The government must now launch an independent inquiry into the human rights issues which the Preventing Violent Extremism policy raises.
The Institute of Race Relations’ report into the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism programme, published last October, argued that the programme, known simply as Prevent, had undermined community cohesion, alienated those it was meant to be engaging with and over-emphasised the role of religion in radicalisation. The Communities and Local Government Committee’s report on Prevent, published this week, agrees.
Moreover the report calls for an independent investigation into whether Prevent includes an element of inappropriate surveillance, another issue that was raised last year by the IRR’s research and by a Guardian report which found the programme involved gathering intelligence on innocent people who were not suspected of involvement in terrorism.
The Channel programme
The government has repeatedly stated that the Prevent policy is ‘not about spying’ while acknowledging that one part of it, known as the Channel programme, does involve the identification of people who are thought to be on a path of radicalisation into violent extremism. Channel, the government argues, is no different from similar programmes aimed at identifying young people at risk of involvement in drugs or gangs; the programme is simply there to provide support to young people who are vulnerable to terrorist recruitment.
Over 200 people have been identified through the Channel programme as would-be violent extremists – the overwhelming majority young Muslims. In a number of areas, teachers, youth workers and other professionals working with young Muslims have been briefed by officers of the local police counter-terrorism unit (what used to be called Special Branch) on the indicators of extremism to look out for. One such officer I spoke to last year told me that he was visiting nursery schools in Birmingham to advise teachers that children as young as four could be at risk of radicalisation. He said that signs of radicalisation among toddlers include saying that Christians are bad or drawing pictures of bombs.
Once young Muslims have been identified in this way, a board including the police and local authority agencies will consider the case and may recommend some form of intervention. It might involve mentoring with a youth worker or work with a moderate mosque in order to challenge extremist ideas – all of which might be appropriate if there is a genuine problem of someone drifting into support for terrorism. But youth workers involved in Channel tell me privately that the project is not picking up Muslims who are would-be terrorists, only Muslims who are angry.
Whatever its effectiveness, there remains a human rights problem with the Channel programme. The programme relies on being able to identify individuals who are not terrorists but might be at some point in the future. But how do you identify tomorrow’s terrorists today? In practice, it appears that being a young Muslim male with ‘extreme’ religious or political opinions marks you out as being a ‘pre-terrorist’. But should the police be gathering intelligence on what opinions people happen to have, given that there is no crime involved in, say, happening to agree with the Taliban?
It has proved difficult to establish what happens to the intelligence collected through the Channel programme. The people identified through Channel, some of whom are under ten years old, will have their details stored by police counter-terrorism units. Without any kind of criminal investigation taking place, they will be listed in a police file as someone who is a potential violent extremist. Presumably, that file could be shared with the intelligence services. We do not know how long that file is kept for and there appears to be no mechanism by which someone can remove their details if they have been incorrectly identified as a risk. The parents of young people identified through Channel will want to be reassured that the information collected on their children is not being abused.
To date, no such reassurance has been forthcoming, despite the communities minister John Denham’s admission last December that greater transparency in the Prevent programme is necessary to win back community trust. Unfortunately, police forces involved in Channel have refused requests under the Freedom of Information Act to publish aggregate data on the number, age range and ethnicity of who is being identified through the project. The Metropolitan Police, for example, has said it is not obliged to release such data because to do so may ‘fuel perceived grievances such as the view that young Muslims are being targeted’.
As the Communities and Local Government Committee has now rightly concluded, if the government wants to improve confidence in the Prevent programme, it must commission an independent investigation into the surveillance component of Prevent.
Spooked: how not to prevent violent extremism – IRR report