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The new Prevent policy won't succeed without an enforcer. I nominate Lord Carlile.

by Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2011-06-06 at 18.08.50 Today's Prevent policy announcement is several months late.  The reason for the delay is nothing to with maladroit planning.  It is that half the Coalition doesn't fully support the new policy, and its release has thus been severely delayed.  Nick Clegg made clear in Luton during March that he didn't agree with David Cameron's view from Munich a month earlier - namely, that Prevent musn't seek to use the bad against the worst.  The Prime Minister had posed a central question: "Would you allow the far right groups a share of public funds if they promise to lure young white men away from fascist terrorism?"

He didn't give an answer, because he didn't need to.  Imagine the uproar if non-violent fascist organisations, (such as the BNP) were used as partners by government to combat the threat of violent neo-nazis (such as Combat 18), on the ground that only Nick Griffin and his ilk have the "credibility" among some young white men to persuade them to turn away from terror?  Again, Cameron didn't name the Islamist equivalents of the "far right groups" to which he referred - once again, because he didn't need to.  He'd already criticised the Muslim Brotherhood in the Commons, and the Jamaat-e-Islami is cut from the same cloth.

The Prime Minister's key insight is that for government to help build up the position of such groups is not only wrong but risky.  Risky for community cohesion, because their prime attachment is to pre-modern law rather than liberal democracy.  Risky for mainstream Muslims, who reject this segregating vision, and want to get on with their everyday lives as British citizens.  And risky too for the struggle against violent extremism: after all, one can't quench acts of violence by stoking the ideology which helps to drive them, any more than one can put out a fire by hosing petrol on the flames.

We've yet to see full details of the Prevent Review, which will be announced in the Commons this afternoon.  But it's evident that Cameron has by and large got his way, and he deserves great credit for imposing his will on Whitehall - not to mention his own party.  For when I wrote earlier that half the Coalition doesn't fully support the new policy, I may have been understating the problem.  Last weekend's Observer named Sayeeda Warsi and Dominic Grieve as sharing Clegg's view.  Having worked with both on these matters until last May, this came as no surprise to me.

In sum, the Liberal Democrats, some Conservative Ministers, and a large slice of the security, police and civil service establishments will be reluctant to put their shoulders to the wheel of the new policy.  The best-known security service sceptic is Charles Farr, the head of the office of security and counter-terrorism.  I see that my former colleague David Maclean, now Lord Blencathra, has been asking which "outside people" have been involved in early drafts of Prevent - a question reportedly aimed at Farr.  Theresa May has been out and about backing the Prime Minister in advance of today's announcement.

To the Home Secretary will fall the task of aligning police forces to the new policy.  For example, she will presumably want to question Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, about its relationship with the Muslim Safety Forum, which is apparently chaired by Azad Ali, a Treasury official who used his internet blog to praise the spiritual leader of Al-Qaeda.  But her reach is limited.  Earlier this week, she rightly criticised University Vice-Chancellors and Principals for "complacency" about the radicalisation to extremism which is taking place on campus.

However, the Home Secretary doesn't manage the Government's relationship with the Universities.  Here's a list of areas in which Prevent should apply, and for which other Ministers are directly responsible.

  • Vince Cable and David Willetts lead at Business, Innovation and Skills on universities.  To them falls the responsibility of following where May has led - to persuade the Universities that they must be active in tackling extremism on campus (see the excellent report by the All Party Group on Homeland Security) and to the Federation of Student Islamic Societies that it must challenge it more vigorously than it apparently has to date.
  • Michael Gove leads at Education on schools.  The Free Schools experiment raises again a question which already applies: what restrictions on localism and autonomy should there be, if any?  Would a school that teaches creationism (for example), be separatist or extreme?  If so, should it receive public funds?  Is OFTED really equipped to ascertain what goes on in Islamic (and other) schools where teaching and conversation sometimes takes place in a foreign language?
  • Nick Clegg leads at the Cabinet office on charities.  The Cabinet Office is packed with Ministers, and I name Clegg simply because he's the most senior.  As Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd has day-to-day charge of charities.  A view persists that the Charities Commission has been less than rigorous at probing extremism, in relation to the activities of some charities - see here and here for very different examples.
  • Ken Clarke leads at the Ministry of Justice on prisons.  Prisons are an important source of radicalisation towards extremism - see Quilliam's report on the subject, which cites extremists being empowered by prison officers, in some cases, as interlocuters for all Muslim prisoners.  This is precisely the kind of problem which the new policy is intended to tackle.  The Quilliam report wrote starkly that staff failings "are fuelling radicalisation".
  • Above all, Eric Pickles leads at DCLG on cohesion policy.  If an organisation is considered extremist, how can it be held to promote cohesion - and, in particular, be funded to do so?  This headache question is about to land with a thump on the Communities Secretary's doormat.  His Department leads on relations with Islamic organisations and cohesion funding: the problems that haunted Ruth Kelly, Hazel Blears and John Denham are about to swirl around his attic.

This is by no means an exhaustive list: it doesn't include the Foreign Office, for example.

And it points to an inevitable conclusion.  Some Ministers will welcome the new Prevent policy: Gove, for example, is providing a gold standard at education.  Others will try to ignore it at best: it's not unfair, given his remarks in Luton, to cite Clegg.  Others will have good intentions (David Willetts has shown an interest in the matter), but will be swamped by other worries, problems and crises.  For others still - probably the majority - the new policy will scarcely register on their radar.

With a Coalition partner opposed to key elements of the policy, some senior Conservative Ministers in their company, and resistant senior civil servants, the harsh truth is that the new Prevent policy will come to nothing if Cameron doesn't continue to keep his eye on the ball.  And since both his eyes must usually be elsewhere, he needs someone in Downing Street to keep a watching brief for him - to plan and help execute the policy's strategic implementation across the Departments.

Such a person should ideally be an insider (an outsider would be outfoxed by the Whitehall elements who think the policy's wrong) and a politician (a non-politician wouldn't carry the necessary weight).  I hereby nominate Lord Carlile (pictured above), the independent reviewer of anti-terror laws, who has the added advantage of having been involved in the drafting of the Prevent Review.  And if I can say so on a Conservative site, being a Liberal Democrat isn't a disadvatage in this context, either - the opposite, if anything.


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