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Time to stop papering over the cracks – we need radical dialogue.

October 9, 2015 | Nick Taylor

Figures released by the National Police Chief’s Council revealed that almost 800 people were referred to the government’s Channel programme between June and August this year—more than double the amount of referrals received during the whole of 2012-13.  Kelly Simcock, Director of Commissions at the Foundation responds.

Just over 300 of these were young people under the age of 18 (pictured – some of our young leaders at the Peace Centre). As a programme, Channel was developed to provide support and make interventions with those deemed to be at risk of becoming involved in violent extremism. The programme primarily works with those deemed vulnerable in a one -to -one setting with ‘interventionists’ ranging from local authority professionals to qualified and skilled individuals who practice and promote a ‘counter-narrative’ designed to provide the opposite argument to the ideology being espoused.

I was invited on behalf of the Foundation to talk about the findings of this report and its implications earlier today on ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

Worrying trend or to be expected? The first thing is that this should not be a surprise to any of us. The government’s Prevent Duty and a move to enshrine Channel into local authority safeguarding frameworks means that schools, youth workers and local authority teams are amongst those who now have a duty to report if they see signs that a young person may be becoming involved in extremist activity. Government (and privately funded) training programmes are being run across the country, and have been for some months, raising awareness about the signs and symptoms that a young person could be becoming ‘radicalised’.

When hate crime awareness increased some years ago – so did its reporting. This is the same with many phenomena in the medical profession and more contemporary issues such as child sexual exploitation. What many people will be interested in doing is ensuring that they are making the referral so it can be properly investigated rather than to ignore a potential problem and safeguarding issue. The figures also reveal that whilst referrals may have increased, the number of these referrals that are converted into full-scale interventions have stood at around only one in five, with the overwhelming majority being referred on to other ‘more appropriate’ services.

The government states that Channel has been established to help safeguard . Its guidance states that the programme is ‘ about ensuring that vulnerable children and adults of any faith, ethnicity or background receive support before their vulnerabilities are exploited by those that would want them to embrace terrorism’. Important here is the sentence ‘before their vulnerabilities are exploited….’ that does not seem however to have made the headlines quite as easily or frequently as lines such as ‘The new data… suggests authorities are identifying potential extremists at a rapidly rising rate’. What’s happening here is that they are identifying people who are vulnerable at a higher level, not necessarily that there are more vulnerable people than ever before. The other important question to ask is whether giving these ‘vulnerable’ people the scary sounding title of ‘potential terrorist’ helps or hinders. And does it give a label to which people can aspire? We may well do well to remember the criticism about slapping ASBOS’s on young people some years back when the sad fact was that some started to live up to the title.

The language of ‘extremism’ and ‘potential extremists’ is something that local authorities and Prevent delivery organisations have worked have worked hard to dispel in recent years in an effort to win hearts and minds and get people to work with and understand that this is not simply about ‘spotting terrorists’. The trouble us that when teachers turned on the TV or radio this morning, many will have been filled with horror to hear that the scheme that they have been encouraged to embrace to ensure robust support for a young person who may have made an inflammatory racist remark, or hanging out with the ‘wrong’ type of gang has been labelled a ‘potential terrorist’.

Will headlines such as that drive people back to staying quiet on such concerns? Our work with teachers over time tells us that one of their biggest concerns has been about criminalising their young people without hard evidence. Their other big fear, of course, is to arrive at school and find out one of their young people has gone to join an extreme organisation. Quite a conflict. The radicalisation dilemma. What we know is that they need to know how to make decisions and referrals based on confident and sound diagnosis, the balance between doing too much or too little, and safe and sound policies in place to support that. For many schools, something their safeguarding leads will be well used to and working on bolstering now.

As concerning about the language used by the media is what this does to the fuel the extremists themselves. We have to ask to what extent the language of ‘extremism’ and fear plays into the hands of these groups. The propaganda of ISIS has built on the narrative that tells British Muslims that they are not welcome in the UK, and that the UK government policy and legislation are being used as tools to beat them down, and keep our Muslim communities under constant intrusive surveillance. David Anderson QC, Independent reviewer of Terrorism laws amongst those raising concerns that the government’s counter-extremism bill provokes a potential backlash from Muslim communities and could play onto the hands of terrorist recruiters. On the far right, extreme groups readily pick figures such as these in order to stoke fear about and hatred towards Muslims with the claims that there are ‘home grown’ Muslim terrorists in every community. On either side, these figures and the headlines promise to provide potent fuel for the recruiters in both cases.

Our work in Northern Ireland and other places of conflict down the years has taught us that playing the politics of fear is playing into the hands of those who are preying on our young people and dividing our communities. Rhetoric and headlines that teach us to fear the other and keep watch for the extremists can fuel the problem rather than solve it. For those tasked with safeguarding our young people and wider society, this presents some very real challenges. It can help to create a ‘them and us ’ divide rather than reducing risks and healing rifts.

The Foundation’s ‘Rethinking Radicalisation’ programme in a major city in the North of England has seen us in dialogue with civil society, community representatives, civic leaders and the authorities in an attempt to explore issues of radicalisation and related topics such as hate crime and islamophobia. Also to vision as well as plan concrete ways in which these issues can be tackled. The report today called for ‘greater efforts’ from civil society in helping to tackle the issue. Another challenge here however is that of trust. The fear is that by trying to help, those people they report become criminalised and spied upon. In other cases, they themselves are held up as government spies in doing so. The Guardian reported the difficulties in implementing Channel effectively in a story today about a 14- year- old boy who was questioned by his school about ISIS after a classroom discussion on environmental activism. Further evidence of the fact it is important to approach these issues with sensitivity and sound judgement. Whether that was exercised in this case or not, the young person concerned was left feeling ‘fearful’ and ‘nervous’ as a result of the questioning he received.

Yet there is a broad desire to help and a general agreement that issues relating to radicalisation and extremism must be tackled. The question is how. The role of the media features heavily in our discussions with communities and the sense that it overwhelmingly contributes to narratives of division rather than ones that unite. The headlines today and the choice of speakers to help ‘unpick’ the issues in many cases focussed on the sensational and negative rather than the facts and positives that sit behind some of this work. The question being asked more and more now is what society can do to help tackle this – it is also something that society is asking of the media as well as its pleas with government to help bolster efforts at community level by supporting those on the frontline who are best equipped to safeguard and create cohesive communities. It is possible to report an important news item without using language that sensationalises and that makes it worse. We see examples of that everywhere. It is not however the norm and those we work with tell us every day about how this feeds and perpetuates mistrust, fear and suspicion.

On the subject of teachers and their role, this is where we need the most focus. The Foundation chaired an EU-wide conference of 100+ educators earlier this year in Manchester to focus on the issue of Extremism and how to tackle this in the classroom. A manifesto created as a result of the event that was fed to EU ministers to help shape policy on these matters. One of the strongest messages was about equipping our teachers to be able to tackle this at the earliest stages and helping them understand both how to ‘diagnose’ the problem – but also to understand how best to prevent it. Confidence in the ability to hold difficult conversations and engage curiosity and opinion without closing down or simply countering being the key to helping keep these kids in the classroom. They need to know how to act automatically and confidently when faced with fear (because fear is often at the heart of the extreme view or the intolerance of the other) and they need to know how to respond, not react, and let their own fears dictate what their next step looks like. This will help to defuse and de-escalate rather than create a backlog of young people awaiting these ‘special interventions’ through Channel that, as the figures indicate – are not always needed. It will also help teachers take control of the situation before it takes control of them. This is another safeguarding issue and one they are equipped to deal with. Their tools of conflict resolution and communication may, however, need a little honing in some cases.

The UK government’s new legislation in the Prevent Duty makes this a requirement now for schools in terms of ‘skilling up’ teachers and educators to deal with it – but our work has told us that the focus thus far has been overwhelmingly on detection and diagnosis rather than dealing with the root cause. What they need is

What we need is radical dialogue and an army of those on the frontline able to facilitate this. Communities and our professionals can see the problems, but they need the confidence and trust to be able to deliver to it without legislation and policies that seek to securitise – and without external forces that contribute to the issue This is a matter for all of us to take responsibility for. The Home Office Security Minister John Hayes today announced that the government have ‘dedicated sufficient resources to the programme to cope with demand and will keep the position under review’ with regards to the Channel programme’. Whilst this may be welcome news in helping safeguard those who really do need interventions, even more energy and resources should be deployed and are needed at the earlier stage. We need to reduce the number of people needing Channel otherwise we only ever plaster over the cracks rather than building the foundations of a stronger and shared society in which difficult conversations can be embraced, managed and even transformative.

Kelly Simcock is the Director of Commissions at the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace and a practitioner of 12 years in the field of conflict resolution specialising in countering violent extremism.

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We welcome comments and dialogue – Contact: kelly.simcock@foundation4peace.org