This blog is about three main concerns about the Prevent strategy that are linked to civil liberties and human rights. It forms a summary of Prevent Watch’s recent presentation at Portcullis House.
How the Prevent strategy is discriminatory
The anti-Muslim nature of Prevent is not borne of a “perceived grievance” as has been suggested. Let us not forget that, at the start, Muslims were 50 times more likely to be referred to Prevent than non-Muslims, because Prevent was created for the Muslim community.
Initially, it was hoped that Prevent would be run by the Muslim community, which is why Prevent funding was pumped into Muslim organisations. But it soon became apparent that this was so they could, in effect, surveil their own community. Even when the number of far-right referrals rose, Muslims were still eight times more likely to be referred to Prevent.
We have continually asked how it is that we have a legal duty in the UK that continually breaches the Equalities Act and other long-standing principles and laws of non-discrimination.
This is especially urgent given that Prevent’s anti-Muslim bias – which manifests and facilitates both racism and Islamophobia – will be sharpened and worsened under the new recommendations from Shawcross, which include refocusing on “Islamist” extremism. This has already been confused with legal expressions of religiosity.
As examples, new case studies demonstrate that Prevent is inherently Islamophobic and it discriminates against Muslims. They include a 17-year-old who travelled on umrah (minor pilgrimage to Mecca) who was questioned under Prevent for doing so, and a professional woman who converted to Islam was doorstepped by Prevent officers and referred due to her belief choice. This shows that Prevent assumes a lens of counter-terrorism over religious belief and practice.
This is not a case of a “few bad apples”- as has been suggested – because it is too widespread and too frequent in our cases to be attributed to a misunderstanding of Prevent, or a poor instigation of it. A case reported last year by the Guardian of a man who had returned from pilgrimage and had grown a beard only to be reported by his own colleagues, who were counter-terrorism officers, illustrates that those who are at the centre of Prevent’s larger apparatus will use it against normative Islamic belief.
The ‘chilling’ effect on free speech
Perhaps the most noticeable and widely felt harm of Prevent has been its impact on freedom of speech. This has been particularly evident at present when solidarity with Palestinians has been the cause of many Prevent interventions – but also the cause of fear especially among parents.
This creates a self-silencing effect, where children are instructed not to partake in discussions at school, or young people are cautioned about airing their views, and even university chancellors by linking glorifying terrorism/Hamas with Palestinian activism.
This again shows that Prevent is incoherent because Hamas is a proscribed organisation, so any support of it would be a criminal offence, with no need for Prevent.
But this vague and confusing situation combines with the erosion of trust in authorities caused by Prevent, to have a silencing effect. This has been and will be counterproductive for young people as they move through society as adults.
One of our cases features a young Palestinian boy who is autistic,and who reacted inappropriately to a video that was shown by a teacher. One might question why the newsclip in question was shown at this time, but that is another issue.
The teachers referred him immediately to Prevent, without consulting his parents. As soon as the parents intervened, the teachers immediately admitted it had been disproportionate, and apologised, saying that the teachers had been panicked by the guidance sent by the local authority.
These are all examples of how Prevent infringes and even violates principles of free speech, association and belief – even in children, but especially in Muslim children.
Criticism and warnings are ignored
When introducing the Prevent Duty as an obligation on public authorities as part of its revised Counter Extremism Strategy in 2015, the government declared that it sought to cooperate with international bodies including the UN.
Since then, a number of UN rapporteurs have expressed serious concerns about the impact of Prevent on civil liberties and human rights deriving from the way in which it operated in the pre-criminal space to constrain activities and the expression of ideas that are not unlawful.
Recently, the government has not responded to these concerns and they formed no part of William Shawcross’s recent Independent Review of Prevent. In fact, they were not even acknowledged in its recommendations.
Shawcross has recommended that Prevent “refocus” on “Islamist extremism”, and that it treat individuals not as “vulnerable” but as “susceptible”. When 50% of Prevent referrals are children, the new Prevent presents a startling intensification and centralisation of the above actions and harms.
According 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.
Children’s rights are being shut down
Prevent statistics group individuals as under 20, which is unhelpful when trying to figure out more details about ages. But we know that 60-70% of Prevent referrals occur in this age group every year. Based on last year’s calculations, 6 under 14s would be referred to Prevent every school day.
Great harms also come to children from the collection of their data, something that has been flagged by the UN. The education sector is the source of one-third of all referrals, where data is collected.
An individual then has their data available to three separate databases:
- A referral is recorded in a child’s safeguarding file, which follows them through schooling. We have cases to show this, including of a 16-year-old who had his sixth form offer of a place withdrawn based on a Prevent referral in secondary school, even when it wasn’t pursued.
- Because Prevent is part of counter-terrorism, data is also stored on up to ten police databases, for at least six years, upon review, and up to 100 years under loopholes facilitated by it being under the terrorism category. This places a child alongside convicted criminals.
- Lastly, Prevent referral data is also held by social services – thanks to the safeguarding misnomer under which the Prevent duty was shanked into education. This data may be held for 25 years after an individual’s 18th birthday (that is, until they are 43 yrs old).
- In addition, Prevent referrals may be shared with an unknown number of agencies. Referrals related to “preventing terrorism” may appear at tertiary education interviews, job interviews, even at border control.
Less rights than suspected criminals?
Many people who support Prevent claim that because it sits in the pre-criminal space and the interaction does not form part of a criminal record, Prevent does not criminalise children.
But an interaction with Prevent is an interaction with counter-terrorism. The assumptions of criminality are certainly there – and yet the protections for children are not. In fact, children have less rights in a Prevent interview than they do if they are suspected of an actual crime.
Police are present in the interview, as is a Prevent officer (who is part of counter-terrorism). A social worker may also be present. Sometimes, children have been questioned without their parents or guardians present.
Because of the fear factor, teachers have been known to relinquish professional responsibility and even ethics when it comes to Prevent interviews, leaving children in the room at mercy of individuals who are in effect part of the national security apparatus.
For these reasons, there can be no denying that Prevent infringes on numerous civil liberties. If we are to push back against this backwards slide that is part of a broader nationalist trend in the UK, a good place to start would be to call for the removal of Prevent, first from education and then health.
- How the Prevent strategy will target a child, but ignore the cause (Expert View, 2023)
- The Justice Gap: Children’s rights and counter-extremism (News, 2023)
- The People’s Review of Prevent (Report, 2022)