PREVENT: protecting the vulnerable?

Emily Cousens looks at what’s behind the language of ‘vulnerability’ in the government’s PREVENT strategy.

Photo via flickr cc jez s
Photo via flickr cc jez s

Spying and suspicion are now legally required as public sector workers are being trained to look for signs of vulnerability to radicalisation (such as a desire for adventure or political change) in those they work with. More and more of us are becoming required to do the detective work of the state as it appears that potential terrorists are all around. Identifiable, perhaps, by a change in style.

This is all part of the government’s PREVENT strategy, which this summer became a statutory duty for schools, prisons, local authorities and NHS trusts.

The term ‘Vulnerability’ is key to the PREVENT strategy which has the stated aim of identifying and addressing the ‘personal vulnerabilities’ that make ‘ideology’ (a term conflated throughout PREVENT policy with militant Islam, violence and terrorism) appealing. In fact, the term ‘vulnerability’ serves two sinister but mutually reinforcing purposes: the first is to shore up the government’s perception of their own invulnerability, and the second is to legitimize snooping and surveillance, of a particular group, on levels never seen before.

Why Vulnerability?

Vulnerability has been part of American foreign policy language since 9/11. In a collection of essays from 2004, the philosopher Judith Butler reflected on ‘the conditions of heightened vulnerability and aggression that followed from those events’. Butler considered what happened when the fragility of the United States’ invulnerable identity was exposed. She examined the way that the US responded to this ‘unbearable vulnerability’  by strengthening nationalist discourse, extending surveillance mechanisms, suspending constitutional rights and developing forms of explicit and implicit censorship.

The perceived threat of terror has generated anxieties about the UK’s own vulnerability with precisely the same effect on civil liberties. Paradoxically, it is through the labelling of individuals as ‘vulnerable’ that the government’s attacks on liberties are carried out. There is a dual function to the use of the term vulnerability in the PREVENT policy, with each element depending on the other.

The first is that it enables the UK government to present itself as strong in the face of the threat of a terror attack. By depicting those that they understand to be the potential agents of terror, as vulnerable, the UK’s own identity as invulnerable remains intact. Potential terrorists do not have the ability to render the UK vulnerable, as it is them who are in fact vulnerable themselves. It is for this reason that of the 85 appearances of the term ‘vulnerable’ in the PREVENT strategy document, it is only once, on p.102, that the term finally appears in the sense of the UK being vulnerable to a terror attack: ‘We are developing input and impact indicators across the whole of CONTEST [the government’s counter-terrorism strategy] that will help us assess the effect of what we do to reduce our vulnerability to terror attack’. Vulnerability is attributed to certain individuals to obscure the very vulnerability of the UK itself.

Vulnerability is tactically deployed then to make the government appear strong, while it enacts policies reflecting extreme weakness: the removal of civil liberties from an already marginalised group. Vulnerability in the PREVENT strategy is defined as follows:

‘Vulnerability describes the condition of being capable of being injured; difficult to defend; open, to moral or ideological attack. Within Prevent, the word describes factors and characteristics associated with being susceptible to radicalisation’.

For the government’s purposes, vulnerability and susceptibility to radicalisation are equated. What’s then implied is that the invulnerable UK government are tackling the causes of radicalisation. Radicalisation is a purely individual problem, a product of individual circumstances, so there is no requirement for critical self-reflection. History and foreign policy have no place in an individual’s pathology.

The second role of the term is to legitimize Islamophobic suspicion and censorship. Censorship occurs in the anti-terror legislation in the form of banning [Muslim] ‘hate preachers’ from speaking at universities and in public places. Islamophobic suspicion, which is at the heart of the PREVENT strategy, is licensed under the veil of support for the vulnerable.

The choice of the word vulnerability is particularly effective in enabling this erosion of civil liberties as it utilised in conjunction with ‘support’ (a word even more ubiquitous than vulnerability in the PREVENT policy document, occurring 213 times). The logic then, is that snooping and spying are not invasive, rather necessary and altruistic in order that the vulnerable may be offered support. This is linked to the cultural association of vulnerability with femininity, which is then used in a way that denies any agency to whoever is being spoken about. So snooping is not seen as an erosion of liberty, as the liberty was never there to be had in the first place.

In fact, in the context of war and conflict generally, the term vulnerable is regularly used in this way to evoke dependency and helplessness such that paternalistic protection is warranted. Just think of Cameron’s promise to take 20,000 of the most vulnerable refugees (read women and children) in response to the refugee crisis. What is happening in the case of PREVENT then, is a common, powerful strategy of feminizing certain populations in order to warrant paternalistic protection by the masculinized impermeable state.

Yet in this case it is being used to justify intervention beyond anything that we have seen before. Public sector workers, in particular those in Education and Health, are effectively required to spy on those they work with (colleagues as well as students and patients) and will be trained on how to identify those exhibiting ‘vulnerability to radicalisation’ in the Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent, WRAP. In these training sessions, PREVENT is introduced in a friendly, paternalistic manner, with child protection care and concern being emphasized. Who could be against such a supportive strategy? In fact, the vague content of these workshops, and their design to create a culture of suspicion around Muslims is highly pernicious.

Background to PREVENT

The government’s PREVENT strategy is one of the 4 strands of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST. It was first developed in early 2003 but was subject to significant revision in 2011 in response to its ineffectiveness.

Crucially, this year it has evolved from policy guidelines to legally enforceable under section 29 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. It is now law for Local Authorities, Schools, Further and Higher Education establishments, the Health Sector, Prisons and Probation and finally the Police, along with many NGOs and civil society bodies, to receive WRAP training and for workers to exercise ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. Those suspected to be vulnerable to radicalisation are referred to a ‘Channel co-ordinator’ (a police officer or local authority employee) for support. Subsequently a ‘Channel panel’, made up of all those nice fluffy public sector bodies (including the Border Force, Prison, Probation and frequently the police) will apply the ‘Vulnerability Assessment Framework’ in order to support this suspect. Relevant bodies will monitor and inspect these service providers in order to ensure compliance.

The Channel Guidance, which informs the WRAPs, helpfully tells us that:

‘Factors that may have a bearing on someone becoming vulnerable may include: peer pressure, influence from other people or via the internet, bullying, crime against them or their involvement in crime, anti-social behaviour, family tensions, race/hate crime, lack of self-esteem or identity and personal or political grievances’.

And in the appendix, the Framework is elaborated. Under ‘engagement’ factors, or ‘psychological hooks’ we have the following list:

‘Feelings of grievance and injustice; Feeling under threat; A need for identity, meaning and belonging; A desire for status; A desire for excitement and adventure; A need to dominate and control others; Susceptibility to indoctrination; A desire for political or moral change; Opportunistic involvement; Family or friends involvement in extremism; Being at a transitional time of life; Being influenced or controlled by a group; Relevant mental health issues.

Clearly this is so vague that almost anyone could exhibit vulnerability according to this framework. But beneath the whole document is the clear implication that ‘vulnerable’ actually refers to ‘vulnerable and Muslim’. Islam has long been presented in the media as opposed to British values and in this policy document ‘opposition to British values’ is the very definition of extremism itself. Essentially this amounts to a suspicion of all Muslims.

This vague but legally enforced, institutionalised suspicion of Muslims has meant that absurd referrals are becoming commonplace. Just a couple of weeks ago, a postgrad student of counter-terrorism was falsely accused of being a terrorist after an official at Staffordshire University had spotted him reading a textbook entitled Terrorism Studies in the college library. Another case involves a nine-year-old schoolboy in East London, who was referred to the authorities after allegedly showing signs of extremism. The charity CAGE has said that since October 2014 it has received almost 100 cases like this. And of the rapidly increasing 2653 referrals so far only 587 were actually assessed, meaning 78% of referrals did not need any assessment. PREVENT entails a climate of surveillance and suspicion around Muslims, by their peers and professionals. One that is enabled via the language of individual vulnerability and institutional support.

Pre-criminal context

Particularly concerning is that the opening to the PREVENT strategy states that it ‘operates in a pre-criminal space, providing support and redirection to vulnerable individuals at risk of being groomed into terrorist activity before any crimes are committed’. Yet this grants almost arbitrary power to the state to intervene in people’s lives as the normal post-crime role of the law is overturned. This dystopian sci-fi term produces a paradox in time whereby crimes that have not yet been committed become a foregone conclusion. It exemplifies how far the UK government is willing to go in emulating Judith Butler’s post 9/11 America:  a dramatic curtailment of civil liberties, due process and justice.

As the legal obligation to apply PREVENT takes hold across institutions throughout society, understanding the logic at work is vital if we are to understand the illiberal intentions that must be resisted. ‘Vulnerable to radicalisation’ is fast becoming taken for granted as a real individual process. In actuality it is something that has been constructed by the government both to hide their own vulnerability to terror attacks (and to prevent any critical self-reflection on their foreign policy) while enabling unprecedented levels of snooping on ‘those who oppose British values’. As the Charity CAGE makes clear, this culture of suspicion is reminiscent of McCarthyism in America and must be challenged.


The UCU union and the NUS are working together to prevent PREVENT. This month a #StudentsNotSuspects tour will be visiting campuses across England, Scotland and Wales.

There is a Preventing Prevent on Campuses facebook group so you can keep in touch. Also see the website, launched by the Network for Police Monitoring.

See also Lois JC’s article on Fighting the Prevent agenda, published in the Summer 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine.


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