Persons vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism: timing of independent review

Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 7th July 2020.

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Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:00 pm, 7th July 2020

I beg to move amendment 62, in clause 47, page 40, line 17, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

“(1) In section 20(9) of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 (support for persons vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism) for the words from ‘within the period’ to the end substitute ‘by 1 July 2021’.”.

This amendment would reinstate a statutory deadline for the independent review of the Prevent strategy, which will have to report by 1 July 2021.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I know that, over your distinguished years in this House, you have taken a keen interest in home affairs, so it is particularly appropriate for you to chair this session.

I said on Second Reading that, as well as what in the Bill, we are concerned about what it does not contain. The Government have missed a real opportunity to expound upon their wider strategy for tackling extremism, radicalisation and terrorism. This is most acutely felt in the proposal, in effect, to remove the statutory deadline for a review of the Prevent strategy that was announced some 19 months ago. We know that Prevent has been a crucial part of this country’s counter-terrorism strategy. In giving evidence to the Committee, Assistant Chief Constable Tim Jacques said:

“Prevent is a critically important part of our role; it is absolutely vital. It is controversial, and has been controversial, but we engage in it, we operate, and we protect the public through Prevent every day.”––[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Public Bill Committee, 25 June 2020; c. 25-26, Q66.]

I find myself in full agreement with all that, because it is a vital tool and also, as the ACC acknowledged, one that has an element of controversy, or certainly dispute, around it.

It is hugely disappointing—not, I must add, solely to Opposition Members, but to civic society and, crucially, to those dedicated individuals who deliver the policy on the frontline—to now see a real lack of purpose and clarity regarding the programme’s direction under this Government. The independent review was legally bound to report to the House by 12 August this year, but it is obvious that this deadline is going to be missed, resulting in a further lack of clarity and, sadly, I suspect, a further question mark around the credibility of the programme itself. To make matters worse, the Bill now actively seeks to remove any deadline at all.

The independent review was announced last January— 19 months ago—following a long-running campaign by Opposition Members and civic society, but it has since been delayed and postponed. We believed then, and we believe now, that a wide-ranging, robust review is the right approach. By now, that review should have been finished and reported to Ministers. In fact, that should have happened two months ago; if anything, the Minister should now be preparing to come before the House to give the Government’s response to it.

Frankly, it begs a question about competency at the Home Office that things have been allowed to get to the present stage. We would of course have been willing to accept mitigations that might have been needed because of the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on tight deadlines. However, we have already had dithering and false starts over the period of the review. The fact that the Government are now seeking to remove the statutory deadline, and leaving little indication of when we are to expect completion, leaves the explanations that we have had to date from them with little or no validity.

The Government have said that they would like the report to be completed by next summer; in that case, why not accept my amendment and put that on the face of the Bill? I do not think that I am being unreasonable in saying that we are allowing the Government a year from now—19 months into the process already—by which time it should have reported. We are being constructive in granting another year, and I do not think that it is reasonable for the Government to respond, “Well, you’ll just have to take our word for it.” I am afraid that we have not been able to rely on the Government to meet previous deadlines. The amendment would reinstate the statutory deadline for an independent review of Prevent by 1 July.

As I stressed on Second Reading, the introduction of the Bill before the Prevent review under the 2019 Act has even reported makes it clear what a quantity of time has been wasted. Lord Carlile was initially appointed to lead the review, but he stood down. That is important. I have huge respect for him. I have spoken to him in preparing for the Bill Committee and he has an exceptionally valuable contribution to make to the debate. Lord Carlile’s having to stand down from the review was nothing to do with his integrity or ability; it was to do with the appointment process. It is important that the Opposition say that and make it clear. It was unfortunate and a pity; it was also avoidable. I hope that the Government have learned lessons from that about putting robust mechanisms in place for the appointment of independent reviewers of something that is as controversial and critical as Prevent. I felt that it was important to say that we thank Lord Carlile for the work that he did. We also thank Lord Anderson and the current Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Jonathan Hall, for the work that they do.

It is not beyond the bounds of reason, but the Minister cannot see that the amendment is constructive. It it would simply put into the Bill something that he says the Government would like to do, which is to report by next summer. We need some clarity about it. We need to end the continuing speculation about Prevent, which threatens to undermine the effectiveness and credibility of the programme. We need some coherence and surety about its centrality to the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy. The best way to get that is for the Government to commit to completing the review, not a month or even six months from now, but a year from now. That is eminently doable and reasonable.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

It is a pleasure once again to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I agree entirely with the points that the shadow Minister made about the importance of the Prevent review. It is a critical assessment, which the Government welcome, and we look forward to receiving it. As the hon. Member for St Helens North said, the original deadline, set out in previous legislation, was August this year. To state the obvious, that deadline will be missed. The two reasons for that are, first, the coronavirus epidemic, and, secondly, the resignation of Lord Carlile, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Lord Carlile was appointed last summer, so he would have had a year to do his job, but unfortunately he stepped down in December owing to legal challenges about the manner of his appointment. I am able to confirm that a full and open competition is being run for a replacement. The closing date for applications was 22 June—a couple of weeks ago—and the applications will be assessed by an independent panel. I hope that gives the shadow Minister the assurance he sought on questions of process.

Given that the process of appointing Lord Carlile’s successor has not yet concluded because the application deadline was only a couple of weeks ago, completing the review will be challenging, but we want it to be done by the summer of next year, as the shadow Minister says. We would like to see it completed by August 2021, and that is the objective that the new chairman or chairwoman will be given. However, to put the deadline in primary legislation risks repeating the mistakes that we made previously: a deadline was set out in the statute, and for reasons that were not foreseeable at the time—first the resignation of Lord Carlile, and secondly, the coronavirus epidemic—it became impossible to meet that deadline. If unforeseeable circumstances arise again and something unexpected happens that causes another delay, we do not want to fall foul of a statutory deadline that requires primary legislation to correct.

The obligation to complete the review remains in statute. It is a statutory obligation that must be fulfilled, and that remains, but putting a deadline on it as we did before risks our falling into the same trap twice. I hope that the shadow Minister will accept the clear statement of intention to get this done by August next year. The applications were taken in an open process, and they will be assessed by an independent panel, so the process issues will not re-arise. Our commitment is absolute. On the obligation to put this in statute, the deadline could be problematic if something unforeseen happens again.

Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Unusually in our discussions, I cannot accept the Minister’s explanation. I do not think an explanation has been given for the delay between Lord Carlile’s standing down and the beginning of the recruitment process for a new independent chair, which could have predated the coronavirus pandemic. Given one would expect that some preparatory work was done in the period that Lord Carlile was in post, which would inform the new chair’s review, any suggestion that it might not be completed by next summer is hugely concerning.

The fundamental point is that we have been reasonable about it. We have accepted some of what the Government have said about wanting to do this properly, wanting to ensure it is fully independent, and wanting to respect the ongoing recruitment process, but as for giving it from now until 1 July next year to ensure it reports before Parliament goes into summer recess, to give surety and clarity to the wider public, to civic society who take an interest in such matters, and fundamentally to the people we charge with carrying out Prevent and implementing its strategies on the ground, I do not think they should have to wait any longer than is necessary. So I am afraid that, despite what the Minister says, I feel obliged to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 2 Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill — Persons vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism: timing of independent review

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.