Sajid Javid has delivered a staunch defence of the Prevent anti-terror scheme, insisting it plays a part in keeping Britain safe.
Hitting back at “propaganda” and “false information” about the programme, the Home Secretary told the Press Association it helps stop young people being preyed on by extremists and turns round hundreds of lives.
Prevent aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.
While police and ministers say it forms a crucial plank of anti-terror efforts, the initiative has repeatedly come under fire, with critics labelling it heavy-handed and “toxic”.
Mr Javid said there was a need to “bust myths” about Prevent.
“What we have found is that when you sit down with communities and explain what Prevent is – to turn young people away from extremism, whether that’s some kind of warped Islamist ideology or extreme right-wing ideology – very quickly people absolutely understand it, they support it,” he said.
“Sadly though there are people out there that support the extremists.
“There are organisations out there that are trying to find ways to warp young people’s minds and they put out what you might call propaganda or false information to try and turn people away from it.
“We have to fight against that.”
There have been suggestions that the Government should change the name of the programme.
But Mr Javid said: “The thing about the name is that if you didn’t call it Prevent, whatever other name we chose I’m sure there would be people trying to attack it because they actually are on the side of extremists.”
Anyone concerned that someone they know might be at risk of radicalisation can refer them to Prevent, but only a small percentage of cases are ultimately deemed to require anti-extremism action.
When authorities conclude there is a risk that the person could be drawn into terrorism, they can be supported through a scheme known as Channel.
Engagement is voluntary and it is not a criminal sanction.
Asked if Prevent works, Mr Javid said: “Yes it does.
“There are people out there that want to exploit young people by turning them towards extremism and sometimes even terrorism.
“What Prevent is about is safeguarding people from those who wish to do them harm.
“There’s a lot that goes into making Britain safer and Prevent is part of that because what it’s about ultimately is safeguarding.
“If you can turn people away from extremism, of course the country is safer.
“Just in the same way we want to safeguard people from child sexual exploitation, from county lines drugs gangs, you would also expect the Government to work hard to turn people away from extremism.”
He said that since 2015, 500 people have been assessed as no longer being of concern to authorities after going through the programme
“That has changed round their lives,” Mr Javid said.
Cases previously cited include a nine-year-old boy who had stood up in class and said he supported Islamic State, and a man who had been an active member of far-right groups and a collector of Nazi memorabilia and literature.
Questions were raised about the scheme after a wave of terror attacks hit Britain last year.
Last week the Intelligence and Security Committee said Manchester bomber Salman Abedi should have been considered for a Prevent referral after his closure as an MI5 “subject of interest” in 2014.
Parsons Green attacker Ahmed Hassan was discussed at nine Channel panels, the last of which took place 10 days before he planted a bomb on a Tube train.
Mr Javid said: “We’ve always got to learn the lessons of what’s happened. If there are improvements to be made, we should do that.”
In 2016/17, a total of 6,093 individuals were referred to Prevent.
Most left the process requiring no further action or were signposted to alternative services, while 332 received Channel support.
Concerns about Islamist extremism prompted 3,704 or 61% of the Prevent referrals. The number in this category fell by more than a quarter (26%) year-on-year.
Over the same period, extreme right-wing referrals increased by 28% to 968.
The Home Secretary was speaking after discussing Prevent’s work with community leaders in east London.