Local authorities, schools, colleges and other public bodies all have a pivotal role in preventing some of our citizens from being drawn into ‘’extremist activities’’ and terrorism under the government’s Prevent and Contest agenda.
The Prevent ‘duty’ for all state authorities enshrined in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 spells out the need for all organisations to have ‘’due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.’’
Since the law came in, there have been a number of appalling and tragic events leading to the loss of life. The terror attack motivated by radical Islam brought carnage to London, our capital city last week, was the latest in a line of attacks. Last summer the anti-racism campaigner, Jo Cox Labour MP, was murdered by a far-right terrorist in her home town.
According to the counter-terrorism thinktank, the Quilliam Foundation, the UK is ‘’facing a shifting and increasing range of threats emanating from jihadist groups and individuals.’’ Islamic State or ‘Daesh’ remains the principal threat on British soil ‘’reinforced by the numbers of returned foreign terrorist fighters.’’ MI5, the internal security agency, estimates that 850 people seen as a potential security threat are known to have taken part in the Syrian conflict, with half thought to have returned to the UK.
There’s evidence of radical Islamic ‘cadres’ operating both in London and Birmingham and extreme-right ‘cells’ in the North of England.
Anti-terrorist experts such as Rob Wainright of Euro-Pol claim another worrying development is the ‘’significant rise in nationalist, xenophobic, racism and anti-semitic sentiments across the EU, each resulting in acts of far-right extremism.’’ The Home Office reveals that 57% of lone-wolf terrorism attacks in Britain have been carried out by right-wing extremists.
That’s why it’s important that new Prevent duty is implemented with sensitivity without alienating any section of our community.
Some on the left like Dianne Abbott MP, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, believe that Prevent, a Labour government innovation, is damaging trust in society. In practice, the duty has charged government officials, teachers, health professional and councillors with monitoring people’s political and religious views. It’s suggested that Prevent has eroded civil liberties and bolstered religious discrimination against Muslims.
True, hate crimes against Muslims have soared by 70% according to the Metropolitan Police. The Prevent strategy, argues the West Midlands Labour MP and Mayoral hopeful Liam Byrne in his book, ‘Black Flag Down’ (2017), has contributed to a climate of intimidation amongst some ethnic groups. Muslims make up 5% of the populace, yet figures show that 67% of those referred for suspected ‘radicalisation’ in 2014, were Muslim.
Civil libertarians maintain that Prevent is not making our citizens safer, but rather is fostering an atmosphere of insecurity while stoking up Islamophobia at a time when the far-right is on the rise both in the UK and across Europe.
But scrapping Prevent and the related ‘Contest’ strategy is not the way forward. The stark reality is that Prevent, despite its imperfections, has helped to thwart the level of violent terrorism in our core cities. Radical Islam and the growth of the ‘’alt-right’ threatens hard won freedoms, democratic values and institutions, liberty, the rule of law and national security.
As the shocking events at Westminster testify terrorism is real. Most of it is home grown and not imported from the EU. Andrew Parker, head of MI5, calculates that more than 3,000 jihadi men and women ,some in their teens, are under surveillance. Six plots have been foiled in the last two years. That’s why the government’s decision to increase the number of MI5 and MI6 operatives by another 2,000 is to be welcomed by all those seriously concerned with safety of 65 million UK citizens.
Strengthening surveillance is crucial. But one important way to tackle potential radicalisation is through learning and training. The government’s fundamental British Values programme is being delivered in every school and college in England and Wales. Many experienced teachers and youth workers are prepared to challenge the reactionary ideas of ‘’youthful jihadi apologists’ or far-right supporters of Britain First.
Urban colleges like Bradford have been praised for their partnership work with Neighbourhood police teams in challenging extremism. And London’s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan, points out, that the Muslim community in some places needs to take ownership of the issue and engage more with the Prevent process.
In local government there’s ample evidence of ‘good practice’ too. Bristol, a multicultural Labour city, has built an effective partnership with the Muslim community to promote community cohesion, while in Labour Newcastle, students and councillors have visited Mosques to find out what genuine Islam really stand for. Similarly, Cornwall has placed an emphasis on tackling dangerous social media use, while other examples of ‘best practice include Calderdale’s work with Asian cab drivers.
The use of football to bring people together in Greenwich has been lauded as has Birmingham’s work with local schools in light of the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal.
The Prevent Agenda’s work on the ground needs reforming, but not abandoned if we’re committed to maintaining safe and secure communities in our cities and towns.