Informing on toddlers and preventing terrorism

By Savi Hensman
January 6, 2015

Imagine police wake you. Though not suspected of any involvement in violence, you are being investigated for terrorism-related offences, on the basis of a remark by your three-year-old at a playgroup or childminder’s.

You are warned that, even if you are not charged, social services will consider taking your children into care. You may be angry as well as alarmed.

A toddler’s garbled version of a negative comment on non-Christians, picked up at Sunday school (maybe from another child), might merit a chat by staff with parents, and extra efforts to promote tolerance for all. But requiring this to be reported to the authorities would undermine privacy and freedom and destroy trust.

Yet under new UK government proposals to counter terrorism, early years providers which do not shop young children with ‘extremist’ views would risk being shut down. Schools, health services and others would also be expected to inform on pupils, patients and their families.

The Home Office is consulting on ‘Prevent duty’ guidance linked with a Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill being considered by Parliament. Various organisations would have to “have due regard to the need to prevent people bring drawn into terrorism.”

Local authorities, universities, colleges, schools, early years providers and NHS trusts would be among those required to crack down on “non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit.” This could include restricting freedom of speech and internet access, and reporting suspects.

While the focus of the document is on Muslims, it also mentions the fact that “terrorists associated with the extreme right also pose a continued threat to our safety and security.” However the principles apply to anyone with “extremist ideas where they are used to legitimise terrorism and are shared by terrorist groups.”

This poses obvious problems. It is now clear that the 2003 Iraq war was based on untrue claims, and those of us who said so then are not all in league with Al Qaeda. Likewise opposition to female genital mutilation is something many of us share with violent rightwingers. I do not regard abortion as murder, but those who do so on religious grounds often passionately oppose fanatics who attack clinics and doctors.

Indeed, by potentially criminalising non-violent dissent, alienating minority communities and promoting general mistrust, this approach is likely to do more to boost than prevent terrorism.

Those organisations which do not do enough to “demonstrate evidence of productive co-operation” with state power in stamping out “radicalisation” may get into trouble themselves.

Hard-pressed public bodies and voluntary sector providers struggling to cope with the impact of cuts may be further demoralised. And patients waiting for hours for emergency treatment may be unhappy if doctors are busy reporting ‘extremist’ comments by a toddler to the appropriate authorities.

Ironically, the drive to turn the nation into a hotbed of snooping and suspicion is supposed to promote “fundamental British values” including “individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Limiting basic freedoms and giving wide-ranging additional powers to the state is an odd way to celebrate.

Remarks by those in charge give further cause for alarm. “It is understood ministers will expect nursery staff to report for example, anti-Semitic comments made in front of them by toddlers”, reported Telegraph journalists Robert Mendick and Robert Verkaik.

The article continued, “‘We would not expect this behaviour to be ignored,’ said a source. Other examples of children at risk of radicalisation include instances where a Muslim child might tell a teacher that he has been taught at a religious school, or madrassah, that all non-Muslims ‘are wicked’.”

Much of what Christian children might hear is open to confusion, especially when explained by a child of two or three. And there are some churches which others might regard as profoundly wrong in their view that non-Christians are ultimately doomed but pose no threat of terrorism.

This is not to say that playworkers, teachers and paediatric nurses should not challenge views they regard as intolerant. But it insults their competence, and undermines the relationships so important to their effectiveness, to require them to take drastic action which could deeply damage children and families.

Some people may think the proposals, if adopted, will only hurt others. But, in the longer term, the undermining of human rights affects everyone.

* Ministers' mixed messages on freedom and rights (

* Governing with no holds barred and fewer rights (

* The Prevent duty: a consultation document is available here: The deadline for responses is noon on 30 January 2015.


© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.