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Counterterrorism Policy: Syria and Iraq

Volume 760: debated on Monday 2 March 2015

Statement

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in answer to an Urgent Question in the other place.

“Mr Speaker, as the Government have made clear repeatedly, the threat we face from terrorism is grave and it is growing. The House will appreciate that I cannot comment on operational matters and individual cases, but the threat level in the United Kingdom, which is set by the independent Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, is at severe. This means that a terrorist attack is highly likely and could occur without warning.

The Government have consistently and emphatically advised against all travel to Syria and parts of Iraq. Anyone who travels to those areas is putting themselves in considerable danger, and the impact that such a decision can have on families and communities can be devastating.

The serious nature of the threat we face is exactly why the Government have been determined to act. We have protected the counterterrorism policing budget, up to and including 2015-16, and increased the budget for the security and intelligence agencies. In addition, we have provided an additional £130 million to strengthen counterterrorism capabilities and help to address the specific threat from ISIL.

We have taken significant steps to ensure that the police and security services have the powers and capabilities that they need. Last year, we acted swiftly to protect vital capabilities which allow the police and security services to investigate serious crime and terrorism, and to clarify the law in respect of interception for communications service providers.

This year, we have introduced the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. This has provided the police with a power to seize a passport at the border temporarily, during which time they will be able to investigate the individual concerned—and I can confirm that this power has been used. The Act has created a temporary exclusion order that allows for the managed return to the UK of a British citizen suspected of involvement in terrorist activity abroad. It has strengthened the existing TPIM regime so that, among other measures, subjects can be made to relocate to another part of the country, and it has enhanced our border security for aviation, maritime and rail travel, with provisions relating to passenger data, no-fly lists, and security and screening measures.

Since its national rollout in April 2012, over 2,000 people have been referred to Channel, the Government’s programme for people vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism, many of whom might have gone on to be radicalised or to fight in Syria. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act has now placed Channel on a statutory basis, and it has also placed our Prevent work on a statutory basis, which will mean that schools, colleges, universities, prisons, local government and the police will have the duty to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. Already, since 2012, local Prevent projects have reached over 55,000 people and helped young people and community groups understand and challenge extremist narratives, including those of ISIL.

In addition to this work, and alongside the checks that we have already conducted on a significant number of passengers leaving the UK, we have committed to reintroducing exit checks, and arrangements to do so will be in place by April 2015. These will extend our ability to identify persons of interest from a security, criminal, immigration or customs perspective. As the Prime Minister stated last week, the Transport Secretary and I will be working with airlines to put proportionate arrangements in place to ensure that children who are at risk are properly identified and questioned.

The Government are taking robust action. But we have been clear that tackling the extremist threat we face is not just the job of the Government, the police and the security services. It needs everyone to play their part. It requires educational institutions, social media companies, communities, religious leaders and families to help protect vulnerable people from being drawn into radicalisation and to confront this poisonous ideology. If we are to defeat this appalling threat and ideology, we must all work together”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the answer to the shadow Home Secretary.

In our debates on the counterterrorism Bill, we referred on several occasions to the 600 or so British citizens who have travelled to Syria to join the conflict. Each of those 600 has somehow come into contact with extremists and been radicalised. When this Government came to power, they revoked the relocation orders that removed individuals from terrorist networks to disrupt those networks. They took that action against professional advice. Do the Government now accept that the removal of relocation orders made it harder to disrupt terrorist networks, particularly those in parts of London?

Given that the Government advice is not to travel to Syria, we all find it absolutely incredible that three 15 year-old schoolgirls were able to make that journey, taking over 30 hours, without any intervention. When were the authorities in Turkey notified? Was it really three days later and, if so, why did it take so long? What communications were there with the British embassy in Turkey and what action was taken by the embassy to try to locate the young girls? Did anyone think of just checking the bus station? What measures are now being put in place to prevent this happening again?

My Lords, the noble Baroness asked about the control orders. She will be aware that they related to a different time. The threat which has come from people travelling to Syria has gathered pace over the past couple of years. The threat level has increased. There was also concern, which we discussed at length during the passage of the counterterrorism Bill, about the orders being whittled away by the courts. We felt that we needed to introduce a new measure, the TPIM, which is more effective and has a higher threshold. That has been more effective in the location element. On the noble Baroness’s point about the removal of the orders being against professional advice, the Home Secretary discussed the proposal with the authorities before the decision was taken. They accepted it at that point, just as they are now recommending that the measure is reintroduced given the renewed threat that we have faced.

I know that the issue of how on earth this could happen with the three young girls has caused immense distress to everyone. It is the subject of an ongoing investigation. The account of the series of events that is coming from the authorities in Istanbul is vigorously challenged by the Metropolitan Police. It informed the Turkish embassy on the very day that it was alerted to the children having gone missing. However, rather than my going further on that, I would be grateful if the noble Baroness could bear with me in allowing the investigation currently under way to take its course.

My Lords, apart from physical measures, does my noble friend agree that it is fundamentally important to understand the motivation of young people who are drawn to fight in Syria and to disseminate a counter-narrative to the persuasion to which so many of them seem to be subject?

Absolutely, and that is the vital role of Prevent and Channel. I think it is also vital to engage all communities through putting that on a statutory footing and to engage the religious communities. I am pleased that my noble friend Lord Ahmad is beside me; he is engaging particularly with Muslim communities which are as appalled as we are at what is happening, so-called in the name of their faith, which they have absolutely nothing to do with. We get that message and we want to communicate it to as many people as possible.

I welcome the Channel and Prevent programmes. Can the Minister tell us what assessment has been made of their success? They are very new and are crucial to change. Do we have inspections? Is Ofsted equipped to inspect such a programme? It is the key to ensuring that our children are safe., and I would be grateful to know whether any of that has been undertaken.

Prevent is subject to the Prevent co-ordinators in local areas. The regional higher education Prevent co-ordinators are run out of BIS. They are in charge of overseeing the quality when it comes to universities. There is talk in the consultation document of a possible role for an outside body to inspect their effectiveness, such as the Higher Education Funding Council, but at the moment it rests with those organisations in the 30 key priority areas for Prevent.

My Lords, while I am entirely sympathetic to the Government’s intentions, does the Minister recognise that some individuals may wish to go to Iraq and Syria to oppose rather than support Islamic State? I am sure your Lordships will be aware of last week’s tragic and comprehensive destruction of the museum in Mosul. That cultural vandalism was accompanied by the abduction of 220 Assyrian Christians, with the intention of obliterating Christianity and the memory of it. It is already reported that some people have travelled to the conflict zone to defend Christians. What is the Minister’s advice for those living in the United Kingdom with family in the area who may be tempted to travel to fight for their protection?

The right reverend Prelate raises a very serious and sensitive point. I would say very carefully that whatever your perspective on the crisis in Syria, our recommendation is that you do not travel. There are other international agencies which are doing incredible work in trying to bring peace and protect individuals and particular groups in that area. We should give them our full support without adding further to the difficulties by introducing independent people into that very complex and dangerous theatre of terrorism.

Does my noble friend accept that there are many people who are caused great pain by some of the comments made in the newspapers, particularly those who have been responsible for the education of some of these young people? Perhaps he heard the headmistress of the school which one famous character attended. Will the Minister do all he can to stop people pointing the finger at those who have done a job, tried to do it as well as possible and are now left in this awful position of being blamed for something that has nothing to do with them and that they could not have prevented?

My noble friend is absolutely right. I am sure that whenever we see a horrific crime committed by an individual, every head teacher wonders if they could have done more. That is in the nature of the educational professionals that we have.

I am afraid that there are some people who have that sadistic, vile, criminal bent within them. That reinforces the fact that what we are talking about here is not any ideological or religious struggle. It is pure and simple criminality—and in the case of that particular individual, murderous criminality. It is a tragedy for the family and people who know them, but we should not blame ourselves for what an individual had responsibility for and should have controlled himself.

Does the Minister agree that there is something absurd about the security services being blamed in any way for what has happened where people may or may not have gone to Syria to fight for ISIL? Instead of criticising the security services, which have a huge job not only in detecting or identifying people who might be involved in this kind of terrorism but all other kinds of terrorism at the moment, we should be giving full support to them. Is it not completely unrealistic to think that everybody who is followed or identified by the security services should somehow be locked up? There is no prison system yet invented that would be capable of identifying and imprisoning all those who might conceivably in the future be guilty of some terrorist act.

The noble Lord is absolutely right that when it comes to this, we should pay tribute to the security services for the immense work which they have done. Since 2010, 750 people have been arrested for terrorist-related offences, 210 have been charged and 140 have been successfully prosecuted. It is in the nature of these things that we focus on the one or two who got away rather than the many that the security services have detected.