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Detecting Radicalisation in Communities

Professor Sue Roberts, University of Portsmouth, explains how important are local information and multi-agency partnership to policing and community safety in the UK. Full tittle: Detecting Radicalisation in Communities: The Role of Multi-Agency Partnership and the Power of Local Information.


Following the 2017 UK terrorist attacks by extremist religious individuals, it is notable that politicians and individual commentators remarked on the pressing need for local partnership working in England (BBC question time, 5 June 2017; Faith Matters 2017; Brendan Cox 19 June 2017). For it is by this means, people working together in a community, that local information and intelligence can be accessed, especially relating to emerging radicalisation. The early warning signs that could lead to active terrorism of the kind witnessed in the 2017 attacks (UNISON 2016) are being missed, and there are reasons why. This paper looks at why local information and multi-agency partnership are important to policing and community safety in the context of concerns about radicalisation and extremism, reviewing the policy changes, and their effects in partnership arrangements that have occurred in the UK since 2010. The paper goes on to present findings about the crucial significance of local partnership working in detecting radicalisation and some of the challenges faced by professionals now. The third part of the paper considers the question of how relevant agencies can monitor ongoing extremism and terrorism in communities through local intelligence gleaned through partnership working and other means.

1. Why partnership matters

The Faith Matters Group, a UK-based multi-faith organisation, wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, Theresa May in 2017 saying

“The only way forward is through multi-level engagement and dialogue, irrespective of political differences. Her Majesty’s Government is also our Government and we firmly believe that dialogue and partnership are the best ways to counter extremism.”

This sentiment was echoed in BBC television’s Question Time prior to the 2017 general election by Nicola Sturgeon, first Minister of Scotland (BBC 2017) and by Brendan Cox, the husband of murdered English MP, Jo Cox, on the BBC news on 19 June 2017. Both the Scottish first minister and Brendan Cox emphasised the need for communities to work together and for statutory agencies to involve themselves in partnership with them. This, it was suggested, will help to identify early warning signs and concerns in communities about individuals and groups that could be at risk of extremism or terrorist activity. In light of these concerns, it is important to focus attention on some of the key policy changes that have contributed to a decline in local partnership working and community cohesion, whilst trying to answer the questions raised.

There is evidence in the research for this paper that partnership and joint working at local level can be a significant contributor in the move towards tackling religious extremism where it appears to germinate in communities. We must ask why, after these latest terrorist incidents, do ordinary people appear to be calling for a return to local partnership working rather than encouraging us to build on existing partnerships? What could have happened to community links with statutory and non-statutory bodies that we are now asking ourselves searching questions about how religious extremism and terrorism goes undetected by those that could, in theory, respond? Critically, why does there now seem to be a gap in this local intelligence? This paper offers some possible responses to these questions about our connectedness to local people.

Whatever the dearth in partnership working at local level, it behoves us in light of these recent terrorist attacks, to question the ongoing role of civic society in helping to prevent radicalisation and terrorism. If we are to respond as a “joined up society” to the tragedies created by terrorism, an exploration of the current position with regard to local, community-based partnership in England is clearly important and timely

2. The roots of multi-agency partnership working

Multi-agency partnership as a concept is not new. Most local authorities in England have worked closely with various agencies and communities over the years, but in the early days of the 1997 Blair government in the UK, multi-agency partnership became a key operational mechanism for a more “joined up” form of government and localism (Ling 2002, 616; Pollitt 2003). This was intended to encourage closer working between central and local governments to further the notion of localism, encourage greater interaction between stakeholders at local level to support policy and make good use of resources.

The Children Act, 1989 (Great Britain 1989) established the statutory framework for inter-agency collaboration in the UK, setting up the foundations for co-operation between different organisations, stakeholders and ordinary people in a given locality (Cheminais 2008, 1). Multi agency partnerships (MAPs) became a statutory requirement for local government in England with the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (Great Britain 1998) which established Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships (CDRPs, now Community Safety Partnerships or CSPs) in localities across the country. Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs) followed in 2000 with the Local Government Act (Great Britain 2000) which were similarly constituted but with a wider brief across communities. The CSPs still have a statutory remit, and therefore retain validity in the wider picture of community safety. The LSPs, however, do not. That does not mean to say that the LSPs are in any sense less valid. Many have changed to become community partnerships, delivering good quality community partnership working, or have been absorbed into the CSP (Roberts 2016, 1).

Multi agency partnerships such as the LSPs and CSPs are characterised by their breadth and variety of membership. This was set out in the legislation and statutory instruments that initiated them in the first place (Great Britain 1989; Great Britain 2000; DETR 09, 2001). Members usually include Police, Fire and Rescue Services, Local Authorities, Faith Groups, NHS, Voluntary sector, Education, Probation, representatives, community leaders, Social and Caring services, those dealing with domestic abuse and many others. The idea was, and still is, that all sections of the community should be represented, providing a forum for the discussion of relevant local issues within a given area, which usually tends to be urban-based, even if those members of the partnership also represent more rural areas. The governance for these partnerships, although set out at national level, is intended to reflect the local area.

The practice of running public services locally within a geographically close area fits with the notion of corporatist governance (Pierre 2011, 49). Corporatist Governance as described by Pierre (2011) focuses on multi-agency public service delivery within an urban geographical area and, significantly, is characterised by a more “distributive” (p. 50) form of network governance. This means that governance is shared among members as with CSPs and LSPs. Co-operation and joint working are typical of a corporatist governance environment, which includes ordinary members of the public with an interest in the area. Most significant of all is the encouragement of “public discourse on matters of public concern” (p. 51). Here at the most local of levels, important information can be shared, not just between statutory agencies such as the police and local authorities, but with all partners, including those members of the public who are involved. This approach is typical of both the CSPs and the LSPs and is a recognised form of “partnership paradigm” (Crawford in Delpeuch and Ross 2016, 3) for community and knowledge-based policing.

Any changes to the process of corporatist governance in a given area will weaken the chain of local information, as with the removal of the Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) in some areas (Greig-Midlane 2014; Loveday 2017a; Loveday 2017b) and the demise of local partnerships such as the LSPs and the distancing of the CSPs from the Police and Crime Commisioners (Loveday 2013). The loss of the PCSOs is a very troubling issue in the fragmentation of local information from communities and appears to represent a bid to preserve the establishment posts of full police officers (Greig-Midlane 2014, 7; UNISON 2016). In light of the comments made by politicians and other commentators referred to previously, Andy Stenning, (2016) stated in the UNISON interview cited above

“If you look at counter terrorism, PCSOs are the eyes and ears of the counter terrorism branch, they are engaging with all communities, and learning about what’s going on. They have what we call ‘local intelligence’ that in crime situations leads us to offenders, and in terrorist situations to the terrorists.”

This is supported by the research for this paper. One participant from Surrey Police (Interview 1) affirmed that the intelligence from PCSOs gives police officers vital local knowledge about where problems are likely to occur, who could be involved and where to direct precious, diminishing police resources. In times of extreme stress in public sector spending, this information saves both time and resources. The removal of the PCSOs (Greig-Midlane 2014, 7) in forces across the country weakens a central link in the chain of local knowledge and by extension, the ability for the police and other agencies to detect emerging threats such as extremism and terrorism.

3. Changes in governance and partnership arrangements

Since 2010 and the introduction of the Localism Act 2011, (Great Britain 2011) which dismantled the power of Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs) in England by removing the Local Area Agreements (Rees, Mullins and Bovaird 2012, 5) local joint working between agencies has become more fragmented. Added to this, the Community Safety Partnerships have seen their role confused and in some cases sidelined by the introduction of the Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) (Crawford in Delpeuch and Ross 2016). Loveday (2013) warned of this, pointing out that the PCCs could affect the Community Safety Partnerships (CSPs) negatively. There is no statutory imperative to compel the PCCs to work with CSPs and the concern that he mentions in this paper emanating from CSPs about the rather flaccid responsibility by PCCs to “monitor” the CSPs appears to cast the PCCs in a more remote role. The research for this paper supports that perception in that respondents report a sense of separation and remoteness from PCCs, and indeed one respondent (Interview 3) from the offices of a PCC confirmed that the role focuses more on the “national, than the local picture”. Loveday’s (2013) paper goes on to discuss the benefits of local multi agency partnership, established under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (Great Britain1998) in which agencies were required to work together to tackle local issues.

CSPs are still functioning in most areas, and continue to deliver the multi-agency work that connects local communities with statutory bodies, but there is concern over the future under the aegis of the PCCs and the distancing of the relationship between the two of them (Crawford in Delpeuch and Ross 2016). The remoteness in the relationship between some PCCs and CSPs represents a dislocation from the local to the national picture and begs the question: how can the kind of local intelligence that could help detect radicalisation and nascent terrorist activity be effectively shared with those in a national policy-influencing position without strong connections and close working between the two? This is taking place within an environment of diminishing police resources, (Disney and Simpson 2017). In this financial climate, there are anxieties that the police may need to divert already strained resources towards tackling terrorism, which may leave other core services vulnerable (interviews 1, 2 and 5). This situation is something of a “Catch22”. Focusing large scale resources on terrorism may drain the very local resources that could help detect it. Notwithstanding this difficult situation and given that tackling terrorism is a key priority, the connections to vital local intelligence, where terrorism can germinate through radicalisation, are more important than ever. Terrorism is not openly discussed on a national stage by those who are plotting it, but it does appear to begin covertly in local communities.

It should be remembered that most local partnerships and public services are operating in an environment in which rapidly contracting resources dominate the agenda for public services. No respite appears to be forthcoming, and further cuts to public spending are planned (LGA 2017). Meanwhile the research for this paper has shown that the relationships between some CSPs and PCCs continue to be uncertain and a cause for concern, especially among community safety practitioners in local councils. (Crawford in Delpuech and Ross 2016, 148). This represents a difficult operating environment in which local information can be easily shared.

4. Political and policy changes

The policy changes and revisions to policy since the advent of the UK Coalition Government in 2010 and the Conservative Government in 2015 have all led in a particular direction. The Coalition, then Conservative government policy of Austerity was initiated as a political response to part of a global crisis precipitated by the failure of the sub-prime mortgage market in the US and the increase in risky lending activities on the part of some banks and financial institutions. The reaction to this by the UK Coalition Government in 2010 was to launch a programme of Austerity to tackle a national financial deficit exacerbated by this crisis. Austerity was undertaken in the British public sector as an approach to reducing the size of the state and cutting public spending whilst enlarging the role of the private sector in the delivery of public services (Sawyer 2011, 4).

The brunt of the cuts to public spending under Austerity were borne by local government in the first instance ( JRF 2015) and by major services such as the NHS and the Police. The drive to reduce public spending was announced resulting in a projected end to direct government grant funding to local authorities in England by 2020. This news produced the now famous Barnet council “graph of doom” showing the demands on local authorities to provide adult social care and children’s services alone and the amount expected in government grants through to 2020 when central government funding through the Revenue Support Grant would drastically reduce.

Keep reading and access the full article here.

Sue Roberts is a Senior Lecturer, University of Portsmouth, UK


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