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Martin Esom: Changes to Prevent were not well executed

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Prevent has failed to adapt to changing circumstances and the funding model is “broken”, the former chair of the multi-agency panel dedicated to the programme in London has said.

Martin esom 3

Martin esom 3

Waltham Forest chief executive Martin Esom says recent changes to Prevent have not been well executed

Waltham Forest LBC chief executive Martin Esom, who stepped down as chair of the London Prevent Board in December, told LGC he welcomed the forthcoming independent review of the programme but warned it must be led by someone with an understanding of its safeguarding value rather than simply focusing on extremist ideology and high-risk individuals.

Mr Esom said the Prevent aspect in the third update of Contest, the government’s counter terrorism strategy, in June last year was “badly executed” as it introduced more of a “pursue approach”. He said this was out of step with the focus of councils on early intervention with those vulnerable to radicalisation.

He added councils were left “playing catch-up” by changes to the strategy which created an expectation of “going after people”, with individuals required to participate rather than volunteer, as had previously been the case.

Mr Esom said: “Suddenly Contest 3 changed to more of pursue approach where you are forcing people into [the programme] - local authorities taking a bit more of an aggressive stance in terms of going after individuals.

“That change was not well executed.”

He added the government’s shift in approach created difficulties for councils regarding their relationship with communities as they were required to manage a significant shift towards targeting those deemed a high risk, rather than working more broadly to identify and react to the circumstances that lead individuals to become vulnerable to radicalisation.

“Local authorities were suddenly on catch-up,” Mr Esom said. “We had to rationalise [the new approach] with our local community.

“What we can’t do is suddenly change our activity from when it was completely voluntary and suddenly it’s not. We had to have that dialogue on why it has changed. That was the problem.”

The Prevent programme has faced long-term criticism, with campaigners claiming it unfairly targets Muslims and the threshold for intervention is set too low, creating a sense of persecution in some communities.

The Home Office announced an independent review of the programme in January. Security minister Ben Wallace said “the time is now right” for a review but he insisted Prevent was “not about singling out any particular group or ideology but is similar to other forms of safeguarding, carried out every day by social workers, teachers and police”.

“If they focus on extremist ideology, they miss the point and they will have the same problems that they have currently.”

“This review should expect those critics of Prevent, who often use distortions and spin, to produce solid evidence of their allegations,” he added.

“I think it needed a review, Mr Esom said. “There were just too many issues that were cropping up with it and too much criticism.”

But he said whoever leads the review must not focus too heavily on ideology and appreciate the wider work with vulnerable individuals.

“What it is about is safeguarding, early help, mental illness, domestic violence, so it is about really understanding the nature of the threat today,” he added.

“We have moved into a situation where [terrorism] is not organised any more. It is normally lone actors that get radicalised because of their background, because of their condition, because of their isolation.

“For me it is about getting a reviewer that really gets that sort of dimension rather than a security services type reviewer. If they focus on extremist ideology, they miss the point and they will have the same problems that they have currently.”

Mr Esom said the current funding model for the programme, which channels resources into some councils deemed to be dealing with people at high risk of being radicalised, does not account for the broader nature of the potential threat.

“I have always talked about the problem of having priority and non-priority boroughs in London based on some formula… [which means] certain local authorities get money and they don’t give other local authorities money.

“How can one borough be risky and the next borough not considering the dynamic flow in London? I’ve always said that is a nonsense. It would good for the reviewer to look at how this activity is supported because I believe the funding model is completely broken – it does not work.”

He added funding should be distributed based on larger footprints and councils should be freed up to devise strategies based on their understanding of local needs.

Mr Esom also warned the programme must adapt to changing circumstances.

He added: “It shouldn’t be the traditional approaches we used six years ago because the threat is different… it must be local solutions.

“If you to look at the risk today, you would be doing less of the traditional Prevent thing and you would be looking at mental health, domestic violence and breaking isolation – moving it completely back to supporting early help to individuals, spotting those that are vulnerable and then applying the support they need to make sure they are safe and then the rest of the community is safe.”

In January this year, the government said 1,200 people vulnerable to extremism had been successfully supported through Prevent which began in 2006.

Of the 294 people who received support in 2017-18, 45% were referred due to concerns about Islamist extremism and 44% over right-wing extremism.

Mr Esom said the threat assessment which focused Prevent activities “was awful five years ago” and a lot of work has taken place in London to improve the quality of assessments and highlight key indicators.

He said responsibility for oversight of approaches to the far-right threat had now been given to the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, which works closely with MI5, and the threat assessment had now improved.

Waltham Forest is one of the pilot areas for Prevent’s multi-agency centre, which involves different models being tested for the approach to people who have previously been the subject of national security investigations.

But Mr Esom said more work needs to be done to improve intelligence sharing with councils, describing it as currently “very lumpy”.

“I think it is a cultural thing,” he said. Security services have a culture of protecting the integrity of their sources and you have got a local authority that is used to sharing as much information as possible so there are two cultures operating.”

Martin Esom CV

  • Chief executive Waltham Forest LBC 2010 - present
  • Deputy chief executive and director of environment, Richmond upon Thames LBC 2001-06
  • Chair, London Prevent Board 2012-18
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