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UK government announces independent review of Prevent strategy

Security minister says 'time is right' for review, but accuses critics of contentious counter-extremism strategy of 'distortions and spin'
Ben Wallace told parliament: "It will give an opportunity to those critics of Prevent to provide evidence" (Reuters)

The British government on Tuesday bowed to calls for an independent review of its controversial Prevent counter-extremism strategy.

Responding to proposed House of Lords amendments to the government’s counter-terrorism and border security bill, Security Minister Ben Wallace told members of parliament that the time was right to initiate a review into Prevent.

But, announcing the review, he also attacked critics of the strategy, accusing them of using "distortions and spin".

Civil liberties and human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have backed calls for an independent review of Prevent, which has long been dogged by complaints that it is discriminatory against Muslims.

"It will give an opportunity to those critics of Prevent to provide evidence," Wallace said.

"Time and time again you have to spend your time knocking down allegations without any evidence behind it. I look forward to them producing the evidence as part of the process."

The amendment commits the government to making arrangements for an independent review of Prevent within six months of the bill being passed.

Wallace said that the terms of reference of the review had not yet been discussed and that he welcomed suggestions as to who should conduct the review.

“Communities across the country have got behind the policy and are contributing to it because they want to, as we do, protect their young people from being groomed by extremists,” Wallace said.

'Chilling effect'

Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow security minister for the opposition Labour party, said that he welcomed the review.

He said there were concerns about a conflict between the intelligence gathering and safeguarding aspects of Prevent.

"There are aspects of our society and communities who have lost faith in the programme. We need a programme that everyone can have faith in. None of us want to see people having a life of violence and hatred driven by these ideologies," he said.

Since 2015, the Prevent Duty has placed a statutory obligation on public sector workers, including teachers and doctors, to "have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism".

In 2016, Rights Watch (UK) said that the extension of Prevent into schools was having a "chilling effect" on discussion in classrooms and said that the strategy had resulted in a “catalogue of serious violations” of the government's human rights obligations.

It said on Tuesday that the review needed to be "genuinely independent, robust and effective and have human rights at its heart".

“The need for a full and transparent independent review of Prevent has been clear from the outset," said Adriana Edmeades Jones, Legal and Policy Director of Rights Watch (UK).

"Any review must investigate the harm the roll-out of this strategy in schools has caused to human rights protection in the UK, including for children’s rights to education, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, privacy, and freedom from discrimination."

A report by the US-based Open Society Justice Initiative in the same year said that the strategy was counter-productive and had led some Muslims to question their place in British society.

Amrit Singh, the author of the Open Society Justice Initiative, told Middle East Eye: “We need more information, including on the terms of reference of the review. If this were a genuinely independent review of Prevent and its impact on human rights and communities, it would be something to be welcomed.”

Some Muslim organisations including the Muslim Council of Britain have also campaigned for Prevent, which is part of the UK’s broadercounter-terrorism strategy, to be independently reviewed.

In a statement, Harun Khan, Secretary General of the MCB welcomed the review.

“For far too long, the Prevent strategy has affected the lives of innocent families, been criticised for mainstreaming discrimination and lost the trust of communities around the UK.

"This latest step is crucial for all those who have campaigned for an independent review of Prevent. Everyone committed to developing a truly effective strategy for tackling terrorism understands that it must be transparent, accountable and hold the trust of communities."

Other Muslim advocacy groups have called for the strategy to be abolished.

In a "Muslim Manifesto" ahead of the 2017 general election, the Muslim advocacy organisation MEND called on politicians to commit to "repealing the current statutory Prevent duty, and replacing this with a more effective, evidence based and non-discriminatory counter-terrorism strategy by engaging with Muslim communities".

Wallace's announcement was welcomed by her party colleague Sayeeda Warsi, a former co-chair of the Conservative Party and a longstanding critic of Prevent, who said on Twitter it was "good news".

But Warsi said it was a shame that the government had been forced into the review by its defeat in the House of Lords over the counter-terrorism and border security bill last month.

The campaign group Cage, which has called for Prevent to be scrapped, said that Wallace's announcement should be viewed with caution by communities, activists and academics opposed to the policy.

Asim Qureshi, Cage's research director, said that by allowing the review the government had conceded that Prevent lacked trust and credibility.

But he said: "Rather than scrapping a fundamentally misguided policy that is not fit for purpose, a 'review' when no long-term impact assessments have been carried out into the harm that it caused, will lend it a new lease of life."

Advocates for Prevent argue that it addresses far-right and other forms of extremism, though the majority of referrals involve suspected Islamic extremism, Home Office figures show.

"Prevent is having significant success," Wallace said. "The work that has been done over the past two years clearly shows that Prevent is not about a particular group or ideology but is similar to other forms of safeguarding."

The number referred for far-right extremism increased to 36 percent in the year to March 2018, according to the latest Prevent referral figures, published last month.

But referrals related to suspected Islamic extremism accounted for 44 percent of referrals. About five percent of the British population identified as Muslim according to the last census in 2011.