IN DEFENCE OF PREVENT: WHY BRITAIN’S ANTI-RADICALISATION STRATEGY MUST BE REFORMED RATHER THAN SCRAPPED.
PREVENT, part of the Government’s annual £40m counter terrorism strategy, seeks to challenge the impact of extremism and radicalisation by ‘’encouraging debate’ in local communities, colleges, universities and schools.
It works through statutory community safety partnerships led by local councils. Each police force has a specially trained Prevent officer who liaises with community groups and other public bodies. All teachers, FE lecturers, social workers, doctors and councillors are being trained up to be on the lookout for signs of radical Islamic, far-right and extreme left-wing activity.
Since the rules came in four years ago there have been a number of appalling and tragic events leading to the loss of life and serious injuries on mainland Britain. The actions of Islamist extremists, motivated by hate, have brought carnage to both London and Manchester. Five months ago a ‘’lone actor’’ terrorist hit Westminster murdering an unarmed police officer. Last summer the anti-racism campaigner, Jo Cox MP, was murdered by a far-right white supremacist in her home town in the north of England. In 2013 the off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was killed by three jihadis in East London.
According to the counter-terrorism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation, the UK is ‘’facing a shifting and increasing range of threats emanating from jihadist groups and individuals.’’ Islamic State or ‘Daesh’ remains the principal threat on British soil ‘’reinforced by the numbers of returned foreign terrorist fighters.’’ MI5, the internal security agency, estimates that 850 people seen as a potential security threat are known to have taken part in the Syrian conflict, with half thought to have returned to the UK.
The radical left believe that Prevent is damaging trust in society. The duty has charged government officials, teachers, health professionals and councillors with monitoring people’s political and religious views. It’s suggested that Prevent has eroded civil liberties, demonised Muslims and bolstered religious discrimination.
True, hate crimes against Muslims did soar by 70 per cent in 2011 to 2014. For Liam Byrne, who considered this in ‘Black Flag Down’ (2017), and former Conservative Cabinet Minister Sayeed Warsi, this has contributed to a climate of intimidation amongst some ethnic groups. Muslims constitute 5% of the population, yet Home Office figures show that 67% of those referred for suspected ‘radicalisation’ in 2014, were Muslim.
Civil libertarians maintain that Prevent is not making our citizens safer. Rather it’s fostering an atmosphere of insecurity while stoking up Islamophobia at a time when the far-right is on the rise both in the UK and across Europe. For Baroness Warsi some in the Asian community are seen as ‘’the enemy within’’.
But scrapping Prevent as part of the overall ‘Contest’ strategy is not the way forward. The stark reality is that Prevent, despite its imperfections, has helped to thwart the level of violent terrorism. Radical Islamism and the growth of the far-right threatens hard won freedoms, democratic values and institutions, liberty, the rule of law and national security.
Critics of Prevent have to been too quick to label it as some sort of spying operation. This is patently false. Britain is not a police state. It bears no resemblance to the totalitarian regimes of the former Warsaw Pact. Prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, one in 3 of the hard-line communist run East Germany’s population were Stasi informants spying on their own neighbours!
Prevent, contrary to popular belief, is a voluntary programme, requiring parental consent. It involves a range of agencies including Special Branch, local community partnerships such as Safe Newcastle, educational establishments, the fire service and youth offending teams. In most cases it’s implemented with sensitivity without alienating any section of the community. 99% of all Muslims in the UK are moderate, law abiding citizens who reject violence. Across our core cities, including Newcastle, peace vigils were held in response to the terror attacks.
As the shocking event at Manchester testifies terrorism is real. Most of it is home grown. It’s not imported from the EU. Andrew Parker, director-general of MI5, notes that more than 23,000 jihadi men and women, some in their teens, are being watched. 12 plots have been foiled in the last two years. The UK Government, Greater Manchester’s elected Mayor Andy Burnham and fair minded people across the country fully support the decision to increase the number of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ operatives by another 1,900.
Of-course strengthening surveillance is crucial. But the government need to take steps to better engage Muslim groups in anti-radicalisation measures delivered through a multi-agency approach. Indications are that the current Home Secretary Amber Rudd will ‘uplift’ Prevent to help shed its toxic image amongst some sections of the Asian community.
One important way to tackle potential radicalisation is through learning and training. The government’s Fundamental British Values programme is being delivered in every school and fe college in England and Wales promoting the principles which underpin our liberal democracy – respect, tolerance, the rule of law and equality.
Many experienced teachers and youth workers are prepared to challenge the reactionary ideas of ‘’youthful jihadi apologists’ or far-right supporters of ultra- nationalist groups like the BNP. Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, has urged that the Muslim community in other places needs to take ownership of the issue and engage more with the Prevent process.
The Prevent Agenda’s work on the ground needs reforming where appropriate, but not abandoned, if we’re to win the hearts and minds of Britain’s varied Muslim communities. Maintaining safe, secure and cohesive neighbourhoods in our cities and towns remains the top priority. Terrorism and violent extremism against vulnerable citizens must be crushed. The perpetrators of such horrific cowardly crimes must be brought to justice and punished.
Stephen Lambert, Director of Education4Democracy.
About Stephen Lambert: He is a Newcastle City Councillor, and was former Chair of ‘Safe Newcastle’ and Northumbria Police Authority.