The number of people referred to the UK’s flagship counter-extremism programme over suspected Islamist radicalisation has risen for the first time in four years.
“This is the first year-on-year increase in referrals for concerns related to Islamist radicalisation since the year ending March 2016,” a Home Office document said.
The figures were released following a wave of Isis-inspired attacks in mainland Europe, and four terror attacks have struck the UK in the past year.
Last week, the head of UK counterterror policing warned that “more young people are being drawn towards terrorist activity”.
Assistant commissioner Neil Basu said the coronavirus pandemic had created a “perfect storm”, by leaving young and vulnerable people spending more time isolated and online, as more extremist material circulates than ever before.
Figures released on Thursday showed that of a total 6,287 referrals to Prevent, 3,203 (51 per cent) were for individuals with a mixed, unstable or unclear ideology.
A total of 1,487 referrals (24 per cent) were due to concerns over Islamist radicalisation and 1,387 (22 per cent) related to right-wing radicalisation.
The largest age group was children and young people aged 20 and under, because many referrals come from education workers who are bound to raise concerns formally under the controversial Prevent “duty”.
There were 1,559 children under the age of 15 referred in the year and 1,864 15- to 20-year-olds.
The vast majority of people referred were male, and the largest number came from the north east of England, followed by London, the north west, south east and West Midlands.
Of those referred to Prevent, 27 per cent “required no further action” and half were passed on to other services, such as education, housing and mental health, for alternative support.
A further 23 per cent were considered by the Channel counter-radicalisation scheme, which sees people paired with “intervention providers”, such as imams or former Nazis, to help combat the ideology as their progress is regularly reviewed.
The largest group taken into the Channel process were far-right extremists (43 per cent), followed by Islamists (30 per cent) and then people with a mixed, unstable or unclear ideology (18 per cent) and other radicalisation concerns (8 per cent).
The government announced that Prevent would be independently reviewed in January 2019, following years of criticism and warnings about a lack of trust in communities.
But the first reviewer appointed, Lord Carlile, stepped down amid legal action over alleged bias and a replacement has not yet been announced.
Some campaign groups have accused Prevent of targeting Muslims and setting the barrier for intervention too low, although police say the statistics prove that all demographics and types of ideology are considered.
David Cameron introduced legal requirements for institutions including schools, the NHS and councils to report suspected extremists to Prevent four years ago, sparking fresh accusations of state-sanctioned spying.
The government later refused calls for change from the Home Affairs Committee, Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Joint Committee on Human Rights, MPs and charities.
Participation in both the Prevent and Channel programmes is voluntary, and some officials have questioned whether the process should be obligatory after several people referred went on to attempt terror attacks.
James Brokenshire, the security minister, said: “Prevent plays a vital role in stopping vulnerable people being drawn into all forms of terrorism and it is an essential part of our counter-terrorism strategy. Safeguarding is at its heart and the programme has already supported thousands of people at risk of radicalisation to turn their lives around, helping to keep our communities safe.
“These statistics clearly demonstrate that communities, practitioners, education and healthcare professionals, the government, and our law enforcement partners continue to rise to the challenge of tackling all forms of terrorism and extremism, together.”