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Prevent report: Trojan Horse hoax led to ‘abuses’ of children

'People's Review' finds UK government's counter-terrorism programme is discriminatory against Muslims and 'overwhelmingly directed at young people'
The report cited cases of primary school children being interviewed by counter-terrorism police as a result of Prevent referrals (AFP)

The extension of the Prevent programme into schools in the wake of the Trojan Horse affair has led to children being targeted in ways that amount to abuses of their human rights, a new report into the UK government's controversial counter-terrorism strategy has warned.

The People’s Review of Prevent, published on Tuesday, also cited new evidence suggesting that the Home Office is continuing to rely on profiling of Muslim communities in allocating Prevent resources, with almost three-quarters of Muslims in England and Wales living in “priority areas”.

'Prevent must be withdrawn, for the sake of our children and young people... Its purpose is ‘ideological’ and its withdrawal would have no detrimental consequence for national security'

- People’s Review of Prevent

The report describes Prevent as “ineffective, disproportionate, and discriminatory” against Muslims.

It suggests that the strategy is undermining values that it purports to promote such as tolerance and free expression and says that it has been “overwhelmingly directed at children and young people where it represents an abuse of their rights”.

It cites examples including an eight-year-old boy who it says was asked to recite the Quran during an interview by two counter-terrorism police, conducted without his parents’ knowledge following a Prevent referral by his school.

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“Prevent must be withdrawn, for the sake of our children and young people and for the sake of our democracy. Its purpose is ‘ideological’ and its withdrawal would have no detrimental consequence for national security,” the report concludes.

The People’s Review of Prevent was conducted by Layla Aitlhadj, the director of Prevent Watch, a campaign group that supports people affected by the strategy, and John Holmwood, an emeritus professor in sociology at the University of Nottingham, and is backed by human rights campaign groups and Muslim community organisations.

It describes itself as an “alternative” to the government’s own long-delayed and highly contentious review of Prevent by William Shawcross which is expected to be published in the next few weeks.

What is the Prevent Strategy?

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Prevent is a programme within the British government's counter-terrorism strategy that aims to “safeguard and support those vulnerable to radicalisation, to stop them from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”.

It was publicly launched in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings and was initially targeted squarely at Muslim communities, prompting continuing complaints of discrimination and concerns that the programme was being used to collect intelligence.

In 2011, Prevent's remit was expanded to cover all forms of extremism, defined by the government as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

In 2015, the government introduced the Prevent Duty which requires public sector workers including doctors, teachers and even nursery staff to have “due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism”.

A key element of Prevent is Channel, a programme that offers mentoring and support to people assessed to be at risk of becoming terrorists. Prevent referrals of some young children have proved contentious. 114 children under the age of 15 received Channel support in 2017/18.

Criticism of the Prevent Duty includes that it has had a “chilling effect” on free speech in classrooms and universities, and that it has turned public sector workers into informers who are expected to monitor pupils and patients for “signs of radicalisation”. Some critics have said that it may even be counter-productive.

Advocates argue that it is a form of safeguarding that has been effective in identifying and helping troubled individuals. They point to a growing number of far-right referrals as evidence that it is not discriminatory against Muslims.

In January 2019 the government bowed to pressure and announced that it would commission an independent review of Prevent. This was supposed to be completed by August 2020. After being forced to drop its first appointed reviewer, Lord Carlile, over his past advocacy for Prevent, it conceded that the review would be delayed.

In January 2021 it named William Shawcross as reviewer. Shawcross's appointment was also contentious and prompted many organisations to boycott the review. Further delays followed. Shawcross's review, calling for a renewed focus within Prevent on "the Islamist threat", was finally published in February 2023 - and immediately denounced by critics. 

The government committed to an independent review of Prevent in January 2019 in response to widespread criticism of the strategy. But its first reviewer, Alex Carlile, was forced to step down after a legal challenge over his past advocacy for Prevent.

Following Shawcross’s appointment last January, leading human rights and civil liberties organisations said they would boycott the review because he had “patently expressed Islamophobic views” in his past role as director of the Henry Jackson Society, a neoconservative think tank.

Shawcross has said that some of his past views have been “misrepresented or misinterpreted”. He says his review will ensure the UK has “the most effective strategy possible for preventing people from becoming terrorists”.

Prevent puts UK Muslims under pervasive suspicion. It must go
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Critics argue that his review should consider whether the strategy should be abolished altogether. But the People’s Review said his work was being fed by a “growing infrastructure of officials and consultancies with vested interests in the maintenance of Prevent”.

"We anticipate that William Shawcross will call for an extension of Prevent into new sectors and that he will call for a reinforcement of its central coordination by security services. Instead, we call for it to be withdrawn," Holmwood wrote in a column for Middle East Eye on Tuesday.

The report also criticised the UK’s equalities watchdog, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, for failing to investigate complaints of Islamophobia surrounding Prevent and concerns about the strategy raised by United Nations human rights rapporteurs.

In a foreward to the report, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN special rapporteur on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, said she hoped its publication would prompt "a broader and necessary conversation about the operation of Prevent in the UK".

The report, she said, "underscores the critical need to directly attend to deep concerns about discrimination, stigma, de facto criminalisation of individuals particularly children, privacy violations, intrusion on the freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs, and negative impact on the right to education, health, and participation in public affairs for targeted individuals, primarily Muslims."

Speaking at a launch event in east London, Aitlhadj called on unions and professional bodies representing teachers and other public sector workers tasked with making Prevent referrals, including those involved in social and mental health care, to recognise the harm being caused by the programme.

"We wanted to direct this report at the practitioners because they are the link between the people impacted and the people who are essentially carrying out the legal duty coming from the top," said Aitlhadj.

"They are also the people who are in the worst possible situation when it comes to their own professional ethics. They are the starting point and the breaking point for Prevent. We need the unions and the professional bodies to come on board."

Trojan Horse revelations

The launch of the report comes amid new revelations about the so-called Trojan Horse affair, a purported Islamist plot to take over schools in Birmingham in 2014 subsequently found to be based on a hoax letter, which led to the extension of Prevent into schools.

The Muslim Council of Britain last week called for a new inquiry into the way in which authorities handled the claims after a podcast broadcast by the New York Times revealed that Michael Gove, the then-education secretary, had ordered an inquiry into the plot despite being told by police that the letter was a hoax.

UK minister Gove launched 'Trojan Horse' inquiry despite being told letter was bogus
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The report points to the link between the Trojan Horse hoax and the introduction of the Prevent Duty in 2015, a statutory duty requiring public sector workers including teachers and doctors to have “due regard to prevent individuals being drawn into terrorism”.

The duty led to the extension of Prevent into schools and childcare settings such as nurseries, as well as to a requirement for schools to promote so-called “fundamental British values”, defined as “democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs”.

The report said the framing of values as "British" amounted to the creation of a "nationalist curriculum" that was "necessarily divisive" and hostile to ethnic and religious minorities.

The report cites examples of the impact of the Trojan Horse hoax within schools, including the testimony of a primary school teacher who said that storybooks retelling classic fairy tales in a way that reflected the diversity of different cultures and religions had been removed from her classroom.

When she queried their removal with the headteacher, she was told that staff could no longer use books or resources that pushed “an Islamic narrative”.

Asian staff at the school were also told that they should not sit together at lunch “because of Prevent and integration”, the teacher said.

Net of surveillance

The report said the Prevent duty had fundamentally undermined children’s rights by bringing them “under an extraordinary net of surveillance” which prioritised national security over their welfare.

It cited examples of young children interviewed by counter-terrorism police without their parents being informed, and without any of the legal safeguards or protections that would have been afforded to them in a criminal investigation.

Data on children collected from Prevent referrals was subsequently held in multiple databases accessible by police, local authorities and the Home Office.

'Under Prevent, children are interviewed by police, who are not bound by the usual code of conduct that police would need to adhere to when dealing with children'

- People's Review of Prevent

“Under Prevent, children are interviewed by police, who are not bound by the usual code of conduct that police would need to adhere to when dealing with children. This means they actually have less rights and safeguards than those afforded to suspected criminals,” said Aitlhadj and Holmwood. 

“Besides creating a surveillance society, this ensures that children are exposed to abuses associated with the violation of data rights.”

The review also uncovered new evidence about the extent of Prevent’s reach in Muslim communities.

It obtained a list from the Home Office of 44 Prevent Priority Areas, which receive additional funding and resources to deliver the programme, which revealed that 73 percent of Muslims in England and Wales live in those areas, compared with about one-third of the overall population.

The Home Office refused to explain how priority areas were chosen, citing national security reasons.

The review said: “Prevent relies on profiling through Prevent Priority Areas which target Muslim communities and poor communities disproportionately; it also takes the signs among young people of ordinary identity development and explorations in belonging as indications of ‘riskiness’, as well as sanctioning their activism.”

According to the latest Home Office figures, 4,915 people were referred to Prevent in England and Wales in the year to March 2021. Of these, 969 were under 15, and 1,398 were aged 15-20.

Referrals for concerns to do with Islamism accounted for 1,064 of total referrals, or 22 percent, though Muslims make up only about five percent of the population of England and Wales.

There were 1,229 referrals for far-right extremism, while 2,522 referrals were categorised as “mixed, unstable, or unclear”.

But the review said significant harms were caused by Prevent before a case reached the stage of a referral, in what amounted to “a disturbing government interest in the scrutiny of private life”.

“The volume of cases is not an indication of its need, but of its overbearing character and the operation of the political logic that drives it,” it said.

A Home Office spokesperson said that scrapping Prevent would "severely weaken the effectiveness of our world-class counter terrorism strategy".

He said the programme was implemented proportionately and defended its engagement with children and Muslim communities.

He said the main security threat to the UK came from groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda which self-identified as Muslim, while 52 percent of people convicted of terrorism offences in the UK are under 3o.

But he said that Prevent was also expected to focus on the risk posed by the far right in areas where that was identified to be a threat.

"Prevent works to protect, rather than undermine, fundamental human rights and British law. There is broad international consensus that preventative programmes are vital, and Prevent has been successful in stopping people from becoming terrorists," he said.

“It is always right that we continue to improve our approach. That is why an Independent Review led by William Shawcross is in progress to assess how effectively Prevent works, its impact, and what further can be done to protect people from radicalising influences.”

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