The UK government's ‘Prevent’ policy has put counter-terrorism on the agenda for social workers and health practitioners but what are the ethical implications for the services and the impact on the people they serve?
Since the London tube bombings in 2005, counter-terrorism policy in the UK has extended into many areas of daily life. Introduced in 2006, the UK government’s Prevent strategy has put staff in areas such as local government, health and education on the front lines of domestic security and even border control, making them responsible for identifying and reporting those they consider at risk from ‘radicalisation’.
The extension of counter-terrorism to the safeguarding of vulnerable individuals such as children is unique to Britain and the ethical dilemmas it poses for professionals who work with communities rendered suspect by Prevent are only beginning to be explored.
In 2016 a UN special rapporteur criticised Prevent on grounds that the government’s definition of domestic extremism was too broad, noting concerns about “the program being implemented in a way that translates simply into crude racial, ideological, cultural and religious profiling, with consequent effects on the right to freedom of association of some groups.” Muslim groups and charities including Amnesty International and the Muslim Council of Britain have raised concerns that the policy creates division and resentment.
Anxieties about terrorism can lead to a climate of fear in which vaguely defined ‘security risks’ can become pretexts for political repression, greater government intervention in daily life and even deprivation of the rights and protections afforded by citizenship. The introduction of pre-emptive ‘risk work’, analogous to duties performed by the security services, into health and social care settings may adversely impact communication between service users and professionals and deter help-seeking – especially in scenarios where children may be removed from their parents' care.
Researchers in health and social care have begun to assess the implementation of Prevent to ask whether Muslim groups are right to see the policy as discriminatory. Questions include the impact of pre-existing biases among professionals on referrals and over the validity of the ‘conveyor belt’ model of radicalisation – a key premise of the policy which places 'moderate' religious and political beliefs and behaviours on a continuum leading to 'extreme' beliefs and potentially violent acts.
On 22nd January 2019 the government announced an independent review of the Prevent strategy, raising the possibility that the policy may be reformed. However, security minister Ben Wallace has sounded a defensive note, demanding "solid evidence" that Prevent is in fact discriminatory and accusing the policy’s critics of using "distortion and spin" to raise concerns over its effects.
In such a highly contested and politicised area, concerns about national security are sometimes invoked in a way that shuts down debate. Is it possible for health and social care professionals to stand in solidarity with service users who feel victimised in this climate? Given that Prevent remains a statutory duty as part of safeguarding, how can professionals think through the ethical and professional dilemmas it raises when working with families from communities that feel unfairly targeted? Even if the policy ends, what can we learn from the issues and debates prompted by its implementation?
If you are a health or social care professional interested in knowing more, come to the joint BASW (British Association of Social Workers) London and MedAct event on Thursday 21st March. Advocacy groups, social workers and academics will present some of their findings on the above topics and MedAct will facilitate a discussion and workshop: