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Counterterrorism and Helicopter Policymaking: the four P’s of the Home Office’s top-down approach to Prevent

27 AUGUST 2021

Why does the government refuse to depart from its micromanaged counterterrorism policy that excludes many communities?


Prevent is (in)famously one of the four P’s of the bigger CONTEST counterterrorism strategy. The extent to which Prevent does prevent radicalisation in a beneficial way is, well, contested. One of the most frequent criticisms made of Prevent, including by me, is that those in charge persistently refuse to engage with communities and grassroots organisations that the Home Office has not cherry-picked. 


I was intrigued and astounded to read the government’s answer to a related written question tabled by Sarah Owen MP, stating that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government did not engage with communities with regards to Prevent as it is beyond their remit — in other words, essentially exclusively the remit of the Home Office. 


For a strategy whose top-level intervention panel is managed by local authorities and ostensibly relies heavily on the participation and cooperation of communities, it seems at the very least perplexing, if not extremely concerning, to have no association with that ministerial department.


So, I am following the government’s example by analysing this apparent omission using four P’s: possessivenesspanicparanoia, and paralysis.


It is clear that the Home Office is extremely possessive over Prevent, both in terms of the minimal power given to any other ministerial department — despite being sold as a ‘safeguarding’ strategy — and the total lack of transparency over how it actually functions. Whilst I have often criticised the murkiness with which the strategy operates, I know that I am by no means the only one. I also know that many have spoken up about the toxic culture of Prevent that ostracises any perceived criticism or difference. 


Panic does seem to be a part of the approach to Prevent. I have frequently received responses to Prevent-related freedom of information (‘FOI’) requests that don’t seem to even read my request before automatically informing me that I cannot be given even the most basic information on Prevent as it is a matter of national security. National security will not fall to pieces as a result of information being released on how programmes are funded. I have also received FOI responses that genuinely look like the officer on the other side of the email has seen “Prevent”, panicked about it being a sensitive policy and extremely important for the government, and pasted in a link to an extremely generic page on Prevent to answer a very detailed request. 


The panic on the part of public bodies and local authorities can also partly explain the extraordinarily high percentages of referrals deemed to be unnecessary — no one wants to miss a terrorist, so practitioners decide to ‘play it safe’ and refer even the most subjective, dubious suspicions. 


Where does this panic come from?


Ostensibly, a very highly-strung Home Office that is paranoid about being exposed for its discriminatory policies, paranoid about its flagship counterterrorism policy being exposed as an utter disaster, and paranoid about the consequences of not living up to the pressure put on it by leading policymakers and government ministers. 


One little white lie balloons into a very large lie. A molehill becomes a mountain.


And a strategy goes into total paralysis — from a strategy that had some issues with formulation and implementation to a strategy that completely refuses to genuinely engage with the very communities that could, ironically, help it to evolve and improve. The highest levels of authority become more and more afraid of what could happen, and power becomes more and more concentrated at the top, even though the vast majority of implementation still happens at the lowest levels of power. 


As many members of the roundtable hosted by Afzal Khan CBE MP noted, there is a complete incongruence of the top-down nature of Prevent with the realities of how most normal people perceive extremism and how radicalisation of vulnerable individuals — the very people the Prevent strategy is marketed on protecting — often happens in practice. At that same roundtable, an expert who was previously a senior official in the Met Police, called out a “stunning level of ignorance at the shopfloor level in policing about these issues”. 


It’s all good and well the top-tier policymakers having read policy briefings and research papers on counterextremism, but they are not the people who make the decisions on whether to label a child who wants to give to the poor as a would-be terrorist. 


The Home Office is so stuck in its ways that a strategy that ostensibly includes and strengthens communities, safeguards vulnerable individuals, and relies upon local authorities gives zero power to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.


Now we are in the depths of the results of helicopter policymaking, whereby the government has controlled Prevent so tightly and wilfully blindly that it is unable to evolve, and the grassroots-level practitioners are no clearer on who is worthy of being deemed a potential extremist than they were ten years ago. 


Total reform is necessary, if not a complete repeal and overhaul of the country’s counterterrorism policy.

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