Prevent has come a long way and changed a great deal

As someone who has worked in Prevent for over ten years, I know full well how much Prevent has achieved. I have seen first-hand how individuals toying with hatred and violence can change when they are approached with empathy and provided timely support during their time of need. Prevent has not only achieved much, it has also learnt and changed. Whether it be revising the strategy in 2011, the Home Office publication of data to improve transparency, renewed efforts to tackle far-right extremism, or a greater emphasis on community engagement, Prevent is constantly seeking to adapt and improve. We have come a long way and changed a great deal.

In previous articles I have spoken about community engagement and communication as crucial parts of our work. However, I think it’s worth repeating one of the key ideas that binds these two things together: community engagement and honest communication is precisely how Prevent learns and changes. It is through engagement with Prevent that people can better understand our work and suggest changes to improve it.

Locally, there are few, if any, parts of my team’s work that have not been changed by our engagement with the Prevent Advisory Group (or PAG) – a growing group of local community and faith groups who review our work and advise us. PAG is instrumental in helping us to identify what local support might be helpful and the activities we should run. For example, in keeping with PAG requests we arranged for security awareness training to be delivered to local organisations in the wake of the Parsons Green attack. In line with community suggestions, we have also organized bespoke sessions and activities for parents and young people in local youth clubs. Community members have also been in the driving seat regarding the focus of the community discussion events we help organise. For example, local concerns have led us to help organise events about the media portrayal of Muslims, the conflict in Syria, and far-right extremism.

A growing number of community groups have also attended our training, partly so they can share any suggestions or concerns they may have about the sessions we deliver. Even the language we use has been influenced by PAG. My team steers clear of the terms ‘jihad’ and ‘jihadism’ out of acknowledgment of the word’s religious significance, a point which was raised to us by community groups. Our safeguarding work is also shaped by the feedback we receive. For example, my team recently presented to PAG the forms of support we would consider should we be asked to work with a minor returning from territories controlled by a terrorist organisation. Far from the view that Prevent is shrouded in secrecy, we spoke frankly about the support we would consider and opened this up for discussion. The community members present had several suggestions, all of which have now been taken onboard by ourselves. Ultimately, the hint is in the name: PAG is an advisory group. By sharing their thoughts with us, PAG has changed local Prevent delivery in more ways than I can count.

I think some people may be surprised at the genuine appetite to hear from communities when it comes to Prevent. As the Chair of the London Prevent Network (a platform which brings together my counterparts across London and beyond) I know this eagerness is also shared by my colleagues. Nor is this just about local authority staff either – some of our local groups have shared their views on Prevent with a previous Home Secretary, Councillors, the previous Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, and Ofsted’s Chief Operating Officer.

There’s often much talk about the need to involve communities to a greater extent in counter-radicalisation. I couldn’t agree more, but the truth is that the structures necessary for this to happen are already in place. The individuals and groups that talk to us make a real difference. Thanks to them, Prevent has come a long way and changed a great deal. Through our ongoing community engagement, we look forward to learning a great deal more.

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Talk may be cheap, but when it comes to Prevent it’s also essential

It’s not every day that Parliament praises the work you’ve carried out for the past decade, but that is exactly what happened in April when a House of Lords report cited the RBKC Prevent team’s work on proactive information sharing and community engagement as a successful operation of Prevent. It felt great to receive recognition for our work and even better to hear a rising chorus of voices recognising that Prevent works well when implemented effectively, with a community led approach and clear communication.

In an increasingly polarised and hyperbolic political environment, it is comforting to know that so many fantastic organisations are working with us to pull communities closer together. When I first heard about the horrendous ‘Punish a Muslim Day’ letters, which advocated committing violent acts against members of the Muslim community, it was not from the police, but from our community Prevent Advisory Group, which I set up over 7 years ago. In these instances, the Prevent team can quickly engage with community groups to provide suitable advice, as well as feeding community sentiment to central government.  This two-way exchange of information, and our ongoing commitment to speaking to local partners and colleagues, goes a long way to deescalate tensions and show that people’s concerns are being listened to.

For someone working as part of a strategy with an alleged terrifying impact on free speech, my colleagues and I spend an inordinate amount of time promoting debate and discussion. While this irony is not lost on me, the point rarely features in the public debate regarding Prevent – part of Britain’s Counter Terrorism Strategy which seeks to safeguard vulnerable individuals from radicalisation. In fact, encouraging discussion and speaking openly about our work runs through most of what we do. Whether it be community engagement, the Home Office’s release of data about Prevent referrals, the training we deliver, or our proactive efforts to organise debate promoting events, open discussion lies at the heart of our work. Of course, this is also true of the safeguarding support we offer. I’m not entirely sure what people picture when they imagine a counter-radicalisation intervention, but I’m guessing organising museum visits, helping schools run assemblies, or setting up meetings with a local Imam is not what springs to mind.

In 2017, the RBKC Prevent team delivered over 130 training sessions reaching over 3,000 local teachers, council staff, volunteers, and community members. Aside from offering an introduction to Prevent, these sessions are an opportunity for attendees to ask questions about issues relating to extremism and radicalisation, or discuss their own experiences (I mention one such example here). During one session in the summer of 2017, in the wake of tragic terrorist attacks here in the United Kingdom, my staff were commended for offering a space in which terrorism could be discussed calmly and openly, with a focus on safeguarding vulnerable individuals and keeping one another safe. As one attendee put it: ‘this is just about people caring about other people – it’s all about compassion and caring’.

While critics of Prevent believe that the strategy has laid the foundations of an environment where the Muslim community is viewed with suspicion, the truth is that the RBKC Prevent team continually stress that conservative religious beliefs and membership of a given faith are not vulnerabilities to radicalisation. Rather than fostering an environment of anxiety, over 96% of teachers we trained in 2017 stated that they felt ‘more confident after this training session to discuss issues relating to extremism and radicalisation within [their] classes’. This is not unique to our local delivery either. A 2017 study focusing on Prevent in schools and colleges noted that, while there are anxieties regarding Prevent amongst some teachers, there was ‘relatively little support among respondents for the idea that the duty has led to a ‘chilling effect’ on conversations with students in the classroom and beyond’. It also found that the ‘largest proportion of respondents (56%) expressed the view that the Prevent duty had not resulted in any change in the levels of trust between students and staff’.

Understandign graph
Feedback from Prevent training sessions in the 2017/18 financial year

The RBKC Prevent team also plays a role in helping to organise community discussions. Topics focus around extremism and radicalisation, as well as contentious issues identified by community members which are not addressed elsewhere. Rather than letting discussion be pushed underground, we work with local community groups to increase opportunities for open debate. Since July 2017, the team have helped organise 7 events attended by over 600 people. These events have focused on topics including how Islam is represented in the media, the conflict in Syria, online extremist propaganda, safeguarding the vulnerable from radicalisation, and Schedule 7 stops. The feedback we receive after these events is overwhelmingly positive. In one instance, we helped a local mosque which had shared concerns about far-right extremism to run an event for residents to discuss the risks posed by far-right extremism, to explain the work of Prevent, the Council, and the Police in tackling these concerns, and to clarify how people can report hate crimes or share concerns. Again, I’m not entirely sure what people imagine when they think of an event which Prevent has helped organise, but I’m guessing this isn’t what comes to mind.

At the launch of a report critical of Prevent, my colleague Will Baldet – who spoke on the panel – explained that there often appears to be two Prevent strategies: the one practitioners know and recognise; and the one we hear about in much of the media. These two versions of Prevent are so different that it often feels like we’re not talking about the same thing. This gap can only be lessened through greater engagement and communication regarding our work, what it is, and how we can do even better. Luckily, that’s the business we’re in.

The importance of media literacy and critical thinking in the classroom

In the above image we see Russian President Vladimir Putin surrounded by world leaders and politicians at 2017’s G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.  All present look to be engrossed with Putin, vying for this ear, trying to hear what he has to say. Is this showing Russia’s high status on the world stage? Maybe so. However, there is something else that this image demonstrates: the ease to which a photograph can be created or doctored to portray a point. You see, this image is false. Incorrect. Fake. It did not happen. Putin has been photoshopped into the picture and the name plate altered to read “Russian Federation”. The original image should show an empty chair, a chair that had been left vacant by UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

This image demonstrates how remarkably easy it is for fake news to be created and for this news to then impact others. The image has been seen by thousands of people as it was shared across social media, many thinking that it was a genuine image showing Russian influence. Social media is the most prominent source of fake news as well as the most popular source of news for children.  Therefore, ensuring that students are able to recognise what is real and what is fake is becoming an increasingly important skill to teach in schools. Fake news, conspiracy theories and propaganda are all things that are used by extremist groups to promote their ideologies and so teaching media literacy and critical thinking in the classroom ensures children are ultimately less susceptible to extremism.

Prevent Education Officers work with schools to ensure that they have the knowledge, resources and ability to use existing opportunities within the curriculum to explore extremism and related topics in a safe space. This may be having lessons or assemblies on extremism or terrorism, but also on other broader topics to do with Fundamental British Values (e.g. tolerance), online safety, and critical thinking / media literacy.

The US Embassy recently hosted some excellent training on media literacy in the classroom, which was delivered by Damaso Reyes of the News Literacy Project. The training highlighted some examples of fake news, outlined how the News Literacy Project have some excellent (US-focused) resources to aide teaching of media literacy, and gave a suggested framework on how children can be more media literate and therefore have the skills necessary to recognise fake news. It was advised that the following seven steps should be undertaken when viewing a piece of news:

1. Check your emotions – what’s your reaction?

2. Determine the purpose of what you are reading, watching or hearing

3. Be aware of your biases

4. Consider the message – content and style

5. Search for more information

6. Go deeper on the source

7. Go deeper on the content itself

Fake news can regularly be found covering a myriad of topics and so there will be numerous opportunities to practice these steps.  For more ideas on teaching about fake news, the Full Fact toolkit hosts lesson plans here.

 

 

 

Prevent And The Rising Threat Of The Extreme Far-Right

The latest data showing referrals to the Government’s counter-radicalisation Prevent programme, demonstrates a rising far-right risk that professionals including myself have been aware of for some time. In the year 2015/2016, one quarter of those supported by the Channel programme were as a result of far-right concerns. Indeed, for those of us who have been working side by side with community organisations for several years, this fact will not have come as much of a surprise. They confirm the concerns that members of our long-established Prevent Advisory Group (a gathering of leading local community organisations and mosques which advises us on the local delivery of Prevent, Britain’s strategy to safeguard individuals at risk of radicalisation) have raised for some time. While the most significant terror threat we face comes from terrorist recruiters inspired by Da’esh, an increasing number of cases supported by Prevent’s early intervention scheme, Channel, are linked to the extreme far-right (XFR).

The murder of Jo Cox, the Finsbury Park attack, the proscription of National Action (and its aliases Scottish Dawn and NS131) and the subsequent string of arrests for suspected membership of this organisation, are all a testament to the very real threat originating from extreme far-right terrorism. For members of our local ethnic minority communities, these concerns are reinforced by experiences of increased hate crime and Islamophobia which have now been evidenced by the latest Home Office figures. Sadly, concerns about retaliatory violence and harassment following each new Da’esh-inspired terrorist atrocity have become well understood. It is well understood that each new attack runs the risk of emboldening the vocal minorities who promote extremism on both the far-right and on behalf of groups like Da’esh. In this context it is hardly surprising, although no less shocking, that we were told that some local Muslim girls were considering removing their headscarves out of fear for their own safety.

The community’s concerns about both Da’esh and the XFR were justified and we are seeing this played out within our increased safeguarding workload. This year, I will have worked in Prevent for 10 years. In that time, the level of Prevent engagement, the intensity of our local delivery, and the number of Prevent safeguarding referrals have multiplied. Locally, we have addressed concerns regarding individuals who declared their support for the use of violence against Muslims because they consider all Muslims to be terrorists; individuals who were promoting Nazism and Holocaust denial; or individuals producing neo-fascist literature. Crucially, the social media revolution we have seen these last ten years has led us to a situation where extremist content is far more easily accessible, where children will readily ask a stranger on a forum for guidance rather than a parent, and where untrustworthy websites are increasingly effective at developing misinformation to promote xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred.

Thankfully, these 10 years have also been deeply formative and have left us in a better position to address these complex and sensitive concerns. The greater support we receive from organisations (notably from the voluntary sector) and communities has been invaluable. Our close working ties with other local safeguarding teams have also been key to our ability to offer tailored support to vulnerable individuals. Our consistent work with community organisations has ensured that we are best placed to hear of new challenges as they arise and respond to them immediately. In schools, the support we offer is ever changing in line with emerging risks. Recently, we have offered lesson plans and staff training regarding critical thinking, conspiracy theories and online safety.

One of the misconceptions about Prevent is that it somehow targets the Muslim community. In my experience, this could not be further from the truth and a recent experience which I have had embodies this point and the importance of Prevent in the current context. While delivering a training session to a local charity, we discussed a case study around the XFR. As part of this discussion, a Muslim woman attending the session explained that a few years ago, when she was living outside of London, she had been insulted and harassed by a man because of her faith. She became quite emotional and opened-up to the group about the fear she had felt following this incident and the impact this had on her life.

What was particularly clear from her account, was how alone she had felt when faced with concerns relating to the XFR. She ended her story by explaining that she felt safer knowing that there are teams such as ours trying to tackle issues relating to radicalisation, adding that she wished she had known about the work we do a long time ago. Her feedback form simply read: “Thank you for the work you do”.

These figures will help to inform the public that extremism can take many forms and it’s important that we remain vigilant to the risk of radicalisation whenever and wherever it emerges.

Away From The Police Sirens, Work To Protect The Young And Vulnerable From Radicalisation Is As Essential As Ever

In recent weeks, the NSPCC reported a spike in the number of children requesting counselling sessions for race or faith-based bullying following the recent terror attacks. Around the same time, there has also been a rise in reported Islamophobic incidents.

Muslim children as young as nine-years-old are said to have faced violent bullying and been accused of supporting the Islamic State. While the horrendous attack at Manchester Arena directly impacted innocent young children and parents, this is a sombre reminder that terror attacks can have a profound effect on young people wherever they are.

Following each of the recent terrorist attacks, we realised that our local schools were going to need extra reassurance and be equipped to deal with the complex questions children would inevitably have. Our Prevent education officer spoke to all our local schools to offer that much needed reassurance, share advice and resources about managing difficult discussions with pupils. He also shared guidance on conducting risk assessments for school trips, and shared the latest updates from the police.

Parent coffee mornings were also scheduled to share advice with worried parents and school assemblies were organised to enable students to raise any difficult questions in an open and safe space. In my book, taking the time to reassure a worried child is never a waste of time. This isn’t the work that Prevent is known for , and far from the myth that Prevent operates in the shadows, my team is always available to support parents and teachers and participate in these vital discussions.

The good working ties we have established with local community organisations and faith groups means that not only are we made aware of concerns around radicalisation which community members might have, it has also enabled us to escalate any concerns or incidents within the community which might otherwise have gone unreported.

Following the Finsbury Park attack a month ago, my team were able to ensure that local police were made aware of security concerns raised by our local mosques, all the while sharing guidance on venue security provided by central government. During these times of heightened tensions, we have hosted round-tables within local organisations encouraging the reporting of concerns and hate crimes, and have offered reassurance and an opportunity for open dialogue at a time when worrying hearsay and misinformation was doing little to allay community concerns. Much of these conspiracy theories were being shared on the internet, a place where poisonous and extreme ideologies are also being spread. Every teacher and parent knows how vulnerable children can be to what they watch and read online. Thinking about how we respond to this threat is daunting but vital work.

When both the extreme Far Right and Daesh supporters do their best to pit us against one another, ensuring those who are vulnerable to radicalisation are offered support is key; my team and I see the positive outcomes of this on a daily basis. Whether it involves offering online safety advice to parents, linking an isolated child to a local youth club, building up a close relationship with a mentor or counsellor, or speaking openly and frankly about sensitive and concerning issues, there are many ways in which the work of Prevent impacts on people’s lives for the better.

For those that doubt the necessity of protecting children from radicalisation, consider that Daesh is now producing children’s cartoons to spread its hateful ideology. Daesh sees vulnerability as an opportunity, an open door. We need to shut that door by having a critical debate about the content of Daesh propaganda videos or an open discussion about anti-Muslim sentiment with a trusted mentor. These are just some of the essential components of how we can stay safe together.

The unified and collective response which we have seen emerge following these attacks has been an inspiration and of crucial importance as there is, indeed, much that we can all do. For what it’s worth, the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy has the maturity to recognise the complex and multifaceted nature of terrorism, and to respond accordingly. I am proud that the support which Prevent offers to schools, although far removed from the police sirens and arrests we see on the news, has become integral to how we respond to this threat.

The Damascene Conversion Of The Prevent Advisory Group

Five years ago at one of the first meetings of our Prevent Advisory Group (PAG) I was suspected of being a spy for M15. Anxiety about Prevent – the Government’s counter-radicalisation programme – ran so high that PAG representatives of local Mosques and Muslim community groups asked me to close my laptop in case I was using it as a recording device.

The PAG was set up to advise the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea on the local implementation of Prevent. The Group’s purpose is to help to ensure that families, communities, civil society and faith groups are at the forefront in safeguarding the vulnerable from extremists and their ideologies.

Seeking – and taking – advice from the PAG certainly did not come easily, at least at first. To be candid, I failed to anticipate the vehemence of the criticisms about Prevent thrown at me and my team. Chairing and managing these meetings has undoubtedly been character building. During the first year or so, I was often sleepless on the nights before I was due to chair a PAG meeting.

The PAG has been on a journey, perhaps even a ‘Damascene conversion’. Just last year, the Group threw me a surprise birthday dinner and we have regular, well attended meetings. Though it was difficult at times people stuck with it and always responded respectfully, fairly and openly. Now we are seeing the benefit of this perseverance.

That does not mean that PAG is has become tame or pliant. Far from it. Members continue to challenge and push back, and I admit that I still find some of the meetings uncomfortable. Nor have PAG’s views always been easy listening for the Ministers and senior civil servants who have occasionally sat in on meetings. The difference now is that our discussions are reasoned, balanced and, most importantly, well-informed. PAG members “get” what Prevent is about and know what it achieves on the ground. They recognise the importance of countering radicalisation and the challenge this presents now and for the foreseeable future. Rather than disengaging from a challenging situation, as some would recommend, members of the Group have helped to shape the local delivery of Prevent into a programme they can support.

The anti-Prevent rhetoric in the media echoes the early days of PAG. Some of the criticisms being levelled against Prevent now are the same as those raised in PAG meetings five years ago. What won the Group over? First, recognition and acceptance among all present that fundamentally we all want the same thing – to safeguard and protect individuals and communities from extremism. And secondly, that Prevent has delivered results. We gave detailed presentations of our plans, projects and progress but what really influenced PAG views was evidence of the difference Prevent has made to the lives of vulnerable individuals.

Support from PAG has helped to secure wider community buy-in to Prevent. Our ‘community question’ events are a good example. Held at community venues, these events are themed on topics highlighted by the Group as pressing issues and concerns. They are attended by as many as 300 members of the local community. PAG members such as the Baraka Association, Al Hasaniya, Making Communities Work and Grow, Chelsea Muslim Community, London Tigers and the Dalgarno Trust, not only host and front these events, but also promote them to local communities. These events are a far cry from critics’ suggestion that Prevent stifles debate.

PAG’s critical yet constructive feedback and willingness to co-design and deliver projects has helped to tailor Prevent to suit the local situation. The Group has given us much greater access to hard to reach groups and has even mediated between my officers and troubled individuals and families, particularly in our efforts to prevent travel to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh. Commentators and critics accuse Prevent of unfairly targeting Muslim communities, but PAG members often prompt us to engage further with vulnerable members of the Muslim community, before the extremists do.

The Group is a genuine trailblazer and I believe it has much to be proud of. Its members have shaped, stood up for, and championed our local programme at a time when criticism of Prevent is much more fashionable. PAG meetings will continue to be a central component of our local Prevent process. And my sleepless nights are a thing of the past.