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Largest number of Prevent referrals related to far-right extremism

Jamie Grierson and Dan Sabbagh
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: geogphotos/Alamy</span>
Photograph: geogphotos/Alamy

Just 11% of referrals to the government’s controversial Prevent programme were ultimately deemed to be at risk of radicalisation, with the largest number of referrals relating to far-right extremism.

The annual figures emerged as James Brokenshire, the security minister, warned that far-right terror posed “a growing threat”, which had been accelerated by the amplification of conspiracy theories online during the pandemic.

Home Office data showed there were 6,287 referrals to Prevent in the year to 31 March, up 10% compared with the record low in the previous year. Ultimately, 697 were deemed at risk of radicalisation and taken on by the government’s Channel programme for specialist support.

Of the cases ultimately referred to Channel, 302 (43%) were referred for rightwing radicalisation and 210 (30%) were referred for Islamist radicalisation.

The figures demonstrate what Brokenshire later described as a “more diverse, much more complicated” threat picture. “Not only the threats from Daesh [Isis] or al-Qaida-inspired groups and individuals but the growing threat from rightwing terrorism, as well as risks from the far left and single-issue extremists,” he said.

Social media provided a means for far-right and other extremists “to challenge mainstream messaging and promulgate twisted perversions of the truth” – trends that the minister said had been “accelerated” by the Covid-19 crisis.

Individuals referred to the Prevent programme, which has a £40m annual budget, have their details stored without their knowledge on a database. Critics, including Muslim groups, have claimed Prevent has little to do with safeguarding and is more concerned with gathering intelligence than supporting communities.

Nearly 2,000 referrals required no further action, while about 3,500 cases were directed to alternative services ranging from education, mental health or social services.

Brokenshire sought to defend the programme, arguing while the trend had moved from directed plots to inspired acts by individuals, the term “lone actor” painted “a false picture” of terrorists – and that they could be stopped in advance.

“Research demonstrates that in many cases, there is communication with others. There is research. There is planning. And there is preparation. These individuals, or small groups of two or three, can be spotted,” he added.

The most controversial element of the Prevent programme is the statutory duty imposed on schools, NHS trusts, prisons, local authorities and other public bodies to report concerns about people they suspect may be at risk of turning to terrorism. Environmental and animal rights activists have been referred to Prevent.

Of the 6,287 Prevent referrals, 1,487 were for concerns over Islamist extremism – a 6% rise on the previous year and the first increase since the year ending March 2016. The number of Prevent referrals for concerns over rightwing extremism was 1,387, and 1,388 in the 12 months to March 2019.

A further 3,203 people were flagged over a “mixed, unstable or unclear ideology” while 210 were referred over other concerns such as international and leftwing radicalisation.

Police made the highest number of referrals to Prevent: 1,950 (31%), closely followed by the education sector, with 1,928 (31%). About 88% of referrals to Prevent were men or boys while more than half were for people aged 20 or under.

Related: Prevent doesn't stop students being radicalised. It just reinforces Islamophobia | Alison Scott-Baumann

Prevent is meant to be subject to an independent review. But the government has been accused of “incompetence and complacency” having failed to recruit a replacement for its first chair, Lord Carlile, who was forced to step down in December 2019.