UK watchdog calls for review of government counter-extremism policy

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Terrorism legislation watchdog says controversial Prevent programme lacks confidence and transparency and may be discriminatory

David Cameron (R) has made tackling non-violent extremism a key government policy (AFP)
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Wednesday 3 February 2016 21:21 UTC
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The UK’s terrorism legislation watchdog has called for an independent review of the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy, telling MPs that a lack of confidence in the controversial programme among British Muslims is “undeniable”.

David Anderson, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, said in evidence submitted to parliament’s home affairs committee that he had concerns that aspects of the programme were ineffective and being applied in an “insensitive or discriminatory manner”.

Anderson also said it was “perverse” that Prevent appeared to have become a more significant source of grievance among affected communities than recent extensions to arrest and detention powers and new laws allowing police to confiscate suspects’ passports.

“The lack of transparency in the operation of Prevent encourages rumour and mistrust to spread and to fester,” he wrote, citing particular concerns about the extension last year of Prevent into schools and other education and childcare settings, which now places a statutory duty on teachers to monitor children for radicalisation.

“Stories alleging the insensitive and discriminatory application of the Prevent duty in schools have since last summer become a media staple,” Anderson wrote.

“The Prevent programme is clearly suffering from a widespread problem of perception, particularly in relation to the statutory duty on schools and in relation to non-violent extremism.

“It is also possible – though I am not in a position to judge – that aspects of the programme are ineffective or being applied in an insensitive or discriminatory manner.”

But Anderson also said there organisations doing useful work within the framework of Prevent and said he believed that schools had a safeguarding role to play in addressing extremism.

“Those who propose the abolition of Prevent must surely acknowledge the need for at least some of what it attempts to do,” he wrote, citing the case of a man convicted last week of inciting support for the Islamic State (IS) group who took photos of his young children posing with a sword in front of a black Islamic flag commonly associated with IS.

“When a father can photograph his young sons holding a sword in front of an ISIS [IS] flag, as the Old Bailey heard in this month’s trial of Ibrahim Anderson, it would be perverse to deny that schools have a potentially useful safeguarding role,” he wrote.

Anderson said an independent review of Prevent could play a role in shaping a future counter-extremism policy “in which all can have confidence”, and said the model of independent review had “done much over the years to secure public acceptance of what is by the standards of similar countries a strong suite of counter-terrorism laws”.

Anderson’s call for a review was echoed by Raheel Mohammed, director of Maslaha, an organisation working to tackling inequalities affecting Muslim communities.

“I think it would be really interesting to do a review of Prevent right now in schools,” Mohammed told the home affairs committee on Tuesday.

“It wouldn’t take that long to interview a range of teachers across the country and say, 'What has worked? What hasn’t, and what needs to be improved?' I think that would be an efficient use of anybody’s money.”

Miqdaad Versi, the assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, also welcomed the call.

"This is a very important and positive development," Versi told Middle East Eye.

"We all are agreed on the overall goal of keping our country safe and secure and the idea is to find an effective way to do so. If during the process of an independent review Muslim communities are engaged and not ignored, if all options are considered and all concerns are listened to, I think there is a good chance that there is likely to be much stronger buy-in to any future strategy."

Bill Bolloten, a spokesperson for the Education Not Surveillance campaign group, told MEE that a review of the implementation of Prevent in schools would be welcomed by school leaders, teachers and parents.

"That review needs to be wide-ranging, it needs to consider how Prevent is being implemented in schools, but also the thinking and methodology that it is based on which is widely criticised by counterterrorism experts and researchers," he said.

"It would need to look at some of the adverse impacts that we are seeing leading to discrimination against pupils from Muslim backgrounds and also the fear that some pupils have about expressing their views about sensitive and controversial issues." 

Some working within Prevent also endorsed Anderson's remarks, with Prevent police officers in Northamptonshire calling them "a welcome, reasoned addition to the debate".

 

Prevent was introduced by the Labour government following the 2005 London bombings and has long been a source of concern and complaint in Muslim communities, where critics argue it is implemented in a discriminatory fashion and amounts to a form of surveillance.

In 2009, Shami Chakrabarti, the head of civil liberties organisation Liberty, called Channel, a counter-radicalisation programme within Prevent targeted at young people, “the biggest spying programme in Britain in modern times and an affront to civil liberties”.

The current Conservative government has focused increasingly on tackling non-violent extremism, which British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a speech last year was a “gateway” to violence.

Growing numbers of children and young people have been referred to Channel in the past few years, with Channel guidance to teachers and childcare workers suggesting that children should be referred "on a precautionary basis".

In a letter sent last week to the UN special rapporteur on human rights, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner and other international human rights monitors, Frances Webber, the vice chair of the Institute of Race Relations, said that the application of Prevent in schools was inconsistent with articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (COROC).

"The government should be encouraged to conduct a major review of the Prevent policy and its effects," Webber said.

"It is of vital importance that, in attempting to fight terrorism and safeguarding children from becoming caught up in it, the government does not employ methods which alienate the children they seek to protect, their parents or carers, and their communities. Prevent is not the way to win ‘hearts and minds’ in the fight against terrorism."

Rachel Robinson, the policy officer for the Liberty human rights group, said: “Prevent was misconceived from the outset and has proven itself counterproductive ever since.

"While everyone in society has a moral and ethical obligation to report suspected criminality, forcing our teachers to spy on their pupils risks undermining confidentiality, sowing mistrust and shutting down vital debate and discussion.”

In a statement to Middle East Eye, John Hayes, the minister for security, said that Prevent was working and constantly reviewed to "make sure it always most effectively tackles the risk of radicalisation".

"We have seen the devastating impact radicalisation can have on individuals, families and communities. Men, women and children are risking their lives and the lives of others by travelling to Syria to join the murderous group Daesh [an Arabic acronym for IS]. 

“That’s why we have trained more than 400,000 people across local authorities, health and education sectors to recognise the signs of radicalisation since 2011, and why we work with hundreds of faith groups and community organisations every day.

"The success in training and engaging these groups has led to over 4,000 people being referred to the Channel programme. Following a rigorous assessment by professionals, only a few hundred of the most vulnerable of these people have required support."