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Contest: UK Strategy for Countering Terrorism 2023

Volume 832: debated on Monday 24 July 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 19 July.

“Yesterday, the Government published an update to our counterterrorism 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 counterterrorism 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 counterterrorism 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.”

My Lords, I thank our agencies and all involved in keeping us safe. The Home Secretary reminded us, just a few days ago, that the threat from terrorism is again rising, and that 39 late-stage terror attacks have been prevented in the last six years. There are many questions, including on the proscription of state actors, but I will concentrate on one aspect. We are told individuals may develop a terrorist mindset during their time in prison and that four of the nine terrorist attacks since 2018 have been perpetrated by serving or recently released prisoners. That is obviously extremely worrying to us all. What more can be done to prevent this radicalisation in prison?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for those comments. I would like to associate myself with his remarks thanking our security services for the work that they do.

The noble Lord is quite right to highlight post-release situations regarding individuals who have been convicted of terrorism or terrorism-related offences. Obviously, they continue to pose a threat, as has been proved in those cases noted. Despite ongoing efforts to mitigate the terrorist risk posed by individuals in custody, the majority still require long-term risk management post release.

However, following the Fishmongers’ Hall attack, we established the probation national security division, doubled the number of specialist counterterrorism probation officers, and allowed for more robust and dedicated risk management of these individuals. Furthermore, all terrorist offenders on probation are now subject to electronic monitoring, and in June 2021 we introduced polygraph testing for terrorist offenders, giving us a powerful tool for monitoring behaviour.

HM Prison and Probation Service, the police and other agencies work closely under MAPPA—the Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements framework—to assess, manage and mitigate the risk posed by individuals at all stages through conviction, custody, release, post sentence and notification requirements. There is much more in there about this, but it is certainly safe to say that the Government are well aware of the risk identified by the noble Lord, and are doing a lot about it.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my register of interests and specifically to my role as a commissioner on the Independent Commission on UK Counter-Terrorism Law, Policy and Practice. Prevent, both as a policy and particularly in its implementation, is deeply controversial. Can my noble friend assist the Government’s case by providing some detail, and specifically some data? It may well be that it he cannot do that today, but perhaps he can write to me. Can he specifically provide data the Government hold on the origin of Prevent referrals—whether by, for example, the police, schools or healthcare—that lead to Channel interventions, data on Channel referrals by age for those under the age of 18, and, finally, data on autism and other forms of neurodiversity among individuals referred to Prevent and to the Channel programme?

I thank my noble friend for her question. She is quite right that Prevent can occasionally be characterised as somewhat controversial, but we should remember that it is of course ideologically agnostic. I can give some but not all of the data to which my noble friend refers. Some 3,800 referrals have resulted in individuals receiving support to move away from radicalising ideologies. In the year ending 31 March 2022, there were 6,406 referrals to Prevent, and of those, 13%, or 804, were adopted as Channel cases. I do not have the data as regards age, origin or autism, but I will endeavour to find that out. I do not know whether it is collected but I will certainly try to find out and will write to my noble friend with the answer.

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. The Contest review says that the Government are intending full implementation of the recommendations of the independent review of Prevent, yet the Answer to the Question refers to the extent of extreme right-wing terrorism and the implications of that—22% of attacks since 2018 and a quarter of the MI5 caseload. My reading of the review of Prevent, which will now be fully implemented, is that it thinks that the preoccupation with or the amount of time spent on Prevent referrals for domestic extreme terrorists is misplaced and should be reduced, and the focus should be on Islamist terrorism. Can the Minister expand on that? Who then will deal with people who are at risk of becoming domestic extremists?

The other element of the Prevent review is to move away from what is pejoratively described as safeguarding. However, as we know, the route by which people become violent extremists is complicated, and it might make the Prevent strand more acceptable if it was seen as being about safeguarding vulnerable individuals rather than penalising communities.

The noble Lord raises a couple of interesting points. On the subject of Prevent, the Government have indicated that they will implement all the recommendations, to which the noble Lord referred. It is perhaps worth restating the sources of terrorist threats. As the noble Lord noted, about 67% of attacks since 2018 have been Islamist, which represents three-quarters of the MI5 caseload and about 64% of those who are currently in custody. However, 22% of attacks since 2018 have been by extreme right-wing terrorist organisations. They represent about a quarter of the MI5 caseload and about 28% of those in custody for terrorism-related offences.

As regards whether Prevent is in some way ineffective, and perhaps stigmatises certain communities, we should also look at the success here. The Channel cases to which my noble friend referred just now, and which I also mentioned, represent 13% of referrals, and of those, 89% of the individuals exited with no further radicalisation concerns. I think we should be reasonably reassured that Prevent works.

Further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, the commentary around the revised Contest strategy makes clear that the Government believe that the proportion of referrals to Channel from those at risk of Islamist radicalisation is artificially low. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case? What is the plan to address that issue?

I fear I cannot confirm whether that is the case. I will find out the answer and write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, in the other place, my right honourable friend Alistair Carmichael MP asked the Home Secretary about children who are UK citizens who were trafficked by ISIS and who are still in northern Syria, while our allies have repatriated their citizens in similar circumstances. The Home Secretary’s response had no bearing on the question, so can the Minister say whether there is anything in the strategy to tackle these very difficult cases, and what action the Government intend to take about them if not?

My Lords, I am not familiar with the cases to which the noble Lord’s right honourable friend in the other place referred, how many there are or what is the substance of this particular inquiry. I suggest that it is a long way from the Contest strategy that we are here to talk about, but I will endeavour to find out a little more and come back to him, rather than giving him an inadequate answer.

My Lords, a few years ago, I did some work with some anti-radicalisation programmes that looked at taking children who are young—often surprisingly young; quite often it is at the beginning of puberty when children are more vulnerable to being recruited, rather than as older teenagers—and using sport or other activities to convince them not to be radicalised and not to travel to Turkey or to Syria. One good thing about those projects is that they were run by psychologists who understood young children and people likely to be radicalised, but also by people from the Muslim community. Victims of terrorism are often Muslims themselves. Is my noble friend aware of what the Home Office and the Government generally are doing to work with local community projects that are stopping young people being radicalised?

I thank my noble friend for that. I am not aware of those particular programmes, but they seem to me to make perfect sense. I commend him for his efforts and those of the wider community to which he refers.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on their latest iteration of the Contest strategy, which could justly be described as world-leading. However, terrorist attacks on small venues, such as cafes and village churches, have, happily, barely featured over the last quarter of a century. Is the Minister satisfied that the proposed new statutory duties on those responsible for many hundreds of thousands of such premises to complete terrorism evaluations and to provide terrorism protection training to each worker, on pain of enforcement proceedings by a regulator, are in all respects proportionate?

The noble Lord is right to raise this subject. The Government carefully considered the impact on premises and events that may be captured by the forthcoming Bill. It includes ensuring the requirements are proportionate while achieving better public security and without placing undue burden on responsible persons. Obviously, pre-legislative scrutiny will help ensure that we create a strong Bill that is proportionate and not cumbersome or costly for smaller venues. I should like to quote the evidence of Matt Jukes of the Metropolitan Police to the Home Affairs Select Committee in June. He said:

“Having measures in place that ensure that new staff have been briefed and have undertaken very proportionate, 45-minute or so training online, in the same way as they will consider the fire safety plan or food hygiene, feels to me to be proper”.

That would seem to me to make sense.