Only Prevent: the pros and cons of tackling extremism at source

Written by
Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

Published
01 Jan 2020

01 Jan 2020 • by Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

Prevention is better than cure when it comes to extremism and terrorism, but policies can be polarising.

The 2001 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre and other targets that have become known simply as 9/11 have cast a long shadow. The phrase counter-terrorism has entered our everyday language, often associated with the extremism and radicalisation that are seen as drivers of a terrorism that threatens very fabric of how we live in Britain and elsewhere. 

In 2011, the UK Government defined extremism as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”. Following Britain’s own 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, and series of attacks in subsequent years, the move towards more active and higher-profile counter-terrorism measures have gathered even greater pace. 

The UK’s counter-terrorism strategy is encapsulated in the acronym CONTEST, made up of four elements: 

  • Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.
  • Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks.
  • Protect: to strengthen our protection against a terrorist attack.
  • Prepare: to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack.

Responsibility for implementing CONTEST sits largely with the police and criminal justice system, with one important exception: the responsibility for prevention rests with a much wider range of “specified authorities”, which include not just the usual suspects, but also local authorities, health care institutions and providers of education and training.

Measures encapsulated in the word Prevent now sit on the frontline of the UK government’s war on violent extremism. 

Prevent and the Prevent duty

The current Prevent regime has its roots in a 2011 review, which outlined its three aims, to:

  • respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat from those who promote it
  • prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support
  • work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation. 

Prevention, as they say, is better than cure, and it’s easy to see why it’s considered to be an important factor in tackling extremism. Extremists who prey on vulnerable – often young – victims are skilled in identifying and grooming people who may already feel isolated and alienated, playing on feelings of difference and otherness to recruit them to their cause. 

People can be drawn into violence or they can be exposed to the messages of extremist groups by many means, including through family members or friends, direct contact with members groups and organisations or, increasingly, online. This can put a person at risk of being drawn into criminal activity and has the potential to cause significant harm. 

Research suggests that radicalisation can be a lengthy process and that, often, the victim will exhibit behaviours such as becoming more secretive, withdrawing further from their usual social circles, and even experiencing moments of doubt and ambivalence. Prevent is predicated on the assumption that, with increased vigilance from people who have regular contact with potential victims, the process of radicalisation might be intercepted and arrested. Crucially, it’s not about preventing people from having political and religious views or concerns but supporting them to use or act on their views and concerns in a non-extremist way. 

Common early warning signs of vulnerability might include: 

  • Loneliness or isolation
  • Changes to a family situation/family tensions
  • Political grievances
  • Crime/anti-social behaviour
  • Progressive changes in behaviour – such as significantly changing appearance, changing peer/friendship groups
  • Being argumentative and unwilling to listen
  • Unwilling to engage with those of different race, religion or gender
  • Accessing extremist material or possession of violent extremist literature, or showing sympathy to extremist groups
  • Use of inappropriate language
  • The expression of extremist views
  • Advocating violent actions and means
  • Association with known extremists
  • Seeking to recruit others to an ideology.

When the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 came into force in March 2015, the Prevent duty was enshrined in law, reinforcing Prevent’s aims of identifying individuals at risk of radicalisation and intervening before any crime is committed. Specified authorities – including Future Talent Learning – are now required to report on individuals in their ‘care’ showing radical tendencies, or who might be vulnerable to indoctrination, and to have in place processes and training for identification and reporting. 

For example, we encourage you to bring to our attention any evidence of extremist attitudes and behaviours among students and colleagues (see below). We also ask our employer partners to be alert to, and advise us of, any changes in behaviour that may give cause for concern. Referrals from authorities are vetted by the police and individuals felt to be vulnerable are encouraged to access a range of interventions and support, including the government’s Channel programme. 

This is not, of course, straightforward. The Act simply asks that specified authorities have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. Government guidance makes it clear that Prevent is intended to challenge “all kinds of terrorist threat”, but accepts that when, how often and how authorities will do this depends on “many factors”. That’s a fine line to walk when the stakes can be so high and the judgements that need to be made at every step of a process are inevitably subject to individual or collective bias. 

Unsurprisingly, then, while the Prevent duty is now an established element of organisations’ safeguarding [Link to safeguarding piece] responsibilities, it remains a controversial and sensitive issue. A factsheet from the public service union Unison expresses “deep concerns at the vagueness of the duty”, as well as its potential for “discriminatory behaviour and a breakdown in trust between staff and public service users.” The guidance also identifies areas of potential conflict with other areas of the law, including freedom of speech, equality legislation and data protection. 

Does Prevent work? 

In 2019, the FT correspondent, Helen Warrell, published an in-depth article about Prevent, looking at what she calls “one of the British government’s most polarising policies”. Despite its detractors, Warrell speaks with counter-terrorist police officers, freelance ‘interventions providers’ and grateful recipients of support who remain positive about its achievements and potential; one of her interviewees attests to an intervention from Prevent that was nothing short of life-changing. 

But she also unearths serious and significant doubts about whether such “statewide surveillance is not only discriminatory but actively counter-productive”. Muslim groups in Britain remain concerned about how compulsory reporting impacts their community, especially with the majority of Prevent referrals relating to Islamic extremism. The fact that more than half of people being referred are under the age of 20 has also raised alarm. 

Critics – from human rights lawyers to behavioural psychologists – also claim that Prevent simply doesn’t work, especially as engagement is voluntary; it’s hard not to conclude that the people most likely to exhibit violent extremist tendencies are the least likely to accept help. Human rights lawyer, Amrit Singh, who has studied Prevent in detail, sees little justification for an experiment in “thought policing” based on limited empirical evidence and with, at best, mixed results. Others agree. Following concerns raised by the UK parliament’s Home Affairs Committee, the UN’s special rapporteur on racism and the government’s own Behavioural Insights Team, the Prevent strategy is now undergoing formal review. 

Seen as part of our wider safeguarding responsibilities, Future Talent Learning sees the value in a system that looks to protect and support anyone under pressure or vulnerable to extremist indoctrination. And we absolutely take seriously the wellbeing of our students and the organisations that employ and sponsor them. 

Violent extremism – wherever it originates – is absolutely inimical to democracy and the rule of law. There is an interesting debate to be had, though, about the validity of imposing a statutory reporting duty on public servants with limited evidence that such widespread surveillance is having the desired effect. As with all moral and ethical questions, we’d do well to consider how best to weigh in the balance the potential pitfalls against the benefits that a strategy like Prevent might bring. 

What to do if you have concerns about a colleague or student

If you have concerns about anyone involved in the Future Talent Learning programme, please contact our Safeguarding Lead. Once we have investigated those concerns, the Safeguarding Lead will determine the most appropriate course of action and may refer the matter as appropriate. 

Our full Safeguarding Policy is available here. 

Reflect

One of your colleagues has expressed some unpalatable views about a recent political event. How will you decide whether this is simply an off-the-cuff and ill-judged remark, or an early sign of radicalisation? What steps will you take to monitor the situation? 
 

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