Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham has previously warned Prevent strategy would create 'conditions for extremism to flourish'
The incoming president of the British National Union of Students (NUS) called for the “corrosive” Prevent counter-extremism programme to be scrapped.
Speaking at a debate at University College London (UCL) on Wednesday evening, Malia Bouattia, president-elect of the NUS and leader of the Students Not Suspects campaign group, warned that Prevent, a strategy designed by the UK government to tackle "extremism," was having a damaging effect on communities and penalising thought rather than crime.
“Prevent is not guided by intelligence or statistical evidence or criminal behaviour,” she told the audience.
“It’s a programme that’s designed to criminalise thought processes assumed to lead to criminal activities down the line.”
Numerous senior political and community figures have in recent months voiced concerns over the Prevent strategy, calling for it to be reformed or abolished over concerns it was having an adverse effect on Muslim communities, sowing mistrust and suspicion rather than building cohesion.
Last week, Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham called for Prevent to be abolished, saying that the brand had become "toxic" and that it sowed "mutual suspicion and distrust".
"Far from tackling extremism, it risks creating the very conditions for it to flourish," he said in a speech to the Chamber of Commerce in Manchester.
Bouattia lauded Burnham's statement, but said his words did not go far enough.
She said Prevent is “not just toxic, it’s corrosive”, and called for a rethink of the “whole philosophy of securitisation and surveillance, ushered in by the war on terror”.
“Better PR tweaks and reforms are not enough,” she said, adding that Prevent and its entire ethos should be "uprooted".
Numerous institutions have criticised the Prevent programme, including the University and Colleges Union and the National Union of Teachers (NUT).
The NUT in March passed a motion calling for the Prevent strategy - which requires teachers to observe and monitor pupils deemed at risk of being drawn to "extremism" - to be abolished in schools, saying it sowed “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom”.
Others, however, have cited the fact that about 800 British citizens have travelled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State (IS) group - half of whom have returned - as proof that a comprehensive ideological and social strategy to counter both violent and non-violent "extremism" is necessary.
Simon Cole, National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on Prevent, also speaking at UCL, said he thought Prevent was being unfairly penalised and that exceptions were being portrayed as the rule for the overall programme.
“I’m intrigued at the level of concern and anger that Prevent can attract, sometimes about things that strictly aren’t Prevent,” he said, referring to other government counter-terrorism policies that were often confused with the Prevent strategy.
He said that ultimately, despite all the criticism, the Prevent programme was “about protecting individuals at risk of harm to their families, to themselves, to others”.
He added, however, that police need to “be more transparent about what we do”.
Last month, the government announced plans for a new counter-extremism bill, which if passed, would allow for groups and individuals deemed to be extremists to be banned or silenced.
In the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act last year, it also introduced a statutory Prevent duty for teachers, doctors and other public-sector workers, requiring them to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.
Since then, the number of young people referred to the Prevent-linked Channel counter-radicalisation programme has surged, with almost 4,000 referrals logged in 2015, compared with 1,681 in 2014.
Additional reporting by Simon Hooper