Sunday, November 01, 2009

Four Stages of Prevent

The Guardian's recent reporting of examples of bad practice in the implementation of prevent are currently being investigated by the Home Office. Before I write about what I consider to be the core problems at present, I'd like to provide some context.

There are four stages in the development of the prevent strategy as it is currently in place.

The first stage was pre-prevent, if you like. If we take 9/11 as the beginning (this could be disputed, because there was some activity in this area in the 90s), then there was a period which I find most astonishing upto July 7 2005 in which there was no prevent. There was a leaked memo from Andrew Turnbull, the Cabinet Secretary of the time, to John Gieve, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office at the time, in 2004 which gave indications of what prevent could look like in its embryonic stages.

The second stage began after the bombings in July 7 2005. This included the forming of seven working groups of Muslims that were called to advise the government in different areas including regeneration, youth, education, mosques, extremism, women and security and policing. Many recommendations were presented to government and some of them were taken up. The government was criticised for not taking up more of the recommendations, the response was that many of the recommendations could not be taken up by government because it remained for the community itself to take them up. A couple of succesful projects took off during this period including Radical Middle Way which was aiming to support the counter-radicalisation argument in the community.

The third stage was a response to the second stage. The problem with the second stage was that it involved activities at the national stage and there was not enough devolution of the prevent strategy to the local level, There needed to be productive partnerships at the local level for the prevent strategy to work thoroughly. Councils with large Muslim populations were therefore chosen and given small amounts of money in the first trial year to examine how this process would play out. The problem was that many councils were distant from their local Muslim communities and their youth, sometimes due to exclusion and sometimes due to history. The government decided to roll out a three year programme of funding for Muslim community groups to work together with the local councils on the prevent agenda.

This led on to the fourth stage. The police had a counter-terrorism remit which focused on the second strand of the contest strategy: the pursue strand which was about actually apprehending people who were about to commit terrorist attacks. It was about this time when counter-terrorism was refashioned with local counter-terrorism units and the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office being constituted (I'm still not sure whether this was not an elobarate form of musical chairs). The fourth stage of prevent involved the funding of prevent strands specifically in police forces, sometimes aligned with the neighbourhood policing agenda. This was announced by government at the time.

There are several problems with prevent at present. But perhaps before I proceed I should state my position on prevent as a whole. Is prevent necessary, that is, if Britain has a counter-terrorism strategy, then should it have a prevent aspect to this strategy which is specifically about positive linkages with the Muslim community? I think it should, indeed, it must. Otherwise contest is left to senior CT officials who tend to be Home Counties, Oxbridge and clueless. There needs to be a corrective element which adds to the strategy and comes from the Muslim community itself, at least in principle. I don't know if there remains a major terrorist threat to this country, but if there is, then the CT prevent strand must be Muslim-focused and inclusive. This is how most effective policy responses to social problems work.

About the problems. First of all, it is not clear to me whether the walls between the community aspect and the policing aspect are Chinese enough. If they are not, then this is a major problem. The cases referred to by the Guardian indicate that there are problems in this area. The key problem being that funding is being provided to community organisations who are then leant on to provide information for pursue.

Secondly, there is this whole problem of ensuring the the whole community is represented in the prevent strategy to reflect the diversity of the community. This mixes the objectives of prevent and dilutes the effectiveness of the strategy, as is happening in several projects. The only justification that I can think of for prevent money from a state perspective is if it leads to actually making Britian safer, but this requires some strong-mindedness from the officials. For example, a non-practising Muslim with hardly any activist history will simply not have any effect on deradicalisation of extremists, but a practising one can. But the government and officials are too worried of the Daily Mail factor and so instead are more willing to fund meaningless projects which help no-one except those that are funded. Here. the government should I think call Paul Dacre in and explain what this strategy is about, what they are doing and why and then ask for some slack from the Daily Mail in the interests of the security of the country.

The third problem is recognising the difference between community cohesion and prevent. One positive aspect of prevent has been that it has helped community cohesion in one way - there are many succesful projects - by linking up Muslim communities that were previously excluded from police services and local councils to those same bodies, by force. This has been attritional and many have resisted, but it has brought more co-operation and therefore more cohesion where it matters most, between officialdom and the local communities. Others (in the South) that previously had good relations were upset by stigma associated with prevent but the honesty of their convictions can be tested by looking to see how they have involved and employed Muslims throughout the rest of their organisations.

The fourth problem is Muslim involvement itself. This has been a big failure and the fact that there is this current attrition between the OSCT and the community and the fact that many Muslims have simply not cared enough about the recent reporting are indications of the distance that remains between officialdom and serious leadership in the community. This is a disaster and I can only put it down to cowardice on the part of officialdom - to take on characters who would have given them a hard time, but for a good purpose. Something to do with comfort zones? Does this explain why so many clearly dodgy characters are hanging around the prevent agenda?

The Tories have stated that they will keep with Contest but review Prevent. The DCLG select committee is also reviewing prevent. Is the community itself at a different place now than where it was five years ago? Is prevent as important now as it was then? Is something else required now? Could streamlining prevent (making it fit for purpose), ringfencing police involvement in prevent and mainstreaming Muslim community participation and involvement in public services a surer way to make this country safer?