George Osborne’s first outing at Prime Minister’s Questions this week was dominated by the subject of global and domestic extremism, as if to underline how last month’s election arguments can quickly seem second order in the face of an existential crisis. Let no one underestimate, we face a very real and grave threat from the rise of groups like ISIL in the Middle East, and its impact on our communities at home. This stems not just from the rise in extremism but, as most security analysts would agree, a series of collateral threats to our security. Serious and organised crime, as well as state-sponsored cyber crime, is equally a risk to people in their everyday lives, and to our strategic national interests, with terrorists and criminal networks changing their behavior to try and avoid detection.
This threat is overlaid against an increasingly connected world. We must ensure that, in the face of all of this, our law enforcement and intelligence agencies can continue their vital work, unimpeded by legislation that is out of date. This includes having the powers necessary to identify and locate vulnerable missing people or victims of child sexual exploitation as well as those needed to detect terrorists and criminals, no matter which services they use to communicate. It also means working together internationally with other democratic nations to find solutions that will help us to keep the public safe.
The Anderson report, released last week, outlines the key challenges faced by the UK Security Framework in respecting the privacy of our residents and facing down the tapestry of threats currently facing our country. As set out in the Queen’s Speech, the Government will bring forward an Extremism Bill and an Investigatory Powers Bill during this Parliament, with the intention of having the latter legislation enacted before the sunset provision in the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 takes effect on 31 December 2016.
Of course the Bills face serious challenges, but challenges that must not be shied away from if we are to continue to keep these shores safe from a diverse and mutating threat that cannot always be stopped by ‘goal-line’ defence, despite a first-class effort from the security services and police. The Bills are further needed to update the legal framework governing investigatory powers, ensuring that it is clear and modern (to keep pace with developing technologies), and respects both privacy and security.
In addition, we believe that new legislation can offer a real opportunity to reset relationships with some sections of our communities that may have underestimated the extent to which seemingly minor grooming activity can lead to serious illegal activity, destroying families and livelihoods. It remains the case that the culture in some urban communities discourages the reporting of low-threshold grooming activity, because of an assumption that including the authorities will exacerbate the problem.
It would also be fair to say that as a Western society we have perhaps at times underestimated the sheer power and seduction of ‘dreams’ sold on the cheap through modern methods. The evidence, however, shows that teenagers in this country are being persuaded to join ISIL and related groups. It is time to take this more seriously, make legislation and monitoring keep pace with these technological developments, and not make the authorities fight these threats with one arm behind their back.
That is not to say that the law can take the place of familial and community responsibility. It is right to ask why young people are able, for example, to travel to Syria without the knowledge of the community. This is not the fault of law enforcers, for the blame lies, literally, closer to home.
But we should also recognise that urban policing faces a challenge. It must build relationships with communities, particularly insecure ones in which vulnerable people are most affected by ‘grooming’ of any type, while ensuring that families and communities do not feel under siege from the authorities. When they feel under siege they retreat from the real world and close their doors. When they close their doors they damage inter-community relations, restrict their own ability to take advantage of all that Britain has to offer, and put others at risk from the outside influence of extremist and terrorist organisations.
We want a country in which communities feel safe reporting criminal behaviour to the police and in which the police do not feel that they should occasionally turn a blind eye, letting criminal behaviour slide so as to enhance community cohesion and the police’s own relationship with that community. This legislation completes half of the puzzle by rightly making clear that the law of the land is the one and only benchmark. We now need to make sure we build on the legislation, filling in the missing pieces to ensure that communities are allowed both the freedom they need to be cohesive and the support they need to live safely and securely.