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Every six months to so, Prevent, the Government’s controversial anti-extremism programme, hits the headlines. This time around it has surfaced in the form of an interview with Commander Dean Haydon, head of the Met Police’s Counter Terrorism Command. Haydon told BBC Asia that Prevent has achieved “fantastic” results. Most of the criticism, he said, comes from those who ” don’t understand properly how Prevent works” and/or “don’t want Prevent to work in the first place”. This has produced a backlash from left-wing activists, but by Friday, the programme will be out of the news altogether – leaving behind nothing but a whiff of negativity in its wake.
For those of you who are not experts in government counter-terrorism schemes, the Prevent strategy was introduced in 2005 to “respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat from those who promote it; to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support; and to work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation that we need to address.” It is one of the four Ps that together made up Contest – the government’s post 9/11 counter-terror strategy: Prepare for attacks, Protect the public, Pursue the attackers and Prevent their radicalisation to start with. It is intended to stop vulnerable people becoming radicalised, joining extremist groups and carrying out terrorist activities.
In practice, Prevent provides basic training for “frontline workers” to recognise and deal with signs of extremist behaviour in vulnerable children and young people. To summarise the “NHS England Prevent Training and Competency Framework”, a 37 page NHS document I do not recommend for summer reading, those who have undertaken Prevent strategy training should be able to demonstrate “an awareness and understanding of indicators of risk” and possess “an understanding of appropriate reporting mechanisms in own organisation i.e. know who to contact”.
In a nutshell, Prevent exists to complement the common sense of teachers and NHS workers who work with impressionable children and young adults. Any vaguely socially aware teacher or nurse will recognise vulnerability in a young person (it goes with the job) and most would automatically try to help that young person by speaking to someone in a position of authority. Prevent training simply provides the framework for them to use that common sense in the most efficient and effective way possible.
The issue is that years of shrill debate have blown the programme out of all proportion. The Government’s annual anti-terrorism budget is £824m. Of that £824m, under one twentieth (just £40m) is spent on Prevent. Put the terror budget in the context of the whole general security and intelligence budget – in 2015 £2.3bn was spent on MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – and that £40m starts to look vanishingly small.
What’s more, for a sub-programme with a small budget, it has been effective. According to a Freedom of Information Request to the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), about 7,500 referrals were made to the scheme in 2015-16 – the equivalent of 20 a day. Out of those referrals, action was taken in one in every 10 cases, and the Prevent team claim the scheme has played an important role in stopping more than 150 attempted journeys to the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.
But the operative word is “sub”. Listening to Commander Haydon’s interview defending the programme as “a fantastic tool which is here to stay”, one would think that Prevent is the main answer to the problem of home grown terrorism. Amber Rudd frequently refers to it as the Government’s “flagship” anti-radicalisation strategy (flagship is defined by the OED as ‘the best or most important thing owned or produced by a particular organisation’), and various police commanders have spoken about it like it is sacred.
For hard-left radicals it has become a proxy for mistrust of the authorities. They systematically portray Prevent as an islamophobic policy which actually creates violent jihadists; a view which The Guardian has espoused in a slightly diluted form. The NUT recently jumped on the bandwagon, and now thousands of teachers are boycotting the programme. Whenever someone defends Prevent, these people argue that if London Bridge attacker Kharum Butt and his friends could slip through the net, the programme can’t be working at all. They have even gone as far as to create a “Preventing Prevent” programme – and it is fast gaining momentum.
In as far as it goes, Prevent is useful, in much the same way as a document explaining precisely the best thing to do if you smell smoke is useful. Yet just as a smoke detection document would not be touted as the Government’s “flagship fire safety programme” and blamed for a failure to prevent all fires, Prevent should neither be touted as the Government’s “flagship anti-terrorism strategy”, nor critiqued as such.
It’s only August, and already in 2017 Britain has been hit by four terror attacks – all of which were carried out by people born in Europe. The threat of home-grown terror is real and immediate, but there is far too much time wasted squabbling pointlessly about Prevent, a side project in a sub-programme that does valuable work.
Indeed, it is astonishing – after Westminster Bridge, Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Mosque – that the vital debate about how to combat terrorism has faded away to such an extent that activists are already back having their bi-annual moan about the useful, but limited, Prevent programme.