Academics criticise anti-radicalisation strategy in open letter

Confidential research used by the government as the basis for identifying radicalisation in the controversial Prevent programme relies on flawed science, a group of academics has claimed.

The study, conducted by psychologists at the prison service, identified 22 “risk factors” for gauging whether individuals are vulnerable to engaging with terrorist groups or posing a security risk.

The risk factors, which have become known as the Extremism Risk Guidance 22+, form the basis for the “vulnerability assessment framework” carried out under Channel, a strand of the Prevent programme that aims to identify and engage with people believed to be at risk of radicalisation.

Referrals to Channel can come from teachers, social workers, healthcare workers and police. Last year, nearly 4,000 people were referred for assessment, including children younger than nine.

The exact contents of the study have been deemed classified by the government, and the Ministry of Justice has previously refused to release it when asked by the Guardian. An official claimed that releasing the details of the 22 risk factors would compromise the assessment.

The “Science of Pre-crime” report has prompted more than 140 academics and experts, including Noam Chomsky, to sign an open letter protesting against the lack of transparency and scrutiny of the science that underpins key aspects of the government’s domestic counter-terrorism strategy.

“We are concerned that tools that purport to have a psychology evidence base are being developed and placed under a statutory duty while their ‘science’ has not been subjected to proper scientific scrutiny or public critique,” they write.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists recently also raised concerns about the secrecy shrouding the evidence base for the risk assessment. “Public policy cannot be based on either no evidence or a lack of transparency about evidence,” the college wrote in a position statement. “The evidence underpinning the UK’s Extremism Risk Guidance 22+ and other data relating to this guidance, should be comprehensively published and readily accessible.”

David Miller, a sociology professor at the University of Bath, told the Guardian: “This is secret research, and we can’t interrogate what the process was that led to the material in the original report. It’s not academic research, it’s not social science – it’s an internal report and not in any way a sound basis for making any kind of policy.”

The Home Office said: “The guidance that is used was based on a peer-reviewed study, carried out to meticulous academic guidelines and published in two publicly available academic journals.

“It informed part of the process used by independent experts to assess a person’s vulnerability to being drawn into terrorism, and the support which would most benefit them to stop this happening.”