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Comment: Why Liberal Democrats want Prevent Duty scrapped

24th Nov 2023
Comment: Why Liberal Democrats want Prevent Duty scrapped

Irina von Wiese

The United Kingdom has become the victim of a series of dangerous assaults. I am not talking about terrorist attacks. I am talking about a creeping and almost unnoticed, but no less dangerous, assault on our country’s democratic foundations, the rule of law, the protection of fundamental freedoms, and our reputation around the globe.

From the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Act 2022, which curtails the right to peaceful protest, to the Illegal Migration Act 2023, which effectively abolishes the right to claim asylum for the vast majority of refugees, the UK has moved further and further from human rights standards in other liberal democracies.

A recent threat by the now-former Home Secretary Suella Braverman to leave the European Convention on Human Rights shows how far the government is prepared to shift on this slippery slope.

Arguably, the starting point was the so-called ‘Prevent Duty’.

‘Prevent’ was first introduced by the Labour Government in 2003 and turned into a legal duty under Section 29 of the Counterterrorism and Security Act by the Conservative Government in 2015. It requires all public sector workers to have ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.’

In effect, it means that teachers, social workers, and doctors must refer pupils, parents, and patients they think may be at risk of radicalisation to the Prevent programme.

Once referred, these people are registered on a government database and, if deemed ‘at risk’, subject to further observation and ‘de-radicalisation’. They need not have committed any crime – the mere suspicion of radicalisation is enough to be caught in the system.

Time and again, it has been proven that Muslims are disproportionately targeted by Prevent. Home Office statistics for 2016–17 show that 60% of all referrals to Prevent were for “Islamist” concerns. Since then, new ‘Concern’ categories have made it harder to know exactly how many Muslims are being targeted, but it seems certain that under this government they will continue to face greater scrutiny.

A review of Prevent Duty by William Shawcross, published by the government earlier this year, called for Prevent to expand its boundaries to cover more ‘extremist Islamist ideology’, while narrowing the boundaries for ‘Extreme Right-Wing ideology’, despite 41% of all counter-terrorism arrests in 2021 being far-right suspects. The government has agreed to all of Shawcross’s recommendations.

This raises a number of serious legal and political concerns. First, because Prevent operates outside the criminal law system, the usual safeguards against excess state powers do not apply. Many Prevent’suspects’ are children; they can be interrogated without parental presence, and their data can be held and shared for years, even if there is no evidence of radicalisation.

Targeting one specific faith group in this way is likely to increase Islamophobia, polarisation and alienation in our society, quite apart from being traumatising and deeply humiliating for Muslim children.

Second, Prevent does not work. Some of the UK’s most deadly terror attacks have been committed by people who happened to be on the Prevent register but were neither de-radicalised nor stopped. On the contrary, there is growing evidence that the impact of Prevent is to stigmatise, isolate and alienate already vulnerable people.

Instead of opening a dialogue with the aim of countering extremism, Prevent breeds a sense of suspicion and betrayal. It is counterintuitive given that marginalisation and discrimination are well-known ‘push factors’ of radicalisation.

Third, Prevent undermines the rule of law and freedom of expression. By operating in the ‘pre-crime space’, Prevent need not prove the actual occurrence of ‘radicalisation’ or ‘extremism’ but can still have a punitive impact.

Young people may find themselves rejected from schools, colleges or jobs simply because their name appears on the Prevent database and therefore somehow in connection with terrorist activities. In addition, there is evidence that the fear of being caught up in Prevent leads to self-censorship and a feeling of disenfranchisement.

Oppression always starts with fear. Intentionally or unintentionally, Prevent enables the kind of muzzling through data surveillance that Western democracies rightly accuse China and Russia of.

Freedom of opinion goes hand in hand with freedom of religion, peaceful protest, and non-discrimination on the basis of race or faith. If we survey and penalise members of our community for what they may believe, we are questioning these freedoms in our own society. Without them, we are no safer; we are actually more at risk.

This is why Liberal Democrats are calling for an end to the harmful Prevent Duty. It should be replaced with a counter-extremism programme based on universal democratic values that all communities can adopt, which will safeguard those most susceptible to radicalisation while ensuring equal treatment for all.

Irina von Wiese,
Human Rights Lawyer, Councillor (Southwark Counil), former MEP, and
Lib Dems Candidate for
the 2024 London Assembly elections

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