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UK extremism screening for kids adapted from tests for convicted terrorists

Academics call for scrutiny of methodology behind Prevent strategy amid concerns that key radicalisation assessment tool is not evidence-based
David Cameron, the then-prime minister, visits a prison in February 2016. Tests now used to assess children's vulnerability to radicalisation were originally developed for use with convicted terrorists (AFP)

Academics have called on the UK government to reveal details of the methodology being used to test whether young children are at risk of being radicalised amid concerns that the “vulnerability assessment framework” embedded in the Prevent counter-extremism programme was developed for use with convicted terrorists.

In a letter published in the Guardian newspaper on Thursday, more than 400 academics said that assessment methods being taught to hundreds of thousands of public sector workers had “not been subjected to proper scientific scrutiny or public critique”.

The signatories included Marc Sageman, a former CIA operations officer who was once considered to have been one of the most influential thinkers in the development of radicalisation theories. Sageman subsequently wrote in 2013 that there was "no such thing" as radicalisation. 

Their concerns focused specifically on the Extremism Risk Guidance 22+ (ERG22+) framework, a methodology developed by the UK prison service, the National Offenders Management Service (NOMS), to “assess the risk and needs in convicted extremist offenders”.

According to a paper published last year by the two forensic psychologists who developed the ERG22+, the methodology subsequently formed the basis for the “vulnerability assessment framework” used within Channel, a counter-radicalisation programme aimed at young people, to assess individuals’ vulnerability to extremism.

Yet Monica Lloyd and Christopher Dean, the authors of the study in the Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, themselves acknowledged that the development of the methodology was not academically rigorous and that questions remained about its reliability and validity.

“The current lack of demonstrated reliability and validity remains the main limitation of the ERG at this time. It remains essentially a qualitative tool that requires a level of professional judgment and experience to be effectively used,” they wrote.

"The ERG requires assessors to have a level of political awareness in the area of extremism in question. Without regular use, which is difficult with relatively few extremist offenders, they have limited opportunity to gain this knowledge and maintain their expertise, such that political, cultural, and social context, together with protective factors, can potentially slip from the analysis.”

Concerns about Channel have been heightened because of growing numbers of referrals since the introduction of the Prevent Duty last year, which requires teachers and other public sector workers to have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.

Last year, almost 4,000 people, including children of primary school age, were referred to Channel, a three-fold increase on referrals in 2014. The Prevent Duty also requires nursery staff and childminders to monitor children as young as three.

Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers have also received Prevent training, but concerns have been raised about the quality of the training, some of which is being marketed to schools by private companies.

Earlier this month, MEE revealed how more than 20 courses had been rejected for inclusion in a Home Office Prevent training catalogue for reasons including “poor quality”.

MEE has also reported on how Prevent training is being extended beyond the public sector to other professions such as taxi drivers.

'Where to Guv, Raqqa?' UK taxi drivers get Prevent training

Concerns about the ERG22+ have already been flagged up to practitioners by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which said in a position statement this month that public policy could not be based on either no evidence or non-transparent evidence.

“The evidence underpinning the UK’s Extremism Risk Guidance 22+ and other data relating to this guidance should be comprehensively published and readily accessible,” it said. The paper warned that current tools and methodologies should be viewed with considerable caution.

According to the paper by Lloyd and Dean, the ERG22+ is a “conceptual framework has been shared across law enforcement and correctional agencies to provide a common approach to identifying, managing, and addressing extremism, and it has also informed approaches in the community with those in the ‘precriminal space’.”

'Us and them thinking'

The framework breaks down 22 factors which are suggested to be markers of possible radicalisation into three lists titled Engagement, Intent and Capability. Engagement factors include the “need to redress injustice and express grievance”, the “need for excitement, comradeship or adventure”, and “mental health”.

Intent factors include “us and them thinking” and “attitudes that justify offending”, while capability factors include “individual knowledge, skills and competencies” and “criminal history”.

'This is seemingly a cause for concern, as the field of psychology has strict ethical rules about the way in which its science is developed'
- Cage report

In a report published on Thursday by Cage, a human rights campaign group, academics from fields including psychology, sociology and criminology concluded that the development of the ERG22+ had not been subjected to the “open process of scrutiny by the psychological community”.

“This is seemingly a cause for concern, as the field of psychology has strict ethical rules about the way in which its science is developed,” the report, titled "The ‘science’ of pre-crime: The secret ‘radicalisation’ study underpinning Prevent", said.

Lela Blackwood, a psychologist at the University of Bath and one of the reviewers involved in the report, said that the psychological community had a responsibility to ensure that the “psychological evidence-base informing government policy is fit for purpose”.

“Relationships of trust in our communities are being broken and individuals’ lives tragically affected by the misguided notion that armed with a list of factors we can predict who will embrace political violence,” she said.

'Lab rats' 

Ibrahim Mohamoud, a spokesperson for Cage, said that the adaptation of the ERG22+ tool for use outside of the prison system meant that members of communities affected by the Prevent Strategy were effectively being used as "lab rats". 

“Even the authors of the study recognise that the ERG22+ cannot be used as a predictive tool, but in the hands of the Home Office, the study, which took as its subjects prisoners convicted of terrorism charges, has been extended to predict the behaviour of individuals beyond a prison environment. Now, more than ever, Prevent as a policy needs to be scrapped,” Mohamoud said.

“Their claim in 2015 that the ERG22+ is still a “work in progress” is extremely disconcerting as the tool has real world consequences. Not only have children been removed from their families, but legal judgements have been made based on the ERG22+.”

“The fact that the government saw it fit to place on a statutory footing, a tool that has not been subject to sufficient scientific scrutiny, should be of grave concern not only to the psychology profession itself, but to the communities it targets, and the individuals who have subjected to being ‘lab rats’ in the government’s broader counter terrorism agenda.”

In comments to the Guardian, Lloyd said that the original study was not intended as an academic piece of work but rather as an internal report for practitioners that was “done to the highest standard it could be done”.

She said it still met the standards for publication in an academic journal and was based on “incontrovertible evidence”.

“This is the only evidence base that there is at the moment: it’s what has happened to those who are already in prison … it’s incontrovertible evidence for how people became engaged in extremism but then crossed the threshold [into violence],” she said.

In a statement, the Home Office said that the guidance being used within Channel was “based on a peer-reviewed study, carried out to meticulous academic guidelines and published in two publicly available academic journals.”

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