The Behavioural Insights Team is based in a red-brick mansion block a few streets from Downing Street.
You have probably never heard of them. The unit was once part of the Cabinet Office, however, and is now a global consultancy which works closely with governments, public bodies, businesses and other organisations around the world.
In 2018, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) — headed by Professor David Halpern, a former chief analyst at No 10 — produced a report, commissioned by the Home Office, to evaluate the effectiveness of deradicalisation programmes introduced in the wake of 9/11.
Among these was the multi-million-pound flagship Prevent scheme.
This is the programme, it has been widely reported, that Ali Harbi Ali, 25, who has been charged with the murder of MP Sir David Amess, was referred to when he was 17, although he is not understood to have been placed on the part of it (Channel) for those deemed most at risk of radicalisation.
A police officer cradles a traumatised girl huddled in a police jacket after the Manchester Arena terrorist attack in 2017
The findings in the unpublished report — by researchers from BIT — was damning. In short, they concluded that a culture of political correctness has stopped Prevent carrying out the very work it was created to do, in many of the grassroots projects they scrutinised.
They do not actually use the words ‘political correctness’ but you cannot read their findings and come to any other conclusion.
Staggeringly, more than 95 per cent of the 33 projects aimed at vulnerable individuals in schools, youth centres and sports clubs (most were believed to be funded by or fell under the label of Prevent) were ineffective, the study found.
Under the current system, public officials have a statutory duty to report anyone showing radical tendencies, such as the expression of anti-Western sentiments. Those who are flagged are then screened by local authority panels, made up of community representatives such as teachers, NHS workers and the police. The most serious cases receive mentoring or are brought to the attention of the security services for further assessment.
It sounds convincing in press releases and information packs pumped out by Whitehall.
But the Behavioural Insights Team found programmes had been let down by ‘facilitators who were uncomfortable dealing with sensitive topics and would often refuse to engage if they were brought up’ . . . teachers who were ‘afraid to bring up race or religion with their students’ for fear of appearing discriminatory . . . and reported success rates of 90 per cent which were ‘not believable’ and not backed up by a ‘sufficiently robust standard of evidence’.
These were the words of Dr Antonio Silva, a senior adviser with BIT who conducted the research with colleague Simon Ruda. And, remember, this was Home Office data he was talking about.
In fact, the officials themselves, they discovered, were evaluating the impact of their own projects — which is ‘likely to have affected the accuracy of their findings’.
The Home Office says that the Behavioural Insights Team did not analyse Channel cases or referrals.
But the work done by Prevent in schools and clubs around the country — precisely the kind of initiatives studied by BIT — are a vital part of the Prevent programme.
Silva and Ruda presented their findings to the Society of Evidence Based Policing conference at the time. The findings were reported in the trade publication Police Professional in 2018.
‘The headline results may seem disappointing but the good news is we now know what doesn’t work and have identified a few things that do,’ Simon Ruda told the audience.
‘I hope those who commissioned the study [the Home Office] will be commended for breaking the mould and that the insights we’ve learned are shared widely.’
In fact, the Home Office has never released the report, which received little coverage outside the article in Police Professional. The Home Office says it ‘does not recognise’ the findings and insists Prevent is a success at steering participants away from the threat of radicalisation.
One of the people who attended the conference was Peter Neyroud, a former chief constable of Thames Valley Police.
He said he was shocked by the lack of openness when he spoke to us this week. ‘There needs to be transparency,’ said Dr Neyroud, who is studying deradicalisation programmes on behalf of the so called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.S. and the UK.
‘If you cannot publish the data — an explanation of what you are doing and the outcomes you are getting — it does not encourage people to get involved in it.’
Now a review into the Prevent strategy conducted by William Shawcross, due to be presented to Home Secretary Priti Patel shortly, is expected to recommend that counter-terrorism police are given a much greater say on whether people at risk of radicalisation are placed on anti-extremist programmes, because they are likely to be less cautious about antagonising faith groups or intervening in cases involving people from ethnic minorities.
This was precisely the flaw highlighted by Silva and Ruda in 2018.
At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that the sheer number of referrals to Prevent — 6,287 in the year to March 2020 — is daunting.
Ministers insist it is important not to judge the programme by the failure to stop every attack.
‘Ultimately, no strategy can be watertight,’ said a source in counter-extremism. ‘It is very difficult for Prevent to identify someone who has not come to the notice of statutory agencies [such as the police].’
Nevertheless, it would be hard to argue against the fact that the failings highlighted by the Behavioural Insights Team, precipitated by a culture of political correctness that seems to influence so much of modern life, make it much less likely that individuals like this are ever even picked up in the first place.
Three-quarters of offenders in prison for terror-related crimes and the vast majority of suspects on MI5’s terror watchlist are Islamist extremists.
Even so, they represent just 22 per cent of all Prevent referrals and 30 per cent of Channel cases (who receive ideological mentoring). By comparison, far-Right extremists make up 24 per cent of Prevent referrals and 43 per cent of Channel cases, even though they make up a much smaller proportion of the threat to national security.
The head of MI5, Ken McCallum revealed in July that a ‘growing number’ of terror plots were planned by Right-wing terrorists, with ten of the 29 plots disrupted in the past four years attributed to them. Teenagers as young as 13, he said, are now being drawn into extremist activity.
But Mr McCallum stressed that Islamist terrorism remains our largest threat. ‘It is still the case that tens of thousands of individuals are committed to this ideology,’ he said. ‘We must continually scan for the smaller number within that group who, at any given moment, might be mobilising towards attacks.’
Armed officers pictured approaching Sudesh Amman (not pictured) as he lays prone in front of the entrance to Boots on Streatham High Street
The Henry Jackson Society, a leading counter-terrorism think-tank, says this is because the Home Office has allowed its work to be swayed by false allegations of ‘Islamophobia’.
The treatment of Lord Carlile QC, many believe, epitomises this.
Lord Carlile was the person originally chosen to carry out the review into Prevent currently being undertaken by William Shawcross, following claims by civil liberties and human rights organisations that it fostered discrimination against Muslims, something the Government has always denied.
As the independent reviewer of terrorism from 2001 until 2011, Lord Carlile was well qualified for the job.
But a group called Rights Watch UK (now Rights and Security International) objected to his appointment and took legal action against the Home Office. It was argued his support for Prevent, at least in principle, made him unsuitable for the position, because Prevent had become a toxic brand for many Muslims, with many viewing it as state-sponsored spying.
The Home Office did not contest the legal challenge. In December 2019, Lord Carlile stood down.
He was succeeded by Mr Shawcross, a former chairman of the Charity Commission, whose appointment sparked a boycott by 17 campaign groups earlier this year because, it was claimed, he held ‘hostile views’ on Islam.
The boycott was supported by two Muslim groups, Cage and Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend). In 2015, Cage described the Islamic State executioner Mohammed Emwazi — nicknamed ‘Jihadi John’ — as a ‘beautiful young man’.
Mend, which insists it is a ‘not-for-profit company that helps to empower and encourage British Muslims within local communities’, has been described by the Muslim Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani, ‘as a self-appointed sectarian agitator group’.
The Shawcross review is expected to say Prevent is ineffective in some parts of the country because local authorities are involving Muslim groups that oppose the programme in the process of deciding whether individuals need to be deradicalised.
There was an unconfirmed report in the Times this week that Mend is one such group; Mend did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s not the only concern.
The money spent on many grassroots Prevent projects is also hard to justify in the eyes of some critics.
In the past, thousands of pounds have been spent in grants on initiatives such as a ‘multicultural food festival’, camping equipment for scouts, a ‘kickball’ five-a-side tournament, and rap workshops.
The Home Office says it does not give out any details about Prevent spending, not even its annual budget (believed to be at least £46 million).
Our inquiries, however, have established that in the West Midlands alone, The Play House charity, which is linked to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, has received substantial Prevent funding in the past decade (in the region of £248,000 between 2012 and 2019) to put on shows in schools and colleges. One show, a touring production of a play called Tapestry, has been designated a ‘model of best practice’ by the Home Office.
The charity explains why on its website: ‘Tapestry deals with radicalisation due to Right-wing, racist extremism as well as ISIS-inspired ideology and is very popular with schools as a means of opening dialogue about a very difficult and sensitive subject.’
Yet the Behavioural Insights Team found conflating different forms of extremism in the same ‘intervention programme’ was ineffective. The message should be adapted based on whether one is dealing with a religiously-based threat or far-Right extremism, for example.
In Birmingham — the charity’s heartland — one in ten convicted Islamist terrorists came from a tiny area of the city, according to an analysis of UK terrorism in 2017.
So some may question why ‘far-Right extremism’ is given equal weight to ‘Islamist extremism’ in the Tapestry play. The Home Office says councils are responsible for commissioning their own projects and ensuring their delivery.
According to former chief constable Dr Neyroud, a deradicalisation expert, there are dangers in diluting the message.
He warned that programmes need to be precisely tailored to tackle the mindset of participants. ‘It’s not an easy thing to do and it can grievously backfire, he said. Handled clumsily, it can serve to confirm “their” world view.’
No one would deny the far-Right needs to be closely watched. But surely more can be done to monitor the Islamist threat in line with what the statistics show.
But, in any case, there is an irony at the heart of Prevent in that individuals cannot be compelled to take part in it.
The shortcomings in this strategy were exposed in the case of 18-year-old Ahmed Hassan, the Parsons Green bomber. After he was convicted, Hassan’s former volunteer mentor, college lecturer Kayte Cable, revealed that lack of consent meant he had not properly engaged with the programme.
‘It is a matter of conscience for me that we learn from this terrible experience and do everything in our power to ensure that nothing like Parsons Green ever happens again,’ she told the BBC in 2018.
‘I absolutely understand the concerns that the public have when someone who has refused support and goes on to harm people,’ Prevent co-ordinator Will Baldet told the Mail. ‘But I would add that it is very unusual for people to refuse the offer of support.’
‘The safety of the UK is the Government’s number-one priority,’ a Home Office spokesman said. ‘Prevent is a vital tool for early intervention and safeguarding, and the police and security services work day and night to keep us safe from those who would do us harm.’
But is it fit for purpose? That is what the Shawcross review is going to find out, Home Secretary Priti Patel said this week.
But the Behavioural Insights Team went some way to answering that question three years ago.
n Additional reporting: Tim Stewart and Iram Ramzan.