Interventions into the radical right – We need to ask the right questions

Marsham Street (The Home Office), Westminster, London (2000-5) by Terry Farrell and Partners

The latest Home Office release of data on its counter terrorism Channel programme highlights the need for research on its efficacy in countering right wing extremism.

In late March 2018, Britain’s Home Office released its latest set of statistics on the Prevent Strategy and its associated Channel programme. These figures indicate there have been “improved” referrals to Prevent and an increase in radical-right cases.

Between April 2016 and March 2017 6,093 individuals were referred to Prevent. The number of people who went on to be discussed at the multi-agency Channel panel, which examines whether an intervention is necessary, has risen to 19%. This is interpreted as meaning “better quality referrals are being made”. The proportion of referrals going on to receive Channel support also increased slightly. Some highlights in the data release were as follows:

  • Of the 6,093 individuals referred, 3,704 (61%) were referred for concerns related to Islamist extremism and 968 (16%) were referred for concerns related to radical right extremism.
  • Of the 1,146 individuals discussed at a Channel panel, 271 were referred for radical right concerns (24%). This proportion increased for the 332 individuals who went on to receive Channel support (124; 37%), rising from a quarter in 2015/2016.
  • Of the 332 individuals subject to Channel intervention, 292 (88%) have left the process, while 40 (12%) are currently still receiving Channel support. Of the 292 individuals receiving Channel support in 2016/17 and have subsequently left the process, 231 (79%) left with no further terrorism-related concerns

My research has focussed on how the Prevent Strategy has been applied to radical right extremism since its explicit inclusion within the strategy, which directly resulted from the 2011 national review. Over the last four years, I have conducted eighty qualitative interviews with frontline practitioners in order to explore how the strategy has been applied in their local areas, with a particular focus on their experience of the English Defence League as the most evident and frequent manifestation of the radical right in Britain.

I found that, aside from the Channel programme, very little targeted work on the radical right has been undertaken; this is despite it being explicitly drawn out in the 2011 review. My findings in relation to Channel in particular were threefold:

1) There was clear evidence of individuals identified as drawn into radical right extremism being managed within Channel before 2011, with practitioners basing their decision-making upon risk and threat rather than the need to demonstrate parity of response to all forms of extremism. While it was acknowledged by practitioners that this was the reality of their work, they were aware that “the common perception is that Prevent has dealt solely with terrorism associated with Al-Qa’ida” (interview with Channel practitioner).

2) My data demonstrates that practitioners working in this area do believe that Channel is applicable to all forms of extremism. Despite its origins in addressing Islamist extremism, there was evidence that the programme was of equal utility in managing individuals vulnerable to radical right extremism. Practitioners emphasized that the vulnerability assessment framework and processes they used to work with those assessed as being vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism were not unique to one form of extremism.

3) However, some practitioners voiced concerns about radical right Channel referrals. Intervention providers, in particular, were of the view that there was very little understanding across frontline practitioners in the statutory services as to what radical right extremism actually was. In turn, this was leading to many “false flag” referrals.

Given that there has been very little in the way of independent research into the Channel programme, this latest release of data, on its own, actually raises more questions than answers. For instance, whereas the media always highlight the referral figures as indicative of the threat from terrorism, I believe that the focus should be less on the number of people referred to Channel and more on what is actually happening with individuals once they have been taken onto the programme.

Furthermore, we need to be much clearer on the measures of success in this area. The number of referrals is more a measure of how the Home Office is doing in terms of raising frontline practitioners’ awareness of the Channel programme. This is a piece of work that has increased in significance as part of the Prevent Duty to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” under the Counter Terrorism & Security Act 2015.

However, this is far from a measure of success of the Channel programme. For instance, the attrition rate between referral to acceptance at a Channel panel is around 1 in 5 (increasing from 14% to 19% between 2015 and 2016). This indicates that for every 5 individuals referred to the programme, one is discussed by the panel, and even then, they are not necessarily adopted as a case requiring intervention.

How does this attrition rate (i.e. from referral to discussion at panel to adoption for some form of intervention) compare across different forms of extremism? And how do these rates compare across different regions of England and Wales? We must also consider how this compares with other safeguarding processes. What does it look like when comparing attrition rates within gang interventions? And does this say something about the level of training frontline practitioners have in order to make quality referrals in the first place?

Furthermore, why is it that the figures vary so widely throughout the process? If we focus on those referrals of a radical right nature; they represent 16% of the overall referrals to Prevent, yet this increases to 24% at the Channel panel stage, and then increases again (37%) for those actually receiving Channel support. Further exploration is required to better understand these variances.

If we are to measure success we need sound, objective research into the 79% figure quoted above. What made interventions successful? Are there lessons for other intervention processes? Of these success stories, what was the breakdown across the different forms of extremism; that is, is the programme more successful in diverting individuals away from Islamist or radical right extremism, and if so, why?

And finally, what about the role of ideology? Of those referred to Channel, how many were found to be ideologically engaged? From my experience, I never managed a Channel referral who had just one vulnerability. On the whole, individuals exhibited a range of interconnecting and complex needs arising from mental ill health, drug or alcohol dependency, and domestic violence – to name but a few. An extremist ideology was present in some cases, but not all. Through my research intervention providers would tell me that they had been referred radical right individuals who had never heard of Mein Kampf, The Turner Diaries and had no clue what the so-called ‘Fourteen Words’ meant. But they were vulnerable in an array of other areas.

I would challenge the pre-eminence of ideology as being the measure of vulnerability as has become accepted wisdom in some quarters. This is certainly not the practitioner experience. Let us not forget the host of non-ideological factors which make people vulnerable. And these factors are not the preserve of counter terrorism efforts. How, for instance, do the vulnerability factors we associate with the Channel programme compare with those frameworks used in gang interventions?

If we also consider the wider context, it would be interesting to explore whether the impact of government-driven austerity measures on local youth service provision over the last eight years has led to more young people being referred into Channel – which is, in many areas, the only gig in town from a youth intervention perspective.

As is no doubt clear, my view is that the Channel programme is a fertile area for much needed research into its efficacy. Since the policy review we now have 7 years’ worth of data that can be analyzed to enhance the wider understanding of how Channel interventions work and how outcomes compare across different types of extremism. As of yet, this data has not been made publicly available for researchers to study. There are, of course, the very obvious data protection considerations around those individuals who are being managed through what is one of the more contentious areas of government policy. But these considerations are abundantly reconcilable with the objectives of sound research, undertaken through appropriate safeguards and oversight.

These regular releases of Channel data are a welcome first step towards transparency. But they are just that, a first step. There is a clear need for empirical research into the Channel programme. And let me be clear; this doesn’t come from a place of judgement, but from a desire to better understand what works within this programme, to form the basis of informed debate and challenge, to support and enhance the work of frontline practitioners managing risk, threat and vulnerability; and who knows, perhaps even make it more effective.

Dr Craig McCann is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR, and is Principal at Moonshot CVE, a boutique start-up specialising in countering violent extremism. See his profile here.

© Craig McCann. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).