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Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (Risk of Being Drawn into Terrorism) (Revised Guidance) Regulations 2023

Volume 833: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2023

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (Risk of Being Drawn into Terrorism) (Revised Guidance) Regulations 2023.

Relevant document: 52nd Report from Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, this instrument, which was laid before Parliament on 7 September 2023, relates to Prevent. Prevent is one of the pillars of Contest, the United Kingdom’s counterterrorism strategy. The aim of Prevent is to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. It also extends to supporting the rehabilitation and disengagement of those already involved in terrorism. These aims could scarcely be more important.

Put simply, Prevent is an early intervention programme to keep all of us safe. To do so effectively, it requires front-line sectors across society, including education, healthcare, local authorities, criminal justice agencies and the police, to support this mission. This is why we have the Prevent duty, set out in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. It sits alongside long-established duties on professionals to protect people from a range of other harms, such as involvement in gangs or physical and sexual exploitation. The Prevent duty helps to ensure that people who are susceptible to radicalisation are offered timely interventions before it becomes too late.

We cannot pretend that this is easy. Radicalisation is complex and there is no single track to a person becoming radicalised. There are many factors that can, either alone or combined, lead someone to subscribe to extremist ideology and, in some cases, terrorism. These factors often include exposure to radicalising influences, real and perceived grievances and an individual’s own susceptibility.

The Prevent guidance exists to support and provide reassurance to those working in front-line sectors on how to navigate these challenging situations. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act requires specified authorities to have regard to this guidance. It is challenging, but we must always strive for excellence.

The Government are committed to ensuring that Prevent is effective. The Independent Review of Prevent—the IRP—was published on 8 February 2023. In it, Sir William Shawcross made 34 recommendations, all of which were accepted by the Home Secretary in the Government’s response. The Government are working at pace to drive improvements. We expect to have implemented at least 29 of the 34 recommendations within a year of publication and the rest shortly thereafter.

We introduced the new security threat check to ensure that decision-making is always informed by a proper consideration of the current threat picture. Updated training has been provided for public sector staff subject to the Prevent duty. The updated guidance, which is the subject of this statutory instrument, was published on 7 September and responds to several of Sir William’s recommendations. The guidance has updated Prevent’s objectives to make it clear that Prevent should

“tackle the ideological causes of terrorism”.

It sets out requirements more clearly, articulating the need for high-quality training so that risk can be identified and managed. It provides an updated threat picture and gives details of the strategic security threat check, which helps Prevent to recognise and respond to the greatest threats. This will ensure that Prevent is well-equipped to counter the threats that we face and the ideologies underpinning them.

As well as responding to the Independent Review of Prevent’s recommendations, the guidance reflects current best practice. It supports and exemplifies the excellent work that we know takes place across the country to keep us safe and to help to prevent people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. The guidance will assist statutory partners to understand how best to comply with the duty. It includes details of the capabilities that they should have to be able to identify and manage risk. It also advises on how they can help to create an environment where the ideologies that are used to radicalise people into terrorism are challenged and not permitted to flourish.

People with Prevent responsibilities were consulted on the guidance. A range of key governmental partners were engaged throughout the development of the updated guidance and their feedback has been positive. The Government have been working closely with these partners to roll out the guidance and support its implementation.

Subject to the approval of the House, this statutory instrument will bring the new guidance into effect on 31 December 2023, replacing the outdated guidance from 2015. It will strengthen the Prevent system and help to keep us safe, which is why I commend it to the Committee and beg to move.

My Lords, I pay tribute once again to the work of the police, security and intelligence services. It is difficult but it saves lives and, as I know the Minister will agree, it helps to keep us safe. Extremism is a stain on our society. It feeds on fear, which seeks to drive us apart, and is perpetuated in the name of one extreme ideology or another. All of us on this Committee and beyond are opposed to that.

We have seen a terrorist attack on Fishmongers’ Hall, close to London Bridge, the awful attack at a concert in Manchester and the brutal murders of Jo Cox and Sir David Amess, among other shocking events, such as the bomb attack at the Dover Border Force centre. Was it not a bad mistake for the Shawcross review not to include that last incident as one of the examples of attacks listed in that report, given that it was not Islamist? It could have been included, because it took place months before the publication of the original review. The Minister will know that one of the criticisms of the review and worries about it is its supposed bias.

Ongoing threats are thwarted and ongoing action is taken by the police and security services. Can the Minister outline their view of these guidelines, as well as those of others who have to implement them, such as local authorities or education providers—schools and so on?

Prevent is extremely important, as is its purpose of early intervention to prevent radicalisation, extremism and, ultimately, terror. We, like others, support its actions in that regard. However, the strategy is seen by some as contentious and many feel that it is one-sided. How are the Government going to restore confidence and trust across the community in their work on Prevent and the broader counterterrorism strategy?

For example, we have seen the criticisms from the former head of counterterrorism police, Neil Basu, as well as others such as Amnesty International, of the Shawcross review. Is public confidence not increasingly important, given the current awful international situation in the Middle East and the domestic challenges it gives rise to in the UK? Have the Government reflected on these current events? Given the horror we all feel at what we have seen, is the guidance as up to date as it needs to be to reflect the current situation? Might further amendments be required in due course? Is anything planned?

As the Minister pointed out in his helpful introductory remarks, the independent review of Prevent contained 34 recommendations. Last month the Secretary of State announced that the Government had completed 10 of these, and we learned from the Minister today that 29 of them will be completed within a year. Have I understood that correctly? Does that mean the calendar year, or the end of 2024? It would be helpful to have clarification on that. That leaves five that are not going to be ready by the end of the year. Can the Minister tell us which five they are and why they will not be done over the same timeframe as the others?

One in five people arrested for terrorist offences in 2022 was aged under 18—a fourfold increase in just three years. How will the guidance contribute to combating this rapid growth in child terrorist suspects? Beyond the guidance, what else are the Government doing? Will they join us in committing to placing mental health practitioners in schools to help combat vulnerabilities that can make young people more susceptible to extremist narratives? What assessment have the Government made of Jonathan Hall’s recommendation on legislation regarding young terror suspects? How is the Home Office working with other departments to combat, for example, the terrorist threat posed by artificial intelligence, which is new but an increasing threat to us all, as we know?

Four of the nine declared terrorist attacks in the UK since 2018 were perpetrated by serving or newly released prisoners, but the review found that

“there have been delays to staff beginning Prevent training and to extremist prisoners beginning rehabilitative programmes. These delays are attributed to staffing and resourcing issues”.

Given the seriousness with which we should regard four out of nine of the declared terrorist offences having been committed by serving or recently released prisoners, what action has the Secretary of State taken since the independent review to address this and combat radicalisation in prisons?

The Minister will probably agree that Prevent is obviously just one part of a wider counterterrorism and counterextremism strategy. It is just one pillar, as the Minister mentioned, of the Contest strategy. None the less, the review and the Government’s response focus at points on targeting those most likely to commit terrorist acts, but also on wider non-violent extremism. Given that there is some confusion about the central objectives of Prevent, as outlined in this guidance, that could also lead to confusion among those implementing the guidance on what the true focus needs to be. Does the guidance make this clearer than the independent review and the government response earlier in the year—is the focus on individuals who may commit terrorist acts, or on combating wider non-violent extremism? Can the Government clarify where their emphasis and the balance lies? The counterextremism strategy as a whole has not been updated since 2015. Will the Government now confirm that this will take place? What else are the Government going to do to look beyond Prevent to combat extremism?

In February of this year, the Government stated that the ministerial Prevent oversight board would be “refreshed”, having not met since 2018. Has this refresh happened and has the board now met, or are we still waiting for it to meet?

The building of consensus is crucial, particularly around a voluntary engagement programme. The scourge of extremism, as we have seen, whether it be anti-Semitism, Islamism, or the extreme right—whatever it is—is one we all wish to see tackled. There are still very real questions to be asked and challenges for any Government to meet. But the defeat of terrorism and extremism, in whatever form they take, and doing all we can to prevent individuals and communities becoming involved in terrorism or suffering from the threat of terrorism or extremism, is in all our interests and something we all want our Government to succeed in—whichever Government we have.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for his contribution. He has asked a number of questions and I will do my best to answer to them all.

Before I do that, I join the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, in applauding the work of the security services and the various agencies that keep us all safe, and thank them for it. I include in that the officials in the Home Office, who are often rather overlooked when we are handing out praise to our security services, but who do a considerable amount of work and of thinking about how best to apply these rules in an operational situation. I re-assert that the core objective here is to strengthen the Prevent system, which is a vital component of the counterterrorism apparatus, and in giving my answers I will endeavour to explain why.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked me about public confidence and trust in the system and raised the issue of the Dover attack. Of course, the Independent Review of Prevent was led by Sir William Shawcross. He was an independent reviewer, so he decided on the content of the report. I am unable to comment on why he made that decision or what prompted it.

It is perhaps worth digressing and looking at the state of play regarding the extreme right-wing threat we face, because that does feed into this subject. We have accepted the Independent Review of Prevent’s recommendation to ensure that a consistent and proportionate threshold is in place across all the Prevent workstreams. Prevent is now guided by the principles of the new security threat check, which is recommended in the IRP. This series of principles informs our strategic approach, which asks us to consider whether actions are proportionate against the UK’s current terrorism and extremism threat picture. That means that the Home Office approaches and products clearly show how they are relevant to meeting Prevent’s objectives and responding to the threat of terrorism.

We are also rolling out updated training so that practitioners can better understand the threat and in particular the ideological causes of terrorism. The Home Office has undertaken research on Prevent referrals to better under understand them and to improve how they are recorded. Better understanding of the threat, strengthened training and improved processes ensure that we tackle disparities.

However, the primary domestic terrorist threat comes from Islamist terrorism, which accounts for approximately 67% of attacks since 2018, about three-quarters of the MI5 case load and 64% of those in custody for terrorism-related offences. The remainder of the UK domestic terrorist threat is driven almost exclusively by extreme right-wing terrorism, which amounts to approximately 22% of attacks since 2018, about one-quarter of the MI5 case load and 28% of those in custody for terrorism-connected offences.

Interestingly, left-wing, anarchist and single-issue terrorism currently represents a significantly smaller terrorist threat to the UK than Islamist or extreme right-wing terrorism and is not currently present in the UK on any significant scale, although some activity has met a terrorist threshold in recent years and MI5 investigations continue into those cases.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about the current situation and the state of security as influenced by what we are seeing in Israel with Hamas. Of course, as noble Lords will be aware, the UK condemns the terrorist acts by Hamas against Israeli and international citizens. It needs to be restated that Hamas alone is responsible for this conflict. As the Foreign Secretary tweeted,

“The death of any civilian is a tragedy. Palestinian or Israeli—Hamas is the cause of this loss”.

We support Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and take action against terrorism.

Sadly, experience indicates that whenever Israel is attacked, legitimate Israeli defensive measures are used by some as a pretext to stir up hatred against British Jews. Following hostilities between Hamas and Israel in 2021 and other flare-ups in recent years, multiple incidents were targeted at and designed to increase fear within the Jewish community. They included vandalism of Jewish businesses, desecration of memorials and religious sites, physical and verbal abuse of Jews on the streets, convoys driving through Jewish neighbourhoods hurling anti-Semitic abuse, and proliferation of anti-Semitism online. There is an obvious risk that this pattern will be repeated during the current conflict. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that that is already the case.

The Government have been clear that we will not tolerate anti-Semitism, and the Prime Minister has announced an additional £3 million for the Community Security Trust to protect schools, synagogues and other Jewish community buildings. Unfortunately, extremist exploitation of conflicts involving Israel is something with which we are all now too familiar. Escalations in extremist rhetoric, both online and offline, are likely to continue to raise tensions and fear within communities, so we must also be alive to the risk that this has the potential to radicalise and exploit those susceptible to Islamist or extreme right-wing narratives.

I am sorry to interrupt; I meant to include something else in my remarks. What the Minister is saying is very helpful. Can he comment—as far as he is able to—on the Home Secretary’s meeting with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police regarding how existing laws may be used with respect to what we have seen on our streets?

As on previous occasions, there are likely to be Prevent referrals related directly to this conflict and from across the ideological spectrum. In direct answer to the noble Lord’s question about whether the Government are thinking about this, guidance has been issued on the appropriate thresholds. We have written to partners to ensure that they are aware of the escalating risks and that there is appropriate management of their Channel intervention programme case loads. Community tensions and the appropriate responses will be nuanced in each area. Prevent is continuing to work closely and intensively with local authorities and other partners, including DfE, DLUHC and CTP, to spot local risks and bolster community resilience, including encouraging interfaith dialogue.

On the Home Secretary’s meeting with Sir Mark, I was not there so I cannot give any personal reflections on what was discussed. Of course, I have seen what was in the papers with regard to Sir Mark’s cause. We are working with the police to ensure that hate crime and the glorification of terror are met with the full force of the law. Hamas is a proscribed organisation responsible for the biggest massacre of the Jewish people in one day since the Holocaust—we should not forget that. Support for it is a criminal act which carries up to 14 years in prison. The DfE’s counterextremism team is actively gathering from media sources and contributions from the CST information on claims of student group support for Hamas, and we are collaborating with the Office for Students to ensure the exchange of information regarding compliance-related issues, particularly those related to Prevent duties, and to address concerns about preventing unlawful speech on campus. It would be unwise of me to speculate on Sir Mark’s specific comments, but a raft of laws is already available to the police.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked me about the number of recommendations in the Shawcross report. We have completed 15 of the 34 recommendations and 83 of the 120 tasks, but, as I said in my opening remarks, the Government have accepted all the recommendations of the independent review. We expect to have implemented at least 29 of the 34 within a year of publication—February next year—and the rest shortly thereafter. I am afraid that I do not know which five we will have to wait for.

The Prevent duty guidance supports several of the recommendations we have implemented, and we have introduced the new security threat check to ensure that decision-making is always informed by a proper consideration of the current threat picture. Updated training has been provided for public sector staff subject to the Prevent duty, and a further update on the implementation of the independent review of Prevent will be delivered one year after publication, in February 2024, when the majority of the recommendations will already have been implemented.

The noble Lord raised the subject of young people and what we are doing for them. One in 15 cases involves people under the age of 18, so protecting children from the risk of radicalisation sits alongside wider safeguarding duties, including tackling harms such as drugs, gangs and sexual exploitation. Prevent seeks to intervene early to support children and young people before they go too far down a road towards violence and criminality. It is not about punishment, making people suspects or placing them under surveillance, and it is not designed to impede a person’s prospects; it is designed to improve them. In line with previous statistics, we continue to see an upward trend in young people being referred to Prevent, demonstrating how vital the education sector is as part of the wider safeguarding duties to prevent young people being radicalised. The Government provide a range of support, including guidance, online training and a public-facing website to support schools in their responsibilities under the Prevent duty.

As the threat of radicalisation evolves, we have updated our training for front-line professionals to help equip them with the skills and knowledge to spot the signs of radicalisation and make a referral where appropriate. Prevent is implemented in a proportionate manner that considers the level of risk, and the Government take the threat from all forms of terrorism seriously. All referrals are assessed very carefully by experts to ensure that there is a radicalisation risk before they receive support through the Channel process, meaning that Channel provides support only to those who genuinely need it. Friends and family are often the first people to notice the changes in someone close to them that may be a sign of radicalisation, so more information is available on the police’s ACT Early website and the Educate Against Hate website. I hope that goes some way to answering the noble Lord’s questions.

The noble Lord also asked me about the fact that four out of nine incidents since 2018 have involved released prisoners. HMIC’s report recognises the significant steps taken by the sector to uplift our capabilities since the attacks of 2019-20. It shows that we have truly stepped up our counterterrorism efforts and that we are working more effectively than ever before to protect the public from terrorism, thanks to the joint work of prison, probation and police staff. The central intelligence hub co-ordinates quicker and better intelligence sharing, vastly improving our assessment of the threat from terrorists of all ideologies. Thanks to that, we can now share previously confidential and sensitive information with parole boards, so that they can make fully informed decisions about whether to release terrorist offenders from prison. On release, terrorist and terrorist-risk offenders are subject to robust risk management and stringent controls that severely limit their activity. Finally, we have also strengthened joint counterterrorism Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements—MAPPA—which assess, manage and mitigate the risk of offenders.

The noble Lord is right that Prevent is only one part of the broader counterterrorism strategy. The report set out a robust approach to tackling extremism and made a significant contribution to the Government’s thinking on counterextremism, including a manifesto commitment to protect practitioners who stand up to extremists. We have carefully considered the recommendations, as outlined in our letter to Dame Sara Khan, the previous commissioner for countering extremism, and they have made a significant contribution to the Government’s thinking on tackling extremism. We have clear laws, and the police have extensive powers to tackle hate crime and the support of terrorism. In addition, we have strengthened the Prevent duty guidance to tackle permissive spaces for radicalisation, which is with Parliament for approval. We have also strengthened our approach to identifying and disrupting high- harm groups that operate below legal thresholds that radicalise others. So, we have robust laws in place on terrorist organisations and we are doing more to tackle radicalisation.

On 18 July, the Home Secretary launched Contest 2023, which is a refresh of the UK’s counterterrorism strategy. Contest 2023 outlines how we are reflecting on and adapting to the findings and recommendations of inquests, inquiries and reviews into terrorist attacks and our counterterrorism approach, and will continue to do so. It also describes the transformational updates we will make to our CT efforts to ensure that we adapt to an ever-evolving landscape.

The noble Lord asked about the ministerial oversight board. We agreed with the IRP’s assertion that that there is a need for stronger oversight of Prevent, including greater co-ordination and communication between secondary oversight boards and committees, so we committed to reinvigorate the prime ministerial oversight board. The refreshed ministerial oversight board will be chaired by the Security Minister and will begin convening later this year. The board will be attended by Ministers from key cross-Whitehall departments and senior leads from operational partners. The purpose of the board is to provide scrutiny and oversight of all Prevent work, including implementation of the IRP’s recommendations. The board will convene for the first time later this year and be chaired by the Security Minister. It is meant to meet biannually but can be convened outside that rhythm if required.

I am getting towards the end, and I apologise for the length of my response. The noble Lord asked me what action is being taken to tackle those who use artificial intelligence. The Contest strategy, which was published this year, noted that new technologies present both threats and opportunities for counterterrorism efforts. The impact of generative AI on terrorists’ and extremists’ ability to radicalise others online is yet to be fully established. The Home Office is firmly committed to understanding this risk better and to ensuring that any policy development in this area is thoroughly informed by evidence. We obviously know that bad actors could exploit generative AI to radicalise susceptible individuals to carry out attacks, so the Home Office is continually monitoring these risks to ensure that our CT system is able to respond.

AI also brings huge opportunities to better enable our counterterrorism response to terrorism activity and online radicalisation, so we are taking steps to build our knowledge of risks and to consider appropriate mitigations. That will include bringing together partners from across industry, academia and civil society. The Government are hosting an AI summit next week. The rapidly evolving nature of AI means that broad consultation will continue to be essential so that it can be guaranteed to advance in a safe, responsible and fair way.

I think I have answered all noble Lords’ questions, and I hope I have been able to do so satisfactorily. As I have set out, the new guidance will enhance the Prevent system and bolster our ability to counter terrorism and keep the country safe. I commend the instrument to the committee.

Motion agreed.