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Given the wave of terrorist acts sweeping across western Europe, it is unsurprising that counter-terrorism is a contentious issue. The PREVENT agenda is its controversial epicentre in the UK. It is the main strand of CONTEST, the counter-terrorism strategy enacted by the Labour government in 2003 and strengthened in 2011 by the Coalition Government. The strategy seeks to uncover and prevent terrorism before it occurs, often at a local and individual level. 

Supporters maintain that it incorporates a multifaceted approach considering social circumstances, substance abuse and mental health as contributing factors. Nonetheless, the programme has not been short of critics. In 2016, The Open Society Justice Initiative recommended a review of the use of PREVENT in education and health, and similarly Rights Watch UK’s report on the impact of PREVENT found that it was limiting “rights to freedom of expression and belief, and their right to education.” 

The idea of ‘self – censorship being rampant’ is an understandable response for those who see PREVENT as curbing free speech through fear of being referred to counter-terrorism agencies. This came to a head in March 2019 when Dr. Salman Butt succeeded in securing a Court of Appeal challenge against part of the PREVENT guidance in relation to university speakers. The court argued that the PREVENT duty guidance pertaining to “careful consideration” of whether guest university speakers’ extreme speech rhetoric risks “drawing people into terrorism”, was unlawful.  While the majority of the grounds in this case were dismissed, including a challenge to the way ‘extremists’ information is stored, the outcome demonstrates the free speech ramifications the PREVENT agenda can create. 

The programme has also been accused of exacerbating divisions, as it’s claimed that it ‘alienates law abiding British Muslims’ by instilling a climate of suspicion. This is linked to the idea that, in practice, PREVENT leads to the policing of certain racialised groups. Monitoring certain ethnic groups for ‘fear’ that they’re more susceptible to radicalisation has been criticised for normalising discrimination against Muslims. While PREVENT is aimed at all forms of extremism, figures from 2017 show that 65% of referrals were related to ‘Islamist’ extremism, with ‘extreme right wing’ cases making up only 10% of referrals. This places someone who is Muslim at a 40 times greater chance of being referred over someone who is not Muslim, explaining why the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) have expressed concerns about ‘discrimation in the implementation of terrorism legislation.’ 

Areas of the public sector, including all schools and registered childcare providers, are increasingly called in to support the work of PREVENT, most notably by being required to identify and report people under suspicion of radicalisation. This has implications not just for the confidentiality of relations between public sector workers and citizens, but warrants consideration of the acceptability of outsourcing the work of counter-terrorism officials to the public sector. For many, this approach to counter-terrorism is favourable as it ensures a vigilant government and public in all areas of threat, especially in schools where at-risk children can be identified before radicalisation takes hold. 

However, the training given to public sector workers has repeatedly been reported as sub-standard or ‘inadequate’, leading to perhaps the most damaging criticism of PREVENT – the claim that it simply doesn’t work. Shadow Minister for Security Nick Thomas Symonds have been very vocal about PREVENT’s lack of effectiveness and its potential to alienate minority communities, helping to secure an announcement from Security Minister, Ben Wallace, of an independent review of PREVENT in January of this year. 

The 2017 Parsons Green attack is seen as a prime example of the failure of the system. Despite it being known that unaccompanied child migrant Ahmed Hassan had been radicalised by so-called Islamic State and consistent warnings from his school and foster parents, no action was taken in working with Ahmed. PREVENT programme officials were even considering dropping Hassan from the ‘Channel’ scheme just ten days before the aforementioned attack. If the justification for PREVENT is its effectiveness then this example highlights the mismatch between PREVENT’s objectives and its day-to-day operation. 

While the difficulty of counter-terrorism policy formulation is undeniable, there needs to be at least some recognition of the broader ramifications of such a strategy, especially one which is already perceived in part as furthering discrimation and encroaching on freedom of speech. 

Niamh Smith is a politics student at the University of Warwick and is currently undertaking a week’s work experience at Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.