Five years ago at one of the first meetings of our Prevent Advisory Group (PAG) I was suspected of being a spy for M15. Anxiety about Prevent - the Government's counter-radicalisation programme - ran so high that PAG representatives of local Mosques and Muslim community groups asked me to close my laptop in case I was using it as a recording device.
The PAG was set up to advise the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea on the local implementation of Prevent. The Group's purpose is to help to ensure that families, communities, civil society and faith groups are at the forefront in safeguarding the vulnerable from extremists and their ideologies.
Seeking - and taking - advice from the PAG certainly did not come easily, at least at first. To be candid, I failed to anticipate the vehemence of the criticisms about Prevent thrown at me and my team. Chairing and managing these meetings has undoubtedly been character building. During the first year or so, I was often sleepless on the nights before I was due to chair a PAG meeting.
The PAG has been on a journey, perhaps even a 'Damascene conversion'. Just last year, the Group threw me a surprise birthday dinner and we have regular, well attended meetings. Though it was difficult at times people stuck with it and always responded respectfully, fairly and openly. Now we are seeing the benefit of this perseverance.
That does not mean that PAG is has become tame or pliant. Far from it. Members continue to challenge and push back, and I admit that I still find some of the meetings uncomfortable. Nor have PAG's views always been easy listening for the Ministers and senior civil servants who have occasionally sat in on meetings. The difference now is that our discussions are reasoned, balanced and, most importantly, well-informed. PAG members "get" what Prevent is about and know what it achieves on the ground. They recognise the importance of countering radicalisation and the challenge this presents now and for the foreseeable future. Rather than disengaging from a challenging situation, as some would recommend, members of the Group have helped to shape the local delivery of Prevent into a programme they can support.
The anti-Prevent rhetoric in the media echoes the early days of PAG. Some of the criticisms being levelled against Prevent now are the same as those raised in PAG meetings five years ago. What won the Group over? First, recognition and acceptance among all present that fundamentally we all want the same thing - to safeguard and protect individuals and communities from extremism. And secondly, that Prevent has delivered results. We gave detailed presentations of our plans, projects and progress but what really influenced PAG views was evidence of the difference Prevent has made to the lives of vulnerable individuals.
Support from PAG has helped to secure wider community buy-in to Prevent. Our 'community question' events are a good example. Held at community venues, these events are themed on topics highlighted by the Group as pressing issues and concerns. They are attended by as many as 300 members of the local community. PAG members such as the Baraka Association, Al Hasaniya, Making Communities Work and Grow, Chelsea Muslim Community, London Tigers and the Dalgarno Trust, not only host and front these events, but also promote them to local communities. These events are a far cry from critics' suggestion that Prevent stifles debate.
PAG's critical yet constructive feedback and willingness to co-design and deliver projects has helped to tailor Prevent to suit the local situation. The Group has given us much greater access to hard to reach groups and has even mediated between my officers and troubled individuals and families, particularly in our efforts to prevent travel to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh. Commentators and critics accuse Prevent of unfairly targeting Muslim communities, but PAG members often prompt us to engage further with vulnerable members of the Muslim community, before the extremists do.
The Group is a genuine trailblazer and I believe it has much to be proud of. Its members have shaped, stood up for, and championed our local programme at a time when criticism of Prevent is much more fashionable. PAG meetings will continue to be a central component of our local Prevent process. And my sleepless nights are a thing of the past.Suggest a correction