Where is Scotland's Counter-Radicalisation Programme Going?

Figures provided by Police Scotland in response to a freedom of information request by The Ferret show that just three people in Scotland have been referred to Scotland's counter-radicalisation programme since 2011, and that no one has been referred to the programme since October 2013. The figures raise serious questions about what is going on in Scotland's counter-extremism industry.

The three were referred under a programme called Prevent Professional Concerns (PPC), the Scottish equivalent of the Channel programme that operates in England and Wales. PPC and Channel are part of the wider Prevent strategy, which has seen thousands of public sector workers in Scotland given training in how to spot signs of radicalisation.

The figures obtained by The Ferret are the first data ever to have been officially released on PPC, and were provided only after a successful appeal by The Ferret to the Scottish Information Commissioner.

Police Scotland say that the term ‘referral’ in their freedom of information response "should be taken to mean a concern raised by a public body or the community and brought to the attention of Police Scotland in order to convene a multi-agency Prevent Professional Concerns (PPC) case conference."

The Scottish data contrasts sharply with the figures for Channel in England and Wales. 4,611 people, including more than 2,000 children and teenagers, were referred to the Channel scheme from the start of July 2015 to the end of June 2016.

Richard Haley, Chair of SACC, commented:

"Despite the massive rollout of Prevent training across Scotland over the last year, it seems that no one has been referred to Prevent Professional Concerns (PPC) - the de-radicalisation process towards which the training is directed - since October 2013. It's time for the Scottish Government to acknowledge that the Prevent strategy has no credibility and disengage from it.

Besides being fundamentally flawed, the implementation of Prevent in Scotland is blighted by confusion and opacity. The figure for PPC referrals provided by Police Scotland conflicts with information given by a senior Glasgow City Council official, Frank Deas, at a closed-door seminar hosted by the Muslim Council of Scotland in March 2016. He said that referrals were "just into double figures" across Scotland. He said that these had occurred over approximately the last couple of years, the period over which he said that PPC was formally functioning. This is different enough from the Police Scotland figure of just 3 referrals, all of them before October 2013,  to raise serious doubts about the reliability of official information on Prevent.

Both figures are tiny compared with the comparable figures for England and Wales. The information from the police suggests that PPC is currently hardly operational at all.

This might be a welcome sign that the Scottish authorities are cautious about following in the footsteps of England's failed Channel programme, on which PPC appears to be modelled. But Prevent training amongst staff in Scottish schools has only got under way in the last year. For example, 370 Glasgow teachers - probably mainly guidance teachers - were last year given WRAP (Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent) training. WRAP is the most comprehensive form of Prevent training in general use. The training risks creating a damaging climate of suspicion, but it could be two or three years before its full effects become apparent, either through PPC referrals or through an increase in institutional racism. And the operation of Prevent in schools could lead to intelligence about the political views of students and their families being passed to police regardless of whether PPC referrals are made.

The three individuals said by Police Scotland to have been the subject of PPC referrals are described as "white Scottish". This might suggest that they were referred because of far-right views, but that isn't necessarily so. Police officers have sometimes raised Prevent issues with people involved in Palestine solidarity activity on the basis of false allegations of anti-semitism.

Besides triggering a formal PPC process, police officers may have informal "chats" with people. This kind of thing is intimidating and risks having a chilling effect on legitimate political activity. I am also concerned that police may be putting pressure on Muslims to participate in courses or activities by Third Sector providers that fall completely outside the officially acknowledged Prevent strategy, but are thought by police to be effective in countering "radicalisation". If this is happening, it would be an extremely worrying intervention in community life.

Over-policing of Scotland's Muslim community is making Muslims reluctant to voice criticism of the police and reluctant to become involved in political activity - especially anti-racist activity - without the approval of the police. This is undermining Muslim confidence in working with the wider community and is weakening our collective capacity in Scotland to counter the spread of far-right and racist ideas. 

I am very worried about the damage that policies around Prevent are doing to political and community life in Scotland. I'm also very worried about the secrecy surrounding these policies.

It's tempting to use the PPC figures as an indicator of the terrorist threat to Scotland. The temptation should be resisted. Prevent is a junk strategy and it produces junk data. If the figures tell us anything at all, it's about the implementation of Prevent, not about the underlying threat from "terrorism" or "extremism". Official estimates of the threat are probably exaggerated, but the Prevent policy is in any case counter-productive and risks creating frustration and driving people towards terrorism.

The Scottish Government should immediately halt the rollout of Prevent training in Scotland. The training focuses strongly on identifying individuals who are vulnerable to radicalisation so that they can be referred to PPC. It seems that this isn't happening. So besides promoting a culture of islamophobia and suspicion, Prevent is squandering resources in our cash-strapped public sector by directing them towards a process in which the police evidently have no confidence."

An unnamed Scottish Government spokesman told The Ferret that "the Prevent Professional Concerns process is separate to and distinct from the Channel" and that the "numbers are not comparable and we do not see the number of referrals made as being indicative of success." An unnamed COSLA spokesman made a similar point.

However, Glasgow City Council have said that WRAP training - produced by the Home Office - has been given to Glasgow teachers. WRAP training has also been given to university staff and other public sector workers. Staff relying on this training to identify individuals vulnerable to radicalisation and to initiate a PPC referral would be following the same process as staff in England and Wales. It's difficult to see how the PPC and Channel processes could diverge at this stage unless staff hold informal discussions with police about an individual before making a formal PPC referral.

There may be differences between England and Scotland in the processes that occur following a referral, but they are obscured by the secrecy surrounding PPC. The Home Office has published Channel guidance, and various public bodies in England and Wales have published their own Channel guidance. The Home Office has also published its Channel Vulnerability Assessment Framework, setting out 22 factors supposedly involved in "radicalisation".  The framework has been heavily criticised for the sketchiness of the evidence base that underpins it.  No comparable documents have been made public about Scotland's PPC.

In a training video included in the Home Office WRAP package, Gillian Stirling of Police Scotland is asked if PPC meetings are similar to the Channel Panel shown in the video. She says: "Yes, very similar."

The claim by Police Scotland that the number of PPC referrals is not a meaningful measure of Prevent's success could indicate that public sector staff, such as teachers, are expected to intervene themselves when they have concerns about an individual that fall short of the level that would trigger a referral. If this were the case, it would create a very serious risk that individuals could be harassed or censored for their political views. The personal views and prejudices of staff will inevitably play a part in how the policy operates in practice.

The facilitator workbook for the WRAP training package emphasises that, where an individual is at risk of radicalisation, intervention is complex and beyond the scope of WRAP trainees. It says:

"Explain that mentoring or counselling is often a challenging process where the intervention provider needs robust knowledge of the ideology the individual’s vulnerabilities are hiding behind. The audience are NOT going to be the person who is expected to have those challenging conversations."

Besides revealing new data on PPC referrals, the Ferret's report reveals that Scotland's schools and libraries are using internet filters to block access to "extremist" material. And it reveals that high school pupils in South Lanarkshire have participated in a series of lessons that are described in the 2014/15 Lanarkshire Multi-Agency Counter Terrorism Annual Report as a “bespoke CT [Counter Terrorism] Security Module,” which addresses, “the importance of engagement with students as young as 12.” 

The Ferret report (26 January 2016) includes important source files and can be read here.

Key Points

  • Scottish authorities (The Scottish Government, Police Scotland, local authorities etc) are maintaining a high level of secrecy around Prevent.
  • The main form of training in Prevent given to public sector workers focuses heavily on identifying vulnerable individuals for referral to the Prevent Professional Concerns (PPC) programme, but no such referrals have been made since 2013 and only 3 referrals have ever been made.
  • Officials says that the number of referrals is not a useful way to judge the effectiveness of Prevent, but do not say how its effectiveness should be judged or what steps, besides referral to PPC, are being taken to counter radicalisation.
  • Prevent is likely to lead to police obtaining information on members of the public (including school-children and their families) who are not suspected of any crime and would not otherwise be in contact with police.
  • Published and leaked documents show that Prevent is fundamentally flawed. Secret, undocumented or ad hoc responses by public sector workers in pursuit of perceived Prevent goals are unlikely to be any better. Responses are at risk of being tarnished by lack of awareness of issues surrounding racism and Islamophobia and by personal or institutional prejudices about politics, race and religion.
  • In SACC's view, the terms "extremism" and "radicalisation" are junk words that elude rigorous definition and have been adopted by the government because they are open to wide interpretation and exploitation by police and other authorities.