Review of Prevent counter-terror scheme may be ‘redundant’ four years after it began, campaigners say

Publication of report delayed by disputes over content and Home Office response

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Thursday 29 December 2022 21:45 GMT
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William Shawcross delivered his review to the government in April but it has not been published
William Shawcross delivered his review to the government in April but it has not been published (PA)

The findings of a review into the Prevent counter-terror scheme may be “redundant” by the time it is published, four years after being announced, campaigners have said.

Theresa May’s government announced an independent probe into the programme, which has been criticised for both ineffectiveness and over-reach, in January 2019.

The move followed years of accusations that Prevent was stigmatising Muslims and stifling free speech in schools and universities, but leaked excerpts of a report by reviewer William Shawcross call for an intensified focus on Islamist extremism.

The Independent understands that it was sent to the Home Office in April but publication was initially delayed over legal concerns, because of potential libel action by groups named in the report.

The Home Office then decided to publish its official response to the review at the same time as Mr Shawcross’ report, and Suella Braverman is understood to have wanted changes to a draft of that document, which is still being finalised.

Several charities and campaign groups boycotted the review over previous remarks by Mr Shawcross, the former head of the Charity Commission, where he called “Europe and Islam one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future”.

Prevent insiders and counter-terror police fear any potential politicisation of the programme, which they say is ideologically agnostic and aims to divert young and vulnerable people from committing terror offences or becoming a security threat.

Michael Gove, the communities secretary, is jointly responsible for Prevent alongside the home secretary and has vocally advocated for an enhanced focus on jihadism.

Speaking at a counter-extremism event in September, when he was not in the cabinet, he called for action against “political Islam” and said it was “by far the greater threat” compared to the far right.

“Prevent has been criticised for the wrong reasons, as somehow an attempt to restrict freedom of expression and belief – not at all,” Mr Gove said.

“Prevent has been ineptly and inefficiently distributed … so that organisations which are actively opposed to liberal democratic values have been in receipt of British government money.”

During his initial Conservative Party leadership campaign, Rishi Sunak pledged to “refocus the failing Prevent programme on to Islamist extremism, the UK’s most significant terror threat”.

Suella Braverman is understood to have wanted changes to the Home Office’s official respones
Suella Braverman is understood to have wanted changes to the Home Office’s official respones (Getty)

Several terrorists, including those who launched the Parsons Green bombing and Reading and Streatham stabbings, had previously been referred to Prevent over suspected radicalisation, as had several extremists jailed for plotting attacks.

Since the review was announced, the proportion of referrals relating to suspected far-right extremism have overtaken those for Islamist extremism, and more than half are now in the “mixed, unstable or unclear ideology” category.

It includes people, often teenagers and those with mental health issues and learning difficulties, who appear to be switching between different ideologies or are obsessed with mass violence or school massacres.

In the year to March 2021, most of the people referred to Prevent were signposted to other public services, such as mental health and education, while a fifth saw no further action and the remainder were considered for ideological mentoring under the Channel programme.

The largest age group was children and young people aged 20 and under, including almost 1,000 under the age of 15.

A legal requirement known as the “Prevent duty” for public bodies to report suspected extremists was introduced in 2015, and the largest numbers of referrals come from police, schools and health workers.

Amnesty International UK said there had been no resolution to “criticism from across corners of civil society” over the disproportionate number of children and Muslims referred to Prevent.

Ilyas Nagdee, the charity’s lead for racial justice, told The Independent there were concerns that the government was seeking to “rubber-stamp a fundamentally flawed strategy”, adding: “Shockingly, it’s been almost four years since the announcement of an independent review into Prevent – and there’s still no end in sight.

“The missing of multiple parliamentary deadlines only further highlights the lack of respect being paid to what is a crucial task.”

A parallel probe launched by groups who boycotted the official review was published in February 2021, called Prevent “ineffective, disproportionate and discriminatory” and called for it to be stopped.

A report accused Prevent of being Islamophobic and discriminatory against Muslims, undermining free expression and targeting legal actions and behaviours without adequate justification.

Co-author John Holmwood, a sociology professor at the University of Nottingham, said it was “deeply disturbing” that the official review remained unpublished several months after parts were leaked to the media.

“The lengthy delays to publishing the Shawcross review means there has been speculation about the content and this is unhelpful,” he added.

“The report is three years late and the Home Office is due to publish new statistics on Prevent next month, which could make many of Mr Shawcross’s findings and recommendations redundant.”

Fellow author Dr Layla Aitlhadj said many people referred to Prevent are diverted to social care or mental health, “yet these same services have received huge cuts in the face of austerity”.

“This sets up the dangerous potential for over-reporting of ‘extremism’, when in fact only traditional care is needed,” she added.

A government spokesperson said it would publish the Prevent review and its response “in due course” but did not give a date, adding: “It is only right that the government takes the time to prepare and deliver a considered response.”

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