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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 25 June 2008

[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

Counter-Terror Strategy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

9.30 am

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): 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
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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, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), “by surprise”. The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (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:

It said:

and here is the rub—

It also stated:

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, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (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, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), is on record as saying:

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.

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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, the right hon. Member for Harrow, East (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, the hon. Member for Gedling (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

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
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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?

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that another problem is that malicious allegations could be made? In certain circumstances, such allegations would be quite difficult to disprove and could lead to innocent people being victimised.

Mr. Goodman: I agree completely. I am concerned that if the membership of the bodies that we are talking about is quite widely drawn, as it properly should be in some senses, there might not be sufficient safeguards against malicious allegations and gossip finding their way on to written records, with very damaging consequences.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s cerebral and analytical approach, which is quite refreshing. There are differences between terrorism in this country and in some other countries, and although we tend to home-grow our terrorists, rather than import them, terrorists in America, for instance, tend to come from outside to commit their acts of terrorism. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Government should do more research into what causes those differences? If we understood the mechanisms behind the problem, we might be able to tackle it better.

Mr. Goodman: I do believe that and I will come to precisely that point when I finish the rather analytical series of questions that I am firing at the Minister. My last question in this context is simply this: when will the series of parliamentary questions that I tabled on the Channel project as long ago as March be answered?

I am sure that hon. Members will agree that young people are particularly vulnerable in prisons and universities. There is evidently a serious problem in prisons, where hardened, violent extremists clearly attempt to recruit Muslim and non-Muslim criminals who are searching for identity, purpose and meaning in their lives. Such prisoners are unlikely always to give time to the prison imams. What concrete steps are the Government taking to prevent prisons from effectively becoming universities of extremism, as the H-blocks did in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s?

On universities, I can do no better than quote my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who asked in a debate last year:

As regards websites, the Minister will have seen the recent report “Virtual Caliphate” by the Centre for Social Cohesion. How many prosecutions of extremist websites have taken place? What is the Government’s general approach to the matter?

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On the police, how do the Government intend to ensure that the Pursue strand, which is largely the property of police anti-terrorism branches, does not undermine or overwhelm the Prevent strand, which is largely the property of local police? How will the two be co-ordinated?

I want now to turn from those detailed questions to the bigger picture. On the Prevent strand, there are two views of what the Government’s strategy should be. The first holds that they should build a broad coalition against violent extremism—in effect, violent extremism in Britain—and, therefore, against al-Qaeda and other violent groups, such as elements on the neo-Nazi fringe. The second view holds that they should build a broad coalition against extremism per se, on the ground that extremism is the root from which violent extremism grows. According to this view, British National party hatred of black, Asian and gay people today becomes the attack on the “Admiral Duncan” pub tomorrow. Similarly, detestation of the kuffar, or non-Muslim, today—a view that is fired by a narrow, exclusivist, hate-filled reading of Islam’s sacred texts, and which is looked on with horror by mainstream Muslims—can become the 7/7 terror attack of tomorrow.

How can extremism be defined? Admittedly, that is a difficult task, but page 60 of the Government’s strategy document gives an indication by listing some of the engagement criteria for organisations. However, the criteria are rather vague and should be clarified. One definer of extremism might be support for attacks on our troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. Another might be campaigning for the establishment of separate sharia jurisdictions under British law. Yet another might be the incitement of violence against women, gay people or non-Muslims.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has left no doubt about his view. He has called for the banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir and the barring from Britain of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi—a lead that the Government eventually followed. He has also called for us to prevent public money and support from flowing to bodies such as the Cordoba Foundation and the Muslim Brotherhood. My noble Friend Baroness Neville-Jones made a similar critique in her report “Uniting the Country”. My noble Friend Baroness Warsi noted that partnership arrangements with special interest groups are wrong, partly because

What is the Government’s view? I ask that because the Muslim Brotherhood appears to be making a push for influence and acceptance and because Ministers are sending out mixed messages. For example, I recently questioned the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the Floor of the House. She said:

I was raising a particular case—

However, she knows that one of the leading lights of the Cordoba Foundation—Anas Altikriti is the gentleman I have in mind—has never denied being a leading light in the Muslim Association of Britain, which has itself never denied being, in effect, the British wing of the
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Muslim Brotherhood. When questioned only a few moments before condemning the Cordoba Foundation in the quotation that I have just cited, however, the Secretary of State failed to comment on the presence of the MAB on the mosques and imams advisory committee. What is going on here? Are organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood suitable partners, or not?

If not, should Ministers not be looking closely at Campusalam? The Campusalam initiative was specifically established to combat extremism on campus. Yet at least one speaker at its first event had close links with the Muslim Brotherhood. Campusalam comes from the stable of the Lokahi Foundation, which has received roughly £450,000 from the Government and a similar amount from the Greater London authority. The foundation’s director, Professor Gwen Griffith-Dickson, has complained that, under present policy,

I agree, as I am sure the Minister does, that groups should not be offered assistance on a sectarian basis—the professor is right about that. However, is she really saying that Government or taxpayers’ money should be given to groups that, for example, support attacks on our troops abroad or that want, as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt does, to bar women and Christians from the Egyptian Cabinet?

There are also serious questions for sections of the police. The decision by West Midlands police to refer Channel 4’s “Dispatches” programme “Undercover Mosque” to Ofcom was a public scandal. Let us consider what happened. A television programme filmed a speaker—Abu Usamah—who said, inter alia:

He then added, “we hate the kuffaar”—as if there was any doubt. He continued:

He also said:

Yet West Midlands police took action against Channel 4, rather than Abu Usamah, by referring it to Ofcom. That was despite the fact that the same police force had concluded that there was

by the programme and that none of the 82 letters and e-mails that had been received expressing concern about the programme met the criteria that define a complaint to Ofcom.

This egregious decision cost the taxpayer some £14,000 in costs and £100,000 in damages. I should be grateful to know whether the Home Office has had any communication with West Midlands police about that matter. The House will note that in response to my freedom of information request for documentation about the controversy, the freedom of information unit of the West Midlands police has

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