Much paranoia and misunderstanding exists around the Government’s Prevent safeguarding programme. Hifsa Haroon-Iqbal explains why that's misplaced.

Taken from issue 43 of HOPE not hate magazine

IF THERE is one thing guaranteed to provoke a reaction from commentators and critics on social media, it is the word “Prevent”.

As someone who has been a Prevent practitioner for seven years, these reactions can sometimes become very personal. The A-Z descriptors of the ‘prevent-walas’ include the choicest of terms, from “bootlicker” to “government stooge”. 

From the earliest incarnation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, the aim of preventing people from committing terrorist atrocities has been the key purpose of this legislation. 

The methods used may have differed, from court orders “that the court considers necessary for purposes connected with preventing or restricting involvement by that individual in terrorism-related activity”, to the Prevent Duty that requires specified authorities (schools, colleges, universities etc) “in the exercise of its functions, [to] have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. 

But what has that meant in reality, both for the specified authorities as well as those individuals, like myself, who have been working with organisations across the country, to ensure we are working together to safeguard individuals who are vulnerable and easily targeted by violent extremists and recruiters?

Induced paranoia?

When former Attorney General Dominic Grieve spoke as Chair of an independent group of Commissioners at the launch of a Citizens UK report in 2017, entitled The Missing Muslims – Unlocking British Muslim Potential for the Benefit of All, he mentioned an “induced paranoia” that appeared to exist among Muslims in relation to Prevent. 

Jenny Watson, Vice Chair of the Commission, also expressed her surprise on hearing the extent to which Prevent was mentioned by Muslims, to the point she referred to this as bordering on an “obsession”. 

However, my experience has been that the majority of Muslims I have spoken with haven’t even heard of Prevent. So I think it is important to recognise that this paranoia and obsession exists within certain small groups, whose voices have been amplified through social media and their relentless lobbying of MPs, councillors and Islamic organisations.

While addressing a public forum of 300+ fellow Muslims a few years ago, I was expecting hostility from the usually vocal minority. My children, who were in the audience, were not. After hearing some of the vitriol I endured they rightly felt the need to “protect” their mother from the large numbers of people queuing to speak to me when the event came to a close.

“a large proportion of students [59%] had never heard of Prevent” 

Interestingly, every single person who did so me thanked me for speaking out. Many had never heard of Prevent before this session and were in support of what I was saying. Many who were familiar with Prevent confided in me they would never speak out in favour of the strategy for fear of facing the barrage of abuse they had witnessed being aimed at me. 

Two recently published reports confirm this anecdotal evidence. The first, a study led by SOAS  and published in July this year, found that “a large proportion of students [59%] had never heard of Prevent” and of those that had, only nine percent felt it damaged university life or that a different approach was required to tackle security concerns and terrorism.

These findings appeared to mirror the results of an opinion poll published by Crest Advisory in March, that stated that 56% of British Muslims had not heard of Prevent. It also found that when provided with a neutral view of Prevent, 80% showed support for the programme and 66% of Muslims would refer someone to Prevent if they were concerned they were being radicalised.

This is a very different picture than the one painted by vocal critics, and it is unfortunate that the key message of Prevent, that of safeguarding vulnerable individuals from exploitation, is so often drowned out by the cacophony of detractors’ voices who clearly are not speaking for the vast majority of Muslims in this country. 

So, what exactly is Prevent?

Launched in 2003 as part of the then-Government’s wider counter-terrorism strategy (often referred to as CONTEST), Prevent is one element that makes up the wider strategy – the others being Pursue, Prepare and Protect. 

It wasn’t until 2005, following the terrorist attack in London of 7 July and another failed attack just two weeks later, that the Government launched the Preventing Extremism Together initiative, as part of Prevent, to not just engage and consult with Muslim communities, but to actively address the causes of how these young Muslims had been radicalised.

Seven working groups were established to ensure consultation took place across all Muslim communities, including young people, women, imams and in education settings. 

Prevent underwent a review in 2011 and while the original spotlight of the strategy had understandably focused on tackling the Islamist ideology of al-Qaeda, the new strategy aimed to challenge both Islamist and a rapidly growing far-right ideologies.

“It sought to protect vulnerable people” 

It sought to protect vulnerable people, by working with sectors and institutions where there were risks of radicalisation. How this works in reality is very much dependent on the individual sectors and how the agenda translates into their organisational settings.

I have been working closely with colleges, universities and independent education providers since 2013 and have seen firsthand the work that has been undertaken within these institutions to keep individuals safe, particularly following the legislation in 2015 that placed a duty on specified authorities to pay ‘due regard’ to the threat of terrorism. I have also seen the remarkable work taking place further afield, in schools, local communities and faith organisations. 

Recent figures from the Home Office show that around 142,000 people participated in 203 community-based projects in 2018/19. These include projects run in schools, local communities, programmes related to drug and substance misuse and women’s groups. 

Supporting the vulnerable

Projects such as KIKIT Pathways, Empowering Minds, Odd Arts, Small Steps and Reveal are all designed to support vulnerable individuals, to build resilience and develop critical thinking to enable individuals to reject terrorist narratives. They are not used to target communities but support them in ensuring individuals have the means to extricate themselves from harm’s way. 

The strength of a programme like Prevent is this civil society response to tackling these harms.

Each year, the Home Office releases the data on how many ‘referrals’ (cases of suspected radicalisation) are received by Prevent. For the year ending 31 March 2019, a total of 5,738 individuals were referred to Prevent, with 561 adopted by Channel, the mentoring scheme set up to support individuals and divert them away from radicalising influences. Of this figure, 45% related to right-wing radicalisation and 37% to Islamist radicalisation, repudiating the misleading claim that Prevent is “all about Muslims”. 

The low number eventually referred to Channel for support is not an indication that Prevent isn’t working: quite the contrary. For all safeguarding processes, including Prevent, the number of referrals will outnumber the number of cases taken on. 

“many referrals either require no further action or more importantly, are signposted to support elsewhere” 

After careful consideration by local, multi-agency safeguarding panels, many referrals either require no further action or more importantly, are signposted to support elsewhere, having agreed that while radicalisation may not be a concern, these individuals absolutely do need help for other underlying vulnerabilities that should be managed through alternative safeguarding services, such as social care or mental health services. 

Needless to say, I have come across challenges in working in Prevent, but this has largely been from keyboard warriors, whose polarising voices consistently refer to Prevent as a ‘toxic brand’. As with all safeguarding programmes, Prevent relies on identifying individuals who may be vulnerable to harm and then identifying a solution to protect them. This is not spying, nor is it toxic. It is safeguarding, it is voluntary and it requires their consent.

If we can prevent vulnerable young people from crossing the boundary into the criminal space, if we can work towards ensuring vulnerable individuals can be turned away from hatred and division, if we can help young people avoid prison sentences and ruining promising careers, surely that cannot be a bad thing? 

Hifsa Haroon-Iqbal is West Midlands Regional Prevent Lead for Further and Higher Education and National Chair of Nisa-Nashim | @hhi1