Prevent strategy ‘in need of reform’
For over a decade, communities and politicians have discussed and debated Prevent – one of the four elements of CONTEST, the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy and policies aimed at challenging the rise of international terrorism and extremism, often citing the need to win the hearts and minds of impressionable young people – and in the main this debate has focused on Muslim communities who are also victims of terrorism.
Prevent practitioners work on the premise that vulnerability to radicalisation from a global jihadist perspective or from an extreme far-right perspective is very similar and see the risks as two sides of the same coin. We saw the attack on Finsbury Park mosque follow similar attack methodology to the Westminster and London Bridge attacks.
In Birmingham, the same local project has not only stopped young people from travelling to Syria or helped challenge extremist ideology, but has also supported a former member of the army who was targeted by far-right groups to help attack mosques in the city.
One of the key issues faced by local government officials responsible for implementing the Prevent strategy at a local level is effective community engagement aimed at vulnerable sections of our communities.
Community engagement will always be difficult for sensitive areas such as Prevent in the same way it will always be difficult for other areas such as child sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation, guns and gangs, or domestic violence.
It becomes even more difficult when groups opposing Prevent do so by spreading information that is inaccurately and sometimes disingenuously attributed to Prevent.
When left unchallenged, these inaccuracies are perceived as being correct by communities and the media and the association with Prevent then sticks. For example, the media, communities and politicians alike constantly cite the case of a child writing ‘terrorist house ’as opposed to‘ terraced house as an illustration of Prevent bad practice, despite the local authority and the police at the time saying it was not a Prevent referral.
Constantly talking down Prevent and focusing on perceived failures takes the attention away from the many successes achieved by Prevent and indirectly helps to embolden existing grievances that vulnerable individuals may have with regards to the state, where such policies are discussed and referred to as spying on communities.
This makes individuals more vulnerable by reinforcing views that the state is against them. It also contributes to deterring families and individuals from giving the consent for support that is essential for participation in Prevent – a voluntary programme.
We need to be much more proactive in explaining Prevent within the wider counter-terrorism strategy known as CONTEST and especially the differences between the four strands – Pursue, Protect and Prepare – to clarify any confusion that still exists.
It is important we support our practitioners to talk up the many successes and positive outcomes of Prevent that far outweigh any inconsistencies in delivery or bad practice.
Our communities and the wider public need reassurance, now more than ever, that the policies to challenge extremism can, and do, work in making a difference and contribute to keeping us safe from all forms of extremism and terrorism.
We also need to stand up for community groups, who when they do take a stand are often immediately targeted and accused of selling their communities out and have their credibility questioned.
I can state with confidence on behalf of the partnership in Birmingham that our programme has helped to thwart potential attacks by identifying and safeguarding vulnerable individuals by providing them with the right support when they needed it the most.
While people debate the need for an independent review of Prevent at a national level, at a local level there is nothing stopping local authorities and partnerships constantly reviewing their own practice. We do so in Birmingham with our partners and find that while our programme is quite mature, we still find ourselves learning as we progress and changing our approach when we find a more effective way of working.
By no means do we have it 100% right, but we do feel we are heading in the right direction, given the many positive outcomes we are seeing.
One thing is clear to me: an approach or strategy supporting individuals who may be vulnerable to radicalisation at an early stage is not an option; it is a necessity of our time.
Following the events of the last few months, whatever the Government decides to do when it reviews the broader counter-terrorism strategy, what is certain is that local structures put in place to identify and support vulnerable individuals are likely to stay.
This is simply due to the fact that vulnerability will remain and, as frontline workers across the country develop increased awareness in how to respond to concerns, and with the threat from terrorism not going away anytime soon, we will continue to see referrals coming into local safeguarding structures.
We must therefore have confidence in the programmes we have and the systems we have developed and better engage our communities with the initiatives’ aims, objectives and successes.
It would be naïve and complacent to think that there are no challenges to Prevent or any inconsistencies in delivery and implementation.
As much as the need to talk up all that is good with Prevent and its many successes, we must also, with the same effort, challenge and regularly scrutinise any inconsistencies in implementation which can lead to bad practice.
Waqar Ahmed is Prevent manager at Birmingham City Council