Thursday 12 May 2011

The Fantasy World Of Newham’s Counter-Terror Experts

After two decades of activism in Newham, I’ve almost become immune to the council making claims it can rarely substantiate, especially about how wonderful its work is. It is exactly this tendency towards concentric circles of fantasy and bullshit that made a meeting on Tuesday, about the controversial ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ (PVE) programme, all the more fascinating.

PVE (also known as ‘Prevent’) is one part of the government’s counter terrorism strategy and targets mainly young people who are at risk of radicalisation by extremist groups. Around £53m has been spent on PVE since it started in 2007 and in 2010-11, 94 local authorities were given £24m. Those involved in delivering Prevent activities like to describe them as a nothing more than a crime prevention programme aimed at making it less likely that young people will be drawn in terrorism, but its critics say it is "the biggest spying programme in Britain in modern times", one that has helped fuel the perception of local Muslim populations as a 'suspect community'.

The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) in its report “Spooked: how not to prevent violent extremism”, alleges that youth workers have become “increasingly wary of the expectations on them to provide the police with information on young Muslims and their religious and political opinions”, whilst the emphasis on “depoliticising young people and restricting radical dissent is actually counter-productive because it strengthens the hands of those who say democracy is pointless”.

The government has repeatedly denied that Prevent involves spying but acknowledges that one part of it, known as the Channel programme, does identify people thought to be at risk of radicalisation, who may then receive some form of intervention. However, it is almost impossible to identify people who are not terrorists but might become so at some point in the future. Instead, young Muslims with 'extreme' opinions as marked out as what the IRR calls a 'pre-terrorist', their details held on counter-terrorism databases as a potential violent extremist in the eyes of the police and the intelligence services, with no way of having this data removed.

Many of the criticisms come not only from civil liberties campaigners but from within parliament. In March 2010, the Communities and Local Government Select Committee attacked Prevent, saying it was “stigmatising, potentially alienating, and fails to address the fact that that no section of a population exists in isolation from others”. Its chair, Dr Phyllis Starkey said:

"The misuse of terms such as 'intelligence gathering' amongst Prevent partners has clearly discredited the programme and fed distrust.

"Information required to manage Prevent has been confused with intelligence gathering undertaken by the police to combat crime and surveillance used by the security services to actively pursue terrorism suspects.

"These allegations of spying under Prevent will retain widespread credibility within some communities until the government commissions an independent investigation into the allegations."

In November 2010, Home Secretary Teresa May acknowledged that Prevent was not working well and announced a review, which is due to report next month. She refused, however, to allow an examination into allegations that Prevent is a fundamentally a spying operation.

On top of the controversy over motives and delivery, there is also concern about the lack of transparency and accountability in local decision-making on Prevent activities. In May 2010, I recounted my efforts to find out how Newham council has spend more than £1.3million in funding for its local Prevent programme. Eventually I received some scant details (PDF) but these say very little about what this money has actually been used for. I know that others have had similar difficulties with Freedom of Information requests on local PVE spending.

Clearly Prevent has has deeply alienated Muslim communities and raised such serious concerns about the way it operates that it faces an complete overhaul. All of which brings me to the meeting in Newham on Tuesday, where I had been asked at the last minute to present a personal overview of the Prevent strategy and its consequences for community cohesion.

This is where I heard the fantastic claims of the officers responsible for delivering Prevent in a borough with one of the largest Channel caseloads in the country. And what a story they had to tell – one where there is nothing whatsoever to concern anyone about the way the programme is delivered locally. In fact, everything is uniquely excellent in Newham, apparently, with none of the unfortunate problems that have all occurred in other parts of the country. However, in reality it is impossible to know what impact the programme makes - an October 2010 report by the Office for Public Management on Prevent in Newham has never been released publicly. And having briefly worked for Newham council, I can tell you: nothing is ever perfect.

Council officers claimed that the local decision not to fund single faith groups and instead keep the funding in-house is a positive advantage, but were just as opaque in providing more information on how their funding is spent as they have been in the past. Questions were hastily skipped over. They also insisted that there is absolutely no discrimination against Muslims and that Prevent is concerned about all forms of terrorism, including dissident Irish Republicanism, Sikh fundamentalism and support for the Tamil Tigers – but refused to confirm the proportion of Muslims within Newham’s Channel programme. That in itself speaks volumes.

When asked how decisions about individuals are made and the factors used to determine risk of radicalisation, they skipped over this too, saying that they often spend time rejecting vindictive allegations of extremism. How nice and fluffy is that? But what this reveals is the extraordinary level of power that a small group of obscure officers have to investigate and potentially brand someone as calls a 'pre-terrorist' with almost no scrutiny or oversight, but with potentially huge consequences. Indeed, I had the feeling that the meeting on Tuesday was the first time that their upbeat and rosy view of Prevent had been challenged at a local level.

No wonder so many officers turned up en masse to a small community event. But attending to say little or nothing isn't likely to reassure anyone, whilst pretending everything is perfect is itself deeply suspicious. What, one wonders, would real transparency and accountability uncover?

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