As campaigning continues in the wake of our most recent terror attack, the British people are now asking: who has the answers when it comes to tackling terrorism? Our intelligence services are now dealing with a watch list of over 3000 names, over 500 ongoing investigations and a list of known radicalised individuals in excess of 22,000. We have had three terror attacks in as many months, and as Max Hill, in his role as independent watchdog of counter terrorism legislation, has stated, the threat to our society from Islamist terrorism is now at least as great as that posed by IRA terrorism in the 1970s.
Labour’s main response to this threat has been to criticise Theresa May for the substantial cuts to police budgets cuts during her time as Home Secretary, and to promise 10,000 additional police officers to fill the gap in community policing. Is this criticism justified? Well… sort of. Between 2010-2016, overall police numbers have dropped by 19,000, with Mrs May having presided over a 22% cut to the police budget between 2010-2015. This, of course, matters. Community policing is imperative in building the trusting relationships between the police and the public, especially in marginalised communities. But this is a debate about terrorism, and to assume that poorer, marginalised communities are at greater risk of producing radicalised individuals isn’t entirely correct. In fact, a study by Queen Mary University has suggested that youth, wealth and full-time education are the factors most associated with radicalisation. This aside, there is a case to be made for more manpower to process terror-related ‘tip-offs’.
So have Conservatives cuts really left us more vulnerable to terrorist attacks? Absolutely not. Our counter-terrorism forces are some of the best equipped and best trained in Europe. The UK’s annual counter-terrorism budget has risen from £594 million in 2015 to £670 million at present, with London itself having received an additional 600 armed officers throughout 2016. Our armed response units were able to neutralise the three terrorists on Saturday night within just eight minutes of the first 999 call being made – an astonishing response time. Indeed Cressida Dick, head of the Metropolitan Police, has said that our police are ‘well-resourced and have very powerful counter-terrorism capabilities’.
Our armed response units were able to neutralise the three terrorists on Saturday night within just eight minutes of the first 999 call being made
As well as cuts to police budgets, criticism from Labour has also been directed at Prevent, the government’s primary counter-extremism policy. Despite its flaws, there are thousands of examples where Prevent has worked to effectively halt radicalisation. Funding for Prevent has also increased consistently and now stands at around £50 million. These measures are helping to keep us safe; in reality, cuts to community policing have little to do with our counter-terrorism capability.
The attacks on cuts to the police were first deployed by Labour when the Prime Minister raised the UK threat level to ‘Critical’ on the 23rd May, following the Manchester attack, initiating Operation Temperer. Labour’s claim was that, had police cuts not been made, such a move would have been unnecessary. This, again, is an absolute fallacy. Operation Temperer, which involves the temporary deployment of around 5000 military personnel to assist police, was devised by the Cameron government to be put in place during exceptional circumstances. To have this amount of armed police deployed on a permanent basis would be both costly and unnecessary.
So what do Labour offer despite an additional 10,000 police officers? Aside from wanting to scrap Prevent and committing to less military intervention, not very much. Mr Corbyn’s approach to foreign policy is naïve, and only serves to offer an excuse to those that seek to harm us. As ISIS made clear in a 2016 statement titled ‘Why We Hate You and Why We Fight You’, they will continue to attack our society until it embraces Islam, regardless of our foreign policy. Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Sweden have all been hit by terrorism in recent years, none of whom have strongly supported intervention in Muslim countries. As Worldly writer Elliot Keck has pointed out, the real question is whether British foreign policy acts as a catalyst or as an inspiration for terrorism. What voters need to consider is how these 10,000 extra officers would actually be used to combat terrorism.
It’s important to note that when Mr Corbyn calls for more police on our streets, he certainly isn’t proposing that central London become a garrison of armed officers, patrolling every inch of concrete and cobble from Kensington to Canary Wharf. Our police need the trust and authority to act as they see fit, and Mr Corbyn and his team seem set against any move that gives our police the power to do so. In Mr Corbyn we have a man whose first response to the Paris attacks of November 2015 was to criticise the British police for their shoot-to-kill policy. At the time he called for a ‘cordon and negotiate’ approach, a strategy which would have worked particularly badly in each of our three most recent attacks (to put it politely). In Mr Corbyn we have a man who has repeatedly shown sympathy with terrorists, criticised drone strikes on ISIS targets, and consistently refused to condemn the murderous actions of the IRA, even when pressed. This is a man whose very political ethos requires him to back the losing horse. To Mr Corbyn, the terrorist is a freedom fighter first and foremost, a threat to British citizens second. This kind of mind-set will both restrict and delay the response of our security services. This is a serious matter, and we should use Mr Corbyn’s past actions as the best guide to his future conduct. No amount of alluring promises on domestic policy can erase the stark truth that this man (and certain members of his team) would do a disastrous job of preventing terrorism in this country.
Mr Corbyn’s approach to foreign policy is naïve, and only serves to offer an excuse to those that seek to harm us
In a speech, Theresa May gave a glimpse of the sort of anti-terrorism approach that we’re likely to see under a future Conservative government. Mrs May spoke of first undertaking a review of our counter-terrorism strategy, in which we’re likely to see an increase in the length of custodial sentences or terrorists. She attacked technology giants for not cooperating with intelligence agencies, and spoke of the need for international cooperation in closing down the ‘safe spaces’ of the internet. These are all valid measures, but they won’t be easy to implement. Companies such as Facebook, Google, Skype, and others are registered in California and aren’t answerable to UK regulations. Increasing the length of custodial sentences isn’t likely to do much when so many of our prisons are stretched for funding, with some prisons actually increasing the numbers of radicalised inmates by failing to effectively monitor their interactions, and providing them a space in which to conduct these interactions.
So what more can the Government do to keep us safe from terrorism? Well, for a start they should seek to emulate some of the most effective counter-terrorism strategies from abroad, such as the Dutch prison system and Canadian integration practices. They could introduce a requirement for exit visas when visiting Islamic countries with unstable governments and known terrorist training networks. Exit visas would make it easier for our security services to keep an eye on the individuals making these journeys. The Government could work at winning back the support of the Police Federation by partially reversing the cuts to front-line policing, or by investing in more sophisticated equipment and technology. If community policing is increased then it should take on further counter-terrorism responsibilities, like working with British Muslims communities to further improve the reporting of radicalised individuals. They should pledge to support continued intelligence sharing between EU countries, and to keep the European Arrest Warrant. Finally, they should look to re-introduce control orders, allowing the police to impose restrictions on individuals who are thought to pose a threat but cannot yet be prosecuted. These were scrapped during the Coalition government, in favour of TPIMs (Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures) which have proven far more tedious and less effective.
We need a national debate on how best to counter Islamist extremism, whilst avoiding becoming politically over-sensitive
Do we, as members of the public, have any responsibility in all this? I would argue that we do. We need to carefully consider how we feel about sacrificing some of our individual liberties in order to keep us safe. Striking this balance will be tricky, but we need to allow a mature and open dialogue on the issue. Similarly, we need a national debate on how best to counter Islamist extremism, whilst avoiding becoming politically over-sensitive. By this, I mean the sort of sensitivity that acted as a catalyst for the abuse of hundreds of girls in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxfordshire and elsewhere in recent decades. By this, I mean the sort of sensitivity that forced the Greater Manchester police commissioner to publicly apologise after an Islamic phrase was used during a mock terror attack last year. In light of recent events, we need to stop kidding ourselves and realise that national security is one of the biggest issues currently facing our country. The British public have a right to demand change, and I would argue that as citizens we have a duty to consider this issue a top priority when we go to the polls this Thursday.