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Preventing the worst: analysis of the Prevent strategy review

Preventing the worst: analysis of the Prevent strategy review

Liverpool Women's Hospital, scene of a recent terrorism attack

4 min read

The shocking footage of a taxi driver bolting from his cab seconds before it exploded in flames in a terror attack outside the Liverpool Women’s Hospital last month has focused minds ahead of the release of an independent review of the government’s controversial Prevent anti-radicalisation strategy.

While supporters of the strategy are hopeful the review will provide an opportunity for the government to clarify the central purpose of Prevent and dispel what they argue are unfounded perceptions of the scheme, some critics have long-since written it off. In February 17 human rights and community organisations disengaged from the process, calling it a “rubber stamp” for a “fundamentally flawed strategy”.

Fiyaz Mughal, a counter extremism expert who has worked on projects since the 7 July 2005, terror attacks in London, said the successes of Prevent had been overshadowed by historically poor communication from the government, and acknowledged the poor perception of the strategy in some communities, particularly among Muslims.

“Prevent has therefore been used as the “whipping boy” by these groups to play to fears, as a way of gaining support in some parts of British Muslim communities,” he told The House

The Prevent strategy was created by the Labour government in 2006. It has been through several reviews since inception, but its core aim remains to identify, protect, and support those who are vulnerable to radicalisation, by getting schools, prisons and other authorities to report concerns about people at risk. The strategy has faced persistent criticism that it targets people of the Muslim faith more than others and stifles freedom of expression.

The review, which is due before the end of the year, is expected to be substantial and a pivotal moment in the government’s counter terrorism strategy, but its implementation will depend to some extent on engagement and trust within communities, organisations, and faith groups. Its Chair, William Shawcross, has been given specific terms of reference including how effective the scheme is; how to respond to criticism and complaints; and how to interact with other safeguarding strategies.

Every year hundreds of people – many of them young – move away from violent extremism after some form of intervention

Assistant Commissioner Matt Jukes, the Head of Counter Terrorism Policing (CTP), argues Prevent is effective, but added that it was unfortunate that so much of the commentary around the strategy had not moved forward and he hoped the review would help.

“Today, the partners involved in Prevent have a clearer sense of focus on safeguarding vulnerable people and every year hundreds of people – many of them young – move away from violent extremism after some form of intervention. The majority of cases, those that can be viewed as successful, don’t make any headlines and yet they are an important part of the picture,” he told The House.

Official figures appear to contradict the view that Muslims are disproportionately targeted by Prevent. Home Office data for 2020 to 2021 on Prevent referrals released in November showed that more than half involved individuals with a “mixed, unstable or unclear ideology,” 25 percent related to extreme right-wing radicalisation, while 22 percent involved Islamic radicalisation concerns.

This correlation between referrals and young people who become attracted to violent extremism of any kind is one Counter Terrorism Policing is keen to stress, having recently published research that evidenced a clear link between domestic abuse and Prevent referrals.

However, others are more skeptical about the Home Office’s ability to identify those who pose a genuine terror threat to society.

“The Home Office's definitions of 'extremism' and 'radicalisation' for the purposes of Prevent remain vague, and it seems logical to infer that the government cannot effectively prevent what it cannot even effectively define,” Sarah St Vincent, the Executive Director of human rights organisation Rights & Security International told The House.

Prevent both reflects and reinforces Islamophobia, she said, adding that research the group expects to publish next year suggests the strategy’s broad definitions and mandate discourage free expression, including peaceful dissent and activism.

Local councils, which are responsible for a large part of Prevent referrals, have been tight-lipped ahead of the release of the review. The House reached out to five for their views on the process, but all declined to comment.

The Home Office said Prevent remained a vital tool for early intervention and safeguarding, adding that the government was determined to stop extremists or terrorists spreading hate or sowing division.

“The Independent Review of Prevent…will ensure we continue to improve our response and better protect people from being drawn into poisonous and dangerous ideologies. We will consider its findings and recommendations very carefully once it is completed,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

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