As part of its anti-terrorism strategy, the government is currently consulting on Prevent, a document which outlines the intended duty of those working at every level of our education, health and prison services in preventing people from being drawn into terrorism.
We clearly need to address the issue of terrorism, why people espouse terrorist ideologies and why they act on that espousal. But is limiting the freedom of swathes of people the most effective way to promote a cohesive society built on strong communities? Is encouraging public sector workers to evaluate the ideologies of those children, young people and families that they serve the most effective way to nurture trust? Or will it create alienation, sectarianism and a bunker mentality in people who would like to go about their lives openly and peacefully, but who are forced into defensiveness through fear?
Don Horrocks, Head of Public Affairs at the Evangelical Alliance, has written in detail about the threat to freedom in our Universities, particularly with reference to the life of Christian groups on campus. Under the new mandate, all visiting speakers will have to allow sight of their presentation, including broadcast footage, at least 14 days before the visit (report sections 64-66). These rules will also apply to Further Education institutions (sections 88-90, 94-95).
The situation for schools, nurseries and child minders is a little different. The British values/SMSC/broad and balanced curriculum agenda that is already causing alarm forms a substantial part of the requirement (section 111). The document states that ‘schools should be safe spaces in which children and young people can understand and discuss sensitive topics including terrorism and the extremist ideas that are part of the terrorist ideology and learn how to challenge these ideas’ (section 106). But it will also require staff to intervene and report children at risk of being drawn into terrorism (section 113).
This raises some worrying issues. What effect will this have on the trust relationships that we build so carefully with our students and their families, if they feel they are being spied on? What climate will the fear that this engenders create in our classrooms? And how can sensitive topics be discussed in such a climate? The legislation will stifle the very open debate which it suggests that schools should facilitate.
But there are not only fundamental flaws in the content of this document, but in the thinking that informs it. There is an assumption that exposure to a dangerous idea creates a terrorist. But it clearly does not. Even exposure to extremist ideology in total does not, of itself, create terrorists. They are products of the much more complex set of cultural and personal views that inform their values: a government can neither legislate against hearts and minds nor win those hearts and minds for good through limiting the freedom of the rest of its society.
The consultation is open until midday on 30 January. However, the consultation process is itself flawed by bias. Questions assume agreement with the intended course of action and merely ask for more information to extend the reach of the strategy. In order to express any personal concern, you will need to contact your MP or write directly to the Home Office.
As we’ve seen with British values, poorly defined strategy allow for wide interpretation by monitoring authorities. Please respond to this consultation in order to protect not just the freedom of Christians, but also the essential freedoms on which our democracy is built.