Ten years ago, I argued that Prevent should end but now I’m not so sure. I’ve changed my mind because the facts have changed. The content of Prevent has substantially altered since 2009, just as the terrorist threat has evolved. I increasingly feel that criticisms of Prevent fail to reflect and engage with Prevent’s development and its consequent complexity now, instead focusing on what Prevent may have once been. The independent review needs to be critical, wide-ranging and based on empirical evidence around Prevent’s actual impacts and effectiveness now if the Government is going to come up with convincing answers to those who want to prevent Prevent.
Why an independent Review now? Well, the public criticisms of Prevent have been continuous, encompassing anti-Prevent campaigning at the national and local level (including lobbying individual schools to cease contact with Prevent) and negative media coverage. Both highlight important concerns that Prevent continues to securitise society and stigmatise Muslims despite widening to cover all forms of extremism since the 2011 Prevent Review. However, at times, these critics have also mis-represented factual Prevent cases as well as presenting a questionable picture of Prevent implementation. Government clearly now feels able to refute this criticism; crucially, the latest statistics on Prevent referrals deemed in need of a ‘Channel’ intervention identified 44% for far-right concerns and 45% for IS/Islamist-related concerns, with a significantly higher proportion of far-right referrals leading to action. This development of a genuine focus on all types of extremism and on identifiable individual ‘vulnerability’ to extremism in the ‘Prevent 2’ phase’ makes it very different to the explicitly Muslim-only focus of the original ‘Prevent 1’, of which I was so critical.
I have been carrying out empirical research around Prevent’s implementation since its inception in 2006/7, and using this to develop broader policy analysis. My original critique was pretty trenchant and was made to the House of Commons Select Committee inquiry in to Prevent in 2009/10. Here, I saw the large-scale, explicitly Muslim-only focus of the ‘Prevent 1’ phase of 2006-2011 as counter-effective in its further alienation of British Muslims whilst further fuelling their societal labelling as ‘risky’. This approach significantly undermined parallel policy attempts to develop community cohesion work across all communities. ‘Prevent 1’ overwhelmingly involved community-based work with young Muslims through local funding but this content and focus has been superseded since the 2011 Review. In ‘Prevent 2’, referrals of vulnerable individuals for possible Channel mentoring have grown, accelerated by the 2015 introduction of the Prevent duty, to become the dominant element of Prevent. Our research on how the duty is being implemented in English schools and colleges found significant professional support for it as an appropriate and proportionate response, and one that addresses all forms of extremism – the introduction of the duty is largely seen as continuity, rather than significant change. The exception here is the hugely problematic introduction of ‘Fundamental British Values’, with educationalists questioning the need for the first two components of this formulation.
Based on this research, I’d identify four issues that the Review should investigate to enable greater public and professional understanding of its impacts, and so to help make Prevent more effective:
We need further insights on how the Prevent duty is being implemented and experienced across different sectors, and what its impacts are. There is clearly considerable support within the education sector for the ‘Prevent as safeguarding’ policy paradigm (something also supported by and called for by community members who may face someone they love becoming involved in terrorism) which identifies individual vulnerability towards influences potentially leading to involvement in violent extremism. It is this acceptance that produces the professional experience of the duty as continuity discussed above. This paradigm is challenged, though, by some social work academics, who perceive a perversion of safeguarding’s duty to protect vulnerable children rather than protect us from vulnerable children, but our research shows that the prime concern of educationalists is to protect the young person from choices that can ruin their own lives as well as others’. Similarly, research in an Adult Mental Health Trust suggested some professional resistance to this paradigm, although this is refuted by NHS leaders.
Alongside this is a concern that the duty has produced a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech, particularly amongst Muslim students. This is a particular concern in Universities, although other research suggests a ’tick box compliance’, rather than substantial alteration of norms around free speech and external speakers. Here, in a period of significant controversy over the ‘no platforming’ of feminist speakers labelled as ‘transphobic’, seeing Prevent as the key threat to ‘free speech’ at Universities is questionable. Generally, how can researchers quantify a possible ‘chilling effect’ on Muslim students in a context of overt public criticism of Prevent? The review must aim to both examine this and use its findings to promote more informed and sophisticated public dialogue around Prevent.
This suggests that the Review should overtly examine criticisms of Prevent through systematic analysis of available data around Prevent’s work. Here, the review needs to move beyond politicised disputes of contested individual cases and build a genuine picture of Prevent’s work and impacts. This will illuminate the accuracy of claims around individual cases and of broader claims of stigmatisation of ‘communities’. Here, claims that Prevent is ‘anti-Muslim’ and is opposed by ‘the Muslim community’ should be examined. Many of the people implementing Prevent, and wider, preventing violent extremism (PVE) initiatives, are of Muslim background. Further, new research evidence suggests that there is significant support for, and action towards, PVE actions at the individual and community level within British Muslim communities. In a decade in which hundreds of young British Muslims have travelled to Syria and died or gravely damaged their future, there is a duty for all of us to consider what should we do to safeguard people?
That leads to the need for the Review to consider what Prevent is not doing enough of. In the ‘Prevent 1’ phase, the mistaken, Muslim-only focus should not obscure the facilitating of greater Muslim involvement in local governance and some creative, resilience-building work with young Muslims. Comparatively few such community-based projects are now funded by Prevent yet PVE work in many other countries has moved towards emphasising community-led activities that enable group as well as individual resilience-building, and which encourage greater community ownership of such work. Britain has moved in the opposite direction – are we right? Should we return to the community-based methods of ‘Prevent 1’? The community-based anti-extremist work which is taking place is funded separately by the Counter-Extremism strategy but the distinction between this and Prevent is confusing, simply fuelling suspicions for some, as evidenced by the recent furore over funding of the Bradford Literature Festival. Previously, I described the ‘Prevent 1’ – Cohesion relationship as a ’loveless marriage’ but the ‘Prevent 2’- Countering Extremism relationship appears to be a supposedly secret affair that everyone knows about! In many ways, the Counter-Extremism initiative replicates the problems of ‘Prevent 1’ – short-term, limited funding around a negative title which creates suspicions out of all proportion to its scale – whilst muddying the significant policy refinements of ‘Prevent 2’.
Our Prevent duty in education research suggested the potential ’mainstreaming’, or even disappearance, of a distinct Prevent within broader safeguarding mechanisms. Does that indicate a way forward of greater funding for broader-based, community-led resilience-building work, rather than an overt ‘Prevent’ programme? Certainly, it’s hard to imagine greater future Prevent funding for activity within specific geographical and faith/ethnic communities without renewed allegations of stigmatisation, as the Counter-Extremism experience demonstrates.
Finally, we need more shared public reflection on the complex and problematic nature of such preventative PVE work. There has consistently been too little public and policy reflection on what does Prevent/PVE success look like and what is justified in work towards it? For instance, are the rising numbers of Prevent referrals symptomatic of a securitised panic, or are they evidence of a greater awareness of types of vulnerability to pathways towards terrorism? Alongside this, is the limited number of actual Channel interventions of those referred proof of the disproportionate nature of Prevent or rather a proportionate response involving a significant evidence bar for actual intervention in a person’s life? What does success look like for a preventative policy approach such as Prevent, what metrics should be used, and can they be in the public domain? Greater transparency over the metrics and content of the Channel system has significantly increased public understanding and support.
Those are the issues that I hope the Review engages with, and does so transparently. Such an approach could build a more sophisticated and current understanding of what Prevent is actually doing and the deeper policy dilemma it represents for all of us (what are the risks of simply not doing Prevent?); it could also bridge some of the sharp divides and tensions over Prevent. The danger is, of course, that the review simply entrenches sharply-divided opinions. The dilemma is particularly acute for the main opposition parties. Prominent Labour and Liberal Democrats politicians have been publicly critical of Prevent, despite Labour initiating ‘Prevent 1’. However, states across the western world are implementing types of PVE policy approaches, many modelled on Britain’s ‘Prevent 1’ and increasingly incorporating the approaches of ‘Prevent 2’. Would opposition parties really end Prevent, or would they reform it? If so, which Prevent do they favour?
Busher, J., Choudhury, T. and Thomas, P. (2019), ‘The enactment of the counter-terrorism ‘Prevent duty’ in British schools and colleges: Beyond reluctant accommodation or straightforward policy acceptance’, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 12:3, 440-462.
Thomas, P. (2017) ‘Changing experiences of responsibilisation and contestation within counter-terrorism policies: The British Prevent experience’, Policy and Politics,45:3, 305-322.
Thomas, P. (2014) ‘Divorced but still co-habiting? Britain’s Prevent/Community Cohesion policy tension’, British Politics, 9:4 ,472-493.
Thomas, P. (2012) Responding to the Threat of Violent Extremism – Failing to Prevent . London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.
Paul Thomas is Professor of Youth and Policy at the University of Huddersfield. His research focusses on how policies such as ‘Prevent’ have been enacted by ground-level practitioners and experienced by communities. Recent CREST-funded research has focussed on barriers to community members reporting concerns about an ‘intimate’ (a friend or family member) becoming involved in violent extremism with this study to be replicated and further developed in the USA and Canada from late 2019 onwards. Acknowledgments: Thanks to Joel Busher, Michele Grossman, Shaun McDaid and Catherine McGlynn for their comments on the first draft of this article.