The government’s disclosure this month of statistics about its Prevent counter-extremism strategy was a welcome step towards transparency. But it further confirmed what we have known all along: the strategy is not only unjust, but also counterproductive.
The Prevent strategy, in effect in various forms since 2003, aims to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. Since July 2015, a statutory Prevent duty has required public sector entities – including schools – to identify individuals at risk of being drawn to terrorism (including violent and non-violent “extremism”) for referral to the multi-agency Channel programme, which purports to provide specialist support for such individuals. Moreover, Prevent defines extremism broadly as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.
The statistics show that, from April 2015 until March 2016, 7,631 people in England and Wales were referred to Prevent. Of these, only 14 per cent were discussed under Channel. Only about 5 per cent of the total number of Prevent referrals ultimately received Channel support. This shows that the overwhelming majority of referrals to Prevent were false positives, ie, individuals who were wrongly referred to Prevent.
Moreover, the majority (65 per cent) of those referred to Prevent were referred on grounds of “Islamist extremism”. Collectively, the figures show that the government wrongfully subjected a large number of Muslims to an intensely stigmatising programme. No surprise, then, that Max Hill, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, recently noted Muslim communities’ resentment towards Prevent.
Particularly alarming are the statistics relating to children. Schools and other educational institutions were responsible for a third of referrals to Prevent; almost a third of those were children under 15. It may reasonably be inferred that most of them were Muslim, and that they were deemed not to warrant intervention under Channel. The government has needlessly made Muslim families fear that their children will be unfairly targeted in school through the Prevent strategy. A report published last year warned that referral may make such individuals more, not less, susceptible to being drawn into terrorism, engendering the very “them and us” mentality that Prevent sought to counter. It cites former government officials expressing concern that Prevent is deterring communities from sharing with the authorities information vital for countering terrorism.
Case studies in the report show what people wrongly targeted by Prevent experience. One Muslim mother of a three-year-old child, wrongly targeted under Prevent, said: “I’ve never felt not British. And this [Prevent experience] made me feel very, very like they tried to make me feel like an outsider.” The government’s data indicates that thousands more are wrongly being targeted by Prevent, who are susceptible to profound feelings of alienation and betrayal.
The report also warned that, far from safeguarding children, Prevent risked causing them lasting harm by targeting them for expressing political views and undermining trust between teachers and students.
While more public disclosure about Prevent is a good thing, the data leaves many questions unanswered. The government states that 302 people left after receiving Channel support with “a reduced vulnerability to being drawn into terrorism”. (It is worth noting that these individuals are a tiny fraction, 4 per cent, of those referred under Prevent.) How exactly did the government assess this reduction in “vulnerability”. More generally, what is the evidence underlying Channel’s framework for assessing this vulnerability? The report calls for this evidence to be disclosed.
Finally, Prevent’s harms, the report explains, were the foreseeable consequence of its design flaws. The statutory duty on schools and other public sector entities to report extremism, based on an overly vague definition, makes incorrect referral likely, as does Prevent’s unscientific list of “indicators” of the risk of being drawn into terrorism. These flaws must be urgently addressed.
Terrorism is a scourge, but Prevent is not the right way to counter it. It’s time for the government to read the truths told by its statistics and abandon the fundamentally flawed aspects of this strategy.
Amrit Singh is a senior lawyer at the Open Society Justice Initiative and author of the report Eroding Trust: The UK’s Prevent Counter-Extremism Strategy in Health and Education