Confessions of a Former Prevent Officer

Hello. My name is Sean Arbuthnot and I am a former Prevent officer.

Why does writing that sentence feel like an admission of guilt? As if I'd finally come to terms with my personal involvement in some Stasi-type, secret government programme of suppressing free speech, interrogating children and vilifying Muslim communities?

Because for some reason that has become the dominant narrative when it comes to the Prevent Duty, even in some mainstream media. Hardly a day goes by without a Prevent-related news item and it’s usually negative, whether it’s children reported to Prevent for innocent spelling mistakes, shutting down debate on college campuses or teachers voting to scrap the Duty. What these stories generally lack is nuance and balance. To be frank they are usually inaccurate, exaggerated or misleading.

It has reached the stage where few people openly admit their involvement with Prevent because any association with such a “toxic brand” damages their credibility. The wider public has been exposed to such one-sided negativity that anti-Prevent sentiment is understandable, even inevitable. Calls to scrap Prevent are now commonplace. Most recently the Liberal Democrats Home Affairs spokesman said that the party could no longer support the programme. Prevent has become something of a political football. This is a shame. 

In some respects we only have ourselves to blame. We could have been more open and transparent about the processes involved in Prevent and the many successes it has achieved. (Thankfully, this is changing.) That is not to say that it is perfect, far from it. But opposition to Prevent is often based on simplistic misconceptions and myths that have somehow become engrained in the wider public consciousness. However, as a (former) frontline practitioner who has worked with vulnerable people I can say that my personal experiences of Prevent delivery at local level have been overwhelmingly positive.

So let’s tackle some of the basic myths:

Prevent only targets Muslim communities. Religious observance is not a reason to refer somebody to Prevent. In my experience Prevent deals with all forms of extremism and isn’t limited to Islamist-inspired, violent ideologies. 40% of my workload was concerned with Far-Right extremism.

Prevent spies on communities. The Prevent Duty clearly states that it “must not involve any covert activity against people or communities.” The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 covers police surveillance.  As a CID Detective I often used this legislation during criminal investigations. As a Prevent officer? Never. Not once.

Prevent criminalises people. Actually it does the opposite and aims to keep people out of the criminal justice system. In all my time as a Prevent officer I didn’t make a single arrest. Whilst somewhat unusual (and embarrassing!) for a police officer this actually serves to underline that Prevent is a safeguarding responsibility that tries not to criminalise people.

Prevent undermines free speech. The Prevent Duty actually tries to create safe spaces and promote open debate, particularly in education. It states that “Schools should be safe spaces in which children and young people can understand and discuss sensitive topics, including terrorism.”

Prevent promotes a ‘conveyor belt’ process of radicalisation. I’m not sure why this accusation is consistently thrown around. I have only ever heard it mentioned by critics of Prevent. As a Prevent officer I was never taught this. Prevent acknowledges that there is no single pathway to radicalisation.

Prevent views toddlers and children as potential terrorists. This is ridiculous. In the eyes of Prevent no child is an extremist. But it is important to note that a child can be at risk of significant harm because of extremism and require safeguarding.  At its worst this can culminate in our families and children travelling to Syria to join Daesh. A sickening execution video released in January 2016 that featured a 4-year-old British child is a heartbreaking reminder that this is a child protection issue.

The reality of Prevent is that it is a safeguarding responsibility. And (whisper it quietly) it works.  I know this from many personal examples of working with vulnerable people. The positive, multi-agency support offered by Prevent has changed, even saved, peoples' lives. Sharing these successes can be problematic. If a Prevent referral doesn’t want their story to be made public that is their choice and we must respect that. After all, they haven’t been charged with a crime. Who can blame them if they don’t wish to put their head above the parapet and publically acknowledge receiving support for sensitive, emotive matters? Who wants to admit that they advocated white supremacy or considered travelling to Syria?

It will always be difficult to measure the success of a strategy that is designed to be preventative. But the reality is that despite a threat level of "severe" since August 2014 the UK has not suffered a large scale terrorist attack the likes of which we have sadly seen throughout Europe and beyond. That is not to say that we are immune from such tragedies. But surely our counter terrorism policy deserves some credit for maintaining our relative safety up until now. 

I personally know individuals who were full of hate, openly racist and firmly believed that an apocalyptic race war was on the horizon. I personally know individuals who seriously considered travelling to Syria to join Daesh. But Channel support, whether through mentoring, education, anger management or any number of bespoke care options, has reduced their vulnerability to radicalisation and moved them to a safer space. I feel privileged to have been involved with many local success stories.

On a national level over 1,000 people have received Channel support. Since summer 2015 at least 50 people have been dissuaded from travelling to Syria and Iraq. Last year 130 civil society projects reached over 25,000 people. Over 550,000 public sector workers have received Prevent training since 2011. Not bad for a strategy that supposedly isn't working and has no community support!

But what if a Prevent referral is misguided, inappropriate or just plain wrong? It is important to stress that every referral should be handled sensitively and with common sense. There should be no negative repercussions for someone who is incorrectly referred. In fact, the person who made the referral should be educated as to why it was inappropriate. That said, no one should ever be criticised for reporting an honestly held safeguarding concern. People must have the confidence to share their worries and I for one would rather receive countless misguided referrals than have one child put at risk of being taken to Syria or subjected to other types of significant harm.

The recent Home Affairs Select Committee Report on Radicalisation was correct when it recommended that transparency around Prevent should be improved and that an independent review should be welcomed.  (I’m less convinced by the recommendation to change its name from “Prevent” to “Engage”- surely this would be little more than a short-sighted PR exercise.)

The report also highlighted the importance of appropriate training for public bodies affected by the Prevent Duty. This is of vital importance. The latest Department for Education guidance “Keeping Children Safe in Education” states that protecting children from the risk of radicalisation should be seen as part of schools’ wider safeguarding duties, similar in nature to protecting children from other forms of abuse. That is why I now dedicate my time to training thousands of people in the Prevent Duty, not just in terms of their legal responsibilities but also how it can be embedded within existing safeguarding frameworks. I try to highlight the reality of local Prevent delivery and what it really looks like on the ground. I try to empower people with the confidence and support to help protect communities from radicalisation and extremism.

I must say that despite the supposedly toxic reputation, political opportunism and the broader national debate around Prevent, in my experience it has been overwhelmingly positively received at local level. As both a Prevent officer and now a training consultant, I have found that most people with practical experience of Prevent (including referrals themselves) are hugely supportive of the Duty and see it as the safeguarding tool that it is, not least because much of it is basic common sense. This is encouraging.

From a professional standpoint it may have been easier for me to give Prevent a wide berth. But ultimately I chose to work in Prevent, and I continue to do so, because it makes a difference. It protects people and communities. It has transformed lives. I believe that it is the right thing to do. And when its staunchest critics are unable or unwilling to put forward a credible alternative, it is clear that at the moment it’s the best we’ve got. If not Prevent, what else?

So, to be perfectly honest, I am proud to say that my name is Sean Arbuthnot. And I am a former Prevent officer.