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Simulations, Securitisation and Institutional Inertia

02/02/2010

The UK Home Affairs Select Committee has this morning published the results of its recent hearings on The Home Office’s Response to Terrorist Attacks, and it’s a mixed bag as expected. I haven’t read the whole thing but here are a few preliminary thoughts on its headline findings.

•    Ministers need to place greater emphasis on participation in emergency simulations.

No idea why this should be top of their list. I just keep hearing the late great Jean Baudrillard chuckling in my ears…

•    A formalised National Security Committee chaired by the Home Secretary or Prime Minister and assisted by prominent, publicly accountable National Security Advisers must be appointed.

This is also exactly what the Conservatives want. They claim it will not be “a new bureaucracy but a centre of decision-making”.

•    A lack of political will hindered the creation of regional counter-terrorism units; the Government was not proactive enough in instigating valuable reforms to the policing structure.

I wonder what the committee’s case is here? It implies that the reforms were valuable but happened too slowly.  Big deal.

•    The primacy of the Metropolitan Police in counter-terrorism operations should be enshrined in statute to increase accountability and simplify the command structures.

In statute? They already take the lead in SO15. I’m curious if the Met wants this too. Retired Met Deputy Commissioner Andy Hayman did make the point in evidence that if anything went wrong the current “gentleman’s agreement” between the Met and other forces would be seriously strained. What legal instrument would be employed to do this? Another Act of Parliament, in which the NSC is also set up forever?  We’ve already had six, or seven, or … how many is it now?

•    The creation of a separate National Terrorism Agency modelled on the American Department of Homeland Security has the potential to cause major problems and will not represent a major simplification of policing structures.

Hallelujah. Such an organisation would have to be a standalone creation, or the merging of existing agencies. The last thing we actually need is a monolithic security agency à la DHS. There might be some short-term marginal gains but it seems to me that you need some tension between agencies to preserve oversight and avoid the worst group-think.

•    The Government should immediately introduce legislation allowing the admission of intercept evidence in court.

Absolutely. If you’re going to collect this stuff then at least use it in court. It’s a form of processual transparency, and will help CPS’ case if the evidence is good enough to bring genuine prosecutions.

•    Control Orders no longer provide an effective response to the continuing threat and the control order regime is no longer viable.

Finally. There has been a quite bizarre and persistent adherence by the government to control orders. Time to throw them out.

•    Budgets for counter-terrorism work have increased greatly but there is a lack of Parliamentary oversight of this spending and a possibility of problems caused by “ring fencing” this money.

This criticism cuts a lot deeper than might first appear, although I doubt the Committee is really being ballsy here. How about asking the really important question: just why are we even spending this money? And what the implications of this securitisation are?

•    The structures that are now in place may be suitable for combating the terrorist threat as currently constituted, but we are not confident that government institutions have the desire to constantly adapt to meet ever-changing threats.

“The terrorist threat as currently constituted”? And what’s that exactly? So, the threat’s constantly adapting, and government institutions are to do the same?  Good luck with that. This is an aspirational point, and governments everywhere are unlikely to deliver on this point. It’s a good idea not to support an NTA, as that would almost certainly stifle the adaptation they desire. I also wonder whether they’re conflating adaptation and innovation as processes/outcomes of change?

We’re a few months shy of a general election, so don’t expect much to change before summer. If the Tories get in we will see a National Security Committee/Council (they use both terms), and perhaps some legislation. There’s also the Defence Review in the next parliament, so there may be some overlap there too. In the meantime, I leave you with Home Secretary Alan Johnson’s reaction to the report. Would we have expected this government to have said anything else?

“I totally refute the unsubstantiated and wholly inaccurate claims in this inadequate report. The government fully understands the threat this country faces from international terrorism and has extremely effective systems and processes in place to deal with it. Indeed, it is all the more surprising, given that the same committee found only six months ago that; ‘the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy is first-class, effective and as “joined-up” as any system of government can expect.’”