Protecting against radicalisation

03 July 2017

Anna Scott offers a practical guide for community practitioners, now that preventing people being drawn into terrorism forms a vital part of the safeguarding role.

Four days after the general election resulted in a hung parliament and left prime minister Theresa May clinging to power, the UK Government announced a joint campaign with the French Government to tackle online radicalisation.

This came in the aftermath of three terrorist attacks in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge in as many months. The terrorist attack on a London mosque that followed shone the spotlight on yet another kind of extremism.

‘It’s a reminder that terrorism, extremism and hatred take many forms,’ the prime minister said in the aftermath. ‘This government will act to stamp out extremist and hateful ideology – both across society and on the internet, so it is denied a safe space to grow.’

The perceived fact that only one particular group is susceptible to radicalisation is completely untrue, agrees Sean Thomson, citizenship and cohesion adviser for the London Borough of Waltham Forest. ‘There are a number of different groups operating across the UK, and indeed the European continent, that espouse what we consider to be extremist views which are dangerous,’ he adds. 

‘By raising awareness and offering advice and information on all of the different kinds of ideological views which exist, we ensure that people are safer.’

Uncovering instances of radicalisation is highly complex, however, not least because it’s not always obvious. Analysis by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass, 2016) of 54 family court cases involving radicalisation found that, in general, children were not ‘outwardly vulnerable’ to radicalisation to the extent that they or their family were known to the local authority. 

On the front line

Understanding extremism and radicalisation is now a crucial part of the health visitor and school or community nursery nurse’s job.

‘Community practitioners have a unique relationship with families, children, young people and the wider community,’ says NHS England’s deputy safeguarding lead Sue Warburton. ‘They may become aware of unusual behaviours or objects [for example, in 2016 a district nurse noticed Islamic State regalia at a patient’s house, leading to the person getting support to avoid radicalisation]. They may also need to support families with concerns.’ 

So within the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (CTSA) (HM Government, 2015a), healthcare professionals working in England, Scotland and Wales have a duty to show ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’ – radicalisation is firmly a safeguarding issue (see Northern Ireland spotlight for its policies).

It’s worth highlighting that preventing radicalisation is not solely down to healthcare professionals. The vital duty also applies to local authorities, the education sector, criminal justice and the police across England, Scotland and Wales (HM Government, 2015a). Schools and childcare providers, for example, are in a similar position to healthcare providers to spot early signs. 

The Prevent programme

The government’s Prevent strategy – which aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism – was launched in 2003 as part of CONTEST, the overall counter-terrorism strategy formulated in response to the terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September, 2001. But until January 2010 there was no Prevent programme in the health sector. In 2010, Prevent was piloted in nine strategic health authority regions in England in a number of areas including school nursing. 

A review of the strategy in 2011 and a strengthening with the CTSA (2015) resulted in the listing of the healthcare sector across England, Scotland and Wales as a priority sector in which risks of radicalisation need to be addressed (HM Government, 2015b; 2015c).

‘The key challenge for the healthcare sector is to ensure that, where there are signs that someone has been or is being drawn into terrorism, the healthcare worker can interpret those signs correctly, is aware of the support which is available and is confident in referring the person for further support,’ the latest strategy states.

‘Preventing someone from becoming a terrorist or from supporting terrorism is substantially comparable to safeguarding in other areas, including child abuse or domestic violence,’ the strategy continues.

Within Prevent sits Channel – a multi-agency programme across the UK focused on providing support at an early stage to those vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism. It aims to do so by identifying those at risk, assessing the nature and extent of risk and developing an appropriate support plan for the individuals involved.

A ‘pre-criminal’ space, in which those at risk of radicalisation and their families can receive help
and support, is also in place.

The programme has not been without criticism, however. In the aftermath of the Manchester bombing, the city’s mayor, Andy Burnham, described Prevent as ‘toxic’ and said the programme left some members of the Muslim community feeling under suspicion.

And the Prevent guidance itself states that uptake of the strategy in the health sector has not always been consistent, partly due to the unfamiliarity of the subject matter among healthcare professionals, and partly because early training was not always appropriate.

However, NHS England, Scotland and Wales have now incorporated Prevent into their safeguarding arrangements (HM Government, 2015b; 2015c). In addition, each country has undertaken activity to raise awareness of the strategy and help frontline health staff identify signs of vulnerability. This includes the now-mandatory Workshop to raise awareness of Prevent (WRAP) – an online course from the Home Office which provides NHS staff with an understanding of their role in the Prevent strategy. 

A Scottish Government spokesperson adds: ‘The Playing our part guidance (NHS Scotland, 2015) aims to enable health boards in Scotland to understand radicalisation and take appropriate steps, along with partner agencies, to prevent patients or staff from being radicalised and becoming a danger to themselves and others.’

NHS England is also piloting bespoke training packages, with the first due in autumn. ‘It will support mental health practitioners in understanding how to support those vulnerable to radicalisation and how to spot the signs,’ says Sue. 


What this means on a practical level is that health visitors, school and community nursery nurses must know who their safeguarding leads are. These will be the people to alert if they have spotted changes or worrying behaviour in their clients, families or the communities in which they work, or whether they’re certain someone is being radicalised.

Community practitioners should respond as they would in any other area of safeguarding – notice, check and share.

‘A practitioner’s role is to safeguard individuals from further harm by prompt reporting of concerns when they have noticed a change that could indicate a client or child in their care is at risk of radicalisation or has been radicalised,’ says Sue.

It will then be up to the safeguarding leads whether to refer a case to the Prevent case management team. At this stage, any issues of consent and risk assessment will be considered. If gaining consent from patients for escalating concerns is not in the public interest – that is, informing the person of their referral is considered dangerous – then the Prevent lead will support any robust risk management process.

Either way, community practitioners will need to provide support during the referral process for clients who have been affected by radicalisation, and robust care plans should be put in place so everyone involved is safeguarded, including the family affected.

Prevent and safeguarding leads will also help community practitioners ensure an appropriate case management plan is in place to support the needs of individuals they are dealing with who have been affected by terrorism. ‘The plan should also link together the range of disciplines required to deliver a holistic plan of care for those involved, such as social care,’ says Sue.

Advising families

Supporting families’ needs will also mean advising them. Families are often closest to the individuals concerned. For example, the majority of 14,500 11- to 25-year-olds surveyed by the National Police Chiefs’ Council in 2015 said they were most likely to tell their parents, particularly their mothers, if they were worried about someone they know becoming radicalised.

Northen Ireland Spotlight

While counter-terrorism is a UK Government strategy, the principal threat from terrorism in Northern Ireland (NI) comes from NI-related terrorist groups, which the Prevent strategy does not directly deal with. It is also the responsibility of the secretary of state for Northern Ireland. 

Nevertheless, the issues and principles of the Prevent strategy are still relevant, and the UK Government works closely with the NI assembly to counter the threat posed by these groups. 

(Source: HM Government, 2011)

So if a parent is worried their child wants to travel to Syria to fight in the civil war for example, community practitioners should be able to advise them to speak out and gain support from a range of sources. ‘Educateagainsthate.com is a Department for Education website with advice for parents, and there are many civil society groups and statutory agencies, such as the local authority safeguarding team, where parents can raise their concerns,’ says Sue.

Safety and collaboration

But community practitioners must also remember their own safety, and working with the organisation to ensure risk assessments and lone-working policies are in place is crucial. 

If clients are in cordoned areas, practitioners must liaise with the safeguarding lead, who will have close links with the local authority and the police. ‘They will be able to gain information about how long the area is likely to be cordoned off and what can be done to access individuals; if it is necessary they are seen immediately,’ says Sue. 

‘All local areas and organisations have emergency plans in place to ensure people receive the support they need, even during incidents where it has been necessary to cordon off a particular area.’

The shocking frequency of UK terrorist attacks in 2017 has heightened awareness of radicalisation but it ‘continues to be important to integrate messages about identifying the risks of radicalisation into mainstream safeguarding,’ reiterates Sue.

Accessing training to enhance skills in dealing with these situations, knowing the safeguarding process and their requirements under the Prevent programme, and using supervision sessions will support practitioners in dealing with the impacts of terrorism and radicalisation.

Signs that may indicate someone is being radicalised

  • Graffiti symbols, writing or artwork promoting extremist messages or images
  • Parental/family reports of changes in behaviour, friendships or actions and requests for assistance
  • Reports from partner healthcare organisations, local authority services and police of issues affecting patients in other healthcare organisations
  • Patients voicing opinions drawn from terrorist-related ideologies and narratives
  • Use of extremist or hate terms to exclude others or incite violence
  • Isolating themselves from family and friends
  • Talking as if from a scripted speech
  • Unwillingness or inability to discuss their views
  • A sudden disrespectful attitude towards others  
  • Increased levels of anger
  • Increased secretiveness, especially around internet use.

(Sources: Department of Health, 2011; NSPCC, 2016)

Factors that may lead to radicalisation

Radicalisation is a process not an event, and there is no single route or pathway into it. Those targeted by radicalisers may have doubts about what they are doing, meaning healthcare organisations need effective policies and procedures in place to support staff who raise concerns about a patient.

There is no single way of identifying who is likely to be vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism. But factors that may have a bearing on someone becoming vulnerable include: 

  • Peer pressure
  • Influence from other people or via the internet
  • Bullying
  • Crime against them or their involvement in crime
  • Antisocial behaviour
  • Family tensions
  • Race/hate crime
  • Lack of self-esteem or identity
  • Personal or political grievances.

(Source: HM Government, 2015)


Cafcass. (2016) Study of data held by Cafcass in cases featuring radicalisation concerns. See: cafcass.gov.uk/media/286999/cafcass_radicalisation_study__external_version_.pdf (accessed 26 June 2017).

Department of Health. (2011) Building partnerships, staying safe. See: gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/215251/dh_131934.pdf (accessed 27 June 2017).

HM Government. (2015) Channel duty guidance: protecting vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism. See: gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/425189/Channel_Duty_Guidance_April_2015.pdf (accessed 27 June 2017).

HM Government. (2015a) Counter-terrorism and security act 2015. See: legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/6/contents/enacted (accessed 26 June 2017). 

HM Government. (2015b) Revised prevent duty guidance: for England and Wales. See: gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/445977/3799_Revised_Prevent_Duty_Guidance__England_Wales_V2-Interactive.pdf (accessed 26 June 2017).

HM Government. (2015c) Revised prevent duty guidance: for Scotland. See: gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/445978/3799_Revised_Prevent_Duty_Guidance__Scotland_V2.pdf (accessed 26 June 2017).

HM Government. (2011) Prevent strategy. See: gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/97976/prevent-strategy-review.pdf (accessed 26 June 2017).

NHS Scotland. (2015) Playing our part – implementing the prevent strategy. See: readyscotland.org/media/1116/playing_our_part-_prevent_strategy-guidance_for_health_boards_-_january_2015.pdf (accessed 26 June 2017).

NPCC. (2017) Local police out in force tackling extremism. See: news.npcc.police.uk/releases/local-police-out-in-force-tackling-extremism (accessed 26 June 2017).

NSPCC. (2016) Protecting children from radicalisation. See: nspcc.org.uk/what-we-do/news-opinion/protecting-children-from-radicalisation1 (accessed 27 June 2017).

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