UK's Prevent counter-extremism programme to be independently reviewed, government says

Review started as part of amendments to controversial Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill accepted 

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 22 January 2019 19:09 GMT
The government has previously rebuffed calls to review or rebrand Prevent
The government has previously rebuffed calls to review or rebrand Prevent

The UK’s Prevent counter-extremism programme is to undergo an independent review, the government has announced after years of controversy.

Ministers and senior police officers had previously dismissed criticism and urged communities to support the scheme, resisting persistent calls to overhaul or rebrand it.

But on Tuesday the security minister said the “time was right to initiate a review of Prevent”.

“Communities across the country have got behind Prevent and are contributing to it because they want, as we do, their own young people to be protected from grooming and exploitation by terrorists,” Ben Wallace added.

“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.

“This review should expect those critics of Prevent, who often use distortions and spin, to produce solid evidence of their allegations.”

The review, to start within six months, was proposed by the House of Lords as part of a raft of amendments to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which will proceed to royal assent without a Commons vote.

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” and “cooker bomb” drawing criticism.

But Mr Wallace provided statistics on referrals, which show a 36 per cent rise in the number of suspected far-right extremists, as proof that 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”.

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

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

As recently as last month, Sajid Javid was defending Prevent and said some of its critics were “on the side of extremists”, while the head of UK counterterror policing called the programme the “most important pillar” of a national strategy against extremism.

The government said 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 last September had been referred to Prevent, as had a man who plotted to bomb Downing Street and behead Theresa May.

The government accepted several other amendments to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, watering down a controversial new law that will see people jailed for up to 10 years for entering “designated areas” abroad.

Aid workers told the government it was too broad and could criminalise British citizens working in conflict zones.

The amendments create exceptions for people who remain in newly designated areas involuntarily, or for listed purposes including humanitarian aid, journalism, working for a government, tnational military or United Nations, court appearances, funerals or visiting a terminally ill relative.

The law was drawn up to target Isis fighters and other terrorists who have proven difficult to prosecute under current British laws.

The Independent understands that areas considered for prohibition are likely to overlap with those where the government already warns against all travel, which currently includes the whole of Syria, Yemen, Libya, parts of Iraq and other warzones.

Bond, a network of UK international development organisations, said the amendments were an “important win” for the humanitarian sector.

Policy manager Rowan Popplewell said: “Aid and humanitarian actors are now finally exempt and no longer have to fear being charged with a criminal offence for simply trying to do their jobs.”

But MP John Woodcock accused the government of “endorsing loopholes” that could allow terrorists to travel to conflicts.

Aid workers raised fears they would be criminalised by the law
Aid workers raised fears they would be criminalised by the law (AFP/Getty)

He told the Commons the list of reasonable excuses could be “exploited” by deception, but Mr Wallace said people committing terror offences would still be detected.

“We are not in the business of drawing a circle around somewhere and saying no one is allowed in,” Mr Wallace added. “That said, someone would have to have a reasonable excuse and present it so that it can be tested and investigated.”

The changes accepted by the government fall short of 29 amendments put forward by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which called for a clause making accessing terrorist material online a criminal offence punishable by up to 15 years in prison to be scrapped.

The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy has accused the government of straying towards “thought crime”, and Max Hill QC, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, found it “difficult to countenance”.

Lords amendments inserted protections for journalism and academic research.

The new law will also make statements deemed to support a banned group illegal, broaden powers to stop and search people at borders without suspicion, and limit access to a lawyer for those questioned and detained.

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