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‘Dangerous weaknesses’ in police vetting for extremism exposed after neo-Nazi joined Met

Lizzie Dearden
·5-min read
 (PA)
(PA)

Police vetting for potential extremists has “dangerous weaknesses”, the shadow home secretary has said after an officer was convicted of joining a neo-Nazi terrorist group.

Benjamin Hannam, 22, was able to pass checks by the Metropolitan Police despite being part of a banned National Action offshoot.

The force accused him of lying on application and vetting forms, but Hannam maintained he answered questions honestly in court.

He remained in the force for two years before his affiliation was discovered when antifascists leaked data from a far-right online forum.

An investigation by The Independent has now revealed that police forces across England and Wales are asking new recruits different questions when screening for racism and political affiliations.

In some areas, the first stage automatically cuts out only those who admit links to a banned terrorist group, while others concentrate on racist groups that fall short of terrorism.

Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, said: “The fact that the current system recently failed to flag an individual’s terrorist links shows it has potentially dangerous weaknesses.

“The government must make urgent revisions to ensure public safety is protected by our police forces, and never compromised.”

On the application form for constables, which is being used in the ongoing scheme to recruit 20,000 new officers, some regional forces ask people to declare that they are “not a current, or previous, member of a proscribed terrorist organisation”.

Other forces ask applicants to confirm that they have never been “a member of the British National Party (BNP) or similar organisations whose aims, objectives or pronouncements may contradict the duty to promote race equality”.

If applicants proceed towards joining their local force, they are later asked to complete a vetting form that varies from area to area.

Hannam passed through recruitment and vetting checks after denying being a member of a group similar to the BNPPA
Hannam passed through recruitment and vetting checks after denying being a member of a group similar to the BNPPA

The majority of police forces that responded to The Independent’s request for information use a question recommended by the College of Policing, asking: “Have you ever been involved in any actions that could be described as politically, religiously, racially, or environmentally disruptive?”

Others ask recruits if they are members “of any domestic extremism groups”, while some specifically name the far right, far left and “extreme animal rights or environmental groups”.

Aspiring police officers in other areas are asked if they are a member of named organisations including Britain First, Combat 18, the National Front and BNP.

Scotland Yard is among several forces with vetting forms that ask: “Are you a member of the BNP or similar organisation whose constitution, aims, objectives or pronouncements may contradict the duty to promote race equality?”

That was the question put to Hannam when he applied to join the Metropolitan Police in 2017.

At the time, he was still a member of NS131, a neo-Nazi group that was later banned as an alias of the National Action terrorist organisation.

Hannam passed vetting checks, completed training and was a probationary constable in an emergency response team by the time of his arrest in March 2020.

Hannam was convicted of fraud and membership of National Actionvia Reuters
Hannam was convicted of fraud and membership of National Actionvia Reuters

He was convicted of fraud for ticking “no” on the BNP question, but defended his answer in court by arguing that the BNP was a political party and different from National Action.

The Metropolitan Police admitted it is still asking the same question to new recruits on its application and vetting forms.

A spokesperson said the forms would soon be updated to follow College of Policing recommendations, adding: “Hannam lied on his application and vetting forms and has been convicted of fraud in relation to this. Checks that were carried out during his vetting process did not identify anything that resulted in his application being refused.

“While the Met carries out extensive checks on applicants, no vetting process can 100 per cent assure the integrity of an individual.”

Weyman Bennett, of Stand Up To Racism, said vetting processes “have to be stronger” altogether, and that even a tightened questionnaire allows applicants to lie.

“It’s not good enough for the police to ask people if they are racists, and then if they turn out to be racist say they lied,” he said.

Amid continuing concerns over racial disproportionality in the use of force and stop and search, he added: “Far-right people are attracted to authoritarian positions where they can exercise their views against minorities. There is an onus on organisations to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Several serving and retired police officers were found to have joined the BNP when its membership list was leaked online in 2008, but the party has since faded into obscurity.

Recent years have seen the emergence of violent neo-Nazi groups primarily targeting young men for recruitment, while anti-Islam street movements, such as the English Defence League, have declined.

The College of Policing said police forces were permitted to make changes to national forms in order to “take local issues and demands into account”.

“It is important to note that the questions on the application form are part of the recruitment process and do not replace the full and detailed vetting process, which each candidate is subject to when joining a police force,” a spokesperson added.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council said the vetting process went beyond the questions asked.

A statement said: “Prior to the offer of appointment as a police officer, all prospective recruits are required to undergo rigorous vetting, in line with the Vetting Code of Practice and Approved Professional Practice, which is regularly reviewed and updated. This vetting is carried out by dedicated units which form part of a comprehensive and proportionate process.”

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