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Researching Reform: Toddlers, anti-terror measures and taking children's passports - why our plans to conquer hate will fail

Date:17 DEC 2015
Since the Paris attacks last month, a large body of work looking to understand the reasons why terrorists targeted France has come to light. We can learn much from these detailed analyses, not least of all the importance of remaining calm and considered in the wake of widespread panic. Our government's current proposals to tackle terror, however, only create more opportunity to stoke the fires of hatred on both sides, and, crucially, embroil our children in the next phase of extremism.

Given that terrorism is essentially a movement which seeks to defy oppression, whether just in its quest or not, policies which ultimately make a vulnerable group of people feel subdued further are going to be counter-productive. A slew of measures proposed by the current government and which target children continue to highlight a deep lack of understanding even on this basic principle.

At the beginning of the year, the government hoped to enlist nursery school staff and registered child minders in the fight against extremism, through a draft directive which wanted to make reporting on toddlers a legal requirement. The proposal was heavily criticised by education professionals, who expressed doubt at the ability to implement such a directive and disdain at the thought of effectively turning teachers and carers into spies.

The gradual deterioration of such policies, which must be in part due to the Paris attacks and other terror-focused violations around the world in 2015, can be seen today. A huge surge in numbers of people being arrested for terror-related crimes, including women and children, is the latest development causing concern. Despite hundreds being arrested in the last year, only 39% were charged with a terror offence. The police's heavy-handed approach, which echoes that of the government's, is stripping away the buffers of tolerance and understanding within local communities. And it is angering peaceful Muslims.

A Survation poll in April claimed that 4 out of 10 British Muslims believed the police and MI5 were contributing to radicalism. Terror experts are also warning that counter-productive policies will alienate passive members of the Muslim community and give them a reason to distance themselves from social circles and family units.

Emotional and physical alienation is also being encouraged within the home thanks to the latest set of recommendations, which would allow parents to confiscate their children's passports should there be a suspicion that they may want to travel to Syria to join extremist movements. A child who has reached this point is already a vulnerable child. If that young person feels his or her parents are using force rather than reason to communicate, and in doing so oppressing them further, that child has no incentive left to linger at home. What is forgotten in the creation of such policies is that radicalised youth are able to mobilise and execute propaganda and action digitally. They no longer need to leave their bedrooms in order to move. This means that vulnerable children unable to travel still remain a threat to national security, and to themselves.

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To date, the social work sector remains at a loss as to how to tackle radicalisation and address it. A poll found that almost 70% of social workers had no or limited awareness of how to refer children and families at risk. This, despite the President of the Family Division publishing guidance on how to approach extremism in the child welfare sector. What the guidance does not offer, however, is an in-depth analysis of how to detect and report radicalisation. This task falls into the hands of local authorities and, to date, efforts have been unhelpful. 

A leaflet recently produced by an inner city safeguarding board has claimed that young people who appear angry about government policy, specifically foreign policy, are clearly radicalised youth. That dissent being viewed as a national threat only cements the view that our government's position on fundamentalism is defensive and fragile, rather than empowered.

To make matters worse, there does not yet seem to be a clear and universal working definition of 'radicalisation' for child protection agencies. The government's new counter-extremism strategy does, though, offer a definition (for extremism):

'The vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist.'

The difficulty with this definition lies in the notion that,a s a society, we cannot be truly British is we oppose democracy as it stands, with which many members of the public - Muslim or not - take issue with today. It is a clumsy and unworkable definition for the purposes of child protection and does little to get to the heart of extremist behaviours. The difficulty in assessing the risk of future harm to a child where radicalisation might occur is awkward, too. By their nature, children will at some point during their development consider radical thought in one form or another, but many do not go on to join movements which are viewed as hostile by the State. Risk of harm assessments here, then, carry with them an even greater risk of error, and child protection professionals have a much greater responsibility to ensure children are not unjustly separated from their parents.

Condoning spying within the education sector, encouraging suspicion within child protection and alienating children from their parents with oppressive confiscation powers will not allow us to protect the next generation from terror. The only way to achieve this is by allowing for debate, inviting young people to question government policy, provide them with open and honest answers, and to ensure that child protection teams are provided with the tools they need and are properly trained to detect and report genuine cases of radicalisation.