Evidence heard in Public

Questions 266 - 297



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Home Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 22 November 2011

Members present:

Keith Vaz (Chair)

Nicola Blackwood

Michael Ellis

Lorraine Fullbrook

Dr Julian Huppert

Steve McCabe

Alun Michael

Mark Reckless

Mr David Winnick

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Michael Spurr, Chief Executive Officer, Richard Pickering, Head of Security Group, and Ahtsham Ali, Muslim Adviser, National Offender Management Service, gave evidence.

Q266 Chair: Mr Pickering, Mr Spurr and Mr Ali, thank you very much for coming in to give evidence to us today. This is our ongoing inquiry into the roots of radicalism. As you may know, on Monday, members of the Committee will be trying to get into Belmarsh prison to see some of your people, and we look forward to speaking to some of the inmates.

There has been criticism in the media that inmates such as Abu Hamza are using the opportunity of being in prisons to radicalise other prisoners through their sermons. Do you have any evidence of that?

Michael Spurr: We have some evidence of individual prisoners who may have attempted to say things or have indicated views that could attract people to a radical cause. We have a population in prison who are there because they are criminal and who would see themselves as being alienated; therefore, there is an issue about authority. They are therefore a vulnerable population for radicalisation, but actually, we work very hard to address that threat, as we work hard to address a whole range of threats that we face in prisons. This is one of them, and one we take seriously.

Q267 Chair: But how would you know? Presumably, terrorist offenders will have the ability to meet other terrorist offenders once inside prisons. How would you know what they are saying to one another?

Michael Spurr: You cannot know what everyone is saying to anyone else at every moment of the day, but we have appropriate systems to gather intelligence. People talk about what is going on-not just prisoners in direct conversation with one another, but other prisoners who hear things within an establishment. We gather intelligence. We try and identify behaviours that indicate potential for radicalisation or for other criminal behaviour within a prison. We encourage staff and have supported them with awareness training of the types of behaviour, language and material that might indicate there is a potential risk. We expect them to identify those behaviours, to report them, and then we look to manage the individuals. That is our approach.

Q268 Chair: You said in the Prison Service Journal, "That is a major issue for us in terms of how Muslims feel they are perceived…by society and how they are managed in prison." Is it management of the whole religion, when you talk about Muslims, or is it people you think are particularly vulnerable to being influenced by radical preachers?

Michael Spurr: I think both issues are important. We have 12% of the prison population who are Muslim. We know from the thematic review undertaken by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons in 2010 that they feel more alienated than the rest of the population. That was what I was referring to. We are very clear that faith is a positive within prison potentially for people to change, and we support people of all faiths in practising their faith.

Q269 Chair: Do you think it is on the increase or decrease?

Michael Spurr: Is what on the increase or decrease?

Chair: Radicalisation in prisons.

Michael Spurr: It is difficult to say whether it is on the increase or decrease. Actual evidence of people who have been radicalised in prison is very hard to ascertain. We are managing the threat of that. I have no evidence that it is on the increase. I am very conscious that there is a genuine threat; that is why we take action to address that threat.

Q270 Nicola Blackwood: It would be helpful for the Committee to understand in which prisons and under what conditions terrorist prisoners are held; which offenders are classed as international; which are Northern Ireland-related; and which are domestic-related.

Michael Spurr: We hold terrorist prisoners in a range of prisons. We risk-assess individuals rather than determine that all terrorists will be held in a particular prison or location. We risk-assess individuals and we manage them with regard to their risk. The majority of those who are in prison for terrorist-related activities are managed within the high-security estate, because we recognise that their risk is significant. Our policy in the high-security estate for the majority of prisoners who require conditions of high security is to disperse them around five high-security prisons. Terrorists are generally dispersed and managed within that population.

However, if we had evidence of individual risk or attempts to radicalise or create disorder in the establishment, we would respond to that and we could manage individuals in tighter security, for example, in periods of segregation or in close supervision centres, which have particularly high levels of security. Some individuals will be managed in such centres because they pose particular threats to order or the operation of prisons, or the potential for wider radicalisation. We look at individuals. You will see in Belmarsh, if you go on Monday-

Chair: We are going.

Michael Spurr: Indeed; I understand that you are doing that. You will see that there are main prison wings, and there are smaller units, and we manage people depending on their risk, within the range of options available to us.

Q271 Nicola Blackwood: I wonder if you could give us an example of how you would monitor an individual terrorist prisoner, so that you would pick up on their potential for radicalising other prisoners. Would you do spot checks? Would you be checking the cell? What exactly would be the process that you would go through?

Michael Spurr: There are a number of things. There are some things that we would do routinely with all prisoners, which would include cell searches and general searching of individuals, in order to maintain the security of the establishment. Those who are in prison for terrorist offences would be identified and known to staff, because of the nature of their offences. We expect staff to monitor their behaviour routinely when they are operating on wings and engaging with prisoners. We expect them to submit security information reports about anything they see that could potentially indicate a concern. We would monitor on that basis. We would review that intelligence at security meetings and share that with police and then receive any intelligence that they might have.

Q272 Nicola Blackwood: Is there special guidance or a special procedure that you would use for this? Is there some standard way in which you would ensure that you protected the rest of the prison population, or do you just put in place a specific procedure for each individual prisoner?

Michael Spurr: We have standard procedures for monitoring intelligence and managing security, which are applied differentially to the risk for individual prisoners. We expect staff to report security information about a whole range of things, such as drug use and risk of escape. We specifically highlight extremism and radicalisation as something that we would expect staff to report on.

Q273 Dr Huppert: To follow up on that, what training do you give police officers on what signs of radicalisation to identify? You will be aware that there has been criticism of that by Peter Neumann and various others. What signs do they look for?

Michael Spurr: Prison officers, you mean?

Dr Huppert: Yes.

Michael Spurr: We have some basic awareness training when staff are first recruited. We offer some basic awareness workshops to staff who are already in post. They focus on a range of things around behaviours, presentation, how prisoners present, how they challenge, how they might challenge-for example, imams, and how they operate. They are also looking at how prisoners might indicate through their language a lack of acceptance of accepted norms, how their attitude might be towards-if we were looking at al-Qaeda related terrorism-the west, or what their attitude is to general news items and what type of material they might be quoting or looking at or seeking to get access to.

We would focus on the types of relationships that individuals were looking to foster. Are there particular terrorism-related offenders, for example, who are singling out the more vulnerable in the population and looking to get close to them in a grooming style? What is their relationship with higher-end criminal offenders? We ask staff to be conscious of that. We ask them to look at the types of behaviour that have been expressed. A lot of behaviour may well be criminal behaviour. There is criminal behaviour in prisons, there are hierarchies, there are attempts to subvert authority, and there are issues around how people gain status in prison. We look at that behaviour and what the implications of that behaviour are. Obviously, we also look at factual things, such as levels of violence and, where violence occurs, what links back to other prisoners in how the violence appears to have been orchestrated.

Q274 Dr Huppert: That is more encouraging than I have seen it described elsewhere. The flip side is what training prison officers get in counter-radicalisation to try to deal with that. Do all officers get training and, if so, what is it?

Michael Spurr: In terms of counter-radicalisation, our premise is that one of the first things that we have to do is address the negative impacts of prison, which might reinforce alienation and anti-authority views. The whole decency agenda for us-treating people fairly and equally, so as not to alienate the Muslim population, for example-is critical in trying to counter someone who is vulnerable to an anti-authority message. We start with that premise.

We have a whole range of things that we are developing to tackle individuals and counter radical views. We have been working on an extremist risk-guidance assessment, which we have now established and shared with the police. It has been used both externally and internally. It works through 22 risk factors that we want to work on with people who are exhibiting extremist views. We have developed interventions called healthy identity interventions-there is a foundation and a plus level-which we have piloted and are now about to roll out to all terrorist offenders over the next 12 months in custody and the community. We are looking to adapt those interventions to be used also with people who are at risk of becoming radicalised.

Q275 Dr Huppert: So this is for terrorist offenders and people who may be at risk?

Michael Spurr: Yes.

Q276 Dr Huppert: Identified how?

Michael Spurr: For terrorist offenders, through offence, and then for those who are at risk, through intelligence and the engagement that we have with individual offenders within establishments in the way that I have described.

Chair: Nicola Blackwood had a supplementary to the previous question.

Q277 Nicola Blackwood: You mentioned in an earlier answer that there was very little research into radicalisation within prisons, but I wonder, from that research, what conditions you felt led to radicalisation. Is it overcrowding or certain social or psychological factors? What is your assessment from your experience within the prison system? Mr Pickering or Mr Ali may want to come in on that.

Michael Spurr: Yes, of course. I do not think it is so much things like overcrowding. I would refer back to my earlier answer. I do think it is about the potential for individuals who are incarcerated and who therefore feel anti-authority to have negative perceptions of society reinforced while they are in prison and for people to be manipulated because they are vulnerable in prison. They are looking for support from others. They are looking in terms of their own safety. Prisons have always had gang formations and attempts to operate and survive within prisons. There is a prison dynamic around that, which could lead to people who are already criminal moving towards accepting a more radicalising philosophy. That is what I think the risk is. In terms of evidence, what we have seen is that that makes prisons a potential risk for radicalisation, and we need to counter that in the way that we operate.

Q278 Chair: Yes. I think that is the purpose of the inquiry.

Mr Ali, very few of the guards in prison would speak Urdu or Arabic.

Ahtsham Ali: That is correct.

Q279 Chair: So how would they pick up all this information and all the wonderful things that Mr Spurr is talking about? How would they know what they were saying?

Ahtsham Ali: Within the prison population itself, Urdu or Arabic are not common languages. It is mainly English, so the officers will pick that up.

Q280 Chair: Do you mean that Abu Hamza would give his sermon in English? He would not give it in Arabic?

Ahtsham Ali: Sorry?

Chair: Would Abu Hamza speak Arabic if he was giving a sermon?

Ahtsham Ali: He would not be giving a sermon in prison.

Q281 Chair: But if he was dealing with other people?

Ahtsham Ali: He would probably be speaking in Arabic, but when he speaks in Arabic most of the congregation will not understand the Arabic. All our Muslim chaplains, when they give their sermons, they will do so in English with a little bit of Arabic that is part of the whole sermon anyway, but the rest of the message-the core message-will be in English and has to be, because English is the language of the majority of the congregation.

Chair: Thank you. Mark Reckless.

Q282 Mark Reckless: How do prison officers distinguish between the moderate Muslim convert and the potentially radicalised individual?

Michael Spurr: That is obviously something that is difficult and complex. It is one of the reasons why we have actually promoted much greater involvement of imams in the way we operate within prisons. As I said earlier, we absolutely accept and see faith as something that is positive, and our aim therefore is to start from that premise. We now have imams across the estate who are able to support the staff and who are able to support prisoners who are seeking faith. Many prisoners who are Muslims in prison are Muslims because they are looking for fellowship, for brotherhood, for safety, for belonging and all of the things that bring people to faith. That is equally true for Christians in prison as well. When you are at your lowest, people seek ways to find a way of belonging, and that is true. We are focused on the use of imams to support that and to support staff to understand the faith and the differences between people who might be moderate and exploring their faith and those who are trying to drive unrealistic and unfair-

Q283 Mark Reckless: I wonder if I can ask Mr Ali, who may have been about to respond in any event, whether he finds that his imams carry credibility with Muslims-converted or otherwise-in prison, given the structure for their appointment by prisons, albeit with your involvement and advice?

Ahtsham Ali: Yes, very much so. One of the signs for a Muslim chaplain in prison to watch out for is if a prisoner is refusing to pray behind him or whatever. That could be an indicator that something is going on. He could then explore it further and go to speak to him one to one. Your earlier question about moderate Muslims is quite key. Moderate according to whom? It might be officers on a wing. It is important that we get this right, that we look at the signs for radicalisation and that we do not confuse them with the indicators of good, pious behaviour. Obviously, an officer on the wing might see someone praying five times a day and think that that is extreme. Or they might notice that someone’s beard has lengthened. An undue pressure from officers or more monitoring might lead that individual to go more towards the radicalising philosophy. It is important to make sure that officers know what to look for. If they do not know, they should get expert help within the establishment from the Muslim chaplain.

Richard Pickering: If I might come in on that point. Just to reiterate the point that Ahtsham was making, we try not to take a silent approach to this. We talk in terms of security departments working jointly with the multi-faith chaplaincy. Answering your earlier question about how you distinguish types of behaviour, we would make it understood that one of the sources of advice would be the Muslim chaplain or, alternatively, the seconded police officer. We have a range of sources of information to get behind what is being reported.

Q284 Mark Reckless: What do you say to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, which suggests that you have not provided effective guidance on this issue?

Richard Pickering: I have discussed Peter Neumann’s book with him and that was right at its time. It is now some time since Peter wrote that book and we have had further conversations with him. I would not speak for him, but what I would say is that since 2010 when he was doing the background work for this and since 2011 when it was published, we have made significant advances, not least in the areas of training and of interventions.

Chair: Thank you very much. Lorraine Fullbrook.

Q285 Lorraine Fullbrook: Just following on from that, I should like to ask a bit more about the role of imams in prisons. Until about the last 10 years or so, imams in prison were regarded with some suspicion. That changed, and it was realised that imams could be extremely effective in helping to combat radicalisation. How do you ensure that extremist imams are not brought into prison roles?

Ahtsham Ali: All recruitment for employed Muslim chaplains has to take place through myself. I have to be present at every single recruitment board and I have been present at every board for the past eight years since I have been in post. Each individual has to have credible qualifications through seminaries, although there are different seminaries. The problem is that we do not have a set-up like the Anglican Church, with ordination and so on. We have different mechanisms for getting knowledgeable people-imams. I check all the qualifications of the individuals. I double check them as well. I have a database of about 200 imams who currently work for the Prison Service, both sessional and employed. Many of them will have been to the same seminaries as the new candidate, so I double check with them and ask, "Has this candidate been there and studied there?" Following that, they have a rigorous extended interview system. They give a sermon, which has to be in English. They do a role play and then an interview. After, there is security vetting for each chaplain who comes into prison, irrespective of faith. I am confident that that particular aspect is well taken care of.

Q286 Lorraine Fullbrook: Thank you, Mr Ali, that was very interesting. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation has been referred to. It has been suggested that imams should not be regarded as the panacea for the problems of radicalisation in prison. Do you agree with that?

Ahtsham Ali: Yes, I do. There are many factors. One of them is a theological issue, but there are other factors. I am glad that the interventions we have look at psychology, placement and various other factors.

Michael Spurr: That is absolutely right. Imams are important in prisons for the wider issue of supporting the Muslim faith. But imams alone are not the answer, from our perspective, to dealing with people who are potentially vulnerable to radicalisation. I have already described some of the other measures that we take, which are absolutely equally important.

Q287 Lorraine Fullbrook: That really brings me on to the wider range of Islamic schools of thought. Do you think that if prisoners had more access to imams representing those wider schools of thought, they would be less vulnerable to radicalisation?

Ahtsham Ali: I do not think so. I think that on the whole we are reasonably cohesive in terms of denominational issues. Attendance at Friday prayers in some establishments is as high as 95% of Muslim prisoners. On the whole, the majority will consider an imam from a different denomination to them as an imam. But yes, there are a few nuances and, as I have said, one of the indicators is that you have a prisoner-we have had this happen-who refuses to pray behind an imam. These are very rare occasions, but we then go and find out what the problem is, what the issues are, why not and so on. It might be an issue, in some cases, of denominational difference, or it might be that they say "You are Government imams", which is, I think, the point you raised earlier.

Q288 Mr Winnick: Those responsible for the atrocities of 7/7 and 9/11 in the States obviously believed that they would go into paradise as a result of mass murder. How far is it possible from a religious point of view to persuade those who take their religion too seriously-religious fanatics or near-fanatics in all religions -to say that, far from guaranteeing paradise, mass murder is a terrible sin? How far is that possible from the Islamic religious stream?

Ahtsham Ali: It is very clear, and it very clearly can be demonstrated. That is part of the remit of the theological countering of this extremist narrative. You do not go to paradise by doing a wrong, even if you, in your mind, think it’s a right, because justice is paramount. You cannot kill an individual-an innocent person. The issue about paradise within the Islamic context and theologically is there in a battle situation-a legitimate, just war pursued and authorised at state level. It is there, and what extremists do is pick at it and pervert it to include what Osama bin Laden said in his fatwa, that all American civilians are targets. He opened it up to any innocent person being killed which, if you look classically, is absolutely not there in our theology at all.

Q289 Mr Winnick: It is argued that part of the difficulty is that the Saudi Arabian strand of Islam is so conservative, rigid and dogmatic that it does, in an indirect way if you like, help potential mass murderers. Do you agree?

Ahtsham Ali: I think that if you look at the extremist or terrorist prisoners right across the globe, many of them started off in that denominational background, but I have to say that that denomination in itself is not extremist in that sense. Salafist and Wahhabi scholars will equally argue that the taking of an innocent life is absolutely against the core of Islam. To what extent that denomination plays a role is an interesting question, and sometimes I think to myself that we need a plethora of denominational approaches. Some individuals might be more easily persuaded by someone from a particular denomination than someone else.

Chair: Thank you. Michael Ellis.

Q290 Michael Ellis: Gentlemen, looking at Professor Neumann’s report, and this follows on somewhat from Mr Winnick’s question that made reference to Saudi Arabia, there are recommendations that prison services should be more ambitious in promoting positive influences inside prison, and also be more innovative in their approaches. I am referring now to the practices in Egyptian prisons, and we have read something about Saudi Arabian prisons, in terms of the positive influences that they try to instil inside prison as a means of de-radicalisation. Presumably, they are having to deal with greater numbers than us within their prison system. I am not suggesting for a moment that their prison system is flawless, because it certainly isn’t. But they have methods of deradicalising people that are innovative and somewhat more ambitious than ours. Do you have any comment to make about that?

Michael Spurr: I’ll start; Mr Pickering may want to say something else. The first thing is that we are aware of the work that is being done in those countries; indeed, we have looked at that very carefully.

Q291 Chair: Which countries?

Michael Spurr: In Saudi Arabia, for example, and previously, Yemen and elsewhere. In terms of our view in determining how to address the issues here, you’ve got to look at the culture and the experience of people who are in our prisons in England and Wales. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve developed interventions that reflect their experience to try to address the whole issue about motivation to act in an extremist way. I don’t think that is any lack of ambition; I think it’s an appropriate and proper application of what is required to deal with the issues that those individuals are posing here. So that’s what we’ve done. We’ve spent some time looking at and developing what I think are internationally forward-leading programmes to address motivation for extremism.

Q292 Michael Ellis: As far as the innovative approach is concerned, there is the general rehabilitative approach that we tend to adopt in English prisons in terms of all criminal offending, in the form of education, work experience and so on. Do you feel-I invite any of you to comment-that terrorist prisoners require a more tailored approach?

Chair: Mr Ali?

Michael Ellis: Mr Pickering was going to say something.

Richard Pickering: By all means. It has to be tailored to the individual in all circumstances. I think it’s difficult to talk in terms of a blanket approach.

Returning to your first question, absolutely we understand the approaches that have been adopted in other jurisdictions and Administrations. We have worked with international colleagues in developing the packages that we think are appropriate to our population.

Q293 Michael Ellis: So you are talking to others?

Richard Pickering: Yes, absolutely. Again, in terms of whether they need a different sort of intervention that is tailored to their specific requirements, yes, I think we’re beginning to develop those specific new interventions, which are available not just necessarily to terrorist offenders but to the people with the mindset that perhaps leads them to offend in that fashion.

Michael Ellis: I think Mr Ali wanted to come in.

Chair: Please be as brief as possible.

Ahtsham Ali: We have a programme at the end of December in which we will look at sharing good practice. We’ve got imams coming from different countries, organised by the FCO and jointly with us, to share good practice and how they do it.

Chair: Mr Michael has a final question.

Q294 Alun Michael: Yes. Obviously there is the issue of the release, first of terrorist offenders and secondly of people whom you believe might have been radicalised during their time in prison. How does the prison service interact with the probation service at the local level, in making the connections both with families and the community to which people are returning? I get the impression, from speaking to the local services, that you have gone back to a much better link to community level in recent times? Is that correct?

Michael Spurr: I think that that is true. All the terrorist offenders would come out under multi-agency protection panel arrangements, which, by their very nature, require interaction between all the relevant agencies-the police, prison and probation-on the release arrangements, the support that the individual gets and the licence conditions that they will operate under.

Q295 Alun Michael: Could I ask Mr Ali in particular, is that a question of looking at the attitudes of families in relation to people who have offended, and perhaps the way in which they can be reintegrated?

Ahtsham Ali: It is, but that’s not my specialist area. Once they go past the prison gate and into the community, the probation service-

Q296 Alun Michael: Sure. We did have one witness who suggested that perhaps when someone has offended, it is a particular issue for Muslim families to reconnect.

Ahtsham Ali: Often, probation officers and authorities will ask, what particular mosques individuals can go to for help with family reintegration. I’ll signpost them to some imams. I know that there are various Muslim community organisations that are helping reintegration.

Richard Pickering: On the second part of your question, which was about the non-terrorist offenders who have potentially been exposed to radicalising influences in prison, that is part of the picture that would be shared with the multi-agency public protection partners, so that movement between prison and the community is as seamless as possible.

Q297 Chair: Mr Spurr, the Committee will be visiting Belmarsh on Monday, as I said at the beginning. We are told that it will take 45 minutes to get in. I hope that it does not take 45 minutes to get out, because, since we cannot bring the witnesses to the Committee, we would obviously like to spend as much time as possible talking to some of the inmates there. So anything that you can do as head of the service to make our arrival and departure as smooth as possible would help. We would like to leave at the end, by the way.

Michael Spurr: I will do my best. We obviously have to go through appropriate security arrangements, given the type of prison it is, but we will make it as swift as we can-both in and out.

Chair: Indeed. We may well write to you, because you have raised a number of points. Even though your evidence has been very full, it still remains the case that the Home Secretary is clear that radicalisation goes on and you are not clear whether we are winning the battle against radicalisation, although you have imaginative schemes by which you challenge what is going on. We may well write to you again before the end of the inquiry. Thank you very much for coming.

Prepared 23rd November 2011