[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair] — Counter-Terror Strategy

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 25th June 2008.

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Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government 9:30 am, 25th June 2008

It is a pleasure, Mrs. Dean, to see you in the Chair. I am delighted to be able to open this debate on the Government's counter-terror strategy. It will give the House as a whole the chance to range widely over that strategy and to explore the four strands of Contest, the title that the Government have given the strategy.

I shall be relatively narrow in my focus. I want to examine the Prevent strand of Contest. Parliament is rightly spending a great deal of time on aspects of what could be called the supply side of violent extremism—in other words, the problems caused by people who come off the conveyor belt to terrorism and commit acts of violence. I intend to focus on the demand side—on preventing people from getting on that conveyor belt in the first place. Surely we can agree that although it is sometimes necessary to pre-empt or punish terrorists, it is far better to prevent those vulnerable people exploited by al-Qaeda and the like from being drawn into terrorism and extremism.

Some Members will know that I have a special interest in these matters, as I am the Conservative Member with the largest number and proportion of Muslim constituents. However, it is important to emphasise that violent extremism is not the monopoly of a single ethnic or religious group. By way of illustration, I recall an act of violent extremism carried out in Britain in 1999—the atrocious bombing of the "Admiral Duncan" pub by David Copeland, a neo-Nazi, that killed three people and wounded about 70. Only yesterday, a man described as a neo-Nazi sympathiser was convicted in Leeds for offences under the Terrorism Act 2000.

I want this morning to consider the strategy's past, to ask the Minister some questions about the present, and to make some suggestions on how the strategy might evolve in future. However, I begin by honouring some of the anti-violent extremism work that I have seen being undertaken by local authorities. I am thinking not only of projects carried out in my local authority area of Wycombe but of work undertaken in Dudley by Mohammed Afzal and his colleagues to help teach local imams better English; in Bedford among young people by Father Jay Macleod; by the Sultan Bahu Trust in Birmingham and the West London Alliance of local councils; in Hendon and in many other places. Later, I shall probe the Preventing Violent Extremism project as a whole, but the dedication, commitment and effectiveness of those who work on some projects is beyond doubt.

I turn to the Prevent strategy's past. Since 7/7, it appears to have fallen into three phases. The first began in the immediate aftermath of the atrocity, when the Government set up the Preventing Extremism Together working groups, which were convened in July 2005 and required to report by mid-September. By any standards, that was a tight timetable, and it caused some unease. The Government appear to have relied a great deal during that stage on established and often controversial organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain.

Critics argued that that first phase lasted a mere two weeks. On 5 August, while the working groups were still sitting, Tony Blair rushed out a 12-point action plan, which included the suggestion that some mosques should be closed. An extensive report, "The Rules of the Game" published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, claims that that plan took the then Home Secretary, Mr. Clarke, "by surprise". The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Mr. Denham, who was then the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, described the plan as half-baked.

Parts of the plan, including the proposed closure of some mosques, were never implemented. However, Blair's sense of restlessness with old contacts and old partners endured. It will not have been eased by the publication in September that year of a damning report on Contest by the Prime Minister's delivery unit. It found:

"The strategy is immature. Forward planning is disjointed or has yet to occur. Accountability for delivery is weak."

It said:

"Activity is not connected or coherent"— and here is the rub—

"Who's in charge?"

It also stated:

"We measure meetings and reports, not real world impact."

Blair's spirit of impatience culminated in October of the following year in the launch of the Preventing Violent Extremism programme, to which I have already referred. The then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Ruth Kelly, called for new voices to combat extremism, and criticised the Muslim Council of Britain for its boycott of Holocaust memorial day—a point on which she, I and others agreed in the past, and a position that the MCB has now reversed, which is an extremely welcome decision.

As for the Preventing Extremism Together working groups, there is still controversy over how many of their 27 recommendations the Government have implemented. What is certain is that the Government did not implement one of the main ones—a public enquiry into 7/7. One year after that terrible event, there seems to have been a mood of disillusion among many associated with the working groups. One member of the Government, Mr. Khan, is on record as saying:

"I worry that the Government might become the Duke of York—marching all these talented British Muslims up the hill of consultation and dialogue, only to march them down again as very little appears to have changed".

During this second phase, the Department for Communities and Local Government seems to have been the lead Department, and the Preventing Violent Extremism programme was the Government's flagship scheme.

The launch last month of the Government's new strategy document entitled "Preventing Violent Extremism: a Strategy for Delivery" seems to mark the transition to a third phase. In this phase, the Home Office, and schemes that concentrate help directly on vulnerable young people, such as the relatively new Channel project, appear to assume a new importance. I say "appear" because it is hard to know. After all these changes of gear—and in some instances, changes of direction—there is still a lack of clarity about the strategy, almost three years on from 7/7.

Mention of the Home Office brings me, of course, to the Minister. I am sorry that the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, Mr. McNulty, is unable to respond to the debate due to other parliamentary engagements. This may be the right point to ask his understudy, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Mr. Coaker, a few questions. I appreciate that he may not have time to respond to all of them during the debate. Indeed, I doubt that he will, so I would be grateful if he confirmed that he or his colleagues will be happy to respond in writing.

First, can we assume from the Minister's presence that the Home Office is now the lead Department with responsibility for the Government's counter-terror strategy? Moving on, will the Government publish details of how they propose to assess the success or otherwise of the strategy as a whole? In particular, will they publish details of how they propose to assess its success in relation to the Prevent strand—especially in winning the hearts and minds of young Muslims? On what basis does the Minister disagree with the poll conducted by the Association of Chief Police Officers, published last weekend, which found that

"Increasing numbers of young Muslim people...might be willing to support violent terrorism to articulate their disillusionment and disengagement"?

On the Preventing Violent Extremism programme, the Minister will have read reports that a number of local councils of different political persuasions are refusing to sign up to an indicator called IN35, as a priority indicator. IN35 measures resilience to so-called violent extremism. Those local authorities argue that the indicator, used as a priority indicator, in effect obliges them to act beyond their competence as an arm of the police or of the security services. Will the Minister give a categorical assurance that no Minister or Department has asked local councils to instruct or request refuse collection workers to root through bins for incriminating material? Will he tell the House how many councils are presently refusing to sign up to IN35 as a priority indicator? Why did the DCLG ring-fence the scheme's funding in the first year, un-ring-fence it for the second year, and is apparently considering ring-fencing it again during the third year?

I turn to the Minister's Department and the Channel project. I understand the importance of projects that seek to concentrate help on vulnerable young people directly. However, the programme's outlines, as reported in the media, raise some serious questions. How are these young people to be identified and by whom? How will any information held about them be shared? If such information is held and shared, what safeguards will be put in place to ensure privacy and confidentiality? How, to put it plainly, will young people be protected against being mistakenly identified as potential violent extremists, at serious possible cost to their prospects, safety and standing in the community?