Today (April 21) I had the privilege of opening the Home Affairs Select Committee annual conference at Homerton College Cambridge. In the audience were some of the most senior people working in government and public agencies - both in the UK and from overseas
I was invited to speak about Prevent, the government strategy that aims to stop people at risk of being drawn into violent extremism. I am the national police lead for the role our service plays in this area of counter terrorism.
As the key note speaker, the delegates may have been expecting me to talk about our policies and strategies, our delivery plans and multi-agency governance boards. But what I really wanted them to hear about was the difference Prevent is making every day to the lives of vulnerable youngsters in towns and cities across the country.
So I told them the story about a boy in his mid-teens who was at school and had been doing well. Then, over a period of time, his teachers became really concerned that he had aspirations to follow some older boys from the school out to Syria. After some careful thought and professional consideration, they decided he was at risk and needed to be safeguarded from potential harm. So they referred him to the local police unit Prevent team. Officers looked at the case, with partners, and decided that mentoring was the best way forward for somebody who may be about to put themselves in the way of great harm.
The mentoring allowed an exploration of other ways the boy could challenge foreign policy and to debate different moral codes between faiths. I’m please to say that some months later the youngster is once more doing well at school.
Of the group of friends he had originally supported we believe two were killed in Syria and one has been jailed for attempting to travel to the conflict zone to engage in armed terrorist activities.
In straight-talking terms, this story is what Prevent is all about. It is a non-criminal safeguarding activity. It seems somewhat ironic to me that Prevent is often thought of and spoken of in some fairly extreme terms when it is a common sense diversionary activity preventing the unnecessary criminalisation of vulnerable people.
Why wouldn’t any caring person want to intervene to stop that boy following others on a path that could have led to a serious criminal conviction – or his death?
In my 27 years plus as a Police Officer I have seen acts of terror committed all over the world by people of every race, faith, colour and creed. As a young PC I was regularly told, as I patrolled Birmingham on foot, about the horror of the pub bombings, just as a Chief I now I hear of conflict in Syria, of Pakistani school children being murdered in the playground, Nigerian girls kidnapped from their classrooms, British citizens shot on a Mediterranean beach and European cities devastated by acts of terrorism.
Against this background, I am seeing the success of mentoring and diversion schemes as a way of helping stop people being drawn into extremism and to avoid being criminalised. For me there are obvious parallels reaching across into those individuals who are at risk – just as we have done for youngsters exposed to guns and gang violence.
Of course I do understand that Prevent is seen by some as contentious. But if we accept that the State has a responsibility to help to keep people safe, then diversion is morally and ethically the right thing to do. It is also unsurprising that the prevention required needs to be focussed at an age range that is pretty reflective of other crime types; young people are bulk business for policing. It is striking that the controlling mind behind the plot to behead a police officer or soldier in Australia on ANZAC Day was an online 15 year old from the other side of the world, here in the North West of England.
At the moment we cannot be naïve and pretend that those taking and abusing the name of Islam to justify some very barbarous unIslamic acts are not a significant part of the Prevent case Management workload. However, we must also acknowledge that Prevent is being used to divert those who want to fight on all sides of the Syrian conflict, and to divert those who see extreme right wing activities as legitimate too.
Prevent is voicing the concerns of people of good conscience. It is stopping people being criminalised, it is safeguarding the vulnerable. It is making us all safer, in a proportionate, thoughtful fashion.
Do nothing, remain silent and the parents of the boy whose story I told today might now be mourning their son, or visiting him in prison, instead of looking forward to a bright future.