armed police
The government's Prevent programme is a key strand of its counter-terrorism strategyReuters

A senior Scotland Yard police officer has hit out at attacks against a government counter-terrorism programme, saying such criticism is based on "ignorance". The Prevent programme is a key strand of the government's counter-terrorism strategy, but critics have called for it to be scrapped, labelling it a "toxic" charter that advocates spying on minority communities.

The scheme is designed to support people at risk of joining extremist groups and carrying out terror activities. It is focused on schools, faith organisations, prisons and other communities where people can be at risk of radicalisation.

The programme is aimed at combating reports of male and female teenage Muslims from the UK absconding to join Islamic State in Syria, also known as Isis, where it is estimated over 3,000 Europeans already fill their ranks.

Commander Dean Haydon told the BBC's Asian Network these groups "don't understand properly how Prevent works".

He added that some criticism came from parts of the community that "don't want Prevent to work in the first place".

Haydon said the programme was not about spying on people but about keeping them safe, and said it had achieved "fantastic" results. However, the effectiveness of the programme came under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the recent terror attacks in Manchester, Westminster and London Bridge.

Toxic scheme

The Muslim Council of Britain has said young Muslims are being targeted, and a former senior Muslim policeman, Dal Babu, said Prevent had become a "toxic brand" because it was not trusted by communities.

In May, the Green Party's Caroline Lucas said: "Many in the Muslim community believe it's been an attack on their group in particular."

But police say Prevent is a crucial plank of wider counter-terrorism and extremism efforts. Earlier this year, Home Secretary Amber Rudd admitted there needed to be more of an effort "to sell it to communities... to show that this is a safeguarding initiative."

A government spokeswoman added: "Prevent does not target a specific faith or ethnic group - it deals with all forms of extremism and protects those who are targeted by terrorist recruiters."

Government figures say 150 people were stopped from entering war zones in Iraq and Syria in 2015 because of the programme. The programme was set up by Labour in 2003 and its remit was widened by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in 2011.

The interview with Commander Haydon will be broadcast on Tuesday 8 August at 10am on the BBC's Asian Network.