The Scarman Lecture 2022: How Prevent undermines democracy

A snippet from a talk given as part of the Scarman Lecture at the University of Leicester by Layla Aitlhadj and Prof. John Holmwood.

Government has a duty to ensure the security of its citizens, but the balance between security and liberty is a difficult task and the subject of much debate.


However – as we have shown in our People’s Review – Prevent does not fulfil any role in keeping society safe.


In fact, Prevent – the government’s counter extremism strategy – is guilty of the very accusations made of those who commit terror offences – attacking democracy, our freedoms and way of life.


The strength and resilience of a democracy is found in how well it protects the rights of minorities. The current counter extremism strategy, we argue, divides us; it scapegoats British Muslims, encourages suspicion, damages community cohesion.


Most importantly, it targets our most vulnerable and important members of society – our children.


Prevent has been aptly described by Clive Walker as involving a ‘policy spiral’. This occurs with


“a policy which lacks clear initial purpose or subsequent direction, progression, control and reflection. A policy spiral is therefore susceptible to unresolved contradictions or gaps, dramatic direction changes, and uncertain outcomes” (2018: 725).


The policy spiral continues, reinforced by populist and divisive sentiments mobilised by government actors and their policy think tanks.


In 2015, a new Prevent safeguarding duty placed on all providers of public services (schools, colleges and universities, health providers, etc). This involved the requirement to report suspect, ‘vulnerable’ individuals for a possible ‘intervention’ through the Channel programme of support.


It needs to be stressed that the ‘ideologies’ deemed to be extremist are beliefs that are not illegal. No offences have been committed or intended by those reported for consideration under Prevent.


The ideas or behaviours at issue are deemed to be possible ‘precursors’ of ‘radicalisation’ into illegal actions, whether violent or non-violent.


But, in the case of Muslims, these ideas and behaviours are often normative religious or political engagements.


Since 2015, Prevent has given rise to what RUSI has called a ‘flourishing industry’.


Indeed, the Prevent bureaucracy is extensive. Multi-agency Prevent panels were established in all local authority areas in England.


They involve local designated officials (the ‘officers’ of the new Prevent bureaucracy), social workers, and counter-terrorism police. Each area has a local area Prevent coordinator overseen by regional Prevent coordinators responsible for each sector.


All of these regional co-ordinators then report directly to the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism in the Home Office, recently re-named as the Department for Homeland Security.


The Home Office estimates that over a million people had been trained up to 2019, with many more undergoing training since then. So, those at the forefront of enacting Prevent are the 5 million plus workers in public services who are asked to assume the role of agents of the state.


With the creation of new non-violent terrorism offences, the ‘bar’ of what is “pre-crime” and what is not “pre-crime” is being pushed even further back into the non-criminal space.


While the government’s review of Prevent led by William Shawcross is now entering its second year of delay, the government has continued to push through contentious legislation, with serious implications for the scope of Prevent strategy.


This is because new public order legislation extends the scope of ‘crimes’ for which a pre-criminal space can be justified for intervention under Prevent.


For example, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (2022) continued the creation of new politico-criminal offences which was also a feature of the earlier Counter Terrorism and Borders Act (2019)


The latter introduced a range of non-violent terrorist offences, while the latter has introduced new offences in the arena of civil disobedience. This looks set to continue whoever comes to occupy the role of home secretary in an increasingly dysfunctional Conservative government.


For each of one of these legislative documents and pages there are many people, whose lives, families, wider communities are all impacted.


More broadly, the civil society space in Britain is then shrunk; what little is left is made unsafe for healthy collaboration and the natural moderation of contentious views. This can only be counter-productive and dangerous for democracy. 


The full lecture will be available soon at for your viewing. 

The full lecture will be available by the end of the month here.

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