Today
Fri 4 December 2020

Stephen Delahunty reports on developments with regards to an independent assessment of the Government’s counter-terrorism programme which was due to report in August

The Government’s delayed independent review into Prevent could be “kicked into the long grass”, according to concerns raised by rights groups and academics.

According to the Home Office, Prevent aims to “safeguard vulnerable people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism by engaging with people who are vulnerable to radicalisation and protecting those who are being targeted by terrorist recruiters”. It is one of the four elements of the Government’s ‘CONTEST’ counter-terrorism strategy.

It has attracted controversy for operating in the ‘pre- or non-criminal’ space – dealing with individuals who have yet to cross the criminality threshold. Since 2015, a statutory duty has required all public sector workers to spot signs of radicalisation and make referrals.

A report into Prevent, following an independent review, was due to be presented to Parliament in August. However the deadline passed without a reviewer in place. Lord Carlile QC, who had been appointed to the role, stood down last December following objections over his previous strong support for the programme.

The total number of referrals to Prevent in the year to March 2019 was 5,738, down 21% from the previous year, according to Home Office statistics. Only one in 10 referrals to the programme resulted in specialist support, with the remainder leaving the process or being signposted to alternative services.

Of those given specialist support, in what is known as the ‘Channel’ process, were 254 cases involving suspected far-right radicalisation and 210 involving suspected Islamic radicalisation.


Non-Violent Extremism 

The Government recently issued guidelines to accompany new regulations on the teaching of sex and relationship education in primary and secondary schools in England, concerned about the use of curriculum material from ‘external agencies’.

While media reports focused on the way the regulations sought to restrict the use of material from groups that are perceived to be ‘anti-capitalist’, John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham, told Byline Times that the context of the regulations – sex and relationship education – was key.

“They come in the wake of protests by parents in Birmingham last year associated with the ‘No Outsiders’ curriculum,” he said. “This was widely reported as being about the teaching of LGBTQ relationships. The curriculum was, in fact, designed to teach ‘fundamental British values’.” 

The latter is a requirement that was introduced in 2014, following the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair, which involved claims that there was a plot by hardline Islamist governors and teachers to take over schools in Birmingham.

Holmwood was an expert witness for the defence in the cases of professional misconduct brought against senior teachers at Park View Educational Trust by the National College of Teaching and Leadership. A disciplinary panel later cleared five senior teachers after the case against them was found to involve an “abuse of justice” by Government lawyers.

Holmwood said that the school was sacrificed against the evidence to a Prevent agenda that promotes anxiety, pathologises British Muslims and undermines civil liberties.

In January 2020, when media reports emerged that counter-terrorism police had included Extinction Rebellion on a list of ‘extremist ideologies’, guidelines were hastily withdrawn.

But the reference to British values has now re-appeared within the new guidelines for schools, Holmwood said. Governing bodies and headteachers must “forbid the pursuit of partisan political activities by junior pupils” and “forbid the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”. Examples of extreme positions include “promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society… [and] selecting and presenting information to make unsubstantiated accusations against state institutions”.

Dr Rob Faure Walker, a researcher at SOAS University, runs the Prevent digest, providing research and commentary on the programme in the media. He believes that supporters of Prevent have been seduced by an authoritarian logic and been radicalised against democracy.

“The idea that ‘extreme’ views might be a useful predictor for future acts of violence is absurd in a democracy, where the ability to air opposing political views and to be heard is what prevents people from resorting to violence,” he told Byline Times.

Walker is concerned that the Government might be kicking the Prevent review into the long grass.

“Faced by a lockdown that keeps kids out of school and cuts off any Prevent referrals, they did not pause to reflect on their work,” he said. “The failure of the UK to prepare for the pandemic raises serious questions about the resources allocated to counter-extremism in the last decade, so it’s no wonder those in this flourishing industry are scrambling to stay relevant.”


Safeguards Removed Under New Bill

Rights groups are concerned that the the Counter Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, currently going through Parliament, removes the existing statutory deadline for the Prevent review, removes conditions laid out in the earlier requiring the secretary of state to respond to each recommendation, weakens the burden of proof requirements and removes the safeguards and time limitations on the use of terrorism prevention and investigation measures (TPIM).

The Government confirmed it has included a measure to remove the existing statutory deadline for the review, while maintaining the legislative commitment to undertake it. Additionally, it said it is committed to completing the review by August 2021, subject to agreement with the new reviewer when appointed. Interviews were held for the role in September and the Government said a successful candidate will be announced in due course.

However, MEND, a not-for-profit company that helps to empower and encourage British Muslims within local communities to be more actively involved in British media and politics, is concerned that provisions under TPIM will have serious and damaging consequences to the principles of liberty, fair trial and the presumption of innocence.

MEND said that the provisions under TPIM have the potential for suspects who have not been convicted of any offence to face potentially never-ending measures to restrict and control their lives. 

The Government position is that the use of TPIMs will remain proportionate and that it is confident that there will continue to be robust safeguards for the civil liberties of those subject to the measures. Additionally, TPIMs will remain a last resort to protect the public from dangerous individuals whom it is not possible to prosecute or deport, or individuals who remain a real threat after release from prison. 

Despite Government assurances, Dr Shazad Amin, MEND’s CEO, said that ignoring or delaying the review would undermine the rights and experiences of minority communities who continue to be detrimentally impacted by this fundamentally flawed strategy, as well as undermining public confidence in the Government’s ability to fulfil its obligations.

“Meanwhile, the use of Prevent in securitising public debates and academic discussions, especially surrounding issues such as race, capitalism, and the environment, is essentially a mechanism to close down political opposition to Government agendas,” added Amin.

Rosalind Comyn, policy and campaigns officer at the campaign group Liberty, said: “The delay and failings surrounding the review have shattered any trust communities had in this process and the Government’s commitment to listening to their concerns. It’s time for ministers to stop dragging their heels and give the Prevent strategy the robust, independent scrutiny it so desperately needs.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Government has been clear that it is committed to the independent review of Prevent, which presents a great opportunity to look at the effectiveness of the Government’s strategy to protect vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism. That is why it is vital that the reviewer has sufficient time to complete the review properly, especially given the wider context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, we want this important work to be completed as soon as possible and we will be appointing someone to the role through a full and open recruitment exercise in due course.”


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