New figures obtained by The Ferret show that just three people in Scotland have been identified as at risk of being “drawn into terrorism” in Scotland since 2011.
The three were referred into a process called “Prevent Professional Concerns” (PPC) which public authorities in Scotland are obliged to operate as part of the controversial UK-wide Prevent counter terrorism strategy.
Critics have seized on the figures and claim that they show front-line public sector workers have lost confidence in the Scottish counter-terror programme, but COSLA, Police Scotland and the Scottish Government deny this. Police Scotland say that the level of referrals into the Scottish PPC scheme is ‘proportionate.’
According to Police Scotland, when an individual is identified as being vulnerable to “radicalising influences” then “partner agencies will work together to provide support to reduce the risk of any crime being committed,” as part of the PPC process.
Public sector workers throughout Scotland, including teachers, NHS workers and university lecturers are obliged by Prevent rules to refer anyone they suspect may be vulnerable to extremist views to the police.
However, the policy has been criticised by human rights campaigners and teaching unions as Islamophobic and a threat to freedom of speech as well as legitimate political protest.
Of the three people so far referred to police, the youngest was just 14 years-old, a second person was aged between 14 and 16 while the eldest was 26.
Police Scotland also revealed that all three were said to be of a “White, Scottish” background.
Two of the three were Christian, with no religion being recorded for the third person. One lived in Inverness-shire, one in Dumfriesshire and the other lived in Fife.
The Ferret previously reported on the thousands of public sector workers who received training in the Prevent duty and the controversial training materials that have been used.
But despite training thousands of public sector workers, Police Scotland has not received a single Prevent referral, even internally, since October 2013. Of the three that have been officially confirmed, only one came from outwith the Police force.
The Scottish referral figures contrast strongly with figures from the deradicalisation programme in England and Wales, where it is called Channel.
There, nearly 4000 people were involved in deradicalisation programmes in 2015 alone, including 68 children under nine years of age. A further 4000 people had participated in the Channel programme in previous years.
Scottish officials insist that the Scottish PPC programme should not be compared to the Channel programme. They also reiterated their commitment to the Scottish version of the policy.
Critics of the Scottish scheme said that the low number of deradicalisation referrals in Scotland, compared with those in England, suggest that key public workers north of the border, including police officers and teachers, have little confidence in the Scots counter terror policy.
After learning of the low referral figures in Scotland, Ross Greer, the Scottish Greens’ education spokesperson, backed calls for the Prevent policy to be “dumped” entirely.
He said: “It’s reassuring to hear that teachers in Scotland have clearly decided not to victimise their pupils through the UK government’s racist, damaging ‘PREVENT’ program.
“Our school leaders face more and more demands on their workload, so it’s best to leave them to do the job they are paid to do – teach.
“Instead they are being asked to police classrooms and identify pupils for conduct deemed to be contrary to ‘British values’, a vague and sinister term, ripe for abuse and misrepresentation, as has happened down south.
“In other parts of the UK, Prevent has become a counterproductive, toxic brand which the government has constantly had to tweak and reform in the hope of gaining acceptability.
“In Scotland, the policy is now shown to be pointless, given the lack of referrals and prosecutions.
“Prevent needs to be dumped as a dangerous departure from the democratic values that it claims to be defending.”
In the Commons on Friday February 27, Conservative MP Lucy Allan will use a Private Members Bill to try to repeal the aspects of the Prevent strategy that apply to primary schools and nurseries throughout the UK. A move which UK human rights group, Liberty has backed.
The Educational Institute of Scotland passed a motion opposing the Prevent duty in schools in January 2016. Other unions, including the STUC and the University and College Union, have also adopted a critical stance towards the policy.
Richard Haley, Chair of Scotland Against Criminalising Communities, and a consistent critic of the counter terror policy said: “The information from the police suggests that PPC is currently hardly operational at all.”
Despite this, Haley warned that the low number of referrals in Scotland do not lessen the problems he sees in the scheme.
“This might be a welcome sign that the Scottish authorities are cautious about following in the footsteps of England’s failed Channel programme, on which PPC appears to be modelled,” Haley added.
“But Prevent training amongst staff in Scottish schools has only got under way in the last year.
“The training risks creating a damaging climate of suspicion, but it could be two or three years before its full effects become apparent, either through PPC referrals or through an increase in institutional racism.
“And the operation of Prevent in schools could lead to intelligence about the political views of students and their families being passed to police regardless of whether PPC referrals are made.
As well as training public sector workers, public agencies are known to have been supporting other types of work as part of the Prevent programme in Scotland.
The Ferret has learned that some teachers have been working in support of the scheme. At least 330 high school pupils have participated in a series of lessons that explore the issue of terrorism in South Lanarkshire.
The lessons, which ask pupils to consider the actions of William Wallace and the 9/11 attackers, among other historical figures, are described in the 2014/15 Lanarkshire Multi-Agency Counter Terrorism Annual Report as a “bespoke CT [Counter Terrorism] Security Module,” which addresses, “the importance of engagement with students as young as 12.”
The Scottish Government is known to spend around £137,000 per year on funding voluntary organisations in Scotland to carry out work as part of its Prevent strategy. However, it has refused to release details of which groups have been funded or what activity taxpayers have supported.
This kind of opacity has left the programme “blighted by confusion” according to Haley.
“It’s time for the Scottish Government to acknowledge that the Prevent strategy has no credibility and disengage from it.”
“Besides promoting a culture of Islamophobia and suspicion, Prevent is squandering resources in our cash-strapped public sector by directing them towards a process in which the police evidently have no confidence.”
Prevent on the internet
The Prevent counter terror policy also places other duties on public bodies in Scotland. One of them requires councils to consider, “whether IT equipment available to the general public should use filtering solutions that limit access to terrorist and extremist material.”
Research by The Ferret into the web filters used by councils in Scotland’s schools and libraries – to stop people from accessing extremist materials on the web – has found that no councils, of those who responded to our Freedom of Information requests, have made any formal assessment of whether they are working effectively or not.
More than £328,553 is spent each year by Scottish local authorities paying private firms to manage their web-filters.
The filters could be over-zealous and blocking access to websites that should be available, or ineffective and allowing people to see material which should be restricted.
The Ferret has established that at least four councils in Scotland use a product called Forcepoint to manage access to websites in schools and libraries. Forcepoint which is delivered by a division of Raytheon, an arms manufacturer whose weapons have been used in the Yemeni conflict by Saudi forces accused of human rights abuses.
Dr Ella Taylor-Smith, a lecturer at Napier University with research interests in online public participation said that the lack of council scrutiny of their private contractors was “worrying, without being surprising.”
“Scottish Councils seem to have a blind-spot about Internet and information technologies. These are at the core of council services, but privatised, at great expense, as somebody else’s problem.
“By outsourcing web filtering of school and library Internet access, with minimal oversight, councils are neglecting essential responsibilities to children, young people, and people without Internet access at home.”
And she added that the involvement of a firm linked to the arms trade in providing web-filtering services for public access internet services was an issue when there were so much “local talent” that councils could draw on.
“I’m particularly concerned about the choice of supplier and wonder if filtering extends to monitoring. I very much doubt if any of my local councillors will know,” she said.
Her concerns were echoed by Pam Cowburn, Communications Director at Open Rights Group. The Open Rights Group has tested other private sector web filters and found they often block legitimate websites as well as those that should be restricted.
“When it comes to identifying extremist content, filters are blunt tools that can perpetuate discrimination against students from certain backgrounds.
“It is questionable whether a school filter would actually deter a young person who wanted to access extremist material. Filters could instead be counterproductive, alienating some pupils, and confirming fears that they are being spied on. They could also discourage students from learning about and challenging different ideas and beliefs.
“If local authorities buy filters from private companies, it is vital that they assess their effectiveness, including how companies use the data they collect.”
If local authorities buy filters from private companies, it is vital that they assess their effectiveness, including how companies use the data they collect. Pam Cowburn, Open Rights Group
Ultimately, the Prevent guidance says that the UK Home Office will monitor whether local authorities are complying with their legal responsibilities under Prevent although if the Scottish Government has provided funding to a public body they will also monitor their implementation.
In response to critics, public authorities have insisted that they still have confidence in the Prevent policy, and the PPC deradicalisation process.
Both COSLA and the Scottish Government said that referral numbers to the Scottish PPC programme should not be compared with the Channel programme in England and Wales.
A COSLA spokesman told The Ferret: “The Scottish approach to Prevent is tailored to fit the unique context of our communities and public bodies in Scotland have been working well together to ensure a joined-up approach is taken that suits the specific challenges we face.
“Making a like-for-like comparison of PPC referrals – which differs to the Channel approach in the rest of the UK – is not a useful way to judge effectiveness and simply looking at the number of PPC referrals tells us nothing.
“PREVENT seeks to tackle all forms of terrorism and we have confidence in Scotland’s approach to the initiative.”
A Scottish Government spokesman also underlined the differences between the Scottish approach to the Prevent duty and that south of the border. They said: “The Prevent Professional Concerns process is separate to and distinct from the Channel process established in England and Wales. Numbers are not comparable and we do not see the number of referrals made as being indicative of success.
“The Scottish Government continues to work with partner agencies and communities to deliver Prevent and implement a balanced and proportionate approach to safeguarding vulnerable individuals from radicalisation. The approach taken in Scotland reflects the specific challenges faced by Scottish communities.
“The Scottish Government continue to engage with all specified authorities, including local authorities, to ensure they comply with Prevent and deliver on their responsibilities in order to safeguard vulnerable individuals.”
Police Scotland only released the PPC referral figures after being ordered to by the Scottish Information Commissioner. The Police finally supplied the information to The Ferret 14 months after our initial Freedom of Information request.
ACC Steve Johnson said on behalf of Police Scotland: “Police Scotland works in partnership to deliver the Prevent strategy in a proportionate manner which is tailored to the needs of our communities and which seeks to safeguard people who have been identified as being vulnerable to radicalisation.
“Prevent Professional Concerns is a case management process in which Police Scotland and partners can work together to provide such safeguarding to those where significant concerns have been raised and is different to the Channel programme.
“Police Scotland has confidence the Prevent Professional Concerns approach is an appropriate way in which partners can work together to provide suitable safeguarding measures and will continue to support this process.
“Monitoring compliance with the Prevent duty by other specified authorities in Scotland is not the responsibility of Police Scotland.”
Corrections: When first published this said that the Private Members Bill that would repeal the aspects of the Prevent Duty in Schools and Nurseries would only apply to England and Wales. It was amended five hours after publication to make it clear the proposed Bill would also apply to Scottish schools too.