Launched in response to the 7/7 London bombings in 2005, Prevent is one strand of the UK government’s counter-terror CONTEST strategy. Prevent, responding to an evolving threat landscape and changing political climate, has been through three iterations already. With the first independent review announced in February 2019 suffering a succession of postponements, Prevent is now under the spotlight again.
The review comes in the wake of rising right-wing activity, the continuing threat of Islamist-inspired attacks and the emergence of unclear and unstable ideologies. Meanwhile Prevent itself is under continual attack, both because of legitimate criticisms regarding how it is delivered and from extremist groups who have a vested interest in opposing and undermining counter-extremism policy.
The government’s current approach has seen it struggle to effectively respond or get ahead of such criticisms, inadvertently fuelling allegations of being an opaque programme, and allowing Prevent to be targeted by successive campaigns from those seeking to undermine the programme – including the legal challenge which resulted in the first Independent Reviewer of Prevent being removed from their post.
These challenges are not unique to Prevent, with counter-extremism policy as a whole suffering from widening scepticism and a lack of political consensus. Recent incidents have only contributed further to political division and a lack of public trust in the government’s abilities to tackle extremism and terrorism. The terrorist attacks in Streatham and Fishmongers' Hall, committed by former inmates, sparked public ire over the relaxing of sentences of convicted terrorists, leading to emergency legislation rather than any additional focus on underdeveloped deradicalisation strategies. The stabbing attack in Reading during the Covid-19 pandemic has only revived the memory of past attacks in the public’s psyche.
Elsewhere, the government’s decision to appeal the reinstatement of Shamima Begum’s citizenship appears to be a missed opportunity to instil public confidence in the government’s approach and to prove that the UK’s counter-terror strategy is robust enough to deal with ISIS returnees.
With the delivery of the independent review of Prevent pushed back to August 2021 in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, this policy paper explores incremental improvements to Prevent as a discrete programme, recognising the challenge and subsequent paralysis UK policymaking on extremism has faced. It advocates for an inclusive and constructive approach to restore trust, based on evidence-informed responses. The evidence for this paper is based on a wider survey of 2,000 Muslim and white non-Muslim (WNM) 18- to 30-year-olds carried out in May 2019 by Savanta ComRes, which examines the cut-through of extremist sentiments within this demographic. Our wider research paper, Resonating Narratives, examines the overall findings of this survey, while this policy paper provides a breakaway of respondents’ perceptions, opinions and interactions with Prevent.[_]
The findings point to three clear challenges for the next iteration of Prevent:
Public awareness and exposure of Prevent
Its effectiveness in challenging divisive ideologies
Perceptions of discrimination
Prevent is poorly understood.[_] Participants in our online focus groups had a very limited understanding of Prevent, with most having never heard of the programme. British Muslim respondents were relatively more aware of Prevent than their white non-Muslim (WNM) counterparts, who were more likely to say they had never heard of it. Most participants in our online focus group were supportive of the aims of preventing radicalisation, although some were critical of the way Prevent has been implemented and brought up perceptions of the programme as discriminatory.
Around one in ten respondents have been through or know someone who has been through Prevent. But despite low degrees of personal experience, Prevent strategy-related queries are nine of the top ten searches on Google for Prevent-related terms, while many hold firm opinions on the programme.
Those who agree with certain extremist statements are more likely to have been through or know someone who has been through Prevent. Over one-third of WNMs and over one-fifth of Muslims who agree that “conflict between the West and Islam would be a good thing” have been through Prevent (34 per cent and 21 per cent). Meanwhile, only 10 per cent of WNMs and 9 per cent of Muslims who think that “there is no conflict between being Muslim and British” have been through the programme. While Prevent seems to be reaching the right networks, as evidenced by the finding that a significant percentage of people who agreed with extremist statements in our survey have been through Prevent, we cannot ascertain whether the programme is challenging these dangerous ideologies.
A significant minority of respondents think Prevent discriminates against Muslims and white people. Twenty-nine per cent of Muslims think Prevent discriminates against Muslims while 14 per cent of WNMs think it discriminates against white people. Both Muslim and WNM respondents with a connection to Prevent are significantly more likely to believe Prevent discriminates against white people (26 and 28 versus 10 and 11 per cent respectively), but fewer British Muslims who have been through Prevent think it is discriminatory towards Muslims than those who have not been (28 per cent versus 38 per cent). Muslim respondents with a connection to Prevent are more likely to see discrimination as a problem in society.