Project CONTEST: The Government's Counter - Terrorism Strategy - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)


26 FEBRUARY 2009

  Q140  Ms Buck: You talked earlier about the PSA targets and obviously that is a performance benchmarking process. In terms of the whole value for money argument, PSA is part of that. What other mechanisms are there for auditing the value for money outcome of the work of your organisational structure?

  Mr Farr: That is a good question, of course. When we were set up, if I can be a bit bureaucratic, there was a degree of uncertainty, I think, in everyone's minds about how much a central organisation like our own, sitting in the Home Office, would be able to bear down on the programme costs and VfM in a whole load of stakeholder organisations. There is no precedent for an organisation sitting outside the Treasury doing that, or certainly outside the Cabinet Office and the Treasury doing that. I think it would be a bit alien. As time has moved on and we have established ourselves and I think and believe have got the trust and support of many of our stakeholders, to use that dreadful term, actually, what you are proposing has become much more feasible and possible. We have (a) much more oversight of how money is being spent and, I think, (b) a greater ability to press down on programme costs and to begin to interrogate them to our satisfaction, leading, I think, eventually to a state where we will be able to do what we want to do and that is certainly what the Treasury, of course, would like us to be doing.

  Q141  Chairman: Mr Farr, I must say I think you have made a strong argument for further rationalisation of the three services actually, but we will not dwell on that particular subject. For my rather simplistic mind, do you think you could provide an organic diagram of how these organisations fit with one another, where the lines of communication fit, where the lines of command fit? Would that be possible?

  Mr Farr: Yes.

  Q142  Chairman: I would be most grateful. You also mentioned tasking and control and that that would be a subject of a completely separate discussion. We could not visit, could we, and have that explained to us?

  Mr Farr: Yes. The answer is yes, of course. As I made that comment, at the back of my mind was that there are two different processes, and perhaps more than two, that we need to be alert to, and I am sure you are. One is the strategic planning framework, which is ours, and it is our job, as I have said, to set the strategic parameters for what we are trying to do on counter-terrorism in this country, what it is realistic for us to achieve, what our objectives should be and to monitor, as I have said, the ability and the result of agency performance in those areas. Tactical co-ordination and tasking is not our job. We have oversight over it but it is run by a completely separate process, which I think Bob Quick, reading his evidence to you, touched on, and involves the agencies and the police. I see the results of that—it is reported back to the Home Secretary every week—but I do not participate in it and I do not think it would be proper for us to do so. So I am very happy to describe those processes in more detail but suffice to say here perhaps that there are two: the strategic planning process and the tactical command and control and co-ordination.

  Q143  Chairman: Thank you. The next question, I appreciate, is imprecise but do your best, either of you, because I am conscious of the fact that you have been talking so far, so maybe Ms McGregor can take it. How many terrorist threats have been foiled since OSCT was created? I do appreciate: what is a threat? Therefore I do not expect you to give me chapter and verse but could you give us some details, please?

  Mr Farr: Let me have a go, and give you some statistics and a bit of background. Statistics first: 88 convictions of people for terrorist offences in this country since the beginning of 2007. It is a bit of a messy picture because people are arrested for all sorts of things. Actually, some of the most important people we have caught have been caught on non-terrorist-related offences, which makes the answer to your question quite complicated .

  Q144  Chairman: I do appreciate that.

  Mr Farr: The headlines probably tell the story, at least in rough outline: 88 convictions.

  Ms McGregor: I would just add to that that what is also important is that of the 88 that Charles mentioned who have been convicted, nearly 50% of those pleaded guilty, which is another issue. The statistics are very complicated. We are currently working on an official statistical bulletin, which we hope to publish very shortly, which will set out some of this. It is tricky because, as Charles says, people may be arrested under one Act and then convicted of something else. It is a tricky picture.

  Q145  Chairman: I absolutely understand that and my codicil I put in before I think explained that. We took evidence from Transport for London where the gentleman whose name escapes me who gave evidence, when we said, "What is the threat that faces Transport for London?" he said a series of things: "Now that the IRA is dealt with", "now that Islamic fundamentalism has burned itself out", and a series of other jaw-dropping statements, frankly—I do not make any judgement but one of the things that worries me, one of the many things that keeps me awake, as I am sure it does you, is that form of complacency. Do you have that in the records? So why do you not make more of your successes? Why do we not hear more? Why do you not communicate that?

  Mr Farr: Basically, I am not going to defend this at all because I entirely agree with you, which I know is rather revolutionary in committees of this kind! I would say a couple of things. There are a couple of issues which preoccupy us and trouble us in trying to do what you have described, about which, by the way, I entirely agree. The first is the sub judice problem. The second problem is that most of these trials—and it is a very interesting feature of the threat we now face—involve between 10 and 20 conspirators. That means you have more than one trial and, until you have finished the sequence of trials, you cannot actually talk about the offence. So the whole judicial process and, to a degree, it reflects the number of conspirators, inhibits your ability to talk about this. Although that is a problem, it does not entirely explain why we have not given and been able to get out a connected narrative, an explanation of how these trials fit together. I am acutely aware of that. That is partly why, when we came to write the new CONTEST strategy, we quickly reached two conclusions about how we should do so: one, it had to be unclassified. We had to be able to release the whole lot into the public domain—not quite the whole lot actually but a significant percentage; and two, that it had to have a historical background, and for the first time therefore, when CONTEST is published, which I hope will be in March, you will be able to read in some detail a chronology about what has happened in this country of a kind that I hope will begin to address your concern, which I entirely share. Apart from anything else, we are all very aware that unless people understand the threat, they do not understand either the necessity or the proportionality of the measures that we have to take to respond to it and that, of course, in a sense, is where we are at the moment. I think it is quite difficult for us because people just see the response. They do not understand why we have made it and they can easily conclude that actually it is excessive. That is a long answer to your question but we are very aware of the issue that you raise.

  Q146  Chairman: I base it on the fact that the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in conjunction with MI5 and other agencies, were very good at this. I know it was a different sort of campaign and actually the day-to-day operations of the IRA allowed it to be more high profile and therefore people were more alert to it, yet it was not particularly dangerous—and I say that with great respect to those people who died and were injured. I cannot help but feel that there must be more areas where you can say, "Hey, listen; this is what we have done." It may not be precise but "Last year we nobbled 12 of these characters".

  Mr Farr: If you are making this point, and you follow it more closely than most, then clearly we have a problem. I am not going to suggest for one moment that we have got this right and I am very happy and indeed we will take that away and look at it. We are trying to. I do not want to understate the sub judice problem. I hope when you look at CONTEST you may consider that it does address some of your concerns but it will not do it entirely and I appreciate that.

  Chairman: Thank you. That is a very encouraging answer.

  Q147  David Davies: The next question is your relationship with the US and other European intelligence agencies. How formal is that? Do we know, for example, if there are members of the CIA working in this country? One would assume that there are but to what extent is that declared and to what extent do you have formal protocols for information sharing?

  Mr Farr: I am going to be very boring, of course, and say that generally speaking, this is a matter for the intelligence services, not for us, but let me give you the policy framework, if that is not too pretentious a way of describing it. The terrorist threat we face, of course, as you well know, is international and therefore requires international co-operation. We cannot do it on our own. If you move overseas, you need to be talking to other services, be they police, security or intelligence, or often a combination of all three, and sometimes military as well. Responsibility for that lies with SIS, the Security Service, sometimes with the military, often co-ordinated by the Foreign Office, and I think it works pretty effectively. Do those organisations from outside have representatives here? Most certainly, yes. Are they declared? Yes. They are in regular dialogue with our agencies here. The cornerstone of much of this, of course, is the American relationship. Why? For two reasons, I think, above all: because of the huge American capability that can be brought to bear on counter-terrorism, and has been since 9/11. Secondly, as you well know, because people who pose a threat to this country are six hours away from the eastern seaboard, something which the Americans are acutely aware of, as are we, and therefore take a very close interest in. Operations that we are conducting here, people we are investigating and the whole counter-terrorist strategy that we have is intimately connected to and relevant to their own national security. So the relationships are very close. If I may add just quickly, my office, OSCT, sitting in the Home Office, we have a rather different map and set of international relationships. My counterpart in the States is someone called NCTC, National Counter-Terrorist Centre, set up after a recommendation in the 9/11 Commission report, and that organisation does sort of what I do here: policy-making for the US Government on counter-terrorism, delivery of some aspects of that policy, co-ordination inter-agency. They also actually, in their case, absorb what in this country is done by JTAC. We talk regularly to them, and I talk regularly to our partners in France, Germany, Netherlands, and other European countries who are responsible for strategic planning, and there is quite good co-operation.

  Q148  Chairman: We were rather surprised by the Ministry of Defence statements last week, to hear that the Glasgow bombings were described as a success.

  Mr Farr: I did not see that. Was it the Minister that said it?

  Q149  Chairman: It was Brigadier Chapman who came up with that particular statement.

  Mr Farr: Was this in evidence to you? I do not think that is official policy.

  Q150  Chairman: I think we will probably leave it there, shall we?

  Mr Farr: One point, if I may. I do think there were aspects of the investigation into Glasgow—let us put it like that—that were successful, although one could argue, and I would accept, that any operation, investigation, that actually does not stop a bomb is a success of a rather qualified kind but, subject to that, and as I think actually Bob Quick mentioned to you—I was reading his evidence—a couple of points. I think the investigation into Glasgow after the Tiger Tiger attempted bombing in London, because of course that was the start point, was a really good example of joint work between the Security Service and the police, a very rapid analysis of a very large amount of data with the objective of finding what we then knew to be another operational group who were attempting another operation. Moreover, I think it was a very good example of interaction between the National Police Command based in London and the police in Scotland, who are, of course, devolved and therefore operating in a sense outside of our authority. To that extent, I think the operation was entirely successful because it really tested and demonstrated the value of the co-operative partnerships that we have. It, by the way, very nearly stopped the operation as well but, in the time that was available, it could not. I would not just say it was a success; of course not.

  Q151  Chairman: Thank you. Moving on then, again, much of this we have touched on but OSCT and Project CONTEST: how do you measure the success or otherwise of OSCT against the four strands of CONTEST? We have touched on this. There is no need to repeat yourself but is there anything on the audit process you think we need to know?

  Mr Farr: I think I have probably given you the headlines about this. The key mechanism for measuring the success of CONTEST is the PSA. The PSA has a number of intended outcomes, and for each outcome there are a number of intended or associated indicators, and it is our job to track the performance of agencies and departments against those indicators. Some indicators are simply down to one department, some indicators, as it were, relate to a number of departmental activities, and I think at the end of that we can get a pretty good idea about how we are doing. If I may, I would like to pick up something I know you said in previous sessions, which is about how you measure the impact of Prevent, because I think I understood you to say that it was rather difficult to do that and I want, if I may, to push back slightly on that.

  Q152  Chairman: It is difficult to quantify, is it not?

  Mr Farr: It is difficult to quantify it but I do not think it is impossible to do it and, if it is helpful, can I spend two minutes explaining how we are trying to do that?

  Q153  Chairman: Please, yes.

  Mr Farr: I think there are two ways that you can do it. One is to look at the risk of radicalisation in certain environments in this country. Let me give you a couple of specific examples: prisons, and schools or higher education and further education. If you create, as we are able to, an intelligence baseline to establish how much radicalisation is going on in those places at the moment, you then look at the programmes you are trying to introduce in those areas to stop radicalisation, and then you check your intelligence the following year, you can get an idea, albeit an imperfect one, of whether the risk of radicalisation in those areas—and I have just picked those; there are others—has reduced or increased. We are working on that very closely, for example, with the Ministry of Justice in connection with prisons as we speak, trying to understand how the programmes that we have introduced with them into prisons are having an impact and how you measure that against the intelligence assessments which are produced for us for prisons by JTAC. So I think you can look at institutional capability and the extent to which it reduces risk. Secondly, you can look at attitudes. It is not difficult to look at attitudes. It is more difficult to attribute or to understand what has changed in attitudes but we have—and Communities and Local Government are leading on this, Hazel Blears—programmes which are intended to enable us to gauge changing attitudes in Muslim communities towards key tests and issues of terrorism. At the moment we are much too dependent upon commercial polling generally done for media outlets. We are doing our own now, to a much more rigorous framework, and we can do it year on year. We need to be very careful because it is, of course, politically sensitive with a small "p" and not easy to get accurate feedback, but, taking advice from all sorts of commercial organisations, we think we can do that. I would be very unhappy, and I know the Treasury would, if we had a key strand of our counter-terrorism strategy, £100 million or so this year, which we could not measure, and we do believe we can. I would not say the call was easy but I did want to push back slightly back on the concern that you expressed at that earlier session.

  Q154  Ms Buck: If you do not mind my saying so, I think this issue is about what you know about the causes of radicalisation and how you attack it. Obviously, I would like you to talk about that a little bit. I also want you, and maybe you could cover that in what you say, to talk a little bit about that leaked draft in the media a couple of weeks ago which included a definition of extremism, which, as someone who has a number of Muslim friends through constituency work, really covers all of them and the mere inclusion of the definition would radicalise them further. It is a difficult task because you do need something as a benchmark, a definition, but that is a problem. I really would like to know what your current thinking is on that question of the definition and what your professional assessment is, based on this information you are acquiring, of the causes of radicalisation.

  Mr Farr: Can I do them in that order? Hazel Blears gave a speech last night at the LSE which I see characteristically misreported in the press this morning, and I think it is quite useful in assessing some of what I am talking about. If I may go back to our restructuring of the Prevent strategy, which was one of the early bits of work we did at the request of the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary in the summer and autumn of 2007, we provided, as you may know, a new framework of seven objectives which we think should guide everything we do on counter-radicalisation in this country. At the top—or the first one; it is not necessarily the most important—we said we had to challenge the ideology of violent extremism and we used those terms, "the ideology of violent extremism". There was a lot of discussion amongst us and with, by the way, Muslim organisations at the time about whether that formula was correct, because many people said to us, even at the time, "Listen: there is not such a thing as an ideology of violent extremism. There are ideologies of extremism which lend themselves to violence and by limiting yourself to challenging violent extremism you are operating too far down the conveyor belt of radicalisation. If you wait till that point it is too late". At the time we half accepted that advice but judged that it would be too difficult for us to explain how a counter-terrorism strategy could have at its heart countering the ideology of extremism; apart from anything else, it is a rather odd expression, so we stuck with "violent extremism". Since that time, in all the very many, literally hundreds, of community interactions we have had, quite a lot of people have insisted to us, "You have to challenge the extremism which creates the climate in which violence becomes acceptable. It might not specifically espouse violence but it creates an environment in which violence begins to become acceptable". What has happened since December is that the Home Secretary and the Communities Secretary have begun to talk about this. There are a couple of really important points. No-one is suggesting that we criminalise extremism. We are not arguing that extremist views should somehow now be criminalised; nor are we necessarily saying, "By the way, challenging extremism is part of the counter-terrorism policy". I am not sure that it is. I think it may be part of the community cohesion policy but that is rather a different thing. However, it does seem to me from where I sit entirely appropriate that this Government, and I think probably any other government, will want to challenge aspects of what we might call Islamism which fall short of espousing violence—to give you an example, reporting from CIVITAS, the think-tank, the other day about views in some quarters here that western culture is evil and that Muslims living in this country should not engage with western cultural organisations, for want of a better term, with western culture itself. There is nothing violent about that and it is not necessarily going to lead to terrorism, but it does seem to me to be unreal for this or any other government not to say that they are going to challenge that, and that is no more nor less than what this Government is now saying. It is saying, "Yes, we will challenge violent extremism and, by the way, we will criminalise it and we will proscribe groups who espouse it, but we want to go a bit further. We are not going to sit on the sidelines and listen without responding to either Islamist extremist views or indeed to the far right".

  Q155  Ms Buck: I think that is absolutely right. As a deconstruction of the layers that is a completely spot-on analysis. Going back to our communication strategy, of course, the difficulty is that you cannot help the media filter, which is part of the problem but not the whole problem. The difficulty is that it is this common parlance of key indicators that are not themselves indicators of violence but can sometimes be the gateway into it that reinforces the sense of alienation and fear and antagonism.

  Mr Farr: I am not disagreeing with that and I think we are going into this aware of the risk, and the risk is that by saying that we want to challenge these views we are going to alienate the communities or parts of communities on whom we necessarily depend for our key objective, which is to challenge violence and the ideology of terrorism, but I think any government in this country is going to face this challenge.

  Q156  Ms Buck: No; this is not a political point at all.

  Mr Farr: I personally think you simply have to ride that risk but I do not want to demean it. It certainly does require very careful communication, absolute crystal clarity, and I do not know whether, and I have said this internally, this is something we want to be arguing about in the context of counter-terrorism, because as soon as you do that you put people on the defensive in a way that is unhelpful to us. When we were drafting CONTEST there is a bit in CONTEST which is about this subject but I have been very strong with Communities and Local Government that it must be somewhere else too. This is about promoting the values on which this society depends, whichever government is in power, and there is more about that than counter-terrorism.

  Q157  Ms Buck: Absolutely; that is completely correct. I just want to pick up on the second part of the question. It comes back to the point that if Operation CONTEST Refresh includes a definition and that definition can itself then be used and abused it is very important that, whether it is you or DCLG, somewhere in the heart of government we have to have means, very simple and effective top lines, that can be disseminated, including via people like MPs, that whole range of people interacting in the community that simply states, almost in the words that you have already used, that that definition is not about being criminalised. That single line is incredibly important: we are not criminalising the views.

  Mr Farr: Yes, and that is in our strategy. It can so easily get lost in the wash. Let me if I may pause for a minute on this. The way we want to put this is not about defending anything, by the way; it is about promoting our shared values. What we have tried to say on the strategy is, "Yes, we are about attacking the ideology of violent extremism but we are also about promoting the basis on which our society depends, whichever government is in power, and we will challenge people who are attacking those values", and your definition of extremism, which I think is otherwise very difficult, relates to people who are challenging values. In a sense that is what we are saying extremism in this context is. I think it is very difficult to define extremism in another way. I do not know whether I have been clear about that.

  Ms Buck: We can work it out.

  Chairman: We can, yes.

  Q158  David Davies: What influence then do you have over people coming into this country whom you might or might not think are appropriate visitors? We have seen recently the Dutch politician Geert Wilders was banned, but I read today that a senior member of Hezbollah is due to speak at a university and there seems to be an inconsistency here. Do you have any influence over that and should you not have an influence over it, given your role in defending our values?

  Mr Farr: Yes, we do have influence. Decisions on these issues are made by the UK Borders Agency in consultation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and up to the Home Secretary, sometimes the Foreign Secretary and sometimes the Communities Secretary. It is a complicated landscape, necessarily, and into that, yes, OSCT will put a view. That is the policy framework. The practical issues are quite complicated. If you look at the person concerned, Ibrahim Moussawi, who is, as you rightly say, a member of a part of Hezbollah, things get a little bit more complicated. Not all of Hezbollah is a proscribed organisation. As you know, it is a very complicated movement. It is a parliamentary organisation, and the person concerned, from memory, operates in the Hezbollah television station al-Manar.

  Q159  David Davies: He may not be a good example. I take your point entirely: there are elements of Hezbollah and Hamas who are more moderate than others, I fully accept that, but there have been people who have come over here who are clearly not in that moderate section. I suppose the question for you is, how much influence do you have and do you use it?

  Mr Farr: We do have it and we do use it, and if you notice inconsistencies, which to a degree I plead guilty to, I think it is partly because consistency is so difficult. Every case is a bit different. May I give you an example? A notorious Islamist preacher operates on al-Jazeera, Qaradawi. You may remember Qaradawi came to prominence in this country when he came here and met Ken Livingstone. Qaradawi highlights all the difficulties of this for us. In some ways Qaradawi holds views which are certainly extremist by the definition that we suggested earlier. In other words, they are critical of the values on which our society rests.

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