Confessions of a former Prevent Officer

Sean Arbuthnot Blogs 15/09/2016

Hello. My name is Sean Arbuthnot and I am a former Prevent officer.

Why does writing that sentence feel like an admission of guilt? As if I’d finally come to terms with my personal involvement in some Stasi-type, secret government programme of suppressing free speech, interrogating children and vilifying Muslim communities?

Because sadly that has become the dominant narrative regarding the Prevent Duty. Few people openly admit their involvement with Prevent because association with such a “toxic brand” damages credibility. The wider public has been exposed to such one-sided negativity that anti-Prevent sentiment is understandable, even inevitable. Calls to scrap Prevent are commonplace. The Liberal Democrats Home Affairs spokesman said that the party could no longer support the programme.

Perhaps we only have ourselves to blame. We could have been more open and transparent about Prevent processes. It isn’t perfect, far from it. But opposition is often based on simplistic misconceptions and myths that have somehow become engrained in the wider public consciousness.

So let’s tackle some of the basic myths:

Prevent only targets Muslim communities. Religious observance is not a reason to refer somebody to Prevent. It deals with all forms of extremism and isn’t limited to Islamist-inspired ideologies. 40% of my workload involved Far-Right extremism.

Prevent spies on communities. The Prevent Duty clearly states that it “must not involve any covert activity against people or communities.” The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 covers police surveillance. As a CID Detective I often used this legislation during criminal investigations. As a Prevent officer? Never. Not once.

Prevent criminalises people. Actually it does the opposite. As a Prevent officer I never made a single arrest. Whilst somewhat unusual for a police officer this actually underlines that Prevent is a safeguarding responsibility that tries to keep people out of the criminal justice system.

Prevent undermines free speech. The Prevent Duty tries to create safe spaces and promote open debate, particularly in education. It states that “Schools should be safe spaces in which children and young people can understand and discuss sensitive topics, including terrorism.”

Prevent promotes a ‘conveyor belt’ process of radicalisation. I’m not sure why this accusation is consistently thrown around. I have only ever heard it mentioned by critics of Prevent. Prevent acknowledges that there is no single pathway to radicalisation.

Prevent views toddlers and children as potential terrorists. This is ridiculous. No child is an extremist. But a child can be at risk of significant harm because of extremism and require safeguarding. At its worst this culminates in families travelling to Syria to join Daesh. A sickening execution video released in January 2016 that featured a 4-year-old British child is a heartbreaking reminder that this is a child protection issue.

The reality is that Prevent is a safeguarding responsibility. It has changed, even saved, peoples’ lives. Sharing successes can be problematic. If a Prevent referral doesn’t want their story to be made public we must respect their choice. Who can blame them? After all, they haven’t been charged with a crime.

I personally know individuals who were full of hate, openly racist and firmly believed that an apocalyptic race war was inevitable. I personally know individuals who seriously considered travelling to Syria to join Daesh. But Prevent support through mentoring, education or any number of bespoke care options, reduced their vulnerability to radicalisation. I’m privileged to have been involved with many local success stories.

Nationally over 1,000 people have received Channel support. Since summer 2015 at least 50 people have been dissuaded from travelling to Syria. Last year 130 civil society projects reached over 25,000 people. Over 550,000 public sector workers have received Prevent training. Not bad for a strategy that supposedly isn’t working and has no community support!

The recent Home Affairs Select Committee Report on Radicalisation rightly recommended that transparency around Prevent should be improved and that an independent review should be welcomed. I’m less convinced by the recommendation to change its name from “Prevent” to “Engage.” Surely this would be little more than a short-sighted PR exercise.

In my experience Prevent has been overwhelmingly positively received at grassroots level, despite the supposedly toxic reputation, political opportunism and the broader national debate. As a Prevent officer and now a training consultant, I have found that most people with practical experience of Prevent (including referrals themselves) are supportive of the Duty.

Ultimately I work in Prevent because it makes a difference. It transforms lives and protects communities. I believe that it is the right thing to do. And when staunch critics are unable or unwilling to put forward credible alternatives, it is clear that at the moment it’s the best we’ve got.

So, to be perfectly honest, I am proud to say that my name is Sean Arbuthnot. And I am a former Prevent officer.

Originally published: