This article is part of a Public Spirit series on The implications of the counter-extremism agenda.
We were overdue a new counter-extremism policy. Not because we particularly needed a new one, but because new counter-extremism strategies tend to be released every three years. We had the first version of Prevent in 2006, then an updated version in 2009, followed by the 2011 Prevent review. The government has been aware for a long time that the Prevent strategy is controversial and unpopular, and yet the only thing different about the new strategy is its name. Much has already been written about how the new strategy will affect free speech and how it will continue to target Muslims. This targeting is inevitable for terrorism, in the UK, is perpetually associated with the Muslim community. Nowhere is this more visible than in the Prevent funding processes up to 2011. The Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any Local Authority with a Muslim population of at least 5% was automatically given Prevent funding.[i]
Basing funding priorities on demographics is a clear example of a narrative which places Islam and Muslims at the heart of the story of terrorism. In the 2007 Prevent policy document, British Muslims were considered targets of counter-terrorism strategy based solely on their presence in a local authority area – whether or not there was any evidence of violent extremist activity. The implication is clear, the bigger the Muslim population, the bigger the threat. The demographic basis for the allocation of Prevent money was supposedly abolished by the 2011 review conducted by the coalition government of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. That review also pledged that Prevent would address far-right extremism as well as al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, and remove community cohesion work from the strategy.
Community cohesion work that targeted the Muslim community was the bread and butter of Prevent prior to 2010. As a result Prevent funding was consistently spent on community cohesion projects affecting the Muslim community. For example, the London Borough of Merton received a total of £394,596 Prevent funding from 2008 to 2010 (Merton Borough Council 2010). Some of this money was spent on funding for cultural and identity projects in Ricard’s Lodge High School, a Sports day run by the South London Tamil Welfare Group and after-school lessons to the South London Refugee Association. Merton also funded a Muslim Heritage Project run by the Asian Youth Alliance, Islamic Awareness Workshops and work with Muslim girls and young women.
Prevent also had a strong surveillance aspect. In the funding period of 2008-2009, Bromley Borough Council used Prevent money to buy an Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) system as well as a CCTV System (Bromley Borough Council 2013). The lack of ring-fencing allows for this type or purchase, but there is no denying the suggestion of spying on communities when counter-terrorism money is used to purchase methods of surveillance. In 2010, it was revealed that hundreds of (ANPR, CCTV and covert) surveillance cameras were targeted at two predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham in a West Midlands Police led project called Project Champion. About 150 ANPR cameras were installed in these areas, three times the number of cameras used to monitor Birmingham’s city centre. The cameras were purchased with a £3 million grant administered by the Association of Chief Police Officers: Terrorism and Allied Matters (ACPO (TAM)). ACPO (TAM) drew down Home Office counter-terrorism monies to fund the scheme, and it was not a Prevent project as such. Launched ostensibly under the Safer Birmingham Partnership, it was argued that the cameras were to be used to monitor general criminal activities and anti-social behaviour, but the funding criteria used by ACPO (TAM) states that the police force must prove a project will deter, prevent or help to prosecute terrorist activity. Following public outcry, Project Champion ceased within a few weeks and the cameras were hooded and then eventually removed.
as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive
All of this was supposed to have ended with the 2011 Prevent review, and yet, information on the application of Prevent has been almost impossible to find. I have been researching Prevent for several years and I find it concerning that as Prevent has become more and more entrenched in British society, it has also become more and more secretive. Previous to the 2011 review, information on Prevent was relatively easy to find. For example, between 2008 and 2009, I lodged over 20 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to priority local authorities, requesting information on Prevent funding and implementation, all of which were successful without the need for an appeal process.
However, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests lodged to mostly the same priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. My goal was to find whether or not the pledges of the 2011 review had been met. All but one of the requests were denied.
Firstly, I tried to find out how Prevent priority areas were being selected, now that the demographic criteria had been abolished. The Home Office responded with the following:
“Prioritisation is based on an assessment of the risk of exposure to radicalisation in specific local areas, rather than simple demographics. The prioritisation also takes into account activity we have seen by terrorist organisations and terrorist sympathisers. The prioritisation process is reviewed regularly.”
However, no more information was forthcoming and the fact remains that the current list of priority local areas is almost identical to the one before the 2011 review.
Further, apart from one request, every single FOI to a local authority was denied. The language in the denials is almost identical. Stoke on Trent City Council argued in its refusal that to release information on Prevent ‘would prejudice the detection of a crime’. Several councils refused to release information, arguing that showing detailed information regarding Prevent funding would identify areas in the UK where the threat is greatest. All claimed that information on Prevent action plans is exempt from disclosure by virtue of section 24(1) and 31(1)(a) (national security and law enforcement respectively), of the Freedom of Information Act and redirected me to the Prevent Annual Report, which actually contains very little information. In regards to the question on far-right extremism, the answers repeated that Prevent targets all forms of extremism, but refused to reveal any details.
But what is most striking is that three of the responses directly stated that releasing this information would result in aiding terrorists. Redbridge Council, for example, argued that the information could not be released because
“Terrorists can be highly motivated and may go to great lengths to gather intelligence. This means there may be grounds for withholding what seems harmless information on the basis that it may assist terrorists when pieced together with other information they may obtain.”
Similarly, Camden Council justified its refusal to release information by arguing that
“Provision of detailed information about Prevent would increase the likelihood of terrorism being promoted and vulnerable individuals being recruited and thereby hinder the prevention or detection of crime.”
not only is there a complete lack of accountability regarding the application of Prevent, but releasing this information apparently amounts to aiding terrorism
Prevent is a problem. For almost a decade NGOs, academics, politicians and Muslim communities themselves have been writing and speaking out about how damaging a strategy it is. But these warnings have fallen on deaf ears: not only does Prevent remain government policy, but since the enactment of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, it is now part of the statute books. And now, not only is there a complete lack of accountability regarding the application of the Prevent strategy, but releasing this information apparently amounts to aiding terrorism. This means that a wide-ranging, controversial and problematic community intervention project, for this is what both Prevent and the new counter-extremism strategy are, is now outside of public scrutiny.
Terrorism acts as a defence against any attempt by the public to scrutinise the proportionality and legality of the Prevent programme
This is problematic because not only does the evidence suggest that Prevent continues to disproportionately affect the Muslim community, but it also places those who are investigating Prevent in a position of vulnerability. Moreover, it is notable that the new counter-extremism strategy contains no information on funding or delivery. Surrounding counter-extremism projects in secrecy and suggesting that investigating it could aid terrorism casts a net of suspicion over NGOs, campaigners and academics committed to shedding light on the murky world of British counter-extremism. It turns the very act of asking for information disclosure into a request that that potentially aids extremism. Terrorism thus acts as a magic word, a blanket defence against any attempt by the public to scrutinise the proportionality and legality of the government’s counter-extremism strategy.
Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.
To cite this article, please use the following: Norris, Maria W. (2015) ‘The Secretive World of Counter-Extremism Funding’, Public Spirit (October 2015: http://www.publicspirit.org.uk/the-secretive-world-of-counter-extremism-funding/)
[i] This rationale was set out in the CLG (2007) Preventing Violent Extremism Pathfinder Fund: Guidance Note for Government Offices and Local Authorities in England, which stated: ‘Our aim is to develop resilient British Muslim communities as part of our response to this threat. The fund will therefore be focused on local authorities with sizeable Muslim communities. As a starting point, authorities with populations of 5% or more should be considered for funding.’ (2007: 4)