‘Deep concerns’ over MI5 information sharing on terrorism with local authorities

Cllr Andy Hull speaking on tackling hate crime at an event at Finsbury Park Mosque. Photograph: BBC London.

Islington councillors have voiced “deep concerns” about an information-sharing arrangement with the security services currently being piloted in London, the West Midlands and the North West.

Warning comparisons are drawn by Islington councillors between the Multi-Agency Centre (MACs) project and the sharing of responsibilities across multiple agencies for creating a ‘hostile environment’ that led to the Windrush scandal in a 4 June letter to councils’ umbrella organisations the Local Government Association (LGA) and London Councils.

The letter, signed by executive member for community safety Cllr Andy Hull (Lab, Highbury West) and Islington council leader Cllr Richard Watts (Lab, Tollington), questions what responsibility for the cases of some or all of a potential 20,000 people on MI5 watchlists would be shared with Town Halls.

Cllr Hull said: “Islington Council takes its responsibilities when it comes to community safety and national security extremely seriously.

“After the deadly far-right terrorist attack in Finsbury Park in 2017, we have more experience than most councils of the damage which violent extremism can do.

“It is because of our determination to keep our residents safe – not despite it – that we have questions to ask of the Home Office about any sharing of information on individuals by the Security Service with the council which is being proposed by government.

“We already have well-established partnerships in place locally to safeguard vulnerable residents of all ages. If the government wants the security service to play a part in them, our legitimate questions deserve answers.”

Cllr Hull added that Islington remains in the dark as to how many people’s names might be shared, how much the Town Hall would be told about them and why they are listed, or what action the council would be expected to take.

It also remains unclear to what extent councils would be responsible for risk management, whether the named individuals would be aware of their names being passed on, and what funding would be available for any roll-out of the programme.

The MACs pilots started in spring 2018 and are set to last two years. The results, associated costs and wider consequences for all partners will then be evaluated before any further rollout.

The Islington councillors’ letter states that: “[F]undamentally, it is not the proper role of local authorities to monitor individuals suspected of links to terrorism. Such surveillance should be left to the Security Service, the
Secret Intelligence Service, GCHQ and the police.”

In a 6 July response, the LGA strive to reassure Islington that, based on its understanding of the project so far, councils would not bear ‘sole responsibility’ for any risks posed, and would not be expected to conduct surveillance or monitor subjects.

The LGA’s understanding is based on discussions between its officers and members involved in the current pilots, as well as discussions between Blackpool council leader Cllr Simon Blackburn (Lab, Brunswick), LGA chair of the Safer, Stronger Communities Board, and Home Office officials.

According to their correspondence, both Islington and the LGA highlight concerns that the MACs could “badly blur” the ‘Prevent’ and ‘Pursue’ tactics of counter-terrorism strategy, as well as the prospect that “excessive risk” could be transferred to councils.

Prevent is any work done to stop people becoming involved with terrorism, whilst Pursue is dedicated to stopping the attacks themselves, according to the UK’s 2018 counter-terrorism plan.

In his response to Islington, Cllr Blackburn added: “I do not entirely agree that surveillance should be ‘left to the security services.’ It is for them, as the experts, to take the lead, but it is for us as leaders of place to offer every support.

“I am not convinced that there is a parallel between what is proposed and the mistakes that have undoubtedly been made in immigration control, but I can assure you that we will continue to rigorously challenge the Home Office and convey our members’ concerns to them.”

No formal consultation on the MACs with local authorities has yet taken place, with the LGA having had “no direct involvement” in the pilot programmes.

The Home Office has stated that the MACs, formerly known as Operation Constrain, is a supportive partnership between town halls and counter-terrorism police aimed at better understanding those who have been investigated for reasons of national security.

The MACs’ stated aim is to allow data to flow from the police and security agencies to “the partners who are best placed to safeguard and support the individual”, seeking to build a more detailed understanding of an individual’s needs and risks.

Coordinated interventions could then be made where appropriate to move people away from violent extremism.

The strategy states that the MACs pilots are primarily aimed at support, and that where information emerges that an individual may pose a risk to themselves or others and immediate intervention is required, the police would be responsible for direct risk-management.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government, just like local authorities, is focused on safeguarding people from being exploited and helping those few that need it to rehabilitate themselves and re-enter mainstream society.

“We should all welcome the partnership that the Prevent policy invokes so that our children are kept safe.”

London Councils and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government were also contacted for comment.