Ministers ignored official recommendations to combat hateful extremism

Exclusive: Widower of murdered MP Jo Cox says it ‘seems bizarre not to have acted on’ years of expert advice

Lizzie Dearden
Security Correspondent
Sunday 17 October 2021 22:01
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Security concerns grow after U.K. MP’s murder

Ministers have failed to act on any of the official recommendations for tackling the rise of extremism in Britain, it can be revealed.

Over three years, the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) – set up by Theresa May in the wake of the Manchester Arena attack – has repeatedly warned more had to be done to tackle the evolving threats facing the UK, including closing legal loopholes that allowed those who inspired terrorists to go free.

But ministers have not formally responded to any of the reports released by the body since 2019, and none of the suggested measures have been put in place, despite warnings that security threats would worsen until the government stepped up its response.

It comes as counterterror police investigate the murder of Conservative MP Sir David Amess, who was stabbed to death while holding a constituency surgery inside a church on Friday. Officers are reportedly investigating whether Ali Harbi Ali, the 25-year-old arrested over the killing, had been “self-radicalised” during lockdown.

Figen Murray, whose son Martyn Hett was killed in the Manchester attack, referenced the Manchester Arena inquiry’s report that warned “doing nothing is not an option” in regard to the threat of extremism, and that more people could be harmed if action is not taken.

“Violent extremism continues to threaten communities and with attacks on Manchester Arena, in London, the Reading attack, to mention but a few, there have been ample opportunities to learn lessons and establish what needs to be done,” she told The Independent.

“It is an issue of concern if police and other professionals of relevance are confused about what to do when encountering hateful extremism.”

Speaking before Sir David’s death, Brendan Cox, the widower of murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, said: “Given the seriousness of the subject matter and the expertise of those involved, it seems bizarre not to have acted on – or at least responded to – the recommendations made [by the CCE]. There’s nothing more important than protecting the public.”

Despite the warnings, however, the future of the CCE itself is now in doubt after the government failed to replace the lead commissioner and appointed an adviser to look at its “structure and function”.

In a review of its three years of operation published earlier this year, the CCE implored the government to implement its recommendations. “The threat of hateful extremism has not dissipated but instead is evolving and worsening,” the document said.

“We must all take this threat to our citizens, our communities and our democracy seriously and act decisively to ensure, as a nation, that we are able to respond to activity that seeks to normalise the incitement of hatred and violence.”

211015 Police Statement On Amess

In February, a review conducted by the CCE and the former head of UK counter-terror policing Sir Mark Rowley found that new laws were needed to stop hateful groups from “operating with impunity”.

It said extremists were exploiting gaps between existing hate crime and terrorism legislation, and that some terrorists, such as the London Bridge attack ringleader, could have been arrested earlier if tighter laws had been in place.

Sir Mark, who retired as the head of UK counter-terrorism policing in 2018, told The Independent: “I have had no feedback from the Home Office on their plans in relation to our report on the absence of a coherent legal framework to tackle hateful extremism.

“It remains legal in some circumstances intentionally to stir up race or religious hatred or to glorify terrorism. These are dangerous loopholes highlighted in our report that continue to be exploited by hateful extremists.”

Another report published by the CCE found that there was a “worrying level of confusion” among police over how to respond to hateful extremism, because of the “lack of any clear operational definition” and proper training.

The CCE also criticised the government for taking a “confusing and ineffective approach, based on a vague and ambiguous definition of ‘extremism’” with its 2015 Counter Extremism Strategy.

The former lead commissioner for countering extremism, Sara Khan, has not been fully replaced

The body noted: “Unlike the government’s failed attempt at an Extremism Bill in 2015, the commission’s report and recommendations have received widespread public support from several faith leaders and the national lead for counter-terrorism policing.”

In March, the CCE said it needed statutory powers that would enable it to carry out inquiries, publish assessments and establish a research hub.

In a letter sent in March to Sara Khan, the former lead commissioner for countering extremism, the home secretary did not commit to implementing any recommendations.

Priti Patel said the CCE’s flagship report of October 2019, which called for significant government action including an official definition of hateful extremism, had contributed to “consideration of how we tackle it”.

She said the Operating With Impunity report would be “considered very carefully”, but a full response to its recommendations has not been published and no action has been announced.

Ms Khan was not replaced when her term ended in March and “interim” lead commissioner Robin Simcox’s post is due to end this month.

In June, he said his “primary focus” would be advising the government “on the future structure and function of the CCE”, and the government is not currently advertising for a new lead commissioner.

Conor McGinn, Labour’s shadow security minister, said: “Time and again we have seen the consequences of hate and violent extremism in our communities and on our streets.

“Now is the time to redouble our efforts to tackle terrorism and extremism by taking seriously the recommendations of experts, by listening to survivors and victims and by supporting those working hard to tackle this growing threat.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government remains committed to ensuring the continuity of the work of the Commission for Countering Extremism.

“The appointment of the interim lead commissioner was made to ensure the continuation of its vital work to tackle extremism and to advise on the Commission’s permanent structure and functions.

“We will set out the future direction of the commission shortly, including launching the recruitment process for the lead commissioner role.”

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