Europe Analysis

Briefing: Debate about UK’s Prevent Strategy

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LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 08: A general view of The Home Office on July 8, 2014 in London, England. Later today senior civil servant Mark Sedwell will face questions from the Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee over the loss of files by the Home Office relating to child abuse allegations from the 1980s. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Prevent was introduced in the UK in 2003 as part of the country’s overall post-9/11 counter-terrorism approach, known as CONTEST. It focuses on preventing the radicalisation of individuals to terrorism.

UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid recently told parliament: “It is worth pointing out that the programme is voluntary and confidential. Over 180 grassroots projects support the Prevent strategy. The Channel, which is part of the Prevent process, supports those projects. If it is helpful, I should say that in 2017-18 over 7,000 people were referred. Of those, just under 400 received support from the Channel programme…in the last year for which we have full information, about a quarter of referrals were for far-right extremism.

Despite the government’s praise for Prevent, the strategy has also provoked widespread controversy and anger, with critics claiming that it unfairly singles out Muslims and damages community cohesion. Some critics have also identified the lack of focus on UK foreign policy as a serious flaw in Prevent’s makeup.

New Legislation

New legislation in 2019 requires public officials working in schools, universities, hospitals and local councils to report on individuals showing radical tendencies. Critics of the Prevent Strategy have argued that this new approach encourages public officials, who might not have a nuanced understanding of certain communities and issues to look for threats where none exist. Such critics claim that this surveillance is both discriminatory and counterproductive.

There have also been claims that Prevent’s deradicalisation programmes do not work, a stark contradiction of the Home Secretary’s view. In 2018, a private report issued by behavioural psychologists in Whitehall questioned whether there is an evidence base behind Prevent’s methods.

Opposition to Prevent has grown, although it has long been controversial. The Home Office has announced that an independent review into Prevent will commence this year.

Pushing back against criticisms of the government’s key counter terrorism policy, security minister Ben Wallace challenged those opposed to Prevent’s approach to provide “solid evidence” of failure, accusing critics of using “distortions and spin” to undermine the strategy. The Home Office has stated that, so far, the programme has successfully diverted more than 1,200 people from extremism and potential acts of terror.


The Prevent Strategy has been a contentious party-political issue. In its 2017 general election manifesto, the opposition Labour party stated: “Labour will review the Prevent programme with a view to assessing both its effectiveness and its potential to alienate minority communities. In doing so, we will address the government’s failure to take any effective new measures against a growing problem of extreme or violent radicalisation”.

Labour had been pushing for a review of Prevent, and Shadow Minister for Security, Nick Thomas-Symonds responded to the announcement of an imminent review by telling parliament: “Prevent is supposed to keep our people safe, yet it isn’t working. While nobody can question the commitment of those who work to try and deliver the policy on the frontline since it became statutory duty – we know from ground-level reports, Prevent is causing a massive strain and rift with key stakeholders and is often dubbed draconian.

“This review is surely an acceptance that many have lost faith in Prevent: various communities, academics and senior officials have all criticised the government for its poor implementation of the strategy. The aims of safeguarding, gathering information, and community cohesion have not always sat easily together”.

Former Conservative Cabinet Minister Sayeeda Warsi has criticised Prevent for its narrow focus on ideology and Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn labelled it “often counter-productive”.

Civil liberties and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have been calling for an independent review of Prevent for some time, claiming it fosters discrimination against people of Muslim faith or background and inhibits legitimate expression and discussion.

Foreign Policy

Groups including the Muslim Council of Britain have been critical of Prevent, claiming that the strategy only coordinates with groups willing to be silent over UK foreign policy. The Chilcot Report into the decision of the UK to join the war in Iraq was published in 2016, and revealed that then-prime minister Tony Blair was warned by the Joint Intelligence Committee — the key advisory body for the British Prime Minister on intelligence – that an attack on Iraq would be met with a significant increase in the threat from Islamist terrorist groups.

Since Blair received those warnings, the UK has also engaged militarily in Libya and Syria, as well as continuing to fund oppressive regimes, most notably Saudi Arabia and Israel. Prevent has listed “empathy” with the Palestinians, criticism of foreign policy in the Middle East and criticism of Prevent itself as issues that needed to be “risk-assessed and managed” and that “may be regarded as extremist but are not illegal”.


In some areas of the UK, the Prevent programme is seen as benevolent and helpful, while in others it is seen as a hostile monitoring network that targets Muslims. There have been plenty of anecdotes in the media highlighting some of the mistakes made by Prevent officers due to over-zealous reading of guidelines. For example, a postgraduate student of counterterrorism in Staffordshire University, was profiled and questioned by Prevent for reading a textbook called “Terrorism Studies” in the university library

Islamic extremism remains the “main threat” identified by the Home Office to the UK and its interests and so the question is over how rather than if the government should take measure to push back against the growth of terrorist ideologies.

A fair-minded approach to the debate around Prevent must recognise that the programme is putting more resources into far-right extremism, which it has been working on for years. As the threat from that ideology has grown, Prevent has been adapted to try to meet it head on.

Tactics Institute

One of the main aims of the Tactics Institute for Security & Counter Terrorism is to be a platform for a range of views and a space for robust but respectful debate on some of the key issues of our time. The criticisms levelled against the UK government’s Prevent Strategy are serious and we welcome the government’s announcement of an independent review into its key counter terrorism and counter radicalisation policy.

Tactics Institute is an independent, non-partisan, think tank. Tactics researches terrorism to identify its causes and best possible remedies. Our inaugural parliamentary event, in April 2019, featured experts on terrorism, including from Prevent, and we look forward to working with them again to promote open, honest debate aimed at developing policies that eliminate the terrorist threat.