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UK radicalisation hotline urges parents to monitor 'disrespectful' kids

Government-backed charity says children with low self-esteem or who ask inappropriate questions may be at risk of radicalisation
Mural by graffiti artist Banksy painted on wall of primary school in Bristol (AFP)

Children who are “disrespectful” or “ask inappropriate questions” may be at risk of being “groomed for extremist purposes”, a leading UK charity warned on Wednesday as it launched a government-backed radicalisation hotline for concerned parents.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) said the hotline will be the independent “national point of support” for parents concerned that their children are being radicalised.

The initiative has been launched with financial backing from the Home Office, which also provided training to enable counsellors working on the service to “spot the warning signs of radicalisation”.

The Home Office told Middle East Eye that the charity had been the “stand out choice for this support because of its extensive experience and strong reputation in providing support to young people and adults at risk”.

It said it had provided £190,000 ($250,000) of funding to the NSPCC to run the helpline and had provided “expert Home Office training”, but would have no operational involvement.

All calls will be confidential, it said, “unless a child was thought to be at significant risk of harm”.

"We have seen all too tragically the devastating impact radicalisation and terrorism can have on individuals, families and communities,” said Ben Wallace, the UK’s security minister.

"We would encourage anybody who is worried that they or somebody else may be vulnerable to radicalisation to call the NSPCC and seek their completely confidential advice.”

According to the NSPCC, indicators that a child is being radicalised could include “isolating themselves from friends and family", “talking as if from a scripted speech”, “increased levels of anger”, and “becoming disrespectful and asking inappropriate questions”.

“However, these signs don’t necessarily mean a child is being radicalised – it may be normal teenage behaviour or a sign that something else is wrong,” it said on its website.

“Children who are at risk of radicalisation may have low self-esteem, be members of gangs or a victim of bullying or discrimination. Radicals might target them and tell them they can be part of something special. And may brainwash them into cutting themselves off from their friends and family.”

Peter Wanless, the NSPCC’s chief executive, said: “We have seen a wave of terrorist attacks in recent weeks and months and both parents and children tell us how frightened they are by what is happening. So it is vital that we are here for parents when they need our support and are able to provide them with non-judgemental advice on issues ranging from the wider terrorist threat to the dangers of radicalisation.”

“Of course, the fact that a young person might hold extreme or radical views is not a safeguarding issue in itself. But when young people are groomed for extremist purposes and encouraged to commit acts that could hurt themselves or others, then it becomes abuse. That’s why we’ve trained our counsellors to cope with this fresh danger to young people.”

The launch of the scheme comes amid criticism of the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy and Channel counter-radicalisation programme, which critics say are based on flawed theories of radicalisation suggesting that potential terrorists can be identified from “early warning signs” and are discriminatory against Muslims.

Last week, a report by parliament’s human rights committee said that the “elevator theory” influencing government was unproven, and called for policy to be “evidence-based”.

The extension of Prevent into schools and child-care settings, which has seen a surge in the number of children referred to Channel, has also attracted the attention of international human rights watchdogs and campaigners, with a report earlier this month suggesting that government counter-extremism policy was violating children’s human rights.

Proponents of Prevent and Channel argue that they are an effective means of intervention that is providing support to vulnerable individuals at a “pre-crime” stage.

In April, Simon Coles, the national police lead on Prevent, said the strategy was “making a difference every day to the lives of vulnerable youngsters in towns and cities across the country”.

"Prevent is voicing the concerns of people of good conscience. It is stopping people being criminalised, it is safeguarding the vulnerable. It is making us all safer, in a proportionate, thoughtful fashion,” Cole said.

On Wednesday, William Baldet, a Prevent coordinator in Leicester, suggested on Twitter that Tuesday’s church attack in France would not have happened in the UK because the teenaged assailant would have been “supported by Channel”.

Last week, the government also announced plans to launch a "mandatory deradicalisation" programme for individuals requiring "intensive support".

Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims are Coming! and a researcher on the impact of counter-terrorism policy on Muslim communities, said that one of the consequences of Prevent had been to "squeeze the space for independent civil society organisations".

"Charities like the NSPCC should not allow themselves to be drawn into participating in government programmes that have been exposed as discriminatory," Kundnani told MEE. "The role of the NSPCC should be to advocate for children's rights, not be complicit with those who violate them."

Kundnani also said that Baldet's claim was "opportunistic" and said that a lack of transparency concerning the programme made it impossible to evaluate whether it had been successful in preventing attacks.

"Channel might have prevented terrorist attacks or it might not have. We don’t know because the government does not allow independent evaluation of the programme and has not published its own internal evaluations. What we do know is that the radicalisation theories upon which Channel is based have been discredited by academic experts. Given all this, it seems opportunistic to use the violence in France to seek to justify the Channel programme."

Paul Thomas, a professor at the University of Huddersfield researching the impact of Prevent, told MEE that the launch of the hotline was a potentially helpful move, but said time would tell whether it would prove successful.

He said that research conducted in Australia suggested that people were unwilling to report family or friends about whom they may have concerns to the police.

“It’s good that it is not a police-led initiative,” said Thomas.

“It’s a talking space for parents to express concerns and it may be that parents or family members who don’t feel willing to walk into a police station or call the police may be willing to speak to a third sector organisation.

“It might be that we need to develop more community based organisations who can deal with concerns. There’s not much evidence on this and we badly need to know more about it.”

But he conceded that encouraging parents to look out for vague warning signs could potentially backfire.

“If you go ahead and flag up a family member it is a traumatic process. The trouble with a helpline is does a worried or panicky parent look at that list and think [their child] fits that? But you’d hope they would think about that person close to them before they ring. They may just be the worried well and wanting to talk things through."

Yasmine Ahmed, of Rights Watch (UK), said it was right for the government to put in place appropriate processes to safeguard children, but called on the government to clarify how information gathered via the hotline would be used and shared.

“While it is acknowledged that there are children who may be drawn into and exposed to terrorist violence and it is only right and proper for the government to put in place appropriate processes and safeguards to deal with this issue, it is necessary for the government and the NSPCC, who are being funded and trained by the Home Office, to clarify the data retention policy that will regulate the way that information gathered about children from the hotline will be used and shared,” Ahmed said.

“If the community and parents are to engage with this service without concern it is essential that this clarity is provided.”

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