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Counter-Extremism Strategy

The government has published its new counter-extremism strategy in October 2015. This article explores the implications of the strategy for London and the challenge ahead as the government increasingly looks to local partners to respond to the threat of extremism. 

  • By London Councils

Background

The counter-extremism strategy builds on work already in place under the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST. There are four strands to CONTEST:

  • Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism
  • Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks
  • Protect: to strengthen our protection against terrorist attacks
  • Prepare: where an attack cannot be stopped, to mitigate its impact.

Local authorities across the UK are categorised by the Home Office on the basis of risk as either Priority or non-Priority Areas. In London there are 21 Priority Areas (tier 1 and tier 2) and 13 non-Priority Areas. The intensified and changed nature of the threat, particularly from those seeking to travel to, or return from Syria, now affects all London boroughs, not just those 17 deemed “tier 1 priority areas” with Prevent Coordinators.

Under current arrangements, local areas must bid to the Home Office for grants to fund individual projects that are focused on core Prevent objectives.

Early in 2015, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act placed the Prevent programme on a statutory footing, one of the recommendations made by the Extremism Taskforce. This means that every principal local authority now has a legal duty to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’.

The counter-extremism strategy recognises that this work must now go further and target the root of extremist ideology.

Summary of the strategy

Extremism is defined as: ‘the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist.’

The strategy reflects the wide and evolving threat of extremism and introduces an overarching approach at pace and scale that all institutions, groups and individuals will work towards. The strategy balances community cohesion projects at the softer end with harder disruptive legislation at the other.

The strategy brings together existing work already taking place at a local and national level with some additional legislative and policy proposals. This will extend the government’s capabilities to tackle non-violent forms of extremism often promoted through multi-channel platforms such as online, broadcast and social media.

The strategy is built around four key pillars:

  1. Countering extremist ideology: Here the strategy sets out how it will strengthen institutions and contest the online space against extremist ideology.
  2. Building a partnership with all those opposed to extremism: At the centre of this strategy is an intention to work in partnership with others. This includes developing a network of individuals and groups around Britain who are already standing up to extremists to act as a mainstream voice against extremism.
  3. Disrupting extremists: The strategy proposes new legislation to increase powers to target the most active and persistent individuals and groups.
  4. Building cohesive communities: Possibly the most welcome strand of the strategy, this recognises that isolation and division can exacerbate and increase an individual’s vulnerability to grooming. Here the government sets out tools to improve community cohesion and social integration.

What does this mean for London’s boroughs?

The strategy includes a range of measures that will directly impact on London’s boroughs and communities:

  • A full review, to be published in 2016, to identify the risk posed by ‘entryism’ (1) across the public sector. This is likely to set out measures for local authorities and schools to safeguard against entryism through governance, inspection and whistle-blowing mechanisms.
  • The government will make available clear guidance on the range of tools available to local authorities to tackle extremism and will review powers available to allow government intervention when councils fail to effectively confront extremism.
  • A new Extremism Community Trigger will introduce a legal duty to guarantee that concerns about local extremism will be taken seriously. This will ensure the police and local authorities fully review any complaints about extremism.
  • A review of English language training means local areas are likely to see a change to current arrangements for the allocation of £125 million spent on this provision annually. Although the strategy assures support for local partners in those places where the government focuses the efforts of this funding, it is yet unclear whether this review will present an opportunity or challenge for English language provision across the boroughs.
  • Further measures for the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) will likely extend the number of services and employees eligible for checks, while additional notifications will be provided when any new information emerges about extremism relevant to an employee.
  • Teachers will continue to be supported in accessing training to identify warning signs of radicalisation and to understand the action they should take, while teaching resources will help young people critically assess what they say and hear.
  • Ofsted inspectors are now trained to reflect how well schools promote British values and safeguard pupils from the risk of extremism; schools will be assessed on this measure as part of future inspections.
  • The Department for Education will introduce a new system to enable intervention in unregulated education settings such as supplementary schools and tuition centres which teach children intensively.
  • Major reform of the regulations on governor appointments, so that all appointments must now be made on the basis of skill, with new powers to governing bodies to remove governors if they are not upholding the ethos of the school. Schools must now also make sure that the identities of all governors are publicly available to parents and wider communities.
  • A national hate crime action plan and new measures for the police to provide a breakdown of religion-based hate crime data will provide tools for local partners to work more strategically with communities affected by hate crime.
  • The Home Office will work with local authorities to identify the most impactful and relevant groups already doing important work in this field to join a new network. It is hoped that these networks around the country can communicate issues and experiences from the frontline to local, regional and national tiers of government. In addition, financial support is being made available to increase the capacity of network partners in their work tackling extremism.
  • A major new Cohesive Communities Programme will be launched in 2016, informed by the findings of Louise Casey’s review into how we can boost opportunity and integration in the most isolated communities. This programme will provide central funding in support of local interventions targeted at local needs. The strategy refers to the Troubled Families Programme as an example of how intensively focused, multiagency support has been successful in other policy areas.

Analysis

This is a broad vision set out by the government and in many respects is its boldest step into the counter extremist space. The legislative changes and direction of policy reflect the increasing importance placed by the government on community engagement and multiagency work at a local level to tackle terrorism and extremism.

Great care is needed to achieve a balance between maintaining freedoms and addressing the serious problem of extremism. The challenge ahead for London’s boroughs is to mitigate the impact these narratives have on social cohesion. A recent report published by the Islamic Human Rights Commission found that 59 per cent of respondents believed political policies had negatively impacted their lives (2).

The flagship policy of this strategy – building a partnership with all those opposed to extremism – recognises the important work of the voluntary and community sector (VCS) in tackling extremism. The role of cohesive communities in this strategy is a welcome strength, however resource at a borough level to execute the strategy’s vision is not so clear, and although the Cohesive Communities Programme will be a welcome source of funding, it cannot replace the shrinking capacity of frontline public services to reach out and support the most vulnerable across London’s boroughs.

Improved oversight within unregulated education settings is a welcome development. Nevertheless we must recognise the crucial contribution made by many supplementary schools and tuition centres ensuring that any additional regulation enhances rather than impedes their valuable work.

The wider school estate also faces increased scrutiny in their execution of the Prevent duty and governor appointments, perhaps offering local authorities a new lever to engage with free schools to greater effect.

The Trojan Horse plot in Birmingham awakened the government to the threat posed by entryism. The counter measures set out in this strategy directly threaten local authority sovereignty with increased scrutiny from the centre and strengthened powers to intervene where boroughs are seen to be failing to respond adequately to the threat of extremism. It is critical that councillors use their authority and legitimacy to challenge the narratives of radicalisers and extremists and work with the wider community to condemn the activities of extremists who misrepresent local community views. Councillors involved in local overview and scrutiny will want to be assured about the nature of risk in their local area and the work being done to address any identified risk.

The commitment to provide further support for vulnerable young people and individuals at risk of radicalisation, although not defined, is likely to fall hardest on local authorities in some measure, whether through existing Channel and Prevent activity, or more broadly across frontline services that have due regard to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.

 

It is too early to understand the full implications of this strategy without further detail from government. In its current form the strategy is broad and high-level, with little detail about how government expects local authorities and their partners to deliver on the four pillars outlined in the strategy. We are yet to see if local government will be given additional means to commit to the increasing demands made by this strategy.

 

 

1. Entryism is when extremist individuals, groups and organisations consciously seek to gain positions of influence to better enable them to promote their own extremist agendas.
2. Environment of Hate: the new normal for Muslims in the UK, IHRC, November 2015
 

London Councils