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Prevent counter-terrorism strategy remains unfair on British Muslims, despite Home Office efforts

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The Home Office responded to concerns over the effectiveness, legitimacy and transparency of its controversial counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent, by making fresh data available for public scrutiny in mid December. The figures reveal 7,318 people were referred to Prevent in the year to April 2018, compared to 6,093 the previous year.

Amid allegations that the counter-terrorism strategy discriminates against British Muslim communities, the Home Office data highlight a more balanced approach to Islamist and right-wing extremism, although evidence of disproportionate targeting remains.

The Prevent programme aims to safeguard people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. Many workers in the public sector are under a legal duty to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. Concerns can be reported to a local authority or the police. Some of those perceived as being at risk are offered mentoring, life skills training, or anger management sessions delivered through the Home Office’s Channel programme, after discussion by what’s called a Channel panel. Some vulnerable individuals are sent to non-Prevent services, such as in education or health, or are referred back to the police. Others – the vast majority of referrals – face no further action.

New ‘mixed or unstable ideology’ category

The Home Office links the 20% increase in Prevent referrals between the years to April 2017 and April 2018 to the recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. Against this backdrop, and ongoing criticisms, it offers evidence that Prevent is improving, in particular achieving a better balance between Islamist extremism and far-right cases.

While such assertions are unlikely to persuade ardent anti-Prevent campaigners, the Home Office deserves some cautious praise. The publication of detailed information about Prevent referrals going back to 2015 is an admirable step forward. It repairs a sizeable gap in public evidence and is capable of allaying public misgivings.

The published figures also suggest the Home Office has developed more sophisticated methods of categorising risk. This has implications for improving relations with British Muslim communities. Previously, the Home Office relied on four categories of concern: “Islamist extremism”, “right-wing extremism”, “other extremism” and “unspecified”. Now a new category has been created: “mixed, unstable, or unclear ideology”. This increased willingness to consider disparate or uncertain motivations coincides with a reduction in the proportion of Islamic extremism referrals – down from 61% in 2016-17 to 44% in 2017-18 – and offers the grounds for tentative optimism.

The Home Office is also keen to point out that, for the first time, a similar number of people received Channel support for concerns relating to Islamist and right wing extremism – 179 and 174 respectively. It reports that those referrals discussed by a Channel panel relating to right-wing extremism “were proportionately more likely” to receive Channel support than those relating to Islamist extremism – 41% compared to 27%.

But this isn’t quite enough evidence to quash allegations made about the unfair targeting of British Muslim communities. In 2017-18, 3,197 referrals for concerns related to Islamist extremism resulted in 179 individuals receiving Channel support, but only 1,312 right-wing extremism referrals were needed to identify 174 individuals.

Thinking about the communities at risk from Islamic and right-wing extremism, the figures reveal that many more Muslims are engaged by the Home Office than non-Muslims, despite the fact that only a small number from each group require counter-terrorism support. This difference suggests the excessive targeting of Muslims. The Home Office should be congratulated for moving in the right direction, but further work is required to flatten discrepancies and help alleviate grievances.

A stubbornly blunt instrument

Another area of concern is the low proportion of overall Prevent referrals that result in the provision of Channel support. Of the 7,318 people referred in 2017-18, only 394 received support from the Channel programme. This means a whopping 95% of individuals referred to Prevent required no further action, were signposted to non-Prevent services, or were referred to Channel but not placed on a programme of support.

Figures from the two previous years demonstrate the stubborn persistence of this 95% statistic and raise serious questions about the precision of Prevent as a tool to measure terrorism risk.

Terrorism policies are often highly contentious and fragile community relations are damaged easily by perceptions of state discrimination. So it’s imperative to design Prevent interventions that have high rates of sensitivity and specificity, such as the ability to correctly identify who does and who doesn’t need support.

The extremely low number of people engaged in Islamist terrorism, particularly when compared to the overall size of the British Muslim population, will always produce systematic detection errors. That said, the Home Office would be well-advised to address the messy nature of the Prevent referrals process so that it identifies more people who need Channel support and fewer who don’t.

While a full-scale review of Prevent is now well overdue, the Home Office has demonstrated a commendable willingness to engage with criticism. Any increases in transparency and accountability should be welcomed, but the Home Office should continue to refine and improve its counter-terrorism strategies.

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