Martyn McLaughlin: Sinister plan to turn council staff into MI5 agents

Council officials have many talents but some may know little more about the security services than the comedy characater Johnny English (Picture: Future Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)
Council officials have many talents but some may know little more about the security services than the comedy characater Johnny English (Picture: Future Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)
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Plans to share declassified MI5 intelligence with council staff and others in the public sector are not justified, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

It is a reassuring sign of the UK Government’s commitment to continuity that in his first keynote speech as Home Secretary, Sajid Javid demonstrated the same withering disregard for civil liberties as his predecessors.

In a wide-ranging address outlining a revamp of grassroots counter-terror policy, Mr Javid confirmed MI5 is to declassify information it holds on British citizens suspected of having terrorist sympathies, before sharing it with a range of public bodies.

The information about “closed subjects of concern” – that is, individuals who have previously been investigated by MI5, and who may pose a threat in the future – will be cascaded down not just to other government departments and devolved administrations, but the likes of local authorities and health boards.

Quite how this will all work in practice has been left up in the air. Mr Javid has offered little in the way of reassurance over how an untrained and reluctant army of workers will suddenly be asked to assist the security services.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the security minister, Ben Wallace, failed miserably to flesh out Mr Javid’s plans.

He pointed out that any given investigation involved “hundreds of phone calls” and “thousands of text messages”, communications which throw up a cast of people on the “periphery”, who may have lent suspects money, for instance.

“They might not know what it’s for, or they might know exactly what they are lending the money for,” Mr Wallace said. “So that creates a large pool of people who are currently not active but present a real challenge because they are the ones who often appear in some of the attacks, who have been known but not actually crossed that current activity that means we could do something about it.”

Thankfully, this Trumpian riddle was soon unpicked as the Home Office duly published a 90-page document offering a slightly more coherent account of the new strategy than Mr Wallace’s abilities allowed. It is worth reading in detail, if only to marvel at the sheer gall of its authors.

READ MORE: MI5 intelligence to be shared with local councils

The creation of so-called Multi Agency Centre (MAC) pilots – which the Home Office intends to roll out across London, Greater Manchester, and the West Midlands – is a mission statement as much as a strategy, and its core message threatens to run a coach and horses through human rights legislation.

The Home Office believes that by sharing MI5’s information more widely, it will improve the risk assessments of those people who may be on the verge of being radicalised, and “bring to bear a broader, larger set of local interventions”. There is no elaboration of this vaguely sinister promise.

The strategy is also disingenuous in how it tries to present the multi-agency approach as a new initiative. In her foreword, Prime Minister Theresa May explains the revamped approach will link up “not only just the intelligence agencies but also local authorities, health providers and many others”. This method, she adds, “will make it harder than ever for terrorists and those who support them to plan and carry out attacks”.

It may have escaped Ms May’s attention, but the idea of involving councils, schools, and colleges in Britain’s counter-terror work is well-established. The Prevent strategy was introduced by Labour as long ago as 2003, part of the wider CONTEST approach, which seeks to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.

In Scotland, it manifests itself through Prevent Professional Concerns (PPC), a process which tasks local authorities, schools, universities, health boards, the Scottish Prison Service, and certain private and voluntary organisations with identifying individuals who may be vulnerable to radicalisation before making a referral.

It is a complex system which has required a considerable investment of time and money to implement across the public sector, but to what end?

READ MORE: Spies Wanted: Britain’s espionage agency MI6 looks for new recruits

The latest available figures for 2016/17 show that there were 59 referrals, of which nearly half required no further action. Only two referrals were accepted as legitimate PPC cases. The previous year, there was a total of 81 referrals; 59 required no further action, and there were no PPC cases.

These figures are not anomalies. According to The Ferret, the Scottish investigative journalism site, just three people have been identified as at risk of being “drawn into terrorism” since 2011.

The lack of referrals, let alone prosecutions, through PPC has led many to question its purpose. Its critics argue that it is a counterproductive, if not sinister strand of counter-terror policy, although equally, an argument could be made that even if it stops just one potential terror attack, that alone would be justify its existence.

Whatever your view, it is difficult to settle upon an agreed definition of success when it comes to PPC. Perhaps a better question, one which should be asked just as keenly of the newly announced data-sharing strategy, is whether it is proportionate.

Mr Javid’s civil servants have been at pains to stress MI5 is dealing with a sizeable and sustained threat, with upwards of 500 “live operations” underway into around 3,000 “subjects of interest”. That workload is problematic, but the Home Office needs to justify why ordinary council workers and teachers are best placed to help out Thames House.