shawcross’ refusal to accept critique is a warning sign
In his review of Prevent, William Shawcross stated at para 6.250: “The campaign against Prevent has included some civil liberties groups and activists who seemingly, as a matter of principle, oppose a state-run scheme to counter specific ideas, attitudes, and non-criminal behaviours, no matter how light touch the scheme’s methods.”
This blog deals with the other aspects of Prevent, besides its harms, that concern many organisations and individuals, and which are indicated in this quote.
Shawcross admits ‘targeting’ via an undefined concept
As Shawcross clearly admits, despite Prevent being part of the counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, all the ideas and behaviours it targets are lawful, although they are defined by the government as “extreme” according to a contentious and partisan definition.
Recent events in Israel-Palestine and senior ministers arguing for prosecutions of protesters calling for a ceasefire, as well as calls for action against social media messages illustrate just how subjective and dangerously wide interpretations of “extremism” can be.
Indeed, despite Prevent’s remit, there is no legal definition of extremism. The attempt to provide one in the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 failed. Sarah Khan and Mark Rowley proposed that there should be a legal definition of “hateful extremism” in February 2021.
This report – written for the CCE – has been buried. Home Secretary Priti Patel was replaced as head of the CCE in March 2021 by Robin Simcox. Were “hateful extremism” to be unlawful, however, it would move outside the remit of Prevent, which is concerned with the pre-criminal space.
Dodgy definitions and statistics that concern CT services
Since Khan and Rowley’s report, there has been an Independent Review of Prevent (under William Shawcross). Instead of discussing these important issues, Shawcross sidestepped them altogether.
He has instead proposed a radical change in the role of the CCE, and assigned it a political role: it will be solely responsible for Prevent, reporting to the Home Secretary.
Simcox’s new responsibility involves oversight of all Prevent guidelines, the coordination of activities across government departments, down to local Prevent officers who are to be placed under the responsibility of Regional Prevent Commissioner. It is a deep securitisation of society.
The Shawcross Review recommended no new definition of extremism, but rather a shift in focus that has not been backed up with statistics on security threats. A higher proportion of referrals for right-wing ideology proceed in the system, than do those for supposed “Islamist” ideology, and yet the new Prevent will focus on “Islamism”, another contested term.
But drawing wider boundaries for “Islamist” ideology will only increase the proportion of ‘false positives’, and reinforce the discriminatory impact of Prevent on British Muslims.
According to Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms while countering terrorism, these recommendations exacerbate existing problems rather than mitigate them.
Is government striving to protect the far-right?
It seems evident that the government has not wished to adopt a definition of “hateful extremism” precisely because Khan and Rowley were advocating its use against right-wing speech that the government regards as legitimate, such as replacement theory, for example.
It is clear that Prevent has a chilling expression on free speech of Muslim citizens, which now includes a category of “pre-proscribed” organisations: Muslim civil society organisations deemed to be “extremist”, simply because they oppose Prevent. They are to be excluded from political engagement and any public funding.
In this context, Amnesty International’s recent report adds another concern: there is no oversight of Prevent. For example, it is not part of the remit of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation (as are the other three component parts of CONTEST, Protect, Pursue and Prepare).
The Shawcross Report did recommend setting up a complaints process within the CCE. However, this is not designed for those who are impacted by Prevent, or to attend to the urgent concerns about its harms to children and young people and the psychologically vulnerable.
Rather, its function is to report failures of implementation.
Now, thanks to Prevent’s consolidation within the Home Office, we have the government seeking to hold critics of a deeply counter-productive strategy to account – and failing this, to silence them, while quietly facilitating more space for the far-right and other emerging threats.
Nothing can be more urgent than calling for an end to Prevent. Intelligent, positive pushback in this area should be a cornerstone of halting Britain’s backwards slide in upholding the human rights that are part of our diverse communities’ many shared values.