In an e-mail to community groups, an officer in the West Midlands counter-terrorism unit wrote: “I do hope that you will tell me about persons, of whatever age, you think may have been radicalised or be vulnerable to radicalisation ... Evidence suggests that radicalisation can take place from the age of 4.”
The police unit confirmed that counter-terrorist officers specially trained in identifying children and young people vulnerable to radicalisation had visited nursery schools.
The policy was condemned last night. Chris Grayling, the Shadow Home Secretary, said that it ran the risk of “alienating even more people”. Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said that it was an “absurd waste of police time”.
Sir Norman, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, said: “There is absolutely no example, nationally, of the police engaging with nursery-age kids specifically on this issue. That is the age for learning about ‘Stranger Danger’ and ‘The Tufty Club’.”
The Home Office has disclosed, meanwhile, that a seven-year-old has become the youngest child to feature in a scheme to tackle grooming by extremists. David Hanson, the Police Minister, disclosed in a parliamentary answer that the child was one of 228 people referred to the Channel Project, part of Prevent focused on individuals.
More than 90 per cent of those identified by the project have been aged between 15 and 24 and most, but not all, are Muslim.
Criticism of the anti-extremism strategy is growing. The programme, funded from the £3.5 billion per year security budget, is said to stigmatise communities and encourage Muslims to spy on one another.
This week John Denham, the Communities Secretary, said that the programme had to be more transparent to dispel “the fear that by joining a Prevent activity, the organisers or the participants are opening themselves up to covert surveillance, intelligence-gathering and the collection of files on the Muslim communities”.
The e-mail obtained by The Times was written by a sergeant in response to Muslim community concerns. He was trying to allay fears but seems to have inflamed them.
He wrote: “I am a police officer and therefore it will always be part of my role to gather intelligence and I will report back any information or intelligence which may suggest someone is a terrorist, or is planning to be one or to support others. However, my role is to raise the level of awareness of the threat of terrorism and radicalisation and support and work with partners to try to prevent it.”
Arun Kundnani, of the Institute of Race Relations, contacted the officer and said he was told that officers had visited nursery schools. Mr Kundnani added: “He did seem to think it was standard. He said it wasn’t just him or his unit that was doing it.
He said the indicators were they [children] might draw pictures of bombs and say things like ‘all Christians are bad’ or that they believe in an Islamic state. It seems that nursery teachers in the West Midlands area are being asked to look out for radicalisation.
He also said that targeting young children was important because they would be left aware of what was inappropriate to say at school. He felt that it was necessary to cover nurseries as well as primary and secondary schools. He said it was a precaution and that he wasn’t expecting to come back with a list.”