Prevent Watch

Pushing back against Prevent censorship in the context of Israel-Palestine

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New Prevent guidelines for responsible authorities will be severely tested by the fallout from the military actions in Israel-Palestine.

After the recently completed Independent Review of Prevent (Shawcross Review), the Home Office has given direct control of the implementation of the Prevent duty to the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE). The CCE no longer has an independent advisory role and has become the political arm of the Home Secretary.

The CCE has a political mandate to manage and develop new Prevent training for which there is no independent oversight. Despite being one of four component parts of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST, Prevent is not under the responsibility of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.

This is because Prevent is concerned with the pre-criminal space, that is with speech and activities that are lawful albeit judged by the Home Secretary to be “extreme” or – the almost equally vague – “in conflict with British values”. This pre-criminal space is prone to abuse especially when it comes to its lack of legal protections for children and young people.

As far as accountability is concerned, according to the Home Secretary, a new Standards and Compliance Unit will be functional in early 2024 to “process complaints from both the public and practitioners and take instruction from ministers to conduct investigations and publish findings” – but this unit will be under the directive of the CCE, and a “Prevent oversight board”, chaired by the Security Minister.

New categories of risk as catch-all for Muslims

In the latest guidelines, the Home Office has introduced new categories of risk for surveillance – for example, an individual can be deemed to be low-risk, medium risk, and high risk, and the guidance emphasises that a young person can move from low-risk to high-risk “very quickly”, implying that the former should be monitored, even if no Prevent referral is warranted.

Some of the low-risk behaviours include, expressing an interest in a new religion or politics, the expression of conservative or traditional religious values, support for political causes, and criticising government policies. The latter two are a particular concern in the current conflict in Israel-Palestine and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

We believe this will place a huge and unnecessary amount of scrutiny on young people, particularly students at universities and pupils in sixth form colleges and FE – since these are all behaviours associated with growing into adulthood.

It means that almost any young person who becomes involved in politics is to be scrutinised for potential “extremism”, even when getting involved in political action is part of democratic citizenship.

Prevent and the Israel-Palestine issue

While the debate of recent horrific events in Israel-Palestine will be necessary among students, the proscription of Hamas as a terrorist organisation against the backdrop of Hamas’ deeply miscalculated leverage of demonstrations to legitimise itself, makes support for the Palestinian people in the occupied territories at great risk of misinterpretation.

This plays easily into the hands of Islamophobes and stands to erode the purpose of necessary legal civil action, both as a means of expressing concern and even pain, and as a means of building support and finding solutions.

Pupils and students, Muslims in particular, in showing their support for Palestinians are now unduly forced to consider possible criminal sanction. If their statements are judged not to be illegal but “extreme”, they face the possibility of being referred to Prevent.

This is deeply counter-productive to progress on the issue, when students should feel safe to attend demonstrations and should be supported and encouraged to speak.

The Freedom of Speech Act 2023

In universities, the pressure toward criminal sanctions will be greater as a consequence of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act passed in May this year. This was designed to protect right-wing speech from being cancelled, but it can also also make Prevent unworkable in universities.

A recent letter to vice chancellors from the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, referred to the need under the Prevent duty for universities to monitor external speakers invited onto campus “to ensure that any such events do not provide a platform for illegal speech”.

Since universities have been seen to have a lower number of Prevent referrals, we expect more scrutiny of university political action, especially when it comes to events. This may materialise at first instance in the redrafting of student and staff agreements.

Pushing back against Prevent is an issue of civil liberties. It will involve staff and students ensuring that activism is protected by their institution’s commitment to ensuring free speech for all groups, but especially minority groups. This can be done by invoking the new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act.

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