The latest Prevent statistics direct us to an answer that lies in following long-held practices that preserve trust and will allow better access to public services while restoring it to its rightful role.
There is something bitter sweet about giving a presentation on Prevent and all its harms, only to be asked at the end: “So what’s the alternative?”
This is a question that takes many forms and stems from a range of places. In some cases it is a genuine concern that Prevent is flawed and harmful, but “what else can we do” to ensure public safety?
In other cases it is used by those who have little regard for the evidence-based session that I would have just delivered. Thus the question is like a form of kryptonite, delivered in the hope of rendering all the harms of Prevent void, and swinging the narrative back to a fear-based one.
Accepting the bitter truth
The bitter part for me is that the question makes assumptions that have not been evidenced, such as the issue of Prevent being effective in doing what it says on the tin: “preventing people being drawn into terrorism”.
While there is no evidence that Prevent works, there is ample evidence that it is harmful to our entire society. In eroding trust and alienating communities and dissenting groups, Prevent could even be producing the very effects it claims to prevent. This warning was given as far back as 2016 by then UN special rapporteur, Maina Kiai.
What makes that bitterness even sharper is the assumption by those who ask this question that terrorism is more widespread than it is. In fact, terrorism is less of a threat than knife crime. Statistics show that in the year ending June 2023 there were over 50,000 knife related crimes of which 230 were fatal.
Despite this, there is no comparable duty for public sector workers to spot signs of those who may be vulnerable to committing knife crimes. There is no early warning system to detect those who will go on to commit rape at knife point, which accounts for 705 incidents last year alone.
I am not arguing for Prevent here, but simply illustrating the disconnect between perception of risk versus reality, which is fuelled by populist politicians and their supporters in the media.
What the latest Prevent statistics show
The sweet part of this is that the answer to the question of an alternative to Prevent lies in the fact that the Home Office’s latest Prevent statistics show that 64% of the 6817 Prevent referrals made in the year 2022/23 signposted to support services such as health and education.
These support services already have robust, Prevent-free safeguarding principles and decades of professional experience and judgment much more helpful to people than Prevent.
Instead of putting children, young people and families through the trauma of an encounter with counter-terrorism officers – and the collection of data that comes with this – the professionals who made the Prevent referral, such as teachers and doctors, have always referred to these services, whilst maintaining the trust required to do their own work.
Minus this 64% of Prevent referrals who are not considered for deradicalisation and instead are signposted to other services, a further 384 individuals are signposted to the same services after being discussed at Channel panel (the panel responsible for determining if an individual is suitable for the deradicalisation programme, Channel).
Thus, the total percent of services provided by existing support services instead of Prevent, amounted to 70% of all Prevent referrals.
This means that a massive 4769 individuals could have received support without having themselves and their families placed under the securitised lens of Prevent and experiencing its harms – and one of the greatest harms of Prevent is distrust in public services.
A false argument that upholds injustice
Lastly, of the remaining individuals, 707 were signposted to the police. This is still a better position to be in than those under Prevent because at least these individuals would have the safeguards and rights associated with being suspected or charged with a crime.
These rights and protections do not exist within Prevent – even for children. In many cases documented by Prevent Watch, children have been questioned by counter-terrorism officers at school, left alone by their teachers in a clear breach of PACE1984, which would have been applied in the case of an actual crime.
One could argue that even if 1% of individuals are referred to Channel and “deradicalised”, then this one individual who MAY have committed a violent act and was “prevented from doing so”, thus “makes Prevent worthwhile”.
But Prevent does not operate in the space of preventing an attack from happening – that is for the other arms of the CT strategy – rather, Prevent targets lawful ideas and behaviours as “suspect”, assuming a false link between them and possible future violence. To do so, it must operate outside the rule of law.
Prevent’s targets are mostly children
What is most disturbing is that these signs and behaviours are prominent among children – not because our children are “suspicious”, but rather because they incorporate ordinary aspects of growing up and finding one’s way in a complex world, whilst also being religious.
This aggressive secularism makes children canaries in a mine. The 2022/23 Home Office statistics show that a shocking 2,119 individuals referred were under 14 years of age. This should not tell us that our children are “problematic”, but rather that Prevent is problematic.
Even after being “vetted” via Channel, 19 children under 10 and 298 children between 11 and 15 were put on “derad” programmes.
Even if the PR spin that our children are being “exposed to harmful ideas” is true, then the focus – according to ordinary criminal procedure – must be on the perpetrator of those ideas, not on securitising the child. Even the logic of Prevent means that it would be better to stop one perpetrator affecting 100 minds than it would to stop 100 children exposed.
When it comes to online paedophiles, there is no comparable duty, where public sector workers have a duty to screen for potential future victims of child grooming. And yet, in the year 2022/23 statistics show there was an 82% increase in sexual communication with children, with 6,350 offences committed.
Remembering principles of justice
In one of our cases, a child being bullied online and influenced to use unsavoury terminology was deemed in need of Channel intervention. However, the child was found to be psychologically vulnerable, with suicidal ideations.
This child was more suited for mental health support and social services, as well as community input and the support of family and friends – all factors that the stigma of a Prevent referral in fact toxify and therefore weaken.
More pressingly, and from the perspective of justice, the individual who “groomed” him online should have been investigated by police for possible criminal intent and exploitation of a child. Instead, this individual was left free to further operate in society.
In other words, the real perpetrator ended up in a better place than the victim, a child, who was presented for “deradicalisation”. Why?
A toxic programme with toxic outcomes
Much like kryptonite, the fear that drives the process of Prevent referrals and the idea that Prevent is “the only way we can keep the country safe”, is fictional.
What Prevent is doing is creating a dangerous justice gap, because even in the juristic system, where children are tried for actual crimes, the balance of consideration to innocence still tilts in favour of the child.
With Prevent, it does not. If this continues, we will be faced with a poison far more serious and long-lasting: that of mistrust and hatred of any and all authority, and an unwillingness to engage long-standing sectors of support.
It’s time we started questioning the assumption that “there is no alternative” to Prevent and its collating storylines, especially in view of recent Home Office statistics. Seen with the facts on the ground, especially in education and health, our calls to remove Prevent from these sectors must become more urgent.
- The People’s Review of Prevent and a Response to the Shawcross Review (Report, 2022 &2023)
- ‘Scrap Prevent’ says Amnesty International Report ‘This is the Thought Police’ (Report, 2023)
- How Prevent crucially damages trust dynamics in public services (Expert View, 2023)
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