The ‘Prevent’ strategy: achieving its goals or exacerbating the problem?

Eleanor Parsons - Writer

The ‘Prevent’ strategy has been mentioned in passing for many years, without much explanation. This strategy was enacted as part of the ‘Contest’ preventive policy by the UK Home Office in 2003 and has been subsequently strengthened in scope in recent years as the threat of terrorism, and the processes of radicalisation have changed.The policy was initially put in place to respond to the increasing threat of terrorism in the western world, specifically following the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Its four key aims focused on preventing, pursuing, protecting and preparing the UK for the risks posed by such terrorism. As time has progressed, the ‘Prevent’ strategy within the policy has been updated to address the risk posed by Daesh. This is due to the new tactic implemented by Daesh to groom young people through the use of social media. 

The strategy was repurposed as a ‘duty’ in 2015 (under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015) which put a mandatory requirement on individuals in the Education and Healthcare sectors. This required the training of staff in its procedures and guidance on how to report any concerns surrounding any individual in their care, from nursery age and above.

Whilst the threats posed by terrorist groups are undeniable, as shown through the catalogue of attacks in Europe since 2014, the government’s response through the ‘Prevent’ strategy itself should not go without scrutiny. This is due to its ability to undermine due process and the rule of law and in turn cause great harm to those incorrectly or unfairly labelled under its regime.Preventive policies go against our traditional values when ‘doing justice’. As Edwards defined, the rule of law should be where a person is fairly prosecuted on the facts, after the facts. This should meet the burden of proof of beyond all reasonable doubt, with the subsequent passing of proportionate punishment if guilt is indeed found. By having to pass these four stages, the accused can be said to be protected by the values of due process, as there is scrutiny and clear evidence required at each stage in order for a punishment to be implemented. In the realm of preventive policies however, this often slow and heavily scrutinised process can be rushed or avoided entirely.

The ‘Prevent’ strategy can have serious implications for those who are referred, even when 37% of cases are found to be without merit. As raised by the National Union of Teachers at their 2016 conference, the mandatory imposition of the strategy as a ‘duty’ has undermined confidence in the classroom and caused tensions within the whole education sector. This mandatory imposition is increasing suspicion and trust in an already divided society, as shown in recent political developments and trends. Increasing rifts further puts at risk any efforts to address this lack of societal cohesion in the near future.

High profile individuals have also spoken out about their concerns about the ‘Prevent’ strategy.  Shami Chakrabarti (Director of Liberty) stated that this strategy was instead being used as a ‘domestic spying programme collecting intelligence on British Muslims’. Evidence shows that 65% of referrals to Prevent are aimed at ‘Islamist extremism’ whereas only 10% relate to ‘right-wing extremism’. This data would go some way to support Shami Chakrabarti’s assertion. It could also show the perpetuating of negative stereotypes that already disproportionately impact the Islamic faith.

A mentality of suspicion means we move away from looking for factual evidence and proof beyond all reasonable doubt (the criminal standard of proof required in the rest of the criminal justice system) and instead take vast action based on potentially innocuous circumstances. This was highlighted in 2017 where Bedfordshire County Council had to pay damages to 5 and 7-year-old boys for racial discrimination through the application of the ‘Prevent’ procedure on an innocent comment about a toy gun, that they had received as a present. 

The issue is compounded further when considering research into self-fulfilling prophecies. This is the process found in sociological and criminological circles whereby labelling and profiling (as the ‘Prevent’ strategy does) can have an impact on how an individual identifies themselves, and how they behave as a result.. If young children grow up from a young age labelled as ‘threats’, in an atmosphere where they cannot feel able to talk openly with their teachers and doctors, their self-identities as a result could pre-determine a later move in life towards groups that pose such severe risks. This is an unpalatable situation, and one which should not go without scrutiny as the strategy (and now duty) continues to be imposed in our schools and elsewhere in society today.Whilst preventive strategies are clearly needed as we move into a world of more severe and immediate threats, we must also remain wary of any strategies that require a move from due process and the protections afforded by the rule of law. If we do not appreciate the risks we create through the imposition of strategies that may wrongly identify, label and profile particularly young members of our society as wrongdoers, we may find that our preventive methods of avoiding risk actually result in their creation.

Sources: and Security Act 2015, A. 2016. Big data, predictive machines and security: the minority report. In: McGuire, M. and Holt, T. eds. The Routledge Handbook of Technology, Crime and Justice.. Routledge International Handbooks Routledge, pp. 451-460.
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