“Most families hope someone will help if a child takes a dangerous path. Our anti-terrorism programme is not perfect, but we need to hear more about its successes”
A Teenage boy from the Midlands, bright and with his whole life ahead of him, fell in with the wrong crowd. Two members of his increasingly radical peer group went to fight in Syria. He wanted to follow them before officers from Prevent, the government-led anti-terrorism programme, intervened.
The young man, I’m pleased to say, responded well to mentoring. He is now enjoying university and has the sort of life ambitions most parents – myself included – hope their children will have. I also believe most mums and dads hope someone will want to help if their child starts taking a dangerous path. What happened to his friends in Syria? They died in the conflict.
So why is there such a lack of balance in the debate around Prevent, introduced as part of the government’s post-9/11 counter-terrorism strategy, a laudable, voluntary diversionary scheme that is the envy of many other nations?
When I became the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for this area of policing nine months ago, I was determined to engage in the conversation, not only with colleagues working to protect people day-in-day-out, or international delegates visiting our units, but with critics including academics, community leaders and human rights campaigners. Many of the most vocal opponents struck me as genuinely concerned about perceptions of Prevent, yet were often unwilling to confront some of the realities it deals with every day.
In my efforts to address those concerns I have listened to lots of people and spoken at numerous events, sharing platforms with organisations that vociferously condemn the programme. And I have found the time to speak at length with academic researchers who surprise me when they then repeat discredited stories that are palpably misrepresented as evidence of Prevent’s problems.
Not to be deterred, I continue to talk about real cases where young people’s lives have been enhanced – if not saved – as a result of intervention from Prevent officers. I also talk about the “if only” families. This is what I tell people: no child has ever been visited by a Prevent team because he drew a picture of his dad cutting up a cucumber, as one tabloid reported. Similarly, no child has been visited by a Prevent team because he wore a badge supporting a Palestinian cause. The kind of children who have been visited by a Prevent team have aspired to travel to Syria to join friends who were later killed in the fighting, or were on their way to becoming a young bride of an Islamic State fighter, or joining a battalion of young women fighting against Isis, or been on the path to becoming rightwing extremists seeking to damage community cohesion.
Prevent teams have also visited the parents of children who had not been referred to us, and consoled them over the violent deaths of their sons. Prevent teams have told mothers they will have no bodies to bury – and informed fathers their loved ones have been arrested for terrorism offences and face long jail terms.
But sadly, these accounts rarely make the cut in the reports, analysis and interviews. The stories I have shared are not debated, probed or challenged – they are simply ignored. Why is that? Does Prevent not shout its successes loudly enough, are we too concerned about breaching confidentiality and don’t quickly put the record straight, or does it simply not suit certain agendas to look a little deeper? If we are to give communities a true picture of what Prevent is about, then these stories must be told.
I know that Prevent isn’t perfect. I have heard this consistently from community members I very much respect. Prevent needs to improve; we seek to learn, progress and to do the police part of it even better. The trust and confidence of our communities will never be taken for granted.
Like all public bodies, Prevent teams have a legal duty and moral obligation to keep people safe. This is not an abstract issue; it is needed here and now to safeguard vulnerable people. It works best when rooted in local communities.
Knocking Prevent is easy; what is hard is to pick up the phone and start to help to safeguard someone who otherwise may be making choices that affect them, their families and their communities for many years to come. That phone is ringing in Prevent offices up and down the country right now.