UK's Prevent counter-radicalisation policy 'badly flawed'
Following a nine-month examination of the programme known as Prevent, the Open Society Justice Initiative has recommended a major government rethink, particularly on its use in the education and health systems.
The US-based NGO studied 17 cases in which individuals had apparently fallen foul of the Prevent programme, or had been referred to a sister programme, called Channel, both of which are intended to prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism.
They included instances in which information was apparently gathered from Muslim primary school children without their parents’ consent; Prevent being used to bypass disciplinary processes during the attempted dismissal of a school dinner lady; a 17-year-old referred to the police by his college authorities because he had become more religious; and the cancellation of university conferences on Islamophobia.
It is the second time in three months that Prevent has faced criticisms following a major study. In July, another NGO, Rights Watch UK, concluded that the programme stifles free speech.
A United Nations special rapporteur has also warned that the programme may stifle healthy discussion and debate.
The Justice Initiative report, entitled Eroding Trust, says: “The current Prevent strategy suffers from multiple, mutually reinforcing structural flaws, the foreseeable consequence of which is a serious risk of human rights violations.
“These violations include, most obviously, violations of the right against discrimination, as well the right to freedom of expression, among other rights. Prevent’s structural flaws include the targeting of ‘pre-criminality’, ‘non-violent extremism’, and opposition to ‘British values’.” This leads the government to interfere in everyday lawful discourse, the report says.
“Furthermore, Prevent’s targeting of non-violent extremism and ‘indicators’ of risk of being drawn into terrorism lack a scientific basis. Indeed, the claim that non-violent extremism – including ‘radical’ or religious ideology – is the precursor to terrorism has been widely discredited by the British government itself, as well as numerous reputable scholars.”
The report says that there is cause for serious concern about the treatment of children who come into contact with the Prevent programme, arguing that the best interests of the child are not always regarded as a primary consideration.
It says that the statutory responsibility on public bodies to take steps to prevent radicalisation, introduced under the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, jeopardises health bodies’ responsibility of confidentiality to their patients.
Finally, the report says there are serious indications that Prevent is counter-productive. According to police figures, only around 20% of the people referred to in the Channel programme are subsequently assessed as being at risk of being drawn into violent extremism. The report concludes: “Being wrongly targeted under Prevent has led some Muslims to question their place in British society.”
Among the case studies in the report is that of a four-year-old who drew a picture of a cucumber while at nursery, and then told staff it was a “cuker-bum”. The staff, believing he was referring to something called a cooker bomb, told the child’s mother that he was being referred to Channel, and might be taken away from her.
In her panic, the mother says she instructed the boy to stop drawing pictures. She is quoted in the report as saying: “I’ve never felt not British. And this made me feel very, very, like they tried to make me feel like an outsider. We live here. I am born and bred here, not from anywhere else. I feel this Prevent duty is picking on you because you are Muslim, Asian, Pakistani, or whatever. I don’t feel it’s working at all. They need to look at it and change it.”
The Prevent programme was launched in 2003, but its existence went unacknowledged by the government for some years. Earlier this year the Guardian disclosed that one component of Prevent has been a covert propaganda campaign that aims to bring about “attitudinal and behavioural change” among young British Muslims.
Among the people interviewed as part of the study was Sir David Omand, who was the UK’s security and intelligence co-ordinator when the Prevent programme was launched. He said he would not have placed it on a statutory footing, on the grounds that “if you can persuade people of why it benefits everyone to do what you consider best, you will get a more positive response than you would if you simply instructed them on what you want them to do”.
Omand also stressed the need for public support for the programme: “The key issue is, do most people in the community accept [Prevent] as protective of their rights? If the community sees it as a problem, then you have a problem.”
The author of the report, Amrit Singh, said: “This report shows that Prevent is a serious problem, not only because it creates a systemic risk of human rights violations, but also because it is counterproductive. We urge the government as well as health and education bodies to heed the voices in this report and abandon the fundamentally flawed aspects of this strategy.”
The Justice Initiative is calling on the government to commission a public inquiry into the programme, publish whatever scientific data it possesses relating to extremism risk assessments, halt the targeting of non-violent extremism, and to place the health and education systems outside its remit.
It is also calling on the Children’s Commissioners for England, Wales and Scotland to assess the impact of Prevent on children.
Responding to the report, the security minister Ben Wallace said: “The threat from radicalisation, both Islamist and extreme rightwing, is very real. Helping to protect those vulnerable to radicalisation is challenging but absolutely necessary work. It is disappointing to see conclusions that risk damaging work that is essential to keeping vulnerable people safe from extremism and terrorism.
“The findings contain inaccuracies and lack balance. They take no account of the severe nature of the terrorism threat and nor do they offer any solutions for how we protect vulnerable individuals.”
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