Suspend Prevent during independent review

22nd Feb 2019
Suspend Prevent during independent review

(Photo: UK Parliament/Creative Commons)

A House of Lords defeat is hardly the right way for a Government to devise policy. But that was exactly what happened when an independent review of the controversial Prevent programme was added to the latest Counter-Terrorism Bill as an amendment.

In choosing not to challenge the Lords and accept the amendment in the Commons, Security Minister, Ben Wallace, offered little confidence for those seeking a truly independent inquiry, indicating the Government had been reluctantly forced into finally agreeing to what so many have been calling for years. Rather disdainfully, he pointed out that a review was in “any event” due to be carried out next year under the original 2015 legislation that placed highly contentious statutory duties upon public sector workers.

The Lords’ amendment to the new Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill places a duty on the Home Secretary to establish “an independent review of ‘the Government strategy for supporting people vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism’ (known as Prevent)”.

This is required within 6 months of new legislation gaining Royal Assent, which has now happened. The Home Secretary would then be “required to lay before Parliament a report of the review and the Government’s response within 18 months of Royal Assent,” which effectively only allows a year for it to be carried out. No terms of reference have yet been set out nor who will conduct the independent inquiry.

Prevent was first developed under Labour over15 years ago as part of a misguided Contest counter-terrorism strategy with the aim of preventing the radicalisation of individuals to terrorism. Despite repeated warnings that the programme was  both severely flawed and counterproductive, it has ballooned out of all proportion appearing to target the whole Muslim community as potential extremists from the cradle to grave.

In 2015, the Prevent policy became a legal duty for public sector institutions, including doctor and teachers. Not only have human rights organisations as well as studies by academics and Muslim advocacy groups been ignored but also the concerns voiced by MPs and senior officials.

Despite years of expert-led campaigning for the programme to be reformed, the Government is giving the impression that the review will be little more than  PR exercise aimed at silencing opponents rather than investigating the inherent problems and alienation it causes.

Wallace let it be known that rather than the policy being held to account, he wanted the inquiry to hold critics to account as he asked for their evidence while in the same breath, dismissing their views as “distortions and spin”. In a prejudicial remark, he complained in advance that “time and time again you have to spend your time knocking down allegations without any evidence behind it.”

In the wake of the 2017 Manchester Arena terrorist bombing, Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, commissioned a report into Prevent after criticising the policy. He said that there has been a “feeling of disengagement because of the way it goes about its work” and that it would “only succeed if there’s true community buy-in at the grassroots level.”

But when his review reported back a year later, it found that there was a ‘genuine fear’ that Prevent was targeting Muslims and blamed a lack of information. The terms of reference were directed to ‘consider how to tackle hateful extremism, social exclusion and radicalisation across Greater Manchester’  rather than review Prevent though it was to also ‘evaluate how Prevent operates.’

What is vital is that the terms of reference of the inquiry are set clearly and cover the policy itself not just at how public sector workers are complying with their statutory duties and especially not as an exercise of spin.

Muslims, who have been the main targets, have repeatedly spelt out they have little or no confidence in Prevent and made known concerns that the policy is more to do with gathering intelligence than supporting communities. In 2011, the Conservative-led Government carried out a review of Prevent after admitting that it was “flawed” but no changes were made to the legal framework.

But it was hardly considered to be ‘independent’ of the Government as it was carried out by the Government’s own reviewer of terrorism legislation at the time Lord Carlile.

There is not only the question about who will be the impartial chair of the inquiry but who will also be among its panel. Too often in the past, it has been of the Government’s choosing.

It certainly needs to be as broadly-based as possible and include genuine Muslim community representatives and not just those favoured and often funded by the Government to act as their virtual mouthpiece.

Both the terms and the composition of who is carrying it out will give further clues whether there is any sincerity in going ahead with the review. Like the policy itself, it cannot be a top-down effort. As a first step, it would be seen as an honest endeavour if Prevent was temporarily suspended until at least it reported its findings.

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