Recent attacks exposed deeply concerning frailties. A cross-party review is now essential—whether or not the PM, or her successor, wants oneby / June 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Whatever catastrophes continue to swirl around in the wake of the election, the government under whatever prime minister is in charge will still be facing the same major issues as before it was called, including Brexit, the economy and the NHS.
On any account, these are difficult enough. However, there is now one more. Speaking outside No 10 on her return from the palace on Friday, Theresa May referenced the terrorist attacks which had dominated the last days of the campaign. As a test of governmental competence, these will stay in the public’s memory.
After three successful attacks in such a short time, any PM now has simply no choice but to launch a review of the UK’s strategy for counter-terrorism. If it is May, she is not always in favour of reviews and commissions but this time she is going to need one.
The PM will have to swallow reversing some features held over from coalition government, such as re-introducing control orders rather than the much weaker Terrorism Prevention and Investigative Measures and she will have to be seen to be giving the police and security services extra resources.
But here is where a cross-party review, not only by parliamentarians but also with experts, is the clue. The review will find a joined-up counter-terrorism structure between the police and the security services that is the envy of the world, developed out of experience in Northern Ireland and honed since 9/11 and 7/7. It will be obvious that there is always room for more detectives and intelligence folk in that space but that is not where the bulk of additional thought and additional spending should be aimed.
“The most urgent need is for the reinvigoration of neighbourhood policing, which has been gravely weakened by cuts”
The police and the security services are now pointing to a changed landscape of terrorism, with more plots, with weapons like vehicles and knives as well as bombs, with tens of thousands of persons of interest, with new threats from people returning from Iraq and Syria and with already jailed terrorists now beginning to be released. No country in the world has the ability to monitor all of this.
The security review has to aim at several different goals. Encouraging the Muslim community to defend itself from extremism is particularly vital.
First of all, a cross-party review must try to stop politicians using police officer numbers as currency in these debates and let the police choose what represents best value for money. Not all the extra resources the police service now need are people: some will be technology. And not all the people need to be police officers. The most urgent need is for the reinvigoration of neighbourhood policing, which has been gravely weakened by cuts. It will not usually be the detectives at headquarters who get the tip off but the beat officers and particularly the Police Community Support Officers (who are not police officers and whose numbers have been greatly reduced), who have the local community’s trust.
“It has always seemed to me that the Home Office and the police are the wrong people to be running the sensitive ‘Prevent’ programme”
However, some of the extra money for policing does need to go to provide more armed officers outside the major cities. Eight minutes in London but far, far longer in Loughborough or Lossiemouth or Lancaster, let alone in villages or tourist spots. Over the years ahead, thousands more specialist armed officers will be needed if the whole country is to be protected.
Secondly, Prevent has to be reinvigorated, to use that word again. It has always seemed to me that the Home Office and the police are the wrong people to be running such a sensitive programme. It is difficult for communities to report initial concerns to the same organisation that will carry out the armed arrests, while the Home Office has never been the most fleet-footed or influential of Whitehall departments. Prevent should be moved to the Cabinet Office with a minister charged with driving the agenda across all sections of government, including local government and the devolved administrations. It may be that it needs to renamed. Sayeeda Warsi has proposed Promote, in terms of the values needed in a multi-cultural and diverse society.
Next, MI5 has to become more open and accessible. It is now joined inextricably with the police in combatting terrorism but it is only the police who are openly accountable to the public, with MI5 mostly overseen by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, which mostly meets in secret. A useful comparison can be made with the way in which US intelligence committees of both Houses switch in and out of closed hearings (James Comey comes to mind).
Lastly, the government has to stop fiddling around with the structure of both counter-terrorism and police leadership. In the last parliament, the government put in place measures to allow for the transfer of the lead for counter-terrorism from Scotland Yard to the still nascent and largely unproved National Crime Agency. It is also consulting on whether the most senior of police posts, chief constables and the top London posts, should be open to people with no previous police experience. I would hope that the magnificent response of the Met and City forces at London Bridge will scupper both of those unnecessary and counter-productive ideas, akin to reorganising the order of battle and replacing successful generals, just at the wrong moment.
A cross-party review would be just grand.