Positives in Andy Burnham’s commission’s PREVENT report overshadowed by greater concerns
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Thursday August 02 2018
In September 2017, in the aftermath of the atrocities at Manchester Arena and a subsequent 500% rise in Islamophobic hate crimes, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham established the Greater Manchester Tackling Hateful Extremism and Promoting Social Cohesion Commission.
On 30th July 2018, the commission published a report exploring the findings of their review into tackling violent extremism and promoting social cohesion. While offering a number of valuable insights and policy recommendations regarding tackling inequalities that lead to social exclusion, the report also exhibits key perspectives and conclusions that are a great cause for concern, specifically regarding strategies for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).
A particularly commendable outcome of the report is the manner in which it highlights the frequently underestimated role of socio-economic inequalities and reductions in public services in marginalising vulnerable individuals and contributing to the social exclusion of minorities. Amongst other admirable recommendations, this understanding leads the commission to call for greater investment in youth in overcoming barriers to “education, employment, training and socializing”.
Another key contribution of the report is its criticism of the manner in which community engagement has traditionally focused on a “minority of the population who are regularly called on to provide their views” and a subsequent feeling that “some people are being silenced and their views repressed.” This is highly encouraging considering the Government’s current policy of disengagement from a large swathe of mainstream Muslim organisations. This policy of non-engagement creates significant strain on Muslim communities who feel they are not properly represented nor acknowledged. As noted by Dominic Grieve in the Citizens UK report The Missing Muslims, “There is a broken relationship that needs to be resolved, and both parties need to be proactive in addressing this.” In line with this analysis, the commission rightly calls for extending the networks and reach of community engagement.
However, despite the highly valuable contributions made by the report, the overarching premise of conflating security and social cohesion is ultimately dangerous and counter-productive for a number of reasons. Indeed, counter-terror strategies such as PREVENT (which many experts view as a “toxic brand”) have previously been widely condemned as damaging to cohesion and inclusion of minorities. Indeed, Andy Burnham has also previously called Prevent “toxic”. Therefore, the intermingling of community integration and counter-terror strategies can only result in exacerbating an already problematic relationship between government, society and minorities.
Equally worrying is the commission’s a priori assertion that PREVENT is fit for purpose, without any robust evidence to support this. There is also no acknowledgement or analysis of the legitimate concerns and criticisms of hundreds of academics, experts, and community organisations. In fact, PREVENT has been the focus of widespread criticism and condemnation for the strategy’s reliance on flawed science, its dubious application, and for disproportionately impacting Muslim communities. Amongst the most noteworthy critics of PREVENT are three UN special rapporteurs (Maina Kiai, Ben Emmerson, and Tendayi Achiume), as well as the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the NUT, the NUS, the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Rights Watch UK, the Open Society Justice Initiative, and moreover 140 academics, politicians and experts.
Despite the weight of these criticisms and admitting that British Muslims “genuinely fear” PREVENT, the report attempts to explain and justify this trend by focusing on an alleged lack of information and understanding of the Government’s CVE programmes amongst Muslim communities in Britain. The commission thus potentially attributes the negative reception of PREVENT amongst British Muslims to a mere misunderstanding.
Indeed, the report states that “if the perception of the Prevent Strategy is different from the reality, then that can be exploited by those seeking to undermine any form of counter-terrorism strategy”. If? Surely the data speaks for itself. Indeed, Miqdaad Versi, from the Muslim Council of Britain, noted that the Home Office’s figures testify that Muslims are “approximately 40 times more likely [to be referred] than someone who is not a Muslim”. The suggestion that the ‘problem’ with PREVENT is simply ‘bad PR’ and that the ‘fault’ lies with its many distinguished critics who cannot distinguish perception from reality is insulting.
Such a position may also infer that anyone who legitimately criticises the current PREVENT strategy is actively attempting to subvert and undermine counter-terror efforts. This is a damaging accusation that is often used as a mechanism for shutting down legitimate and critical voices (in particular Muslims), and is thus severely limiting to democratic debate and contributes to the public and political exclusion of Muslims.
Such a limitation is clearly in direct conflict with any attempt to encourage social cohesion. Criticism of PREVENT, when carried out in a democratic fashion, cannot and should not be seen as an all-encompassing rejection of counter-terror strategies, but as an important instrument to advance our common fight against terrorism.
Furthermore, the commission openly endorses the proposal to extend the duty further, in spite of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ recent call for an independent review of PREVENT.
There is a debate to be had as to which professionals are best qualified to determine signs of ‘radicalisation’, especially considering that it is far from a linear process, but rather a complex multifaceted process unique to each individual (as the commission itself rightly observes). However there is no evidence to suggest that extending such responsibilities to professionals such as primary school teachers, social workers and health visitors will add clarity or value to this debate.
Meanwhile, the Government presently has no clear working definitions of radicalisation, extremism, non-violent extremism, nor “British Values”. This lack of objective understanding and insufficient training thus causes confusion in PREVENT’s application.
In fact, the severe lack of effective training was highlighted by the Home Affairs Committee who noted, “We are concerned about a lack of sufficient and appropriate training in an area that is complex and unfamiliar to many education and other professionals, compounded by a lack of clarity about what is required of them.”
The result is that those tasked with carrying out the PREVENT duty may become reliant upon personal perceptions, bias, and popular stereotypes when assessing those considered to be at risk of radicalisation. Indeed, the study by Warwick University, “Counter-terrorism in the NHS: Evaluating Prevent duty safeguarding in the NHS”, highlighted that one PREVENT referral involved “an Asian man” who was “reported to the safeguarding team for discussing his future trip to Saudi Arabia”. The man was planning a Hajj pilgrimage trip. As such, the person was flagged for reasons that are not suggested by PREVENT guidelines.
If the duty were to be further extended amongst local authorities without suitable re-evaluation of the training, the risk of further such erroneous and ‘false-positive ‘referrals us likely to continue, with a further erosion of trust in the communities affected. The fact that this severe inadequacy of training is even acknowledged by the commission itself makes their recommendation to extend the duty more surprising and concerning.
While ambitious in scope, noble in intent and certainly worthy in some areas, the report ultimately fails to deliver an accurate, credible and nuanced analysis of PREVENT or even an effective alternative approach, if that was the desired objective. There is no question that this is a huge opportunity missed to seriously address the flaws of PREVENT, to fully understand the true causal factors behind radicalisation and to deal with this vital issue based on facts rather than pre-existing flawed policy.
For further analysis of the report, see MEND’s briefing here.