Should Prevent be scrapped?

lyn jenkins
In late 2019, a retired doctor and environmentalist campaigner with Extinction Rebellion, Lyn Jenkins, was referred by a healthcare provider to Prevent (David Levene/The Guardian)

The Prevent programme, one of the four pillars of the government’s counterterrorism strategy, Contest, has come under repeated scrutiny in light of recent terror attacks in the UK. In the immediate wake of these attacks, it is tempting to jump to the assumption that any and all means of averting such violence are justified and must be welcomed. However, the mechanism of Prevent is controversial, its workings obscure, and its effects hard to measure.

The protocol places a legal duty on teachers, doctors, social workers, and other public servants to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. It exhorts them to report any student, patient or service-user suspected of harbouring ideas that are “extremist” (a term that has been much-criticized for its vagueness). This has led to widespread discomfort among many professionals charged with implementing the duty, as well as concerns that it may have diametrically opposite outcomes to those intended.

Prevent was established in 2006 as a response to the perceived rise in the number of Islamist extremist attacks. This led to criticism from some community groups that an inherently anti-Muslim bias underpinned the strategy. One former schoolteacher, Rob Faure Walker, left the profession to research and write a doctoral thesis at UCL on the effects of Prevent on classroom dynamics. He draws on his own experiences with pupils in a Muslim majority school in Tower Hamlets to highlight the unintended effects of Prevent. Faure Walker reports that where students were once open with their teachers about issues such as their concerns regarding British action in the Middle East, as soon as they were made aware of their teachers’ Prevent duty they became more secretive and withdrawn. Faure Walker points out that addressing head-on students’ anger and fear, and encouraging them to speak openly, led to productive classroom discussions and incentivized young people to become politically active within the bounds of the law, such as by writing to MPs. Rather than preventing the seed of resentment from growing in a young person, the strategy may in fact nurture it in the darkness of secrecy and justifiable paranoia.

Despite the obvious focus on Islamic extremism in the inception of Prevent, it has since expanded its remit such that more referrals are now made to Prevent for suspected far-right extremism than any other kind. Yet, the ill-defined nature of the term “extremism” means that, potentially, any strongly-held ideological conviction may come under suspicion and be subject to counterterrorist measures. In late 2019, a retired doctor and environmentalist campaigner with Extinction Rebellion, Lyn Jenkins, was referred by a healthcare provider to Prevent for suspected extremism when he admitted that he intended to take part in an action organized by the group. This may be the first case, but it is unlikely to be the last, of Prevent being used to attempt to restrict peaceful freedom to protest. This is especially the case as it has recently been revealed that Extinction Rebellion, along with PETA, Animal Aid and similar groups, appear on the government’s official list of potential extremist organisations.

One particularly bizarre and sinister aspect of Prevent is the language of “pre-crime” employed within the government literature on Prevent. Taken from the lexicon of science fiction, rather than that of counter-terrorism, the dystopian concept originates in Phillip K. Dick’s short story The Minority Report (1956), the subject of which is a criminal justice agency whose task is to identify and eliminate persons who will commit crimes in the future. This choice of terminology marks an alarming legitimation of literal thought-policing as well as significant mission creep from the expected remit of any public servant’s role. 

Lisa Downing - Professor of French Discourses of Sexuality.