THE FAR RIGHT POSES A BIG EXTREMIST THREAT TO THE NORTH OF ENGLAND
PREVENT, part of the Government’s revised annual £40m counter terrorism strategy, seeks to challenge the impact of extremism and radicalisation by ‘’encouraging debate’ in local communities, schools, colleges and universities.
It works through statutory community safety partnerships led by local authorities. Each police force has a specially trained Prevent officer who works closely with educational establishments and other public bodies. Police officers, teachers and social workers have been trained up to be on the lookout for signs of far right and radical Islamic activities.
Since the strategy was introduced fifteen years ago there have been several tragic events leading to the loss of life and serious injuries on mainland Britain and abroad. The actions of extremists, motivated by hate, have recently brought carnage to Christ Church, New Zealand with the tragic loss of 50 lives. Last year the white supremacist Darren Osbourne was jailed for life for a terror attack at Finsbury Park mosque in which a worshipper died.
In 2016 the Labour MP Jo Cox, was murdered by a far-right extremist in her home town in the north of England. In 2011 Anders Breivik, the self-defined fascist and Nazi shot dead 69 teenagers on the island of Utoya, Norway.
In some parts of the de-industrialised North East far right parties have recently gained a foothold on local councils. The racialised far-right UKIP now have three councillors in Sunderland whilst coming a close second in dozens of others. In Hartlepool the extreme right-wing party For Britain gained a seat!
Although ISIS remains the principal threat in the UK - for the North of England it’s media savvy far right groups and ‘lone actors according to Home Office specialists. This is not the time to undermine the Prevent strategy.
Some believe that Prevent is damaging trust in society. It’s suggested that Prevent has eroded civil liberties, demonised minorities and bolstered religious discrimination.
Civil libertarians maintain that Prevent is not making our citizens safer. Rather it’s fostering an atmosphere of insecurity while stoking up Islamophobia at a time when the far-right is on the rise both in the UK and across the globe. For the Conservative Peer Baroness Warsi some in the Asian community are perceived as ‘’the enemy within’’.
But undermining Prevent is not the way forward. The stark reality is that Prevent, despite its imperfections, has helped to thwart the level of violent terrorism. Since 2012 more than 1,200 individuals have been referred for concerns related to Islamist Extremism (45%) and 44% to do with right wing extremism.
Last year the North East saw a huge increase in the number of people being referred to the anti-radicalisation programme, with a sharp rise in potential far-right extremists. According to a Safe Newcastle report our region is now second only to London in the number of individuals known as possible far-right terror threats.
Between April 2017 and March 2018 Prevent co-ordinators were informed of 1,223 people involved in political extremism. Home Office figures reveal that far-right Prevent referrals went up by 8% in 2018 in the North East .
Newcastle-Upon-Tyne has seen more far-right protest marches than any other place outside the Capital, London.
The growth of the far right threatens hard won freedoms, democratic values and institutions, liberty, the rule of law and national security.
Critics of Prevent have been too quick to label it as some sort of spying operation. This is false. Britain is not a police state. It bears no resemblance to the Communist regimes of the former Warsaw Pact. Prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, one in three of East Germany’s population were Stasi (secret police) informants spying on their own neighbours!
Prevent, contrary to popular belief, is a voluntary programme, requiring parental consent. It involves a range of agencies including Special Branch, community safety partnerships, educational establishments, the fire service and youth offending teams. Prevent is about safeguarding: safeguarding vulnerable people from radicalisation in all its forms.
In most cases it’s implemented with sensitivity without alienating any section of the community.
As events in the last few years have testified terrorism is real. Most of it is home grown. It’s not imported from the EU. Neil Basu, Head of Counter-terrorism in the UK notes that more than 23,000 jihadi men and women, some in their teens, are being watched. 18 plots to cause mass murder on mainland Britain have been stopped since 2017, of which 14 were Islamist and four right-wing – the latter involving the banned neo-Nazi organisation National Action.
Of-course strengthening surveillance is crucial. But the government need to take steps to better engage groups in anti-radicalisation measures delivered through a multi-agency approach. The Government have launched a review into Prevent to help shed its toxic image amongst some sections of the community.
One important way to tackle potential radicalisation is through learning and training. The government’s British Values programme is being delivered in every school and college in Britain promoting the principles which underpin our democracy.
Many experienced teachers and youth workers are prepared to challenge the reactionary ideas of far-right supporters of ultra- nationalist groups like For Britain and the EDL.
Prevent needs to be strengthened not abandoned if we’re to win the hearts and minds of the North’s diverse communities. Maintaining safe, secure and cohesive neighbourhoods in our cities and towns remains the top priority in 2019 and beyond. Terrorism and violent extremism against vulnerable citizens must be thwarted.
Stephen Lambert is executive director of Education4Democracy.
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