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Prevent training courses contest government claims about the controversial counterterrorism strategy

6 JANUARY 2022

The Home Office frequently cites a slew of reasons for secrecy around Prevent and Prevent’s alleged many benefits, but publicly available courses call many of these into question.


In response to a written question tabled by Sarah Owen MP on “the potential risk of discriminatory biases when school staff exercise their discretion on referrals to Prevent”, the Minister of State for School Standards provided a sadly unsurprisingly generic response, claimed that there is support for families when a child is referred by a teacher, and includes a link to an e-learning course on Prevent referrals which all practitioners are expected to complete. 


To begin with, I know from numerous news articles and first-hand stories from families that this support is clearly not widely available, if not hidden—and it should go without saying that families would much rather need the support that should come with their child being labelled a would-be terrorist in the first place. 


As anyone who follows my work and, indeed, anyone who has experience of working with Prevent or sending freedom of information (‘FOI’) requests will know, the Home Office’s work is shrouded in intrigue and mystery. I was therefore extremely surprised to see that the link to the e-learning course actually led to an easily accessible course on Prevent referrals. I managed to even complete a course targeted towards people in London working in the charitable sector who might both make a referral and have staff express concerns to them simply by clicking the relevant options.


It is extremely ironic and noteworthy that this was so easy to do, when taking into account all the secrecy and allegations made by the government that the slightest disclosure of information relating to Prevent could threaten national security—when the very course that those responsible for making referrals are supposed to have undertaken is open to public access. 


Presumably to further motivate those undertaking this course and to give the course more legitimacy, specific high-level officials within Prevent are featured in video interviews and named, which makes sense generally but seems suspect when I take into account the numerous FOI responses I’ve received that suggest even giving data of the demographics of those who sit on Channel panels would risk national security and put individuals at risk. 


The content of the course also—again, ironically—provides considerable insights into the Prevent strategy. For example, there is a strong emphasis on critical thinking skills, which is always beneficial to have refreshed, but this then raises the issue of why this should even be necessary in a strategy that is supposedly well-framed and well-implemented. 


Similarly, the senior figures featured in the course do thankfully seem to have fairly balanced views, but as we already know from those with expertise in the area, most of the people responsible for making referrals are at the bottom of their respective professional, hierarchy and will not have this background knowledge.


For this reason—it would appear—the Prevent training course encourages the sharing of concerns with colleagues to discuss and gather more information. This is all well and good if done on a confidential basis with no consequences, but we know from other sources that the contents of a simple discussion on whether a referral is necessary can result in records being kept long-term, which has a criminalising effect and seriously threatens the principles of safe spaces for all and confidentiality with public service providers


Below, I’m going to include a few screenshots of concerning content within the course and discuss what this means for Prevent and our society as a whole. 


Whilst Prevent officials have long denied that the strategy may have Islamophobic effects, this image raises many questions on this topic. Mosque attendance is used as an example of behaviour that does not constitute a valid reason for referral, the fact remains that clearly there was some concern about this form of bias that necessitate the inclusion. By explicitly stating that this is an inadequate reason to refer an individual to Prevent, this could also have a counterproductive effect in that it puts the idea into people’s mind and encourages them to think about it more. 


As if the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes was not worrying enough, the screenshot on the left from an example given of best practice in referral forms includes this specific question—seriously contradicting any claims that have been made that Prevent is wholly consensual and done with the knowledge of the individual. Similarly, the options to state that the individual’s parents have been notified are suggestive of the sheer numbers of children and young people whose lives are being affected—often negatively—by this counterextremism strategy. 


After completing this course, there was the option to immediately progress to Channel training, which included this slide that explicitly demonstrates the secrecy around Prevent, even for the individual being referred. It is shocking that “it is at the practitioners’ discretion” whether the person who is being discussed at a Channel panel is actually informed of this fact. There is every possibility that many are entirely unaware that their personal information and details have been escalated within the country’s counterterrorism strategy, apparently with little scrutiny being required of the practitioners.


The wide range of discretion available to practitioners and the potential personal biases that could influence Prevent referrals are extremely dangerous for minorities. I have said this for years. But I was horrified that this example was the case study for engagement factors as part of the Vulnerability Assessment Framework. Whilst some of the behaviour could be a cause for concern and indicative of radicalisation, extremism and terrorism are inextricably linked with interest in Islam, interest in the Middle East, and criticism of the government’s foreign policy. The framing of this case study almost actively encourages the chilling of free speech and exploration of non-European cultures. 


Similarly, the image of the left, which shows some examples of possible interventions, is not explicitly prejudicial per se and there is nothing wrong with the text, but there is something sinister about the implicit bias that is both encouraged and implied with the choice of background—essentially the stereotypical idea of a terrorist in popular discourse and unfortunately in the minds of many in the Western world.


The idea of bias within the Channel course is then reinforced by the section on finding support for the individual having only one case study on far-right extremism, compared with the two on Islamist extremism, which is somewhat outdated and not reflective of the latest information we have on terrorism in the UK.


After both courses, I was extremely surprised to discover that I could generate certificates proving my completion of the courses using entirely fictitious names—in essence, anyone could pretend that they had completed Prevent training. 


The very fact that these courses are publicly available to anyone and everyone seriously calls into question the government’s claims that Prevent requires the utmost secrecy. The very content of these courses calls into question the government’s claims that Prevent is a well-thought-out counterextremism strategy with no innate biases or issues with personal privacy and consent.


When will the government finally admit that Prevent needs a complete overhaul? When will the government finally agree to engaging with grassroots organisations and community groups that have long raised concerns about Prevent?

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