Scheme unveiled in annual terrorism report as parliamentary human rights committee warns counter-extremism policy is going backwards
The UK government has announced plans to introduce a mandatory deradicalisation scheme, even as parliament’s human rights committee warned that its counter-extremism strategy was based on unproven theories and risked “making the situation worse”.
The new scheme, which would sit alongside the existing Channel counter-radicalisation programme, was unveiled in the government’s annual report on its counter-terrorism strategy which was published on Thursday.
“We will also be introducing a new deradicalisation scheme, which will be mandatory where the law allows, for those who are further down the path to radicalisation and who need a particularly intensive type of support,” the report said.
Middle East Eye understands that the new scheme will be used in cases where Channel is considered unsuitable, due to the level of radicalisation or the involvement of any criminal or civil sanctions.
The scheme would provide access to a wide range of services, including mental health concerns and treatment for post-traumatic stress, suggesting that the scheme could be tailored for individuals returning from Syria or other war zones.
It is intended to provide practical assistance and support to people who turn their backs on "terrorism and terrorist ideologies" and is part of government efforts to extend deradicalisation efforts into prisons and to those released under licence.
The annual report also revealed the extent to which the Channel programme, which is described by the government as a voluntary scheme, is focused on Muslim communities, with 70 percent of referrals linked to "Islamist-related extremism", 15 percent linked to far right extremism, and 15 percent linked to "other extremism". Several thousand people had been referred to the programme, with several hundred receiving support, it said.
Muslims make up about 4.5 percent of the population of the UK, according to 2011 census data.
Channel, which forms part of the wider Prevent counter-extremism strategy, has proved especially controversial since the introduction last year of the Prevent duty, which requires public sector workers including teachers to "have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.
It involves the screening of referred cases from public sector agencies by local panels often including police officers and officials involved in education, social services, and healthcare, and the creation of tailored programmes for those deemed vulnerable.
In 2015, the number of annual referrals tripled to about 4,000, with about a third of referrals coming from schools and often involving young children, raising concerns that the Prevent duty was stifling debate in classrooms and infringing children's human rights.
Lena Mohamed of the Islamic Human Rights Commission told Middle East Eye it was "hugely disappointing that the government is continuing to push on its counter-extremism agenda, despite Prevent being widely and heavily criticised by leading human rights organisations and lawyers, national trade unions, members of Parliament, and most importantly, Muslim communities that it is targeting."
But she said there were concerns already that individuals were being pressured to comply with the Channel programme.
"Despite in theory being voluntary, the pressure put on individuals to participate and comply meant it has been anything but that. Furthermore, we have seen numerous cases where children have been referred to Channel without parental consent, making it compulsory anyway. This new move by the government simply ensures it is not contested by those whom it mercilessly targets."
Details of the new scheme were announced even as the Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that progress towards putting in place a counter-extremism bill appeared to have gone backwards with the government “retreating from providing any level of detail”.
It also criticised the government's oversight of its existing Prevent counter-extremism strategy for tackling extremism, which it said were "too opaque and do not engender confidence".
"The difficulty around these issues should lead the government to tread with great care, for fear of making the situation worse, not better,” said Harriet Harman, the committee chairwoman.
The current Conservative government and its Conservative-led coalition predecessor have struggled to introduce new measures focused on tackling so-called “non-violent extremism”, with plans for a counter-extremism bill included in each of the previous two Queen’s speeches.
Theresa May, the new prime minister who replaced David Cameron last week, oversaw counter-extremism efforts for years in her previous role as home secretary, including the introduction of the Prevent duty.
Critics suggest that the delay to the counter-extremism bill has been caused by the inability of the government to settle on a legally robust definition of extremism, and concerns that any attempt to outlaw so-called Islamist extremism could be used against individuals and groups espousing conservative religious views.
In a statement to parliament introducing the report, Amber Rudd, the new Home Secretary, said that the government would publish an updated counter-terrorism strategy later this year.
Rudd identified the Islamic State (IS) group as the main terrorist threat to the UK but also highlighted the "al-Qaeda grouping in Afghanistan and Pakistan and affiliate groups elsewhere".
"Our approach needs to continually adapt. That is why we are currently reviewing CONTEST [the UK's counter-terrorism strategy] – to ensure the highest priorities are given the right resources, and that government departments and agencies have a unified approach. We will publish an updated strategy later this year," said Rudd.
Miqdaad Versi, the assistant general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), said that he looked forward to the government revealing further details about the proposed deradicalisation scheme, the reason for its introduction and the process by which individuals would be selected to participate.
"Based on our experience of effective methods to keep us safe, it is key that we learn lessons, iterate and, based on this evidence, improve all weapons we have to tackle terror," Versi told MEE. "Moreover, we expect - as the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has said today - there will be sufficient oversight of the decision making process, the de-radicalisation itself and the process to select the individuals who are conducting the de-radicalisation process."
Yasmine Ahmed, the director of Rights Watch (UK), told MEE that the government had given a clear sign that it had no intention of listening to growing concerns about Prevent and calls for it to review its policies.
“Despite there being damning evidence that the Prevent strategy is not fit for purpose but instead alienating the very communities that it needs to work with, the Government has today quietly introduced a new mandatory deradicalisation scheme which will form part of Prevent without any consultation or review,” said Ahmed.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.