News and Comment

Just out – the new, improved Prevent strategy

Wednesday 8 June 2011

There is always a risk in delaying a policy in such a sensitive area as counter-terrorism. A five month delay (the new Prevent strategy was first expected in February this year) seemed like a very long one given that stopping terrorism is always a pressing issue. But on reflection, maybe the delay was necessary, the last Prevent strategy had some major flaws, and there was an overwhelming need to get it right this time.

So how does the new strategy stack up? Well first of all, there is something about the tone of the report, which while critical of elements the past approach, does not seek out a scorched earth policy, deriding everything that went before. There is clearly a willingness on behalf of the authors to accept that some elements of the past approach – such as the Channel Strategy – were worth building on, rather than totally dismantling. Those who may have inadvertently provided funding to extreme organisations did not do this ‘deliberately’.

Then there are the positive changes proposed, which, if one were to follow the evidence trail – from the Parliamentary Review of Prevent, through to many independent critiques of the strategy – show that the Government has listened and responded to concerns.

Key aspects of the new Prevent

Firstly, the strategy intends to engender a much more focused, and targeted approach to tackling extremism. There will no longer be funding for broad brush, scattergun approaches, which led to the focus of the strategy being diluted or appearing confused in intent. While socially useful in other ways, using Prevent funding to pay for young Muslim five-a-side football teams, or to build the leadership skills of Muslim women which was common under the last strategy, will no longer be tolerated. There will be a renewed focus on important issues of integration and cohesion, but they will not be the focus of this strategy.

The strategy message is clear: ‘Prevent must not assume control of or allocate funding to integration projects which have a value far wider than security and counter-terrorism: the Government will not securitise its integration strategy. This has been a mistake in the past’.

Secondly, funding for Prevent will no longer crudely be linked to demographics or, more explicitly, allocated in proportion to the number of Muslims in a particular area (although the 20 local authority areas that will receive money do have high Muslim populations). Instead, funding will be directed to where there is a prevalence of risk.

Thirdly, there is a stronger focus on making sure that funding allocations and impact of investment is properly assessed and evaluated. Projects which don’t clearly met the objectives, and more importantly outcomes, associated with Prevent, will no longer be funded. This is important. As an organisation that has applied rigorous evaluation approaches to assessing the impact of Prevent (see our work in CLG’s Guide to Evaluating Prevent Programmes), we were often surprised by how little Prevent activities were systematically evaluated.

Fourthly, there is an explicit recognition in the strategy that the trust of communities have previously been broken down in relation to Prevent, with concerns centring on accusations (denied again by Government) that Prevent was used as a proviso to spying on communities. There will be a renewed focus on building trust for this new strategy, with the Home Office committed to ensuring that ‘data collected about people for the purposes of Prevent [will be] necessary and proportionate’.

Some questions of the new Prevent

The most significant departure in the new strategy from the one that went before relates to the Government’s commitment not to engage with extremists, even when they do not espouse violence. This means that there will be a growing number of organisations who, because of their opposition to ‘mainstream British values’, cannot be included in any Prevent related activity. Despite the issue of whether isolating extremists will actually push these people further underground – and out of the reach of the police or those dedicated to bringing them back into the mainstream – there is a more practical problem. Who will do the counter-radicalisation work with vulnerable people?

Presently, some of the main individuals who are currently involved in steering vulnerable people away from violent extremism, are currently, or where in the past, extremists themselves – although not necessarily violent extremists. There is a relative lack of organisations that have expertise in this area, and can prove they have never had a link to extremism. Where will new organisations with appropriate expertise arise from?

In general, the Prevent strategy holds many positives. But a significant amount of time has elapsed since Prevent was at the forefront of professional’s minds – energy and focus has been lost in many local areas. This strategy will need to be supported through a range of awareness raising, training and research activities to rebuild commitment and action, and to ensure that local public servants and community groups clearly understand their role in supporting implementation.