Grassroots Solutions Empower the U.K.’s PREVENT Strategy


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Welcome to the View from the U.K., perspectives on the state of extremism, radicalisation, and counterterrorism in a country challenged by the threat of ISIS recruiting and home-grown violence

In March, David Anderson Q.C. and Lord Carlile of Berriew Q.C. were asked to attend a meeting of the Human Rights Committee in the U.K. Parliament to discuss the human rights ramifications of the U.K. Government’s PREVENT programme.

The PREVENT programme, as launched in 2011, aims to safeguard people and communities from the threat of terrorism and extremism. PREVENT officers work with a wide range of sectors and organisations, and support individuals who are at risk of being drawn into terrorist or extremist activity. In 2015, the British government imposed a legal obligation on teachers, health workers, and universities to prevent violent extremism. However, the effectiveness of the PREVENT program and its practices continue to be a source of contention, especially the programme’s focus on propagating ‘British values.’

David Anderson Q.C., the U.K.’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, spoke to British Muslims across the country regarding PREVENT. Anderson found that people were not necessarily concerned about the government-mandated duty on schools to promote British values. In fact, he said, most Muslims in the U.K. accept those values and terms. The main source of concern, rather, seemed to stem from the perceived lack of training given to those whom the duty is placed upon. He gave the example of a teacher in the North West of England who used to encourage discussions about ISIS and extremism in the classroom as an opportunity to broaden horizons and challenge ideas. Toxic views (from both ends of the extremism spectrum, left and right) were aired by some students but they would be neutralised and blunted in the debate by the views of their peers. According to that teacher, she now steers clear of any discussions on terrorism and extremism because she is concerned about the consequences.

It is encouraging that Members of Parliament are looking closely at the impact of PREVENT on Muslim communities, including its potential to alienate the very people it seeks to protect. The U.K. Government has clearly recognised this risk and is aware that some aspects of PREVENT are being characterized negatively by extremists as a way to fuel their divisive message and stir hostility.

As Lord Carlile noted before the Human Rights Committee, we are ‘dealing with art, not science.’ There is no proven formula or characteristic that links U.K. citizens who have turned to extremist ideology, nor is there any way of knowing for certain who might find the message of extremism attractive in the future. PREVENT officers, to a large extent, rely on their own initiative and instincts to evaluate the risk of an individual being radicalised.

The scale and complexity of extremism is such that any attempt at a merely top-down approach will be fruitless from the start. There are no set guidelines which can definitively confirm that a person is in the midst of being radicalised. There are no boxes to tick which will show a child is safe from extremism. And there are very few behaviours that raise warning signs of extremism to those without proper training.

Any program designed to prevent extremism must operate effectively at a grassroots level. Its officers need to have an in-depth understanding of the communities they are working in and must have the flexibility to deal with specific circumstances involving the people who they are trying to help. Ultimately, Government must be able to trust its PREVENT officers to carry out this role and be confident that they are best placed to deal with the issue. Lord Carlile agreed that the PREVENT programme has always worked best when management is kept to a minimum.

Local Authorities (i.e. locally elected governments/councils in the U.K.) have a duty to ensure that PREVENT is effective and appropriate in their areas, but lack of resources have affected consistency of operations. Some PREVENT programmes are doing excellent work whilst others simply don’t even know where to start. Lord Carlile recommended that PREVENT coordinators use an entrepreneurial approach when working with Local Authorities. Essentially they need imagination, initiative, and readiness.

PREVENT coordinators should be enabled to make judgements based on the community and context in which they work as well as individual circumstances, and Government must give them the freedom to do so.

Notably, Lord Carlile stressed that the lack of resources was not necessarily an issue of financial support. Given the extensive threat of extremism and terrorism, it is difficult to believe that the U.K. Government is being tight fisted in this regard. Instead, PREVENT coordinators need to have access to other quantitative and qualitative resources such as expertise, data, community groups, and faith leaders, to name but a few. This is where the real, meaningful support and impact will come from.