The government’s anti-terrorism Prevent strategy has been criticised by council chiefs operating in areas where residents are deemed most at risk of being lured into terrorist activity.
The criticisms were levelled at the government plan at the Local Government Association conference on Wednesday – the day authorities became legally obliged to follow it.
Since 1 July authorities must have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” under section 26 of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015.
This has become known as the Prevent duty, after the element of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy which aims to stop people turning to terrorism.
Speaking at a session at the Local Government Association conference this week, Robin Tuddenham, director of communities and service support at Calderdale MBC, said individuals were being attracted to terrorist activity more quickly.
He told delegates an individual’s “journey” towards terrorist activity could be entirely hidden, taking place via the internet without any interaction with people in the area.
Mr Tuddenham added that this meant there was a need for new approaches.
“Central government needs to recognise that innovation around this is going to come from the community and this isn’t always local authorities,” he said.
He also said that the security agencies MI5 and MI6 had to trust local authorities more and share information at an earlier stage now that councils had a statutory responsibility.
Sarah Morgan, chief executive of Dudley MBC, told the conference she was concerned that Prevent was “very prescribed”.
It did not allow for local approaches that took account of differences between communities.
“In my experience the Home Office approach to Prevent wasn’t encouraging that approach to innovation,” she said.
The duty applies to councils and other specified public authorities, including schools, childcare providers, NHS trusts and foundation trusts, the police and prisons services.
Guidance published by the government describes local authorities as “vital” to the work due to their “wide ranging responsibilities and democratic accountability”.
It says local authorities should use counter terrorism profiles published by the police to assess the risk of individuals being drawn into violent or non-violent extremism.
However, Mr Tuddenham described these as “pretty worthless” in offering support to local authorities.
“Most of it you can find out through an internet search in half an hour and it doesn’t really reflect the voice of the community that you’re working with,” he said.
However, he said one positive aspect of the duty was that local authorities and other agencies would have to raise awareness within their workforces, which amounted to about four million people in total.
“It’s encouraging to think about the public sector workforce understanding this agenda. The more people that know a bit about this agenda in our workforce the better.”
Mark Rusling (Lab), lead member for children and young people at Waltham Forest LBC, said the Muslim community in his borough was “sceptical” of the Prevent strategy and he criticised the government for failing to provide funding to deliver it.
“Yet again with this government we are having a new duty put on to us which is completely unfunded.
“For a place like Waltham Forest that might be OK because we have been dealing with this for a long time but for places having to deal with this afresh it will be difficult.”
The Prevent strategy was launched in the wake of the 2005 London bombings. A new burden assessment of the impact of the new duty found it would not place a significant additional burden on local authorities but areas which had not previously been deemed a priority will be given £10,000 start-up funding by the Home Office.
Security Minister John Hayes said local authorities were “key partners” in delivering the Prevent strategy.
He said: “Through them we have delivered over 180 community-based Prevent projects since 2011, and last year we supported over 70 community projects in which we worked with almost 40,000 people.
“Each one of these projects was designed, developed and delivered by community organisations, working in partnership with local authorities. I am confident in the skill and determination of local authorities to safeguard their communities and preserve our shared values.”
*This story was updated at 9am on Monday 6 July to include a comment from the Home Office.