Below is the text of the statement made by Brandon Lewis, the Minister for Security, in the House of Commons on 22 January 2020.
Counter-terrorism policing in this country is operationally independent, and that is an important principle. The operational independence of our police from Government is integral to our democracy. The Home Office does, however, carry out oversight of the police on behalf of the Home Secretary.
We are clear that the right to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of our just society and an indispensable channel of political and social expression. Counter Terrorism Policing South East has, for example, stated categorically that it does not classify Extinction Rebellion as an extremist organisation, and that the inclusion of Extinction Rebellion in its guidance to frontline officers was an error of judgment. The police have recalled the guidance and are reviewing it.
I want to reiterate that Extinction Rebellion is in no way considered an extremist group under the 2015 definition of extremism; the Home Secretary has been clear on that point. The police have also made it clear that they regret any offence caused by the inclusion of the Ukrainian tryzub symbol in their internal educational document. That document was produced to help frontline officers and staff recognise and understand a wide range of signs and symbols that they may come across while on duty. As the police have said, the document explicitly states that many of the symbols are not of counter-terrorism interest. Unfortunately, far-right groups do have a history of misappropriating national symbols as part of their identity, and that was the reasoning behind the inclusion of several symbols. We recognise that the tryzub—Ukraine’s state coat of arms—carries constitutional importance as well as both historical and cultural significance for the people of Ukraine, and we sincerely regret any offence caused to the Ukrainian nation or its people.
The Minister will be aware that guidance issued by the counter-terrorism police on extremist ideologies as part of the Prevent programme did include Extinction Rebellion. He is telling the House now that it was an error of judgment; the Opposition argue that it was a very serious error of judgment. Can he tell the House whether he agrees with Sir Peter Fahy, the head of Prevent from 2010 to 2015, who said that Extinction Rebellion
“is about lawful protest and disruption to get publicity…very different from terrorist acts”?
We also understand that in the guidance document, there is mention of organisations such as Greenpeace, the “Stop the badger cull” campaign, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and of vegan activists. Can the House be provided with a list of the organisations mentioned in the counter-terrorism police guidance? What is the basis for the inclusion of groups such as vegan activists? Will the Secretary of State accept that in a democracy there is a fundamental right to disagreement and non-violent campaigning, and that interfering with or denying that right—even through an error of judgment—is a fundamental breach of the democratic contract between the Government and the governed?
Finally, there is supposed to be a review of Prevent, which we understand will report back in August. Can the Minister tell me who the leader of the Prevent review is, now that Lord Carlile has stepped down? Can the Minister also assure the House that the review will indeed report back in August?
The right hon. Lady outlined the importance of protest groups and their ability to raise the profile of the issue they are protesting about. We absolutely agree with that. As I said, we are very clear that the right to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of our just society, and an indispensable channel of political and social expression. The police have recalled the guidance and are reviewing it, and both we and the police have said that protest groups are not extremist groups, and that membership of a protest organisation is not—nor should it ever be—an indicator that an individual is vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism. It is important that protest groups have that space. We believe in, defend and fight for freedom of speech, and will continue to do so.
The statutory deadline for the review to be completed and its findings shared remains 12 August 2020. The next steps are being considered right now and will be announced in due course.
Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
There is no doubt that this is a difficult area, but the Home Office always used to see its job as the protection both of life and of our way of life. Unfortunately, in the almost impossible task of preventing every act of violence and of terrorism, the Home Office has sometimes slipped somewhat into thought police mode. Will the Minister remind all the agencies that we all subscribe to the French saying, “I may detest what you believe, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”?
As ever, my right hon. Friend makes a very important point, and he has confirmed my point. I hope that everyone across the House believes in freedom of speech, and in people’s right to that freedom; we need to defend that right. I assure him that the Home Secretary and I meet counter-terrorism police and our agencies weekly, and we will raise this issue with them in our very next meeting.
Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
I congratulate the shadow Home Secretary on securing this urgent question.
The suggestion that campaigning for peace, and for environmental and human rights, should be regarded as an extremist activity is ludicrous, but it is also a threat to civil liberties. Freedom of speech is essential in a democracy, and it is under attack like never before in our society. I want to be assured that the Government will condemn all attacks on freedom of speech, and will also support freedom of assembly.
Last year we saw a striking contrast between the way in which protests outside this House by Extinction Rebellion were policed, and the way other protests were. Extinction Rebellion was kept very far back from Parliament; others—including some leave protesters—were allowed right up close to Parliament, and to shout in the face of female MPs without any interference. Will the Minister look into that?
Scotland takes a very different approach to the Prevent strategy, placing it in the context of Safer Communities, and relying on the traditionally stronger relationships between the community and police in Scotland. Will the Minister consider adopting that approach in England? Does he see that doing so might prevent the sort of problems we saw with this mistake last week, and make the Prevent strategy more effective in England?
To give some context, Counter Terrorism Policing creates a range of guidance documents for use across the whole of policing, not just by counter-terrorism officers or Prevent practitioners. It produces these documents to help frontline officers and other colleagues make informed decisions, including about protecting crowded places at times of protest—something that Figen Murray has done amazing work on.
The signs and symbols document that became the subject of the Guardian article was produced to help the police and close partners identify and understand signs and symbols that they may come across in their day-to-day working lives, so that they know the difference between the symbols for the many groups they may come across. But these things have to be done correctly and in the right context. The police themselves have recognised that this was an error of judgment, and they have withdrawn the document and are reviewing it.
Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con)
Does my right hon. Friend appreciate the enormous distress and offence that this has caused across Ukraine? Does he share my view that this symbol needs to be removed from the police guidance? Will he also take this opportunity to reiterate that this country remains a very strong friend and supporter of Ukraine?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas has spoken to his opposite number in Ukraine today. I am likely to see one of my opposite numbers in Zagreb over the next couple of days, and I will express the huge regret felt by the Government about the fact that this happened. We have a very valuable and positive relationship with our friends and partners in Ukraine. We look to see that continue and strengthen as we look outward as a global country while we leave the European Union.
Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)
The only factor that is radicalising people with these concerns is their legitimate and understandable worry that we are not addressing climate change quickly enough. Will the Minister respond to the question from my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary about who is now leading this programme, as he did not manage to address that? Does he share my concern that the Prevent programme and anti-terrorist strategy has had its credibility damaged by this action, and that he will need to work to restore its credibility?
The Prevent programme is fundamentally about safeguarding and supporting vulnerable individuals to stop them becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. The hon. Gentleman should be acutely aware of the context. Extinction Rebellion should not have been in the document in the first place. The police have outlined that that was an error of judgment; they have withdrawn the document, and they are reviewing it. The Prevent review will go ahead, and we will make further announcements about its chairmanship and progress before the review reports fully in August.
Alicia Kearns (Rutland and Melton) (Con)
I start by expressing my steadfast support for the Government of Ukraine, with whom I have worked to counter violent extremism and threats from those who cause discontent and division in our country. Violent extremism is a scourge, and Prevent helps to keep us safe. What information can my right hon. Friend share with me regarding the plan for when someone has been convicted of a serious terrorist offence, gone to prison and come out? What support will there be to ensure that they do not become re-radicalised and go on to commit more crimes, and to ensure that we keep our people safe?
My hon. Friend, who has huge experience in this field, makes a very important point. Yesterday the Government announced moves and measures to ensure that people who commit the most heinous crimes, including terrorism, will see longer, more severe sentences, and victims can have confidence in that. It is also right that we continue to do everything we can to ensure that people who commit an offence are able to reform and move forward. There are lessons to learn. The Prevent review is looking at the lessons to be learned from what happened at Fishmongers’ Hall. My hon. Friend is right: we need to continue to work in this area to ensure that we keep our society safe.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)
The police might say that this was an error of judgment, but it is also part of a pattern. Footage of my arrest for peaceful protest against fracking was used in Prevent training sessions back in 2015. In 2016, the Home Office said that support for anti-fracking was not an indicator of vulnerability to extremism, but years later, evidence shows that four police forces were still identifying anti-fracking as a perceived extremist risk, so can the Minister tell me why we should now trust his Department on this subject? What is it doing differently? In particular, what reassurance can he give us that he will advise the police to ensure that any policing in the run-up to, and at, COP 26 is within the law and appropriate?
First, as I said earlier, the police in this country have independence, and it is important that we protect and respect that. They have said that this was an error of judgment. They have withdrawn the document and are reviewing it. The guidance documents that Counter Terrorism Policing produces are used across policing and by partners to deal with groups, including at public events in public venues. The hon. Lady refers to COP 26, which is coming up soon and is a tremendous opportunity for this country to outline what we do. I have absolute confidence that our police will do as they always do at these events, which is to do our country very proud.
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con)
I was glad to hear the Minister make a clear distinction between the rights to free speech and to peaceful protest, which are absolutely part of this country’s values, and terrorist activities. The two should be kept firmly apart, and the latter prevented. Can he be more specific about the use of probation, which will clearly be an important part of counter-terrorist activity in the wake of London Bridge?
As my right hon. Friend rightly outlines, probation is an important part of this, and can play an important role in rehabilitation work. We have lessons to learn from the tragedy of Fishmongers’ Hall, and the system is looking at those. Yesterday, the Government announced changes that we will make to prison sentences, to ensure that we do everything we can to keep people safe and keep those who commit these crimes in prison for longer. We are always looking to learn, and to improve, so that when people come out of prison, they are properly reformed and safe to be in society.
Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab)
Counter-terror police across the country do great and incredibly important work to keep us safe, but that is why this guidance was such a problem: we cannot afford confidence in their work being undermined. When did the Home Office see this guidance, and has the Minister asked to see all similar guidance from all police forces across the country, to ensure that no other counter-terror groups are making the same mistake?
As I say, the police have withdrawn the document and are reviewing it. I fully respect, and the Government respect, the independence of the police, and those guidance documents are part of their independence. The police produce those documents for their officers in the work that they do, and it is right that we respect that. The Home Secretary and I meet representatives and the leadership of counter-terrorism police and other partners on a weekly basis. We will raise this issue with them, to ensure that they are focused on the importance of getting this right. Those documents are about alerting their officers to all the types of groups and symbols that they may deal with in their day-to-day work. We need to acknowledge the regret that the police have shown over this error of judgment, and the fact that they are reviewing the document.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
When the Prevent review takes place, will the Minister ensure that particular attention is given to the intractable problem of proselytising within jails by people who have been jailed for long periods for terrorism offences? They cannot be kept in isolation throughout their long sentences, and if they are not in isolation, there is a danger of them radicalising others. Special attention needs to be given to that problem during the review.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point about the challenges within prisons. I will certainly ensure that his comments are taken on board as we go further with the Prevent review, which we will ensure reports back by August.
Afzal Khan (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
If the Government are serious about conducting a proper, independent review of Prevent, can the Minister give an assurance that they will engage with key Muslim organisations, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, and will heed the advice of the Muslim community?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The reviewer will want to ensure that they engage with a wide range of people across all communities. Of course, Prevent works with not just the Muslim community but the far right and across our entire community. The reviewer will be independent, but we will encourage him to consult very widely.
Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
I wish to echo the previous question. We enjoy policing by consent in this country, and I am rather uncomfortable about the fact that some religious communities feel that the Prevent programme does not subscribe to their view of the world, and in some ways discriminates against them. Will the Minister use the review to engage with the Muslim Council of Britain and others?
As I say, the reviewer is independent and will consult widely with the groups that they see fit to. The Prevent programme, I have to say, is working and is successful. Prevent has made a significant impact. It is stopping people being drawn into terrorism. Just in 2018-19, some 101 projects were delivered in London alone to address vulnerabilities to do with education, socialisation and substance abuse. This project is working; we just want to make sure that what is good gets even better.
Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD)
I welcome what has been said about the error of judgment being acknowledged by the police. However, further to what other hon. Members have said, I stress that if such an error of judgment can take place the effect is unfortunately to undermine confidence in Prevent and to raise questions about the culture within which it is operating. On the review, what steps will be taken to ensure there is not a culture that allows such an error of judgment to take place and to undermine an important operation?
We need to be clear that the document was produced by the police for the police’s use and purpose. That is separate from the wider Prevent programme, which works across a huge range of communities and organisations around country. It is very successful in safeguarding and protecting vulnerable people and, as a result, our society, which we should be lauding and very pleased with. From the police’s point of view, as I have said, they have withdrawn this document and are reviewing it.
Rachel Maclean (Redditch) (Con)
Does the Minister agree that we must never lose sight of the possibility of reform, even for the worst criminals and terrorists who have committed heinous crimes? Will he update the House on when we will start the programme of recruitment for specialist counter-terrorism probation officers, which I think will be welcomed to keep our society and our constituents safe?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is important that we remember that people are able to reform, and we want people to reform. Obviously, we want to get the balance right, while making sure that the British public are clear that the Government are on their side and that people who commit heinous crimes will serve severe, proper and long sentences, because our first priority is to keep people safe. We made the announcement about the increase in counter-terrorism funding just yesterday, and we will be updating the House on when and how it is spent, but we are keen to move quickly to ensure that we keep our country safe.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
May I thank the Minister for putting the record straight on Extinction Rebellion and all that? May I also give a plug for the quality of the work of my local police in delivering the Prevent programme and in supporting Members of Parliament? I have recently had some really awful death threats against me and my staff, and I have received such a level of support—not just in being effective, carrying through an investigation and arresting two people, but in phoning up and giving support day to day. I know lots of Members have received that support, and I hope it can continue, but may I thank the people who supply it to Members?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very generous but very correct statement, and I absolutely echo that. I am very fortunate and often humbled in this job on a daily basis in seeing the work that our counter-terrorism police do, in partnership with local police and indeed our agencies. I would argue that we have got the best in the world, and day after day they keep us safe.
Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con)
I hope Ministers have had a look at Policy Exchange’s paper titled, for better or worse, “Extremism Rebellion”. Although we may defend people’s right to hold views about green anarchism, eco-socialism and radical anti-capitalist environmentalism, I want to make sure that there is no tacit approval from either Dispatch Box for what the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) called “disruption”—I would say it is a deliberate policy of disruption. Will the Minister reassure me that the Government know what they are dealing with?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I suspect he is also referring back to some of the difficult situations the police had to deal with not that long ago, but he is right that it is separate. As I have said, Extinction Rebellion is not considered an extremist group under the 2015 definition of extremism, and we are clear on that.
Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
Will the Minister show some common sense and assist the police in understanding the difference between young people being involved in Extinction Rebellion or CND and—within the Prevent programme assessment that will take place this year—looking at the real risks with the insufficient numbers of skilled probation officers looking after extremely troubled and dangerous criminals?
I suspect the hon. Lady has not had a chance to see the document she is referring to, because it does specifically say:
“The document in question…explicitly states that many of the groups are not of counter-terrorism interest”.
As I have said, however, the police have acknowledged that it was an error of judgment to have that reference in there, and they have withdrawn it. They are reviewing it, and it is something that the Home Secretary and I will be continuing to talk to them about.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con)
Prevent is supposed to stop Islamist extremism. This morning I was alerted to the fact that a pro-Iranian regime charity known as the IHRC—the Islamic Human Rights Commission—is apparently circulating to schoolteachers via digital education services a programme for its genocide memorial day. This includes a video that compares the Nazi holocaust to Israeli actions in Gaza, and a series of book and video lists directing children to further material critical of Israel and diminishing the deaths of 6 million Jews in the holocaust. Will my right hon. Friend launch an urgent inquiry into what this organisation is doing and why these things are on digital education platforms? Will he work with the Charity Commission and the Department for Education to stop this happening again?
My right hon. Friend has given a very stark and concerning example of the kind of issues and details that Prevent and indeed our police deal with. He is right to highlight the education sector, which in 2017-18 accounted for some 33% of referrals to Prevent, which works across extremism and not just in one particular area. I will certainly follow up with him directly on the issue he has raised to make sure that this gets proper attention.
Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
I have been a member of Scottish CND for many years. Does the Minister agree with me that it is ludicrous, perverse and offensive that an organisation of people peacefully protesting indiscriminate murder with nuclear weapons has ended up in this document?
The police are reviewing the document. As I said earlier, it is a guide that is there to help the police identify and understand a range of organisations they may come across. It does not in any way suggest that membership of or affiliation with non-proscribed groups would be sufficient to trigger some kind of Prevent referral, or that we would consider non-violent protest as a potential indicator for extremism. I can give her the assurance that, as I say, we protect people’s right to freedom of speech and the right to protest, which I think is an important part of our society, and this document is being reviewed.
Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con)
How many officers are occupied in monitoring terrorists who have been released?
Obviously, terrorists who have been released from prison are monitored by probation or the police themselves, depending on the structure of their release. I hope my right hon. Friend will understand that I am not in a position to comment—which I think would be a security issue—on the specific numbers and how we deal with the matter. However, it is an issue we are alert to and it is an issue on which, as I have said, there are lessons to learn from what happened at Fishmongers’ Hall, and that piece of work is ongoing.
Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op)
The Minister will know that the word “Islam” is the Arabic word for peace. Does he agree that the focus of Prevent activity should be to ensure that people in the Muslim community do not misrepresent, misconstrue and corrupt the words of the Koran, as opposed to what people fear is the focus of Prevent, which is that there is too much Islam and too much Muslim ideology? Surely the focus should be that people do not corrupt the teachings in a way that brings about terror, and we should be encouraging mainstream Muslim organisations to work with us for the good of all.
I understand the point the hon. Gentleman is making, and I think he is right to differentiate between two different issues. The heart of what the Prevent programme is about backs up his point, because the Prevent programme is fundamentally about safeguarding and supporting vulnerable individuals to stop them becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. It is not about what religion they have and how they practise their religious beliefs; as I say, it is about stopping people becoming terrorists. It is working and it is successful, as I have said, and it does make a significant impact in stopping people being drawn into terrorism in the first place.
Through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 —bear with me for a second if you will, Mr Speaker, because the context is important here—we introduced the Prevent statutory duty. That duty requires local authorities, schools, colleges, universities, health bodies, prisons, probation and the police, as part of their day-to-day work, to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. It does have a very clear and specific purpose, which is about keeping our country, and vulnerable people, safe.
Gary Sambrook (Birmingham, Northfield) (Con)
Will the Minister join me in congratulating Waqar Ahmed and his team in Birmingham on all their excellent work with Prevent and on becoming national leaders in the field, which is mostly because a lot of their work is community-led and bottom-up? It is disappointing, therefore, that a number of Birmingham Labour councillors have attempted to undermine the process. Will he do everything he can in the Home Office to ensure that the police are given the powers they need to keep our streets safe?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this issue, and the good work that we see in such communities is a huge credit to the organisation and the people he has mentioned. We are determined to make sure that the police know they have our full support in doing all the work they do to ensure they protect vulnerable people and keep our country safe. I think their independence is a key part of the structure of that. We thank them for what they do, and we thank such organisations, as my hon. Friend has so rightly represented.
Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
Is the Minister able to state unequivocally that the Ukrainian coat of arms will now be removed from this document?
As I said earlier, that document has been withdrawn. The police are reviewing it, but I am not going to interfere with the independence of our police. This is a document drafted by the police for the police and we respect their independence, but they have outlined that they regret this happening and have explained why it happened so I do not expect to see this kind of mistake again in future.
Dehenna Davison (Bishop Auckland) (Con)
County Durham police do excellent work in protecting people right across Bishop Auckland, Spennymoor, Shildon and Barnard Castle. Given the threatening tones I heard yesterday, unfortunately, I will be contacting them to talk about the safety of my team at the Durham miners’ gala in July. Does my right hon. Friend agree that preserving the operational independence of the police, including the counter-terror policing unit, is of the utmost importance in keeping our streets safe?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. All of us in society sometimes see things, as she has rightly outlined, and I did see the comments yesterday, which are very concerning. She is absolutely right to raise that issue with the relevant authorities, and I am happy to discuss that with her as well to make sure that it is properly taken forward. It is right that we continue to defend the independence of our police and make sure that they know that we are there to support them in the brilliant work they do in keeping us safe.