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Review of Prevent counter-extremism scheme risks becoming ‘whitewash’, government warned

Exclusive: Human rights groups accuse government of ‘shrouding process in secrecy’

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Saturday 10 August 2019 10:38 BST
Prevent aims to stop vulnerable people being drawn into extremism but has been accused of targeting Muslims and fomenting distrust
Prevent aims to stop vulnerable people being drawn into extremism but has been accused of targeting Muslims and fomenting distrust

A review of the controversial Prevent counter-extremism programme is at risk of becoming a “whitewash”, the government has been warned.

The Home Office announced an assessment of the scheme in January, after years of dismissing human rights concerns and resisting persistent calls to overhaul it.

In a letter to the new security minister Brandon Lewis seen exclusively by The Independent, a coalition of 10 human rights and community groups accused the government of recruiting an “independent reviewer of Prevent” behind closed doors.

Ministers told parliament the appointment, which is to be announced on Monday, was not advertised publicly because of time pressures and a suitable candidate would be chosen by the home secretary.

“In combination, these omissions do not inspire confidence that the government is seeking to appoint a reviewer with the expertise and independence required to thoroughly scrutinise the logic, remit and impact of Prevent,” said the letter signed by groups including Liberty, Index on Censorship and the Muslim Council of Britain.

“Given this breadth and depth of concern, it is vital that the review is meaningfully independent of government.”

Signatories said they had not been consulted about the terms of reference that will govern the review’s scope.

“An incredibly broad range of people and organisations have raised concerns about the impact of the Prevent strategy, including politicians of all parties, health and education workers, members of the security establishment, and people from communities disproportionately affected by counterterror policy,” the letter said, demanding that the review examines Prevent’s “underlying assumptions and evidence base, its human rights implications, and, ultimately, whether it is fit for purpose”.

The review was proposed as a House of Lords amendment to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act, which was passed into law without a Commons vote and made clicking on terrorist propaganda once illegal.

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat’s home affairs spokesperson, accused the government of failing to consult properly on the review.

“It’s bad enough the Conservative government had to be forced by parliament into a review of the Prevent strategy, but it’s even worse that Tory ministers now appear to be trying to rig the outcome,” he added.

“Unless the government changes its approach, there is a very real danger that this review will be seen as a whitewash and will actually worsen public concerns about counter-extremism policies.”

Afzal Khan, Labour’s shadow immigration minister, said the view must be “wholly transparent” and wide in its remit.

“While the need for an effective security strategy is paramount, it is vital that Prevent works with communities and the people it is there to protect, rather than against them,” he added.

Mother talks to Sky News about her concerns over Government's counter-terror Prevent scheme

Martha Spurrier, the director of Liberty, said the government risked “hamstringing” the review before it begins.

“Like the Prevent strategy itself, the process has been shrouded in secrecy, prompting serious concerns that the government is trying to shield Prevent from the scrutiny it desperately needs,” she added.

“Prevent is a misconceived policy that stifles speech, spreads fear and distrust, and encourages discrimination. This review is a vital opportunity for reflection and reform.”

The former security minister, Ben Wallace, accused critics of using “distortions and spin” against Prevent, which seeks to stop people from being drawn into all kinds of extremism.

“Communities across the country have got behind the policy and are contributing to it because they want, as we do, their own young people to be protected from grooming and exploitation by terrorists,” he said in January.

“Prevent is not about singling out any particular group or ideology but is similar to other forms of safeguarding, carried out every day by social workers, teachers and police.

“I am proud we have helped divert hundreds of people away from posing a real threat and put them back on the path of living a fulfilling, law-abiding life.”

David Cameron introduced legal requirements for institutions including schools, the NHS and councils to report suspected extremists to Prevent in 2015, sparking fresh accusations of state-sanctioned spying.

The strategy has been particularly controversial in the education sector, where academics have told The Independent staff and students are censoring their studies and stifling debate.

Some campaign groups have accused Prevent of targeting Muslims and setting the barrier for intervention too low, with cases including a boy reported for mispronouncing “cucumber” as “cooker bomb” drawing criticism.

Even supporters have conceded that a historical lack of transparency around the programme has allowed conspiracy theories to spread and discouraged reporting by fomenting distrust between authorities and Muslim communities.

But proponents cite statistics, which show a 36 per cent rise in the number of suspected far-right extremists referred to Prevent, as proof it does not single out any one ideology and functions like other forms of safeguarding.

The government previously refused calls for change from the Home Affairs Committee, Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Joint Committee on Human Rights, MPs and charities.

Official figures show that since 2012, more than 1,200 people have been given tailored mentoring through “Channel intervention providers” after being flagged to Prevent.

In 2017-18, more than 7,300 referrals were made but 42 per cent resulted in no action being taken. People receiving Channel support were evenly split between Islamists and the far-right.

Participation in both the Prevent and Channel programmes is voluntary, and some officials have questioned whether the process should be obligatory after terrorists slipped through the net.

The teenage asylum seeker who attempted to bomb a Tube train at Parsons Green station in 2017 had been referred to Prevent, as had an Isis fanatic who plotted to attack Downing Street and behead Theresa May.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “It will be for whoever is appointed to decide the approach for the Independent Review of Prevent, and to agree the terms of reference, but we expect them to prioritise openness, independence, and rigour based on evidence.

“In line with other reviews of this type, the appointment is at the discretion of the home secretary and has been considered carefully.”

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