mission: to reduce the risk from terrorism to the United Kingdom, our citizens and our interests overseas, so that people can go about their lives freely and with confidence. The terrorism threat level, set independently by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, has not changed, but the threat from terrorism is enduring and evolving. Despite a prevalence of lower-sophistication attacks in the UK, the threat we see today and in the coming years is more diverse, dynamic and complex: a domestic terrorist threat that is less predictable, harder to detect and harder to investigate; a persistent and evolving threat from Islamist terrorist groups overseas; and an operating environment in which accelerating advances in technology provide both opportunity for, and risk to, our counter-terrorism efforts.

It is within that context that we judge that the risk from terrorism is once again rising. By far the biggest terrorist threat comes from Islamist terrorism. It accounts for 67% of attacks since 2018, and about three quarters of MI5’s caseload. The remainder of the UK terrorist threat is largely driven by extreme right-wing terrorism, which accounts for approximately 22% of attacks since 2018 and about a quarter of the MI5 caseload. Our counter-terrorism response will be even more agile in the face of an evolving threat—more integrated, so that we can bring the right interventions to bear at the right time to reduce risk, and more aligned with our international allies, to ensure that we continue to deliver together against that common threat.

Through this updated strategy, we will place greater focus on using all the levers of the state to identify and intervene against terrorists. We will build critical partnerships with the private sector and international allies to keep the public safe, and we will harness the opportunities presented by new technology. There is no greater duty for this Government than to keep the British people safe, and I will not rest in delivering that mission.

The Contest update has very much been a sobering reminder of the threats we face. Our agencies, to which we are so grateful, have prevented 39 late-stage terror attacks in the past six years. The majority of them, as we have heard, were Islamist-motivated, with extreme right-wing terrorism making up the remainder. However, we are concerned by certain omissions from the update, and the disparity between the threats outlined and the responses proposed.

On artificial intelligence, the update recognises the challenge, saying that

“terrorists are likely to exploit the technology”.

We have called for new offences criminalising the training of chatbots to radicalise individuals, but concrete measures are woefully lacking in the update, so how are the Government going to tackle that? The update says that the threat from Daesh and al-Qaeda is on an “upward trajectory”, so can the Home Secretary tell us how we are working urgently with international partners to mitigate that risk?

The desperate situation in prisons is laid bare. With four of the nine terrorist attacks in the UK since 2018 perpetrated by serving or recently released prisoners, we are told individuals may develop

“a terrorist mindset…during their time in prison.”

Not only are we failing to de-radicalise people in prison, but people are being radicalised in prison, and failures to manage those prisoners on release are putting the public at risk. Can the Home Secretary tell the House how many terrorist prisoners are due to be released in the next 12 months, and whether every one of them has been engaged in intensive de-radicalisation programmes and assessed for terrorism prevention and investigation measures?

Finally, perhaps the most glaring omission is on state threats, despite the fact that the director general of MI5 made it clear in his annual threat update in November that Iran is

“the state actor which most frequently crosses into terrorism.”

In February, our agencies said that they had to disrupt 15 attempted kidnap and assassination attempts here in the UK. Remarkably, the report makes no reference to the resources, the approach or the powers necessary to respond to that form of terrorism. The Home Secretary knows that we have advocated for proscription powers on multiple occasions, so why do the Government continue to reject those proposals and why have they not finally proscribed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I know that she recognises the gravity and the sensitivity of this subject, and she will share my view that we must face the threat of terrorism united as one unified country.

Since March 2017, our agencies and law enforcement have disrupted 39 late-stage terrorist plots in the UK, as the hon. Lady said. These have included the targeting of public figures such as Members of Parliament, specific communities and events such as Pride, and public locations such as iconic sites in London. I want to put on record my profound thanks and admiration of all the professionals who work day in, day out under pressure for all they do to keep the British people safe every day. Many of us will never know the lengths to which they go in applying their expertise, dedication and public service attitude to put our safety above their own.

I am very proud of this Government’s track record when it comes to keeping the country safe. As Martyn’s law makes its way through Parliament, I expect the Opposition to be responsible and to support us in our efforts to provide this extra layer of protection for venues. We have seen significant reforms in our National Security Bill, now enacted. The hon. Lady mentioned terrorism in prisons. We take a very tough approach to managing terrorist prisoners, limiting their interactions with each other and restricting their communications. We have developed a new counter-terrorism assessment and rehabilitation centre for expert psychologists and specialist staff to research and implement specialist programmes to draw offenders away from terrorism. Indeed, the independent review of Prevent made extensive recommendations related to those in custody.

The hon. Lady referred to the use of artificial intelligence and technology. Foundation-model AIs undoubtedly hold vast potential, and they are crucial to the UK’s mission to become a science and tech superpower, but there are still many unknowns with this class of technology and many other forms of emerging technology that pose significant, but not yet fully understood, public safety and national security risks. I am particularly concerned about the rapid development and public deployment of generative large-language models like ChatGPT, and we are alert to the exponential pace of their development, the emergent capabilities which make the exact risks difficult to anticipate or control, and the relative ease with which safeguards can be overwritten. Those at the forefront of these technologies are explicit about the seriousness of the risks if proper safeguards are not developed quickly.

We look forward to promoting and enabling an open and constructive dialogue and deepened collaboration with tech company leaders, industry experts and like-minded nations as we seek to ensure that the gifts of this technology are delivered and that society is protected. Indeed, at the recent Five Eyes security meeting in New Zealand, where I represented the UK, we discussed the emerging hostile use of technology and collaborative ways in which we may work at the international level to mitigate those risks.

To conclude, I am very clear that we need to face the threats united as one country. I hope that the Opposition understand the heavy weight of that responsibility and that we will work together constructively to keep the British people safe.

One of the most effective ways to disrupt, identify and reduce the terrorist threat is to bring together the disparate and disjointed data sources that exist to link organised crime group activity to terrorists. Will my right hon. and learned Friend detail how the Contest strategy will help make that happen?

As I mentioned in my statement yesterday, there is huge interaction—a blurring of the lines, if you like—between terrorist organisations and groups, hostile state actors and serious organised crime groups, acting on a transnational basis with sophisticated and well-resourced networks and a heightened level of elusiveness. That is exactly why our Contest strategy has been refreshed to realign our priorities, resources, technological capabilities and co-ordination across agencies to properly respond in a swift and robust way to these emerging threats.

May I start by expressing my party’s deep gratitude to all those who are working to protect us from despicable terrorist attacks? Of course, our thoughts remain with all those who have suffered as a result of such evil crimes.

On that note, while I welcome the strategy’s focus on victims, may I raise the recent reports of survivors of terrorism who have been deeply upset by poor treatment by the criminal injuries compensation scheme? What discussions has the Home Secretary has had with colleagues about fixing those problems?

The strategy’s commitment to engage across the tech sector is welcome but, like the shadow Minister, I was surprised by its very limited reference to the use of artificial intelligence for radicalisation and instruction. The Windsor castle crossbow attacker is a perfect example of someone being radicalised in that way. Does the Home Secretary believe that legislation is required, and what concrete steps are being taken to address the use of AI in that way?

What extra funding will support the refreshed strategy, especially given the reports that later this year a significant number of convicted terrorists will complete their sentences, which will require the most careful management? The strategy recognises the critical importance of the closest partnership working with the devolved Governments and agencies that have responsibility for delivering various aspect of Contest. Can we have the Home Secretary’s assurances that that close working will continue?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his observations. He talked about support and compensation for victims of terrorism. More can and must be done, which is why the Government are reviewing the support available to better address victims’ needs. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that victims of terrorism get the full compensation to which they are entitled, in line with schemes administered by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Those schemes deliver for victims of terrorism. The truth is that no amount of compensation can ever make up for the ordeal suffered by victims of terror. That is why it is right that survivors get all the support they need, in whatever form it may be required, through the publicly funded CICA, which paid out more than £158 million to victims of violent crime last year alone.

I welcome the update of the strategy. It would be helpful if the Home Secretary told us whether it will get the big tech companies to do more to prevent terrorists from exploiting their platforms—an issue highlighted in the Intelligence and Security Committee report, “Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism”.

The technological aspect of terrorism is very real. Our enemies are using more and more sophisticated tools against us for hostile purposes. That is plain from an intelligence point of view. That is why Contest makes a deliberate point of addressing the technological features of this kind of work. A huge amount of investment and operational capability has been put into mitigating and dealing with that threat, most notably in the form of the counter-terrorism operations centre—a new collaboration centre that I had the honour of visiting recently.

A few weeks ago I met Travis Frain, a founder member of Survivors Against Terror, who explained how his life had been changed forever by the Westminster bridge terrorist attack and how he did not get the support he needed in the aftermath. This week, a survey of 130 survivors of 11 major terrorist incidents found that more than two thirds felt that the compensation scheme overseen by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority was unfair and unreasonable. The Home Secretary talked about a review. It is unacceptable that these people are in that position at the moment. When will the review actually be published?

As I mentioned, there are no words and there is no amount of money that can adequately reflect the pain and suffering experienced by victims of terrorism. That is why it is absolutely right that we provide victims of terrorism with full compensation and the fullest support possible and available to enable them to move forward from these tragic events. As I said, we know that more must be done. That is why we are reviewing the support available. We need to better address victims’ needs through the current schemes and ensure that they are properly meeting the needs of victims.

There are people in Ukraine who found their territory illegally occupied and annexed by Russia, their children disappeared into Russian custody and their land settled by ethnic Russians. Under international law, we recognise the right of victims of the criminal actions of the Russian state to resist. How can we ensure that we do not end up characterising the legal actions by the victims in that conflict, and in other analogous conflicts around the world, as terrorism?

I am very proud of the UK’s track record of supporting Ukraine and the Ukrainians both in Ukraine and abroad through the devastating illegal conflict that Russia and Putin have waged upon them. It is right that we provide military support, it is right that we rolled out an extensive set of sanctions against Russia, and it is right that we continue our international and diplomatic support for Ukrainians.

I add my comments to those of the Home Secretary on our security services and thank them for the work that they do. The Intelligence and Security Committee report last year on right-wing terrorism found that 30% of disrupted plots were from right-wing terrorism, and that they mainly involved young people who aimed to join either the armed forces or the police. We made recommendations on tightening up the vetting of police officers and proscribing membership of right-wing organisations for members of the armed forces. Will the Home Secretary update the House on what progress has been made on those two issues?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to refer to the emerging threat posed by extreme right-wing terrorism. The director general of MI5, in his annual update, referred to the ideologies that are emerging and increasing in activity, and the independent review of Prevent focused on work that can be better done. It is absolutely right that we take robust action. That is why I am acting on the recommendations set out by Sir William Shawcross on upgrading and updating Prevent, so that it better responds to the risk of extreme right-wing terrorism, as well as to the risk posed by Islamist terrorism.

In updating the UK’s counter-terror strategy, what work are the security services doing with UK Border Force to identify those entering the United Kingdom, particularly by irregular means?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Terrorists and those who have malign intent for our nation will exploit all sorts of vulnerabilities, including at the border—that is obvious. That is why the Contest upgrade deals specifically with this issue. We need to further strengthen the UK border as a critical line of defence against terrorism, taking advantage of new immigration tools—detection, targeting and biometric capabilities—to identify and block threats from entering the UK illegally in the first place.

This is a policy area that throws up some of the most difficult cases ever to be found, so I welcome the Home Secretary’s determination to build political consensus and ensure that we work with our strategic allies. Some of the most difficult cases around counter-terrorism involve UK citizens, especially children who were trafficked by ISIS and are currently in north-east Syria. That is an area where we risk becoming an outlier, because all our allies have repatriated their citizens. It risks causing friction between ourselves and our allies. Indeed, we have our own responsibility, given the fact that these are UK citizens who were trafficked. Is there anything in the strategy that will help to tackle those very difficult cases?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to refer to this very regrettable feature of modern day counter-terrorism. Paragraph 26 of the Contest strategy states:

“In recent years there has been a small increase in the number of minors investigated and arrested by Counter Terrorism Police. Most adverse activity conducted by minors has occurred online; over half of under-18s convicted of terrorism offences over the past five years were charged with non-violent offences (the collection or dissemination of terrorist publications).”

It is vital that we are cognisant of this emerging threat, and that we have the right resources, services and professionalism in place to mitigate and intercept the threat at source as soon as possible, but it is clear that wherever criminality has occurred there will be a robust response from the appropriate agencies.

Technology brings huge benefits, but it is also exploited by terrorists. Is my right hon. and learned Friend confident that the updated strategy will ensure that technology companies do far more to prevent their services being used by those who wish us harm and to co-operate with our security and law enforcement services, particularly given the approach that some have taken on encryption and child abuse imagery?

My hon. Friend has spoken about an issue that is close to my heart: tackling online child sexual exploitation, which is rising at an exponential and horrifying pace. About 32 million instances of online child sexual abuse were recorded by the global recording centre last year alone. In this country, we arrest 800 individuals a month involved in this heinous crime, and we safeguard about 1,200 children a month. It is horrifying, and that is why we are taking steps to work constructively with the tech companies. In terms of Contest, I refer him to the extensive sections on page 21 onwards and in other parts of the strategy that talk about the technological aspects, how it is emerging and our actions and response. Notably, our world-leading counter-terrorism operations centre, newly established, will bring together the right data, technology and expertise to investigate and disrupt these types of threats.

I welcome this statement. Although it was much delayed, it was much awaited. One of the key things missing from the strategy is the use of covert human intelligence sources—the people who used to be known as informants to the police. Increasing numbers of people caught under this network are people with mental health issues. Will the Home Secretary provide a detailed account of how many CHISs are used, what the results are and how many of those reported are people suffering with their mental health?

I cannot get into details that relate to operational independence and decisions made by the agencies in live investigations, but what I would say is that I expect all agencies and law enforcement organisations to use the full breadth of powers that we have afforded them.

The current situation, whereby tens of thousands of young men are arriving in small boats on our shores—primarily young men from unstable parts of the world—is frankly an accident waiting to happen. Does the Home Secretary agree that the British people expect our borders to be robustly enforced, and that is just as important when it comes to defending our nation from terrorism as it is for anything else?

A strong border is critical to counter-terrorism. The Contest 2023 strategy clearly sets that out. In the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, the Government revised schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000, expanding powers to prevent illegal entry, including via small boats. Our migration and border system provides a critical opportunity to identify and manage individuals and goods that pose a terrorist concern. That is why rigour and robustness in our borders is essential for national security.

In the Government’s response to the Intelligence and Security Committee’s “Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism” report—I thank the Home Secretary for referring to the scale of that threat earlier in her remarks—they said that

“our counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, remains threat agnostic so that rather than targeting specific ideologies, our tools, powers and overall CT approach can adapt to changing threats while also ensuring our approach is still able to identify and assess what are inherently ideological threats.”

Can I simply ask her to confirm that nothing she has said today and nothing that has been published changes the underlying philosophical basis of how the Contest strategy operates?

As the Contest strategy refresh makes clear, a broad range of ideologies and narratives draw people into supporting terrorism. That includes, as I have said, Islamist terrorism, which is by far the largest proportion of MI5’s case load, but there is also an increasing threat from extreme right-wing terrorism that we must confront, eliminate and do everything in our power to stop. Wherever it comes from, and however people are radicalised into extremist and violent behaviour, it is unacceptable, and we take a robust approach, ultimately, to keeping the British people safe.

In June this year, the borders inspectorate said that not every arrival into the UK at Manston was having security checks done as part of their interview or having their property checked. Can the Home Secretary guarantee now that every arrival is being fully checked, and if not, why not?

Having visited the reception centres at Western Jet Foil and Manston, and having been working closely on ensuring that the right facilities, resources and mechanisms are in place to ensure that those who arrive illegally are appropriately accommodated, I can say that we ensure that those who arrive are checked. They go through biometric checks and any other appropriate checks, and then they are put through our processing centres, generally at Manston. They are then put on a track, effectively, to other onward accommodation if they have an asylum claim. That is the general scheme that we have been carrying out for some time.

The UK police and security services used to conduct more than 600 million real-time security checks on a shared EU platform before we lost access after Brexit. At the time, the Government informed us that we would have access to a shared platform within two or three years. Now, the permanent secretary has advised that we will not have access to a shared dataset until 2027 or 2028. Can the Home Secretary confirm just how much of a damaging effect the loss of this vital intelligence and security mechanism is having on our ability to tackle terrorism and cross-border crime?

I know the hon. Gentleman is on his Brexit bandwagon, or whatever it is, but the reality is that from a security point of view, we have never had stronger collaboration with international partners than today. We have continued to develop our global reach and insight through sustained working with allies. That is particularly with the Five Eyes, where we share an enormous amount of common approach and strategic development, but also with European partners. I have met many of my European counterparts, and we share the common goal of national security. In many instances, the UK is seen among European allies as a leader and a nation valued for its contribution to pan-European national security.

As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), rightly stated, the Government’s update acknowledges that when it comes to AI,

“terrorists are likely to exploit the technology to create and amplify radicalising content, propaganda and instructional materials, and to plan and commit attacks.”

However, there are no concrete plans in the update to address those growing risks. Beyond pointing to the Government’s own Online Safety Bill, which has been delayed yet again and watered down, and other than the rhetoric we have heard today from the Secretary of State, what are the Government actually doing? What concrete plans are in place to tackle this growing problem, because we have seen little to no action thus far?

The hon. Lady obviously has not read the document. If she had, she would see our actions, our achievements and what our plans are. First—I will save her the trouble of reading the document—we are realising the full potential of our newly established, world-leading counter-terrorism operations centre. I do not think she has visited, but I recommend she tries to, because it is an incredibly impressive, world-leading operational centre established recently that brings together the right teams, data and technology to more effectively identify, interrupt and disrupt terrorists. We are also ensuring a broader range of expertise from non-law enforcement interventions to mitigate the evolving terrorist threat. We are maintaining our investment in the critical threat assessment capabilities through the world-class joint terrorism analysis centre. I could go on, but in the interests of time, she would probably do better to read the document first.

The new Contest counter-terrorism strategy mentions that incel threats

“could meet the threshold of terrorist intent or action”.

The person behind the shooting in Plymouth in 2021, where we lost five people, could have had their actions informed by incel culture and violent misogyny. Incel violence currently largely falls out of the scope of all the Prevent strategy tactics. Does the Home Secretary agree that it is now time to develop a cross-Government incel strategy, so that we can not only prevent people from going down that path towards violent misogyny, but help rescue those who are doing so? That would provide a greater level of community safety for women and our entire community, and we would never again see the violence we saw in Plymouth repeated on our streets.

The hon. Gentleman is an incredibly powerful advocate for his constituents. Let me put on record my thoughts and prayers for the loved ones of all of those who were tragically lost or affected. Incel culture is not strictly within the Contest apparatus, but it does need work. I readily accept that it is a violent trend and a radicalising influence that is promoting a culture that is totally at odds with the free, safe and democratic society that we all love and want to cherish. I am happy to speak to him about what further steps we can take as a Government.

In March, the security threat level in Northern Ireland was increased from substantial to severe in the aftermath of the attempted murder of DCI John Caldwell. Since 2016, the additional security funding that the Government provide to the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been flatlining in cash terms at £32 million a year. Will the Home Secretary undertake to review that level of funding to ensure that the PSNI and the Security Service have the tools to continue their good work in combating both dissident republican and loyalist terrorism?

Northern Ireland-related terrorism remains a serious threat, particularly in Northern Ireland. The Contest strategy does not address the threat from Northern Ireland in Northern Ireland; that is managed by a separate strategic approach led by the Northern Ireland Office. At the Home Office, our Contest approach covers the threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism in mainland Great Britain. It is important that we do not decouple those two threats, which are very interlinked. We know that some dissident republican groups continue to carry out terrorist attacks, as the hon. Member referred to, so we need to ensure that all the resources are available, and we want to ensure that we support partners in Northern Ireland so they are readily equipped to mitigate and respond to the threat.

In June, the national security adviser to the Canadian Government—a key Five Eyes member—listed Russia, China and Iran as key state actors that pose a threat to Canadian life. They then added India to that list due to the rise of Hindu nationalist activity specifically targeting Canadian Sikhs. Is that anywhere in the Home Secretary’s thinking on extremism? If not, why not?

As I said, general ideologies are set out in our Prevent approach and our Contest approach. We are actor-agnostic, but we note where these threats are emerging based on a casework analysis, as confirmed by MI5 and other agencies. The predominant threats relate to Islamist terrorism, but of course it is right that there are robust law-enforcement responses for any kind of violence or extremism that meets the criminal threshold.

I welcome very much the Secretary of State’s answers to the questions posed. Further to the question from the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), will she outline what steps have been taken to allocate additional funding to local police forces in areas with higher threat levels such as Northern Ireland, where republican terrorism is a real threat to the democratic process? Bearing in mind that the police budget in Northern Ireland has been cut in real terms in a time of crisis, will she confirm what discussions have taken place with the Chief Constable and the Policing Board to ensure that the commitment to ringfencing funding for the battle against terrorism in all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is maintained?

I made some reference to the specific nature of the threat posed by Northern Ireland-related terrorism. It is clear that it is primarily concentrated and directed against targets in Northern Ireland. I regularly discuss with UK Government colleagues how we can ensure robust defences across the whole piece, but I am happy to see what more can be done through a conversation.

The rapid proliferation of end-to-end encryption and anonymous messaging services allows terrorist groups to communicate freely without the risk of detection or identification. Of course, personal privacy must be upheld for ordinary citizens, so how are the Government looking to work with tech experts to find alternative ways of accessing the communications of members of such groups?

This is something that really does concern me. The proposed roll-out of end-to-end encryption without enabling lawful access or without safeguards will pose a danger not just to national security, but to children and to all our people. It is vital that the technology companies work with us to roll out the available technology—I am confident that it exists—to enable and protect privacy rights, but at the same time to enable law enforcement access and interventions to take place so that we can safeguard children online, prevent radicalisation online and prevent criminality online.