Our intelligence services are among the best in the world. Perhaps only the Russian and Israeli equivalents surpass our own. But the three Islamist attacks in three months that have rocked the United Kingdom are a symptom of three major problems: our intelligence services are overstretched, understaffed and disempowered.
Since the middle of 2015, 800 British Citizens have travelled to Syria via Turkey in order to receive orders and training from ISIS. 500 of them have since returned. Because they are British citizens, there is little the British state can do to detain them without hard evidence of their activities. Meanwhile, of the 23,000 people on GCHQ’s watch list, 3,000 are ‘persons of interest’ and 500 are under active investigation.
Now, consider this. It takes between 16 and 18 people to track and monitor one individual solidly around the clock. That does not account for the background analytics that need to take place in order to report the information gathered back to the centre. If there are 23,000 people on the watch list and it takes 16-18 people to monitor each of them, you can see we have a problem.
However much money the Government throws at the problem, we will never have the numbers to account for all of those on the watch list. To do this, the security services would need have perhaps as many staff members as the NHS. In a time of all-out war, this would be easily achievable. But we are not facing a conventional war here, so the appetite for industrial-scale intelligence services is not yet sufficiently high to justify such mass recruitment.
Theresa May has set out her stall in the wake of the London Attacks by saying, quite starkly, that “things have got to change.” She has yet to set out detail, but one thing she has not done is call for the return of Control Orders – an effective Labour policy thrown onto the scrap heap in 2011 by the coalition government in order to satisfy the meek virtuosity of Nick Clegg and his fellow Orange Book Liberals.
Before I state the case for the return of Control Orders, remember this: it was Theresa May who scrapped them.
Control Orders were introduced by Labour in 2005 to increase the state’s power to protect members of the public from the risk of terrorism. The list of possible restrictions and obligations that can be included in a control order is long. It can place restrictions on what the person can use or possess, their place of work, place of residence, whom they speak to, and where they can travel.
Furthermore, the person can be ordered to surrender their passport, let the police visit their home at any time, report to officials at a specific time and place, and allow themselves to be electronically tagged so their movements can be tracked. In short, it provides for a graduated scale of technological “prisons without bars” that are intended to work within the European Convention on Human Rights.
The great strength of Control Orders was that the government could isolate people suspected of plotting terrorism. They could cut them off from fellow plotters by confining them to any random part of the country and keep them away from established networks in major cities. Instead, we now have TPIMS (Terrorism Prevention and Investigative Measures Act 2011), a watered-down version of Control Orders which, crucially, does not contain the same restrictions on where people live.
Today Labour’s Emily Thornberry said this is not the time to make political points. I’m sorry, but when you have the Prime Minister who oversaw the scaling back of anti-terror legislation standing on the steps of Number 10 saying “things have got to change”, it is precisely the time to make a political point.
And the point is this. The last Labour government did everything it could to keep British citizens safe from terrorism. It had tough, but humane, restrictions on civil liberties in order to counter the very real threat we are now seeing unfolding on our streets.
There is under a week until the General Election, and it is not too late for Labour to pledge to bring back Control Orders. Do this, and the chance of it being Labour, not the Tories, to whom the British people give the responsibility of defending these islands will greatly increase.
As a good friend of mine commented today, “Never again must our national security be dependent on hand-wringing liberals who place their virtuosity over the protection of the British people.” Quite.