More than three years after the Government announced plans to review the Prevent programme councils – and others responsible for the national anti-radicalisation initiative – continue to await an outcome.
Last week, think-tank Policy Exchange joined the cacophony of voices providing recommendations in the wake of last year’s chilling murder of Southend MP Sir David Amess by radicalised Ali Harbi Ali.
The think-tank’s recommendations focus heavily on efforts to combat the many detractors of the Prevent programme.
This advice follows hot on the heels of calls from Sir Mark Rowley, Scotland Yard’s former national head of counter terrorism, for the programme to have more teeth. Sir Mark has said it should be compulsory for some individuals to go on the programme and he has mooted the idea of lie detector tests to prevent people playing the system.
Prevent is one of four strands within the Home Office’s counter-terrorism strategy (known as ‘CONTEST’). Set up in 2006, councils have played a central role in its operation. Alongside other organisations such as schools, colleges and the police, they have shared knowledge and expertise through the multi-agency ‘Channel’ process to support individuals deemed to be at risk of radicalisation.
Supporters of the programme point to the many successful cases where individuals have been guided away from radicalisation while opponents highlight those who have slipped through the net.
These dissenting voices have been amplified since Ali boasted during his trial of how easy it was to fool Prevent officials. He had been referred to the programme in 2014, at the same time as he was being radicalised, but Prevent officials reportedly concluded he did not pose a significant danger and his case was closed.
Previous failures include the handling of the case of Iraqi immigrant Ahmed Hassan. The 18-year-old was referred to his local Prevent team in Surrey after admitting he had been groomed by Isis and ‘trained to kill’ but he was still able to go on to partially detonate a bomb at Parsons Green Tube station injuring around 50 people.
Home secretary Priti Patel is now reportedly determined to reform the scheme once she has received an independent review by William Shawcross. However, the role of councils within a reformed scheme is uncertain. There is speculation that Mr Shawcross, a former chair of the Charity Commission, may propose an independent network of Prevent professionals free from council control.
But for those with experience of the programme within local government, simply cutting councils out of the loop will fail to solve the problems.
Former Surrey CC cabinet associate for community safety Kay Hammond said: ‘I think the same issues will apply whether it’s an independent organisation or whether it’s local government. I think there’s the ability within local government to pull things together if the right leadership is there.
‘You have the ability to work with schools, you have the ability to work with community safety partnerships, you have the ability to work with charitable organisations and the voluntary sector.
‘Local government has its fingers in all those organisations and if you create another body they would still have to do all of those things.’
‘Local government has the ability to pull it all together. Any separate organisation will have to start from scratch again.’
There is also a feeling within local government that the impact of radicalisation on communities is too great for councils to be cut out of Prevent. They argue that the central role of councils in cohesion means the sector must remain an integral part of the programme.
And with many of the criticisms about Prevent – especially within Muslim communities – stemming from a lack of trust, some in the sector argue that councils are far better placed to build that trust locally than a new independent organisation or law enforcement agency.
That’s not to say local government doesn’t see ample room for improvement. While some point to the need for more adequate training, so officers can better understand the drivers behind radicalisation, other point to leadership.
Reflecting on Surrey’s handling of the Hassan case, Ms Hammond, who also served as Local Government Association ‘Prevent Champion’, said: ‘I think it was actually very difficult to join all the bits up even within local government. And I think there was a lack of clarity about who does what and how it all works.’
‘It just seemed really difficult to give impetus to initiatives, so it felt very disjointed.’
‘I think it’s a case of appointing somebody with responsibility within each of those larger organisations to knit it together.’
But there are others who believe it isn’t feasible for the most senior officers to front the programme. They argue that the range of serious issues facing councils – whether it be building safety in response to the Grenfell Tower disaster or child safety following another disturbing abuse case – are too numerous for the top officers to always shoulder day-to-day responsibility.
Inevitably, some in the sector point to the instability and inconsistency of central government funding. A system of annual awards and priority-based league tables means local Prevent programmes can suddenly lose financial support as others are viewed favourably.
But while there has been a plethora of proposals on how to improve Prevent some point to the strengths of the programme.
Nick Wilkinson, the Prevent and Channel Strategy Manager at Kent CC said: ‘The work that we do across Kent and Medway is very positive.
‘What I do know about Kent and Medway is that we are very connected and we have very strong support and leadership from both our officers and our members.’
‘The leadership around Prevent is connected with everything within the local authority. I’ve got lots of connections across Kent CC, Medway and the wider partnership to ensure it is not seen as a niche area of business but rather as one of our main planks of safeguarding for children and adults.’
While there will inevitably be greater focus on the handful of atrocities carried out by individuals that have not been stopped by Prevent, Mr Wilkinson reiterates the need to highlight the many successful occasions when someone has been steered away from extremism.
‘We are doing the work that we do around this as multi-agency partners and it’s very clear we do that in other arenas as well. So, it’s another strand about how we can be positive and professional in working together because this is about safeguarding individuals who are vulnerable. I see that as a very positive strand to what we can do to hopefully keep people in Kent and Medway and beyond safe from those sorts of experiences.’
But Mr Wilkinson, a former police officer, points out the limitations to any reform of Prevent: ‘I was on duty outside the Grand Hotel [in Brighton] on 12 October 1984 when the bomb [at the Conservative Party Conference] went off and I think the quote after that is the standard quote for today – “the terrorists only have to get it right once”.’