Detective Superintendent Nik Adams, regional coordinator for Prevent, said recent cases where a young boy was apparently reported for misspelling the phrase ‘terraced house’ as ‘terrorist house’, “couldn’t be further from the reality”.
And he said that some community leaders are reluctant to support his team’s work “in a very vocal way” because of the hostility they would face locally and negative perceptions of the controversial scheme.
Last year, members of the National Union of Teachers voted for a motion calling for Prevent to be scrapped over concerns that it causes “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom”, while the Home Affairs Select Committee described it as “toxic” and discriminatory towards Muslims.
Det Supt Adams said: “In my experience, the people we work with in communities will quite often openly support what we are doing, will work with us and support us, but because of the challenges they face within the communities, will not be willing to do that in a very vocal way.
“So you won’t hear them shouting from the rooftops, ‘actually Prevent does work’. The history of Prevent and some of the public perception of Prevent is such that people will not vocally support it.
“There are groups and organisations that are interested in making Prevent fail and they are groups on the full spectrum of extremist groups who will try and make sure that Prevent fails so they can further push their extremist agenda.”
He added that most cases where people were referred to Prevent were as a result of someone having an ‘overwhelming concern’ about their wellbeing.
Two cases where children were referred to Prevent after allegedly being misunderstood over the language they had used made headlines last year.
In one case, it was claimed a spelling error led to a 10-year-old Muslim boy, who wrote he lived in a “terrorist house”, being spoken to by police. The family of the pupil claimed he meant he lived in a “terraced house”.
A few weeks later, it was suggested that a nursery suggested referring a four-year-old boy to Prevent’s de-radicalisation programme Channel after he mispronounced the word “cucumber”.
Concerns were raised after the youngster drew a picture of a man cutting the vegetable, and it was reported that staff told the child’s mother they believed he was saying “cooker bomb” instead of “cucumber”.
Describing the Lancashire case, Det Supt Adams said there was “an absolutely genuine safeguarding concern” for the child because of fears of domestic violence.
He said counter-terrorism officials assessed the case and passed it back to police safeguarding officers after deciding there were no radicalisation concerns to be dealt with.
He said: “That child was visited, I believe there was a meeting at school for parents and police officers, but that was a local district safeguarding officer and a social worker, but it was billed as ‘counter terrorism unit have come and visited’ because a Prevent referral was made.
“We haven’t got the time or resources, or indeed the interest, in policing innocent mistakes people might make in terms of their use of language, misinterpretations in terms of what people may or may not have said and what we want to do is get to where the real risks are, the real vulnerabilities.”
Huddersfield University academics are carrying out a research project in West Yorkshire, Manchester and London into why people may or may not report concerns about people they know to the authorities.
Professor Paul Thomas of Huddersfield University, an expert on the Prevent strategy who is involved in the scheme, said: “The original version of Prevent created a lot of distrust, even though it has changed quite a lot it has been hard for them to get out from under that.
“They have now widened it, the far-right quotient has grown steadily and it now more accurately reflects that.
“They are still struggling with that and I don’t think they have helped themselves with their unwillingness to share information. There are lots of examples of a lack of transparency.”