In Depth

Prevent: is the UK’s anti-extremist programme fit for purpose?

Death of Southend West MP David Amess put anti-radicalisation programme back in the spotlight

The government's Prevent scheme, which aims to stop people turning to terrorism, has come under fire in the wake of David Amess’s death in his Essex constituency last Friday.

Former justice secretary Robert Buckland has said the £46m-a-year programme needs “urgent” work, while others have questioned whether it is simply a “waste of time”.

Criticism of the scheme mounted after it emerged that the man suspected of fatally stabbing the Conservative MP had been referred to Prevent some years ago. Ali Harbi Ali, 25, is not thought to have spent long in the programme and was never a formal subject of interest to MI5.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has pointed out that the anti-terror programme is already under an independent review that was launched in 2019. Patel has said she wants to “ensure that it is fit for purpose, robust, doing the right thing”, building on what is working and addressing any “gaps or issues where the system needs strengthening”.

But Robert Buckland, who had his justice brief removed last month, told Times Radio that more “joined up” co-operation between schools, the health service and other public agencies was needed “urgently”.

‘Polarising policy’

The scheme, which is one of four elements of Contest, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy drawn up in 2003, provides practical help to stop individuals being drawn into extremism. The programme involves schools, the justice sector, religious institutions and the health service, among others. It also offers training for frontline staff and a referral service, called Channel.

In the year ending March 2020, 6,287 people were referred to Prevent, an increase of 10% compared to the record low in the previous year. It was the police that made the most referrals, followed by the education sector. More than half of people referred were aged 20 or under, and almost nine in ten were male. The Home Office has said that more than 1,200 people were successfully diverted from terrorism between 2012 and 2019.

Damaging suggestions

Over the years, Prevent has been “dogged by claims that it was a cover to spy on Muslim communities who were its main focus when it was created”, despite covering rightwing extremism and other ideologies, said The Guardian.

“Even more damaging is the suggestion that Prevent’s deradicalisation programmes simply do not work,” wrote Helen Warrell at the Financial Times, when the review was first announced. She noted that a private report by behavioural psychologists in Whitehall in 2018 had “cast doubt on the effectiveness of the programme, questioning whether there is any evidence base behind its methods”.

With budgets for the scheme doubling since the early years, Warrell called it “one of the British government’s most polarising policies”.

False positives an ‘expected norm’

Today, in The Telegraph, Harry de Quetteville asked if the scheme was simply a “waste of time”, as “again and again” deadly acts of terror are carried out by people referred to, or cleared by, Prevent.

However, he admits that its remit, to “stop people becoming terrorists in the first place”, is “far more nebulous, challenging” than other anti-terrorism strategies. Intelligence sources told de Quetteville that, with the thousands of referrals each year, false positives are an “expected norm”. Of those 6,287 people referred in 2019-20, only 697 were adopted by the scheme, he added.

“Full-time tracking of even one person requires big teams. Extending surveillance to all Channel cases, even if such a thing were democratically acceptable, ‘would be impossible for MI5’, the source said.”

‘Get on with the task’

The Times agreed that there is concern Prevent “may have become so overwhelmed by numbers of referrals that high-risk people are slipping through the system”. It urged the independent review to “get on with the task” of better joining up communication between all institutions involved.

The review, led by Sir William Shawcross and best by delays, is scheduled for publication next year.

“That may seem to some like a step towards a surveillance state,” said The Times. “In reality it is a long overdue precaution, a line of democratic defence.”

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