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UK Terrorism Threat Level

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2020


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday5 November.

“With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement regarding the UK terrorism threat level. The UK faces a serious and enduring threat from terrorism. Recent events in France and Vienna have provided a stark and brutal reminder of the risks that we face and the continuing need to be resolute in the face of those who would wish to sow division and hatred. This Government are committed to tacking terrorism in all its forms and to supporting our friends, partners and allies against those who would do us harm. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of France and Austria at this time of hurt and pain. Our thoughts are with the bereaved and all those who mourn the loss of loved ones. We have made formal offers of support to their Governments and underlined our shared resolve to stand together in solidarity against the extremists who despise our liberal values and our very way of life.

Since March 2017, UK police and security services have foiled 27 plots, including eight motivated by right-wing ideologies. The threat level system is designed to give a broad indication of the likelihood of a terrorist attack. It is a tool used by security practitioners working across different sectors and used by the police to determine the level of their overall protective security activity. It is also an important way of keeping the public informed about the threat from terrorism and to provide the context to understand why security measures are in place.

The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, JTAC, is responsible for setting the threat level to the UK from terrorism. JTAC operates independently of Ministers and keeps the threat level under constant review. It is based on the latest intelligence from our world-leading intelligence agencies and from our allies around the globe and considers factors including capability, intent and timescale. JTAC took the decision on Tuesday to change the UK threat level from international terrorism from “substantial”, meaning an attack is likely, to “severe”, meaning an attack is highly likely. JTAC keeps the threat level under review based on the very latest intelligence and taking into account international events. The recent terrorist attacks in France and Monday night’s attack in Vienna suggest that the temperature of the threat in Europe is rising.

I should stress that this change in the threat level is a precautionary measure and is not based on any specific threat. However, there is a risk that the recent attacks in France and Austria could have a galvanising effect in other parts of Europe, including the UK, and the change of threat level is therefore seen as prudent. We know that these incidents can be exploited by those who want to further their own cause, especially on online platforms. I am pleased to note that communities from across the UK stand together in uniformly condemning the attacks in Vienna and France. In particular, they stress that places of worship should never be targets for violence, and that religion should not be used to justify murder.

The national terrorism threat level takes account of the threat from all forms of terrorism, including—but not only—Islamist and right-wing terrorism and Northern Ireland-related terrorism in Great Britain. A separate threat level for Northern Ireland-related terrorism in Northern Ireland is set by the Security Service, MI5, and remains at “severe”. When JTAC’s assessment of the threat changes, it is important that it is communicated as quickly as possible to ensure that those who rely on it to inform their decision making and planning can do so.

Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu has confirmed that the police have activated their established planning mechanisms following the change in threat level, and the public will see additional police officers deployed to certain places over the coming days. Our counter-terrorism strategy, Contest, sets out how the Government will confront all forms of terrorism. It aims to reduce the risk to the UK and its citizens and interests overseas from terrorism, so that our people can go about their lives freely and with confidence. Already, the Government have taken steps to ensure that counter-terrorism policing and the Security Service have the necessary tools and powers to keep us all safe from the threat from terrorism.

In response to the horrific Fishmongers’ Hall and Streatham attacks, the Government acted swiftly by passing emergency legislation, the Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Act 2020, to end the automatic release of terrorist and terrorism-connected offenders. The Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill is currently being debated by Parliament. It will improve protections for the public by strengthening every stage in the process of dealing with terrorist offenders. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the police, security and emergency services, who show such resilience, courage and professionalism when responding to terrorist incidents, both in the immediate aftermath and in the investigations that follow. They put themselves in harm’s way to protect us, and we should never forget their service in keeping us all safe. Their skill and dedication is why we constantly invest in our security and intelligence agencies, to help ensure that they have the resources they need to deal with the threats we face.

We also continue to challenge ourselves as to what more we should do. The public inquiry into the Manchester Arena attack is currently taking evidence. I know that this is a difficult and painful time for many people. The inquiry is rightly examining the events of that terrible night so that those who survived and those who lost loved ones can get the answers they need, and so that we learn and apply the lessons, whatever they may be.

Finally, at this time, I urge the public to remain vigilant. We should be alert but not alarmed, and any suspicious or concerning behaviour should be reported to the police. Those responsible for these attacks want to change our very way of life. Our clear message to them is that our values, our freedoms and our principles are what make us strong, and that they will never succeed. I commend this Statement to the House.”

We extend our condolences to the families of the victims of the recent horrific attacks in France and Austria and our sympathy and hopes for a recovery to those who were injured. It is these attacks that have prompted the decision by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre to raise the threat level for terrorism to “severe”—the second highest level—indicating an attack is highly likely. This is a decision we support since we have a shared responsibility to keep this country, our people and our communities safe. We extend our appreciation to our security services and those involved in counterterrorism policing for the vital work they do to keep us safe.

Could the Minister say what impact raising the threat level from substantial to severe will have as far as the daily lives of our citizens are concerned, both while we are in lockdown and when we come out of lockdown? Does the raising of the threat level require greater use of resources by our security services and counterterrorism policing? If so, were those additional resources already available or have they now been made available? Does the raising of the threat level apply across the United Kingdom? Is there uniformity of approach and practice across the United Kingdom in moving to the higher threat level? If not, what are the differences and where? Where do we now stand in relation to the independent review of the Prevent strategy? The raising of the threat level makes this more not less important.

The raising of the threat level from international terrorism reminds us of the importance of international co-operation. Do the Government accept that agreements must be concluded to ensure continued co-operation with the EU in combating terrorism after the end of the transition period?

In the Commons last week, the Minister said that he and the Home Secretary had

“asked officials to review with partners existing and proposed powers in the light of the horrific attacks in France and Austria to consider what more, if anything, might be needed.”—[Official Report, Commons, 5/11/20; col. 529.]

When is that review likely to be completed? I would like to know what kind of things come under the description of

“what more, if anything, might be needed.”—[Official Report, Commons, 5/11/20; col. 529.]

I conclude by reiterating our support for the decision to raise the threat level, and stress the need for our citizens to remain vigilant and steadfast. Combating terrorism and international terrorism is not, as some would like to suggest, a fight between different faiths, or people of different faiths. Our enemies are terrorists. It is a fight, as the Austrian chancellor said, “between civilisation and barbarity”.

My Lords, I want to start by paying tribute to Lords Sacks—Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He may no longer be able to speak to us directly, but what he said lives on. In 2013, he wrote an article for the Spectator entitled “Atheism has failed. Only religion can defeat the new barbarians”—by whom he meant those who threaten western freedom by religious fundamentalism, combining hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights. He was in effect saying that moderate religion is the answer to religious fundamentalism, not anti-religious campaigning.

There is no justification for violence. The horrific terrorist attacks we have seen on mainland Europe and here in the UK in recent years I condemn unequivocally. My thoughts are with all those affected.

Can the Minister set out the UK Government’s position on free speech? Is free speech to be at any cost, no matter what the impacts on others? Because we condemn violence, no matter that it is unjustified, that does not mean we should not try to understand why people are drawn into it. Terrorism cannot be condoned under any circumstances, but if we are to counter it effectively we need to understand what motivates it. To that end, can the Minster say what research has been conducted into the impact of lockdown on the spread of extremism, particularly using the internet? What is the likely impact on vulnerable individuals—with no moderating interaction from others—and on their mental health? What are the Government doing to encourage, promote and ensure access to a moderate religious counternarrative to violent extremism allegedly based on religion?

The Home Secretary’s Statement talks about the increased threat level being used by the police to determine the level of their overall protective security activity. This includes additional police officers deployed to “certain places”. Can the Minister explain which places or what type of places these additional police officers are being deployed to?

The police are already stretched because of the Covid pandemic. It is at times like these that the importance of resilience in the police service is brought into sharp focus. Not only are the police having to enforce lockdown restrictions, police demonstrations against Covid regulations and deal with an enhanced UK threat level; they also have to do the day job of fighting crime and responding to calls for assistance. Many of these calls have nothing to do with crime, and include having to help increasing numbers in mental health crisis. This Government continued to reduce police numbers long after police leaders told them the cuts had gone far enough. Can the Minister explain where the additional police officers the Home Secretary refers to in her Statement will come from?

No doubt the Minister will be keen to tell the House about the additional police officers currently being recruited and the progress towards the government target of recruiting an additional 20,000 police officers, but can the Minister say what is the net increase, if any, in the number of police officers has been since the initiative was announced? What is the total number of police officers now compared with the 143,800 full-time equivalent officers in England and Wales police forces in 2010?

An essential part of combating terrorism, particularly the forms of terrorism we have seen in recent years, is community intelligence, intelligence built on trust and confidence created by police community support officers and local community police officers. What is the current number of police community support officers compared with 2010, and what proportion of police officers are currently employed as local community officers?

I have the utmost respect for our police and security services, and I am confident they do all that they possibly can to counter terrorism within the resource restraints they have been forced to operate under. I pay tribute to their skill and dedication. It is not, as the Home Secretary maintains, just about passing legislation. It is about properly resourcing the police and security services to give them the resilience they need to be able to respond to crises such as these.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their comments and questions. I join them in expressing solidarity with France and Vienna in the tough times they have had, as well our sympathies with the families affected. I echo the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, in paying tribute to Rabbi Sacks, who was a great asset to this House and who always spoke with such wisdom on these matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked how the raised threat level would affect daily life. This matter is under continuous operational review by JTAC. Deployments of police in certain areas of our daily lives will be changed according to threats. In terms of the resources needed, my predecessor—way back when—the right honourable Sajid Javid recognised the changing demand on the police. Under his successor, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, the 20,000 police officer uplift was made; it was, in fact, a manifesto commitment. I understand that we are almost at the 6,000 level. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked about the number of PCSOs. I do not know exactly how many we have in this country. That is a matter for local forces and chief constables, in collaboration with their PCCs. The number is decided according to the needs of the local area. However, I will try and get that number, if it is available. He asked for some other details, which I shall also try to get for him.

Both noble Lords asked where the additional resources would come from when the threat level went up. Deployment will be a matter for operational decision. Of course we recognise that additional police demand is there. Both noble Lords mentioned crisis. Police grant can be applied for and, no matter what it is for, it will be given if the case is made.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked if the threat was UK-wide. Yes, it is. There is separate consideration for Northern Ireland in relation to threats within it. He asked about the Prevent review. We are in the final stages of interviewing for our independent reviewer of Prevent and it is anticipated that the review will be done promptly. I deliberately did not give a timescale because we did not want to be where were last time, with the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, having to step away. We did not want to create too much time pressure.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, also talked about international co-operation and what more we can do. He and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, will know that, particularly in relation to the EU, we remain absolutely committed to that co-operation on law enforcement.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, outlined the necessity for free speech but with limits, of course. If it impinges on the threat to the individual, it crosses the line. He talked about terrorist and extremists’ use of the internet. I could not agree with him more. I hope that the online harms White Paper will become a Bill very soon and deal with some of those issues, particularly the duty on internet providers to their users. He also asked which places had benefited from protective security. He will know that I cannot talk about that, for the benefit of those places. He mentioned the police having to do their day job and police numbers. I hope that I went through that in sufficient detail but I will top it up with additional information for him.

My Lords, we now come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

My Lords, the Statement stresses that religion should not be used to justify murder, yet religious texts make frequent allusions to God-sanctioned rights to kill disbelievers. Does the Minister agree that religious leaders should take the lead in saying that references to long-forgotten enmities that provide the warped rationale for religious extremists have no place in today’s different times?

The noble Lord and I can be absolutely consistent on that. I always agree with him when he makes that point. Religion should not be used as a tool either for extremism or for terrorism. It is interesting to note that religion often does not start out as an argument for terrorism but soon becomes that arguing point. He has always made the point about leadership in this country being important.

Places of worship have been included as targets of recent European attacks and there is a history of lone individuals targeting locations such as synagogues, mosques and churches. Considering that, what guidance and support is being given by the Government to faith communities and places of worship as they seek to balance being places of welcome and safety, open to all, without fortifying themselves unhelpfully?

The right reverend Prelate is right to say that places of worship should be not only places of sanctuary but places where people are not attacked because of their religion. We have funding for places of worship through the protective security grant. As to guidance, we work very closely with the police. He brought to my mind the “punish a Muslim” day, and the way in which the police gave comfort and reassurance to communities was exemplary. In fact, I visited various places of worship in Greater Manchester, where the police calmed a very nervous community.

My Lords, I add my thoughts and prayers to those of colleagues for those who have lost loved ones during the recent terrorist attacks in France, Austria and, more recently, Kabul University in Afghanistan, where, tragically, 22 people lost their lives. Terrorism is a violent manifestation of extremism, so how do the Government define extremism? Are any forms of extremism specifically defined? In light of the “nasty mix” of threats recently identified by the head of MI5, Ken McCallum, does the definition cover the wide and diverse threats that we now face?

My Lords, our definition of extremism, as I know my noble friend knows, is

“vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

I think my noble friend was asking whether there are any specific forms of extremism that are not covered. We have a government definition but not a legal definition of extremism, as she knows. However, in broad-brush terms, it covers a working definition of extremism.

I join noble Lords in expressing sympathy for the victims of the recent terrorist atrocities and pay tribute to the resilience, bravery and courage of our security forces, intelligence services and those involved in counterterrorism.

The Intelligence and Security Committee’s recent report on Northern Ireland-related terrorism said that the threat from that quarter

“remains resilient, despite significant … pressure from MI5”

and the PSNI. Of course, the alert level for Northern Ireland-related terrorism in Northern Ireland remains at “severe”. One of the key challenges identified by that report was poor criminal justice outcomes. Will the Minister work with the devolved Government in Northern Ireland to ensure that the criminal justice system is fit for purpose and sends the right deterrent? Can she confirm that every possible resource will be made available as necessary to combat threats both from abroad and domestically?

I thank the noble Lord for that question. He will agree that we have consistently provided the PSNI with additional resources to tackle the terrorism threat. In addition to funding for the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland, the UK Government have invested significantly in the PSNI, with more than £160 million invested in the 2015 Parliament.

My Lords, I too express my sympathy for the families grieving in France, Austria and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, reminded us, Kabul. This is a global struggle.

I want to press the Minister a little more on the question of resources. In my view, JTAC was correct to raise the threat level. It was precautionary, of course, but in view of what we have seen on the continent it was wise and prudent to do so. Obviously, this requires an additional operational dimension. The Minister said that there are 6,000 more police officers, although that is 14,000 short of where we were when her previous boss, Theresa May, was Home Secretary.

No doubt the Minister will also say that it is a question of operational deployment. Is it possible for the envelope of resources to be increased, either automatically or on request, commensurate with the increase in the threat level? If not, should it not be automatic that when the threat level increases, the resources to deal with it increase?

I hope that I outlined clearly the police’s ability to request police grants. The purpose of the grants is not particularly prescriptive, but they can be sought for unexpected pressures. In a crisis, it has not been unusual for the police to request additional grants. I have talked about redeployment, so I will not talk about it again. The noble Lord knows about that.

This is in the context of the recognition that it is not just the demand on the police that has changed over the past few years in relation to the number of additional police officers; the type of threat that we face now is entirely different from the type of threat that we faced, say, 20 years ago. Now, we see cyber threats and other types of threat.

My Lords, I recognise the complexities of doing so, but as part of the process of keeping our country safe, can I request in no uncertain terms that the Government consider all acts and forms of ill expression—covering, but not limited to, religion, ethnicity and gender—which are alien and reprehensible to our values and must never overstep the mark? Will they also review all appropriate laws to ensure that they match the concerns, and challenge the oft-used façade of freedom of speech beyond the Minister’s reference to—I quote—threat to an individual so that the single word “respect” remains synonymous with what we stand for as a united nation?

The noble Lord makes an interesting point about the balance between freedom of speech and individuals’ responsibility not to threaten others with what they say. People are perfectly at liberty to insult, even offend, but there is a fine line where freedom of speech ends.

My Lords, I extend my sympathies to the family of Rabbi Sacks, the late Lord Sacks. It was a privilege to work with him on interfaith issues for many years, including in the early years of his journey. I also extend my thoughts and prayers to the families of all those who were so brutally murdered in Paris, Austria and Kabul. We stand together in their sorrow.

This House will agree that we must not fall prey to the language of hate and divisiveness being normalised in our discourse on terrorism and violent extremism, whoever the source. I am aghast at the hateful incitement and utterances from French leaders in denigrating faiths and communities, which will cause an insurmountable rise in Islamophobia, including Islamophobic attacks on Muslim communities in France and elsewhere.

Will the Minister continue with her commitment to working across faith communities, including women-led organisations, to ensure that their security remains paramount? Does she agree that demonising religion in combating the plague of terrorism is likely to disfranchise societies and, in doing so, demean our best endeavours as a society committed to upholding respect for the values of freedom, liberty, justice and equality?

It is important that we as a country lead by example. Clearly, we stand in solidarity with France and the French. I do not want to be drawn into discussing the comments that other leaders may have made, but we remain, as an international family, in solidarity with those people and against terrorism.

My thoughts too are with those who have suffered in France and Austria. I have two brief questions. The Minister did not answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, about police officers. He asked what was the net increase. Is the Minister saying that the 6,000 figure is a net increase? Clarity on that would be useful.

The Statement towards the end pays tribute to the police who put themselves in harm’s way every day to defend the public. During lockdown the police are far more exposed than they ordinarily are to the nutcases out to cause trouble. Who is watching out for the police? What extra precautions are being taken? The police are now more vulnerable because of the exposure than in normal times. I think this factor must weigh heavily with policymakers and those holding the resource bag.

I think the noble Lord will have heard my right honourable friend the Home Secretary talk about her revulsion at people who seek to attack the police while they are trying to maintain the policing by consent that we hold so dear in this country. In terms of who is protecting the police, they certainly have our support and we will do anything that we can to ensure that they are safe, notwithstanding some tragedies that we have seen recently. In terms of the increase in police numbers, I think I was quite clear in saying that we are approaching the 6,000 figure; we are certainly not at it yet, but we are not far off. I have elected to provide the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, with more detail. It is not a net increase; it is a gross increase number. I will provide a breakdown rather than trying to make it up on the hop.

My Lords, in the light of the evidence so far given to the public inquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing, is the Minister satisfied that private security officers on the front line of such events are properly briefed by the police and, perhaps more importantly, that they are professionally trained to a national standard, perhaps approved by the police?

As a former policeman, the noble Lord will understand that making a running commentary on an ongoing inquiry is something that I really would not want to do. He makes an important point about training and ensuring that those who are on the front line are sufficiently trained in the jobs that they do.

Sitting suspended.