THE PEOPLE'S REVIEW OF PREVENT
A response to the government’s Independent Review of Prevent
The People’s Review of Prevent is an alternative review to the Government Shawcross-led review. This review provides a voice to the people most impacted by the Prevent Duty. You can read more about this and other reports here:
Prevent Watch is a community-led initiative which supports people impacted by the Prevent Duty. Established in September 2014, Prevent Watch has supported and documented hundreds of cases. For further information please visit: www.preventwatch.org
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Professor John Holmwood
John Holmwood is Professor Emeritus in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham.
John was formerly the Chair of the Council of UK Heads and Professors of Sociology (2007–2012), and President of the British Sociological Association (2012–2014)
John is also the editor (with Alex Smith) of Sociologies of Moderation: Problems of Democracy, Expertise and Media (Sociological Review Monographs, 2013).
John played a key role at a crucial turning point in the development of the Prevent duty. He co-authored with Theresa O’Toole the book Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Policy Press, 2018).
He was also an expert witness for the defence in professional misconduct cases brought against the teachers accused of the “plot” that hastened Prevent into schools.
Dr Layla Aitlhadj
Dr Layla Aitlhadj is the Director and Senior Caseworker at Prevent Watch where she supports people adversely impacted by the Prevent Duty.
Prevent Watch has supported nearly 600 cases and Layla has led on the support, litigation and advocacy work.
Layla has published extensively on Prevent and the broader implications of counter-terrorism legislation across multiple platforms including community, professional and independent outlets. She has edited lengthier academic reports and led more in-depth advocacy-based research.
Layla’s more recent work has included supporting law firms and advocacy groups centred on protecting the rights of those impacted by injustice. Layla is also the Executive Director at Nomos, an ngo seeking accountability for victims across the globe, as well as Director at MLAG, the largest active network of Muslim solicitors, barristers, academics and students.
Internationally, she has also contributed to and co-ordinated submissions to the International Court of Justice, and the European Security Conference on the human rights violations inherent in counter-extremism policies and programmes.
Ilyas Nagdee, Amnesty International UK’s Racial Justice Campaign and Policy Lead
“After boycotting the Shawcross review, we welcome the People’s Review of Prevent. It’s a much-needed resource to help challenge the discriminatory Prevent duty which has had disastrous consequences for many people. Since its inception, the Prevent duty has significantly impacted on human rights with cases of it surveilling children in nurseries, ferociously targeting Muslim communities and activists fighting for social justice. The Government should heed the People’s Review as a warning that we, along with the rest of civic society will not accept a whitewash with the Shawcross review. We congratulate the authors of Peoples Review for comprehensively laying out the impact of the Prevent duty and look forward to it being used as a resource for activists, academics and civic society at large.”
Dr Katy Sian, Northern Police Monitoring Project (NPMP)
“The People’s Review of Prevent offers a radical and much-needed alternative to the Government’s problematic Shawcross-led review of Prevent. Giving space to those most impacted by the policy, the PROP offers a robust critique supported by empirical data and in-depth analysis. The evidence clearly shows the limitations of Prevent and the years of damage it has caused for particularly Muslim communities. The findings of this vital report are irrefutable; Prevent must be dismantled once and for all.”
Mor Dioum, Director of The Victoria Climbié Foundation UK
“This report shows Prevent to be an extreme policy particularly for the racialised and ethnic minority community, which the government perceives as most vulnerable to radicalisation (in particular those of Islamic faith). The Prevent programme especially blurs the line between social workers and Prevent officers within local authority child safeguarding practice. As an independent organisation advocating for the rights of children to care and protection, we are duly concerned at the emphasis and changing strategy for schools; with the current state reviews likely to facilitate an increase in referrals and exclusions, and more widely the ‘policing’ of certain communities.”
Dr Tarek Younis, Senior Lecturer at Middlesex University- writer and researcher on Islamophobia,
security and mental health
“The people have waited too long for a truly independent report on Prevent. Unsurprisingly, the information in this report paints a grim reality about which scholars, activists and Muslim civil society have raised the alarm for years. This is as close to an evidence-based, in-depth analysis of the Prevent’s impact as we can get. The reality is damning: Prevent is not a good tree with some bad apples, but a rotten tree—racist from its roots—on which the nation has expended a lot of money in order to give it a healthy appearance. It is high-time time to cut this tree at its roots, and demand justice and accountability for over 10 years of its violence.”
Raghad Alitikriti’s, Chairwoman of Muslim Association of Britain
“This rigorously researched review into Prevent is vitally necessary and its findings are alarming. It demonstrates, beyond any doubt, that Prevent is inherently Islamophobic and that it has been woefully ineffective at deterring people from being drawn to terrorism. The devastating impact of Prevent referrals on the psyche and emotional wellbeing of those caught up in its net of false accusations is highlighted in the report through detailed case studies. It also shows the extent to which Prevent has been allowed to permeate our daily lives, undermining our freedom of expression, and compromising proper safeguarding obligations of social workers, teachers, and health professionals. We endorse the findings of this review and call on the government to adopt its recommendations of withdrawing the Prevent strategy altogether.”
Azfar Shafi – Head of Research, CAGE.
“The government’s ‘Independent Review of Prevent’ has been defined by a series of provocations and calculated insults against critics of Prevent, which shattered any illusion that it would be a meaningful or reflective exercise. On the other hand, the People’s Review of Prevent provides a comprehensive and authoritative assessment of Prevent, its deleterious impact on rights and legal protections, and the manifold ways that it has securitised and transformed the social lives of Muslims in Britain, for the worse. The disturbing cases documented in the report decisively cut through the spin and distortions that we have long been subject to by Prevent’s advocates – and serve as an urgent reminder of why the programme must be abolished once and for all.”
Ahammed Hussain, Director at Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK
“It is no exaggeration to say that the UK’s Prevent strategy has scarred the Muslim community. With its stated aim to ‘prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’, so much license has been given to figures of authority to justify investigating Muslims based on ignorant or bigoted whims; consequently, the dynamic between the authorities and the Muslim community has become one of a surveillance state versus a population it perceives to be predisposed to crime. This is not the basis of a healthy democracy. The People’s Review of Prevent is giving us all something that has been long overdue: an honest account of the facts and flaws of the Prevent strategy. In doing so, this true Review is an indispensable tool for those of us who understand that the Prevent strategy legitimises Islamophobic paranoia and must be scrapped.”
Alison Scott Baumann
Professor of Society & Belief
Senior Lecturer in Politics
Conor Gearty QC (Hon)
Professor of Human Rights Law
Dr Sunil Kumar
Social Policy and Development
The Victoria Climbié Foundation
Professor and Director of RACE.ED
Rob Faure Walker
Human Rights Barrister
Professor of Sociology
Alison Scott Baumann
Professor of Society & Belief
Senior Lecturer in Politics
Conor Gearty QC (Hon)
Professor of Human Rights Law
Dr David Renton
Dr Sunil Kumar
Social Policy and Development
Naeem Ibn Farouq
The Victoria Climbié Foundation
Professor and Director of RACE.ED
Rob Faure Walker
Human Rights Barrister
Professor of Sociology
We also acknowledge friends, family and many others who wanted to remain anonymous
Professor Conor Gearty FBA, QC (Hon)
Conor is a founder member of Matrix Chambers. His practice as a barrister is primarily in human rights law and in public law, together with work in the field of corporate social responsibility. Conor is also Professor of Human Rights Law at the London School of Economics (LSE) where he has been Director of its Centre for the Study of Human Rights and Institute of Public Affairs. He is currently Vice President for Social Sciences at the British Academy.
There is no question that political violence is a horrible fact across much of the world today. The term embraces terrorism which, involving as it does acts of violence against non-combatants, is surely to be rejected in countries with coherent democratic traditions. The attack on the Manchester Arena in 2017 and the more recent killing of Sir David Amess are reminders of the futility as well as the unacceptability of such conduct. No goal is brought about; nor is any strategic intention realised. All that is achieved is pain and suffering. These attacks need to be understood and every effort made to prevent them.
In the name of preventing political violence, however, a wider and malign form of politics-prevention is becoming normalised in our culture. Whereas at its inception the Labour Government’s Prevent programme was limited to acts of politically motivated violence, now after over eleven years of Conservative hegemony it roams far more widely, attacking with the might of the state not just those who are violent alone, but also those judged not to subscribe to British values. The established political culture sees no contradiction in closing down discussion in the name of free speech, and in condemning those with whom it disagrees in order to promote the supposedly British ideals of tolerance and freedom. And so genuine campaigns for radical change – for migrant rights; for a just climate policy; for the rights of Palestinians; for animal rights; and much else – get tarred with a brush that declares them all types of ‘extremism’ and demands censorship and control. And of course as this Report convincingly demonstrates, members of our Islamic communities are on the front line so far as Prevent aggression is concerned.
As a society we cannot continue to allow this drift towards authoritarian homogeneity, a culture where only the inclinations of the powerful are allowed to enter into the political fray. Prevent expands the frontiers of state power well past crime into that pre-criminal arena we used to call freedom. It leads to the stigmatisation of certain communities as suspect and even dangerous, regardless of how carefully they seek to stay within the law. Our culture, our society, are better than this, both more resilient and better able than is commonly supposed to draw upon cross-community solidarity.
This report is an expression of critical engagement by those who are worried by the ever-expanding Prevent agenda. It is a voice that demands to be heard by all politicians and policy makers, especially those interested not only in critique but in putting the case for positive change as well.
Professor Fionnuala Ni Aolain
Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Regents Professor and Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy and Society (the University of Minnesota Law School) United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism.
The People’s Review of Prevent is an important and timely initiative focused on bringing a range of voices and experiences into national discussions around the impact of preventing and countering violent extremism policies.
As United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, I have consistently advocated for the importance of positively and consistently engaging diverse communities and grassroots civil society actors in the review of counter-terrorism and extremism policies and practice by government. Creating the conditions for inclusion, as well as processes that meaningfully engage the confidence and support of all parts of society is essential for producing policy that is likely to inculcate the trust and engagement necessary for communities that experience the impact of P/CVE policies and practices.
My 2020 Report (A/HRC/43/46) to the Human Rights Council tackled a range of human rights violations associated with the use of Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism policy and practice across the globe. Evidence of such impacts in one national context (the United Kingdom) are detailed in this Review Report and make for uncomfortable reading. In documenting the negative impact of the Prevent strategy on the lives of families, individuals and children across the United Kingdom, this report affirms the vital role that human rights and civil society organisations play in holding government policy to account. The People’s Review makes the strongest case that only rights-affirming and rights-focused policies will have long-term success in preventing violence in society.
The production and publication of the People’s Review provides an important input to the current review process for the Prevent Strategy by channeling and documenting the experience of affected individuals. It also contributes to wider public and policy debates concerning prevention strategies and their impact on fundamental human rights. The data provided by this Report underscore the critical need to directly attend to deep concerns about discrimination, stigma, de facto criminalisation of individuals particularly children, privacy violations, intrusion on the freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs, and negative impact on the right to education, health, and participation in public affairs for targeted individuals, primarily Muslims.
It highlights the need to address the role of professional bodies in securitised prevention — from teachers to social workers to medical staff— and opens a wider debate about the consequences of ‘pre-criminal’ regulation for the rights of the child. It is my sincere hope that this Report will enable a broader and necessary conversation to take place about the operation of the current Prevent strategy in the United Kingdom.
In the spirit of inclusive, tolerant, and critical engagement with the vibrant civil society actors working to dialogue on these important issues with society as a whole and government in particular, the Report is welcomed.
The People’s Review of Prevent took place in response to the government’s Independent Review of Prevent conducted by William Shawcross and currently due to report early this year. We will discuss the context of his review in our Introduction to this report. Our own review arises from community concern about his lack of independence and his previous dismissals of critics of Prevent .
As part of our review, we have conducted an evaluation of reports and academic research on Prevent undertaken over the last decade. This has also included consideration of the commentaries of external agencies such as the United Nations. As a ‘People’s Review’, we have drawn on the testimonies of individuals affected by Prevent, available from the files of almost 600 cases brought to Prevent Watch (all cases have been anonymised and cited with permission). We made a call for submissions and conducted weekly online roundtables from August through to October with community groups and academic experts. Our report has been reviewed by a panel of advisers, all of whom are experts in their fields.
The terms of reference of the Shawcross Review are restrictive, forward looking and concerned primarily with the ‘effectiveness’ of Prevent. About Its preliminary ‘findings’ have been under discussion with the Home Office over the last few months since evidence taking and invited public engagements were completed at the end of July 2021. However, submissions to it have not been made publicly available (unlike in the case for the Independent Review of the Human Rights Act conducted around the same time, for example1). The government will publish its response to the Shawcross Review recommendations simultaneously to the publication of the report, meaning that its evidence base will not be available for scrutiny and evaluation. A supposed independent review has been drafted in close collaboration with the Home Office. Very early on in this process, a number of organisations and individuals across the UK, realised that a properly independent People’s Review of Prevent (PROP) was necessary.
Challenges Faced by the PROP
In October 2021, the People’s Review submitted over 273 FOIs to every local authority in England, but only 56 local authorities were forthcoming in their responses about whether they were a priority area for Prevent. We sent an FOI to the Home Office, which in January 2022 confirmed the existence of PPAs and provided a list of 44 (see Box 12). However, the Home Office declined our request to explain how a PPA is determined, citing ‘national security’ reasons.
Our ability to evaluate Prevent has also been made challenging by the wider lack of transparency associated with Prevent. A major part of its implementation involves Prevent Priority Areas (PPAs). These are areas of special concern with extra funding allocated to them. However, neither the criteria by which they are identified, nor a list of where they are located, has been publicly available since 2015, when Prevent was extended. The government has responded to criticisms that Prevent is discriminatory by restricting information that would allow a proper assessment of such claims.
It is significant that, of the two domains in which Prevent has major impact, health services and education, only the former provides aggregate data that can be scrutinised (as has been done with formidable care and rigour by the NPO and registered charity Medact2, which campaigns for solutions to social, political and economic conditions that deepen health inequalities). This is because the organisation of health services through the NHS provides general reporting and oversight from which data can be derived (albeit with some difficulty).
Schooling lacks the same coherence of organisation and has been part ‘privatised’ under the academies programme. In school year 2020/21, 37% of primary schools and 78% of secondary schools in England were outside local authority responsibility3. Academies are subject only to the central authority of the Department of Education and its inspection agencies, Ofsted and the Education Funding Agency (the latter specifically for academies and free schools). We know from the work of Pat Thomson, Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, about extensive financial mismanagement and cheating within the academies system4.
It is not simply that details about Prevent referrals and other engagements with Prevent can be restricted on ‘national security’ grounds, but that details about the substance of the curriculum and teaching of equalities, including ‘British values’ and so on, are not made public, and information can be restricted by Multi-Academy Trusts as a matter of corporate policy5. Ofsted inspectors are aware of whether the schools they are inspecting are within a PPA and can tailor their inspections accordingly.
Prevent is one of the four component parts of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy – CONTEST – directed at preventing people from being drawn into terrorism. 6 The other strands are: Protect, which is concerned with strengthening protection against a terrorist attack; Prepare, which is about the mitigation of the impact of a terrorist attack; and Pursue, which is directed at stopping terrorist attacks. The strategy’s stated aim is specifically to disrupt, detect, and investigate terrorist activity. For its part, Prevent is designed to stop people becoming terrorists, or from supporting terrorism.
As we shall see in this report, Prevent involves a ‘pre-criminal space’ where no offences have been committed. Any assessment of risks that offences may occur in the future is necessarily highly speculative. Nonetheless, Prevent is highly intrusive within British Muslim communities and among children and young people.
In this report, we will evaluate Prevent in the way in which it impinges on life in modern Britain as an extension of state-organised surveillance security measures over everyday life. While Prevent is a policy, it also encapsulates guidance and a cluster of practices across a number of sectors concerned with the delivery of public services – for example, child-care, schooling, further and higher education, prisons and probationary services, and health services. Each organisation providing such services must have ‘due regard’ for its responsibilities to prevent people being drawn into terrorism. Those who are judged to be at risk of ‘radicalisation’ through the interventions associated with Prevent are provided with education in a special programme called Channel.
Practitioners are tasked with identifying ‘vulnerable’ young people and adults at risk of ‘radicalisation’ and being drawn into criminal offences, as defined under the various legislative acts concerning terrorism offences. In UK legislation, the term terrorism applies to violent actions which seek to support an ideological cause, and also to non-violent acts such as inviting support for a proscribed organisation, as well as viewing or possessing material (online or offline) thought to be useful for terrorists 7
We will see that Prevent is a self-maintaining and self-justifying set of practices. The volume of cases is not an indication of its need, but of its overbearing character and the operation of the political logic that drives it. Since children and young people caught up in Prevent are not being considered as committing an offence, they can by interviewed by the police and counter-terrorism officers without any of the protections they would have if they were charged with an offence (such as having a parent with them while being interviewed). The provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) do not apply and the police need not keep a record of the interviews, nor need interviews be conducted in the presence of a responsible adult (though, as we shall see, records on individuals are kept).
We can liken Prevent to a vast sorting mechanism, one which has been applied disproportionately to children and young people and, in a discriminatory fashion, to Muslim children. The government provides annual data on the number of ‘cases’ associated with Prevent, but it is important not to treat these data, or any trends they exhibit as ‘real’.
This is because children and young people, their families and carers, and other individuals come under suspicion as a consequence of a ‘subjective feeling’ by someone in their environment (and partly determined by whether or not they live in a Prevent Priority Area). They will then be interviewed, frequently involving police and social workers, before a formal referral to a local Prevent Panel is considered. The only data made available is on formal Prevent referrals (collected for England and Wales and made available through Home Office Statistics)8. However, a referral is already some way into the Prevent process, when harms will have been done to children and young people as a consequence of being under suspicion. Moreover, an individual’s records will still be kept (within schools, for example, as evidence to Ofsted inspectors of compliance with the Prevent duty) even if a referral isn’t made.
Data from the Home Office has been available on a comparable basis since 2015-16 (the last two years have been affected by the Covid 19 pandemic and the closure of schools). Here we will indicate our concerns with a snapshot of data from just one-year, 2017-18. In that year, there were 7,318 Prevent referrals of which 42% were judged to require no action.
Another 40% left the process and were directed to other services (that is, were judged not to be at risk of ‘radicalisation’) before a Channel discussion took place. 70% of those discussed at Channel did not proceed onto the programme.
In all, 394 individuals out of a total of 7,318 were judged appropriate for Channel. This represents 5% of all those formally referred to Prevent.
“Children can be interviewed by officers without the protection they would have under the PACE Act if they were charged.”
None have committed an offence, but are reported for being at risk of a ‘radicalisation’ yet to take place. The 5% are also falsely labelled and their placement carries a notable stigma.
Medact employs a nice analogy with medical screening to state that 95% of Prevent referrals are ‘false positives’. The government frequently employs the metaphor of an iceberg to indicate that terrorist offences represent its ‘tip’. Out of sight is what they claim to be the mass of a large and worrying problem. Let us apply the same analogy to what the 5% represents.
In 2017-18, just 394 individuals were identified as part of the government’s submerged iceberg of terrorism threats. Yet they are the tip of another iceberg – this is the iceberg of demonstrably unwarranted suspicion.
If we explore more deeply, it includes all those for whom Channel was deemed inappropriate, 6924 individuals. But we have already stated that this is a smaller subset of those subject to some kind of Prevent consideration.
The very threat of a process being begun under Prevent has a chilling effect, one that is most acute for British Muslims, and which is built into the PPAs and their ‘spatialised Islamophobia’ 9. This cannot be easily demonstrated as no data is recorded for religion or ethnicity. 10 It can, however, be inferred from the categorisation of the ‘extremism risk’ recorded – whether ‘Islamist’ or ‘far-right’. Forty-four percent of referrals were for Islamist extremism, yet Muslims make up only 5.7% of the population.
We do not believe that the situation is better because there is an increasing proportion of cases associated with a right-wing ‘extremism risk’ (or some other category that comes into the news and finds its way into Prevent concerns, such as ‘incels’). In all cases, the problem is that the actual risk of the ‘positives’ is highly speculative, at best, while the vast majority will be ‘false positives’. These false positives are a self-reinforcing mechanism to convince the public of Prevent’s necessity and its ‘effectiveness’. While the data is not indicative of any risks that are real, it does reveal the way it is applied to specific groups and in specific sectors.
Yet Prevent can lay no evidential claim to the disruption of terrorism. Any ‘successes’ on that score (and by that token, any failures) occur within the Pursue strand of CONTEST. We will see that the government very frequently conflates Pursue and Prevent. Pursue also concerns the ‘pre-criminal space’, but it is directed toward actions that constitute direct threats.
Prevent also includes a strand that deals with ex-offenders (including those who have committed terrorist offences), where it is extended to offenders who may have been ‘radicalised’ within the prison system.
Throughout this report, we will be demonstrating the harms visited by Prevent on those who are caught up in its net of false suspicions. It will be vivid in the cases we present. The disproportionate impact of Prevent on children and young people is evident.
In 2017-18, children under 15 made up 27% of all referrals, but just 5.6% of those referred proceeded on to Channel.
Young people aged 15-20 made up 29% of all referrals, and just 7% proceeded on to Channel. Broadly, around a third of all referrals come from schools. The number of referrals made to Channel by English universities is very small – a mere 15 students were assigned to the Channel programme in 2017-18.11 Prevent, we argue, represents an abuse of children and young people done in the name of ‘safeguarding’ within a framework of their perceived vulnerability to ‘radicalisation’.
For example, Usman Khan, the perpetrator of the Fishmongers’ Hall attack was released from prison following his sentence and was monitored under Prevent. We do not doubt that he posed a real risk and that such monitoring was necessary. However, it is more properly regarded as a failure of security services and the services for ex-offenders. In no way does his case indicate wider problems with Prevent. If anything, it shows that this function would be better addressed as part of Pursue. In a similar way, Salman Abedi (perpetrator of the Manchester Arena bombing) and Malik Faisal Akram (of the Texas synagogue hostage-taking incident) were both reportedly ‘subjects of interest’ to counter terrorism police and MI5, but their level of risk was downgraded. Police could have recommended both for Channel training in that process, but they did not do so.
Further evidence that Prevent is not involved in the mitigation of terrorism threats is indicated by the fact that it does not apply in Northern Ireland, despite the underlying political conflict there, where the threat of terrorist attacks is registered as severe.12 Simply, the nature of the political divide in Northern Ireland would render a policy like Prevent impossible.
As we shall see, Prevent depends on a majority-minority dynamic. Equally, there are differences in the implementation of Prevent in other jurisdictions, deriving from their public services being a devolved responsibility and the failure of the UK government to pursue a bi-partisan approach with other devolved nations in the UK. Prevent, then, is as much a phenomenon of party politics and jockeying for electoral advantage as it is a governmental strategy that requires wider support.
In this report we show: Prevent is Islamophobic; there is no problem of integration of British Muslim communities and no basis for regarding them and their families with suspicion.
Prevent is discriminatory in the way in which it approaches far-right terrorism differently from that of Islamist terrorism in guidance, training and application. Far-right extremism is seen as a problem of individuals rather than communities.
Prevent undermines free expression by defining as ‘extremist’ views and actions which are a normal part of a healthy and functioning democracy.
Prevent targets actions and behaviours which are not in themselves illegal and for which there is no evidence that they have any relation to future terrorist offences. It has no justification in the light of national security requirements, which can all be satisfied through other measures within the counter-terrorism strategy and the UK’s extensive legislative toolkit.
Prevent relies on profiling through Prevent Priority Areas which target Muslim communities and poor communities disproportionately; it also takes the signs among young people of ordinary identity development and explorations in belonging as indications of ‘riskiness’, as well as sanctioning their activism.
Prevent undermines the proper safeguarding obligations of social workers, teachers and health professionals. It does so by bringing children and young people under an extraordinarily extensive net of surveillance. This includes the creation in England and Wales of a national curriculum in ‘fundamental British values’ determined by national security interests.
Prevent is an abuse of individual rights to privacy and the protection of data and information held about them, especially in the case of children. Information gathered under Prevent interventions does not involve criminal offences, yet data can be gathered with leading questions, then held and shared as if it involved the most serious offences.
Prevent is overwhelmingly directed at children and young people where it represents an abuse of their rights and the obligation to put their needs first. There is no national security justification for its policies and practices in education or in other services provided for them.
Prevent is an abuse of fundamental human rights and protected equalities, especially those preventing discrimination on the grounds of race and ethnicity, and religion. The government proposes that terrorist activities threaten human rights, and yet it breaches them in its own Prevent policies and evades scrutiny.
Furthermore, Prevent ‘expertise’ is being shared with oppressive regimes, including those who terrorise their Muslim populations, and is part of a broader drift towards authoritarianism and efforts to reduce long established human rights principles.
We call on the government to withdraw its Prevent strategy on the grounds that it is ineffective, disproportionate and discriminatory.
We call on practitioners caught up in Prevent, community groups, trades unions and professional associations, and civil society groups to demand that Prevent be withdrawn.
The People’s Review of Prevent is concerned primarily with the operation of Prevent since 2011 and with its consolidation and expansion after 2015. We will provide a broader context for the operation of Prevent since 2003 in the next chapter. The extension of Prevent since 2011 has largely taken place without proper public scrutiny.
The Road to the Shawcross Review
First established in 2003, the Home Office undertook an internal review of its Prevent strategy in 2011. That review was provided with a favourable foreword by the then Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Lord Carlile. There has been no review since then, until the announcement of the present Independent Review as part of the passage of the Counter Terrorism and Borders Bill in February 2019.
Amendments to the legislation setting out the initial review allowed an extension of the date by which the government should respond and bring recommendations to Parliament. This was due to delays caused by the resignation of the first appointed reviewer, Lord Carlile, and the impact of the Covid-19 epidemic. A new reviewer, William Shawcross, was appointed in March 2021 and the date was set for December 31st 2021, by which the government would have received the report and put recommendations to Parliament. This date has passed, and no new date has been provided. It is now expected in early 2022.
The Prevent Strategy of 2011 declared that the previous approach had been flawed and overly concerned with measures to promote integration, rather than measures to prevent terrorism. It was modified to include measures directed against non-violent extremism; that is, against “organisations that oppose our values of human rights, equality before the law, democracy and full participation in our society”.13
This approach also placed Prevent outside the scope of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. Prevent measures were further extended under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act in 2015 with the introduction of statutory duties on schools, further and higher education institutions, health services, prisons and other providers of public services (though a pilot within the health sector had begun in 2010).14
This extension took place using the language of safeguarding, but without addressing the criticisms of the very real harms that Prevent itself was doing, especially to children and young people, and by the subordination of schooling to a security agenda. The statutory duty involves identifying vulnerable young people and adults at risk of ‘radicalisation’ and being drawn into committing a terrorism offence (itself a worryingly expanded set of offences and more extensive than in other countries). The specific definition of radicalisation is that it is, “a process by which a person comes to support terrorism and extremist ideologies associated with terrorist groups”.15
As we shall see, those identified as a concern include nursery and primary schools, who then become subject to investigation under Prevent, which is part of counter-terrorism. Guidance goes further to steer frontline public sector workers to be alert to ‘non-violent extremism’. This represents a disturbing government interest in the scrutiny of private life.
It was prefigured in the Prevent Strategy 2011 with the statement that alongside ‘radicalising’ ideas and behaviours, they were also concerned with ‘radicalising locations’. These were defined as, “venues, often unsupervised, where the process of radicalisation takes place. Locations include public spaces, for example university campuses and mosques, as well as private/ more concealed locations such as homes, cafes, and bookstores”.16 The discriminatory nature of the statement – ‘mosques’, rather than ‘places of worship’ – is clear, but so, too, is the illiberal nature of the concern with the surveillance of religious practices and with the surveillance of families. Indeed, it is clear that the only reason to include nursery and primary schools under the Prevent duty has been to provide access to families and carers through their children.
1.1 The Problem of Islamophobia and the Prevent Notion of ‘British Values’
The new requirements introduced under Prevent in 2015 also included a statutory duty on schools (published in the previous year following the much-publicised Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair – see, Box 1) to promote ‘fundamental British values’, now codified as commitments to the rule of law, democracy, individual liberty, and tolerance of different views (religious and non-religious).17
This requirement was placed on all publicly-funded schools in England, including academies and free schools. Notwithstanding that the latter were freed from the requirements of the national curriculum that applied to schools under the responsibility of local authorities. In effect, the duty has become a new national curriculum in English schools, one which is defined by purported requirements of national security.
These developments were widely seen by civil society groups as being a threat to civil liberties, especially those associated with free speech, as well as being seen to contribute to the idea of British Muslims as a ‘suspect’ community.20
The latter charge was countered by the claim that the measures were also directed against violent threats other than terrorism conducted in the name of Islam, such as those associated with the ‘far right’. We deal with this problematic claim in this report. It should be remembered that Prevent itself is directed against ideas and behaviours that are not themselves unlawful, and have previously been understood as part of a diverse and plural public sphere. For example, the government has recently sought to incorporate Black Lives Matter, the left, and environmental activism under its strictures about extremism.21
This is perverse, not only because the idea of a diverse and plural public sphere would seem to be intrinsic to the liberal values that underpin the idea of ‘British values’, but also because the opposite claim was made in the Conservative Party Election Manifesto in 2017. Theresa May claimed there that, “to defeat extremism, we need to learn from how civil society and the state took on racism in the twentieth century”.22 Now the state seeks to take on anti-racism.
Box 1: The ‘Leaked’ Letter that Undermined and Stigmatised a School
In early 2014 a letter leaked to the media claimed there was a plot by teachers and governors in Birmingham (and Bradford and Oldham) to take over and ‘Islamicise’ schools.18 There were multiple inquiries, including by Ofsted, the Education Funding Agency and the former Head of Counter-Terrorism at the Metropolitan Police, Peter Clarke.
In 2015, the affair was the only example given in the Home Office Counter Extremism Strategy of the risks of Islamist extremism in schools. It stated that Clarke had found evidence of a “co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action… to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos” and that, “in total around 5,000 children were in institutions affected”.19
In the event, no charges of extremism were brought against teachers, only charges of ‘undue religious influence’.
In May 2017, the cases against the senior leadership team at the school at the centre of the supposed plot, Park View Academy, collapsed due to an ‘abuse of process’ by the solicitors acting for the Department for Education.
Park View School had been a failing school in 1996, but by 2012 it was deemed outstanding and in the top 14% of schools in England. Its pupil intake was 98.8% Muslim and 72.7% of pupils were in receipt of free school meals (against a national average of 15.2%) and just 7.5% of children had English as a first language (against 82.7%). Its ‘feeder’ primary school was, at the time also judged to be a failing school.
Neither the official inquiries, nor the media, reported that Park View Academy had been asked by the Department for Education to takeover other schools as part of the Department’s schools improvement programme and had taken place under the scrutiny of officials. The takeovers were signed off by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.
The Undermining of Fundamental Rights and Good Governance
We have a lot to say about the policing of the pre-criminal space in this report.23The idea is that there are some ideas and behaviours that are a risk to the public in so far as they are a possible precursor to criminal activity – they could be represented as the first part of a ‘conveyor belt’ into crime.24 Prevent represents an extension of the surveillance powers of the state through the incorporation of practitioners across a range of public services into a security role with regard to their clients, patients, users, or pupils under their care. Private individuals do not have any obligations under the Prevent Duty, nor do religious organisations, since it applies only to specified authorities. However, they are encouraged to report anyone about whom they have concerns to the police or other authority, from which point they are brought under the local process to evaluate whether a referral should take place.25
Because Prevent operates in a pre-criminal space, the police are not subject to the normal safeguards about interviewing children or the management of evidence, which apply in criminal cases.
As we will show elsewhere in this report, this causes real harms to children and their families and carers. Rather than their duties to the welfare of their clients taking precedence, practitioners working in these sectors are compelled to first act on behalf of policing and security services. As we shall see, this is in clear breach of their ethical responsibilities, as well as the human rights of their clients, especially children. Moreover, it is in the nature of Prevent that its powers can be readily extended by government using statutory instruments, as we shall discuss below.
In January 2018, the Government appointed a Commissioner for Countering Extremism – Sara Khan – but she was provided with no powers equivalent to those of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. She called for those powers in October 2019, stating that the Commission should be placed on a statutory basis to guarantee independence (see Box 2).26 This did not happen. Moreover, there are increasing concerns that, should it happen as a consequence of the Shawcross Review, that any such appointment will lack independence.
Box 2: An independent report for the Commission for Countering Extremism in July 2019, commented that:
“Extensive existing research, including that undertaken by civil society organisations, suggests that there is some distrust or uncertainty about the regulatory frameworks, motivating logics, reporting, transparency and rights respectfulness of countering extremism generally, and Prevent in particular … that (i) counter extremism activities result in violations of legally protected human rights, including rights to privacy, education, assembly, expression, and non-discrimination; (ii) counter-extremism activities are ineffective and have unintended societal impacts with negative effects for long-term and sustainable security; and
(iii) there is a lack of political willingness meaningfully to review and revisit the current approach to countering extremism, and thus to address their potentially deleterious rights, society and security impacts.” (page 10)
The report recommended a standing mechanism for independent review on an annual basis with the reviewer to be “appointed in accordance with the principles and codes of public appointments, [to] have relevant expertise (especially analytical skills, and expertise in law, human rights, or countering extremism), and [to] be reasonably countering extremism), and [to] be reasonably considered non-partisan.” (page 11)27
The further response of the Home Office, in anticipation of the Shawcross Review, is concerning. According to a report in The Times, there will a revamp of policies which “aims to shift resources to focus on groups and people who pose the biggest threat”.28 There is no indication that there will be any statutory mechanism for the independent oversight of any new policies, though (belying The Times report) an advertisement for a new Commissioner for Countering Extremism has been posted.29
We shall suggest that the problems with Prevent are more fundamental than a lack of proper oversight. The latter, however, is deeply symptomatic. Resistance to scrutiny has been a feature of government responses both to criticisms of Prevent and more widely.
When the government in February 2019 finally conceded an Independent Review of Prevent (to be completed within 18 months) at the tail end of Theresa May’s minority government, it was part of a ‘deal’ necessary to pass a new Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill.
Then Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Max Hill QC, was very critical of provisions in the Bill in evidence provided to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (significantly, his appointment was ended after only a year in office before the Bill completed its passage).30
The Bill introduced ‘stop and search’ measures at the border and removed the requirement that there should be reasonable suspicion. It also introduced restrictions on the posting and accessing of images (for example, of flags and clothing) that might indicate support for terrorist groups.31
Notwithstanding any concerns about these measures, the announcement of an Independent Review of Prevent as part of the legislation was welcomed by the human rights and civil liberties groups that criticised the new Act.32
Security minister Ben Wallace announced the review with a challenge to critics of Prevent to provide solid evidence, accusing them otherwise of ‘spin and distortion’.33
It was left to his successor, Brandon Lewis to announce the appointment of the intended reviewer, Lord Carlile. The latter was hardly independent and, as we have seen, had, in fact, endorsed the 2011 Prevent Strategy that introduced the very measures that are at issue.
Following the threat of legal challenge by Rights and Security International (formerly known as Rights Watch UK), an NGO that investigates human rights abuses around the world, Lord Carlile stepped down. The review fell into abeyance, until, finally, William Shawcross was appointed by the new government of Boris Johnson in 2021.
Shawcross was a Director at the Henry Jackson Society and a Senior Fellow of Policy Exchange. He was Chair of the Charity Commission between 2012 and 2018 when it carried out lengthy and discriminatory investigations of Muslim charities.34
The Henry Jackson Society and Policy Exchange are neo-conservative think tanks with strong security agendas associated with the clash-of-civilisations thesis and the ‘war on terror’, where British Muslims are constructed as a potential ‘enemy within’.35 They have close links with right-wing foundations in the US and with British journalists and conservative politicians who circulate between them.36
They are active in representing critics of Prevent and advocacy groups – especially groups representing British Muslims – as ‘extremist’ simply because of their opposition to Prevent.37 As Dr Khadijah Elshayyal – an Associate Fellow at the University of Edinburgh specialising in British Muslim identity politics and representation – has argued, this has seriously undermined Muslim participation in public life, in direct contradiction of what was claimed to be one of Prevent’s key objectives in promoting ‘British values’.38
Notwithstanding that a review was pending, the government also gave indications (for example, in new guidance to schools
in England about curriculum material) that it would seek to include other forms of ‘extremism’, such as that associated with environmental activism, Black Lives Matter, and ‘left’ groups.39 The new ‘national curriculum’ in England of ‘fundamental British values’, then, is driven by an ostensible national security interest, but also by a partisan political ideology.
In effect, the government has extended the definition of extremism to include non-violent civil disobedience and, indeed, political positions that do not support the current government, just as civil liberties groups have warned. Prevent has itself become an ideological project of the government as part of a populist right-wing electoral strategy with no constraint upon its exercise. Indeed, it has been noted that the publication of the Shawcross Review and its recommendations have been delayed in alignment with the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.40
This would have the purpose of extending the reach of Prevent into the pre-crime indicators of actions newly (and problematically) criminalised by this Bill.
Getting Past the ‘Spin and Distortion’ from Government and the Prevent Lobby
The immediate response to the appointment of William Shawcross by Muslim organisations and civil society advocacy groups, alike – for example, MEND, Liberty and Amnesty International – was to call for a boycott of the review. Seventeen organisations signed up.41 A further 500 organisations and individuals also resolved to boycott the review.42
Other government reviews have also been criticised for their partisan character and the selective use of evidence – with the recent Commission on Racial Disparities review perhaps being the most egregious. It was widely criticised, including by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (significant because UN rapporteurs had previously praised the Race Disparity Unit as a sign that the government was tackling structural inequalities associated with race, ethnicity and religion)43, as well as by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in a dossier of critical comments prior to its publication, notwithstanding that the EHRC then did an about-turn and welcomed it on publication.44
‘Spin and distortion’ (a term used by Ben Wallace, then security minister, to describe the legitimate concerns of those critical of Prevent), seems then rather to be the approach of government, not that of its critics. It is now ‘baked in’ because alignment with government policy has become the primary consideration in public appointments, rather than independence and concern for good governance. This signals an alarming trajectory that is in many ways distilled in Prevent.
One consequence of the boycott of the Shawcross Review is that critical voices will not be heard, while at the same time a growing infrastructure of officials and consultancies with vested interests in the maintenance of Prevent have been consulted as part of Shawcross’s direct concern for the ‘effectiveness’ of Prevent. It is in this context, that we undertook a People’s Review of Prevent. It is a review that represents civil society groups and people impacted by Prevent; its findings are presented in the following pages.