CONTEST: ‘world-leading’ oversight, scrutiny and transparency?

Earlier this month, the government published the most recent version of its counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST. The new CONTEST ­– published two years later than expected – was informed by the outcome of several reviews, including the National Security Capability Review, which was established shortly after the 2017 General Election to identify how to ‘develop, deliver and deploy our considerable national security capabilities to maximum collective effect.’ The National Security Capability Review was itself commissioned following the outcome of another review, this time of the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 by the National Security Council. Finally, the government reviewed the existing CONTEST strategy, taking into account various other ‘reviews and lessons learned exercises’ which were ‘undertaken by government departments, Counter-Terrorism Policing, the security and intelligence agencies and Parliament.’

‘Review’ thus features prominently in the formation of the new CONTEST strategy. However these reviews have all been carried out internally, within government. This poses a challenge to at least two of the characteristics of counter-terrorism review that we have identified from our empirical work – that review should be participatory and transparent. Furthermore, the notable absence of independence in the review process (because the review is carried out by the sane body that is being reviewed) perhaps explains the overwhelmingly positive report. The CONTEST strategy quotes directly from the National Security Capability Review, which stated that it ‘found CONTEST to be a well-organised and comprehensive response to terrorism, with strengths in terms of powers, resources, reach and resilience.’ By conducting its review in house, the government has, in effect, marked its own homework and given itself an A+.

So what about reviews of the new CONTEST strategy. Previously, the Home Office published an annual report on CONTEST, and the 2018 strategy states that the government ‘will continue to publish an annual report on our counterterrorism work.’ The most recent report was published back in 2016, so it is to be hoped that there is more consistency with reporting on the new CONTEST strategy. However, those reports pose the same challenges as the reviews that informed the new CONTEST strategy; they are produced internally, conducted by the Home Office. What does CONTEST say about any the other avenues for review? Not that much.

In terms of the Pursue strand of CONTEST – the purpose of which is to stop terrorist attacks from happening in the UK ­– the strategy notes that it will continue to ‘Ensure strong independent oversight of our counter-terrorism work, including publishing annual reports by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, the Biometrics Commissioner and the Investigatory Powers Commissioner.’ In the most comprehensive section on oversight in the whole strategy, two pages are dedicated to outlining the numerous review bodies that oversee the police and investigatory powers that fall within the Pursue strand of CONTEST. These include the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner and Investigatory Powers Tribunal, Civil Society, and the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.

It is less clear how the other three strands of CONTEST will be reviewed, if at all. There is, for example, no mention of how the Prevent, Protect and Prepare strands of CONTEST are to be reviewed, except for a vague reference to them having ‘governance that coordinates activity and tracks relevant objectives’. The Prevent Oversight Board, which we discussed in an earlier blog post, appears to have disappeared. But more Prevent programmes have been established. There is a new Desistance and Disengagement Programme which aims ‘over the next 12 months to more than double the number of individuals receiving rehabilitative interventions’. The Desistance and Disengagement Programme is a new element of Prevent, which focuses ‘on people subject to court approved conditions, including all terrorism and terrorism-related offenders on probation licence, as well as those on Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs) and those who have returned from conflict zones in Syria or Iraq and are subject to Temporary Exclusion Orders (TEOs).’ But the Desistance and Disengagement Programme is more than just a preventive or rehabilitative mechanism, it has a coercive aspect to it: ‘Where mandated for individuals subject to TEOs, TPIMs or probation requirements, non-compliance could lead to the possibility of being charged for breach of conditions or being recalled to prison.’ It is crucial that new aspects of CONTEST are subject to scrutiny and oversight, so that it is clear not only how, but also how well they are working.

Towards the end of the new CONTEST strategy, the government sets out its view of the quality of counter-terrorism review in the UK:

“Oversight, scrutiny and transparency of our counter-terrorism work is world-leading, and includes the reports we publish, the involvement of independent judges who review government agencies’ use of intrusive powers and government applications for TEOs and TPIMs, an independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, and accountability to Parliament. We will continue to engage extensively with the public, civil society, academia and Parliament, and through community outreach. We aim to listen and respond to improve our approach to keeping the public safe.”

The contention that the UK’s oversight of counter-terrorism is ‘world-leading’ is not new; similar claims were made when the Investigatory Powers Bill was introduced two years ago. Over the next nine months, the Counter-Terrorism Review Project will be subjecting this claim to academic scrutiny, by evaluating the existing arrangements for oversight and scrutiny of the UK’s counter-terrorism laws, practices and policies.

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