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UK government faces calls for review into 'effectiveness' of Prevent

House of Lords to consider proposal requiring government to appoint reviewer to assess impact of counter-terrorism strategy on universities
The House of Lords is scheduled to debate the amendment on Monday (AFP)

The British government on Monday faced fresh calls to appoint an independent reviewer to assess the "effectiveness" of its controversial Prevent counter-terrorism strategy in universities amid concerns that it undermines free speech and is discriminatory against Muslims.

A suggested amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill proposed in the House of Lords, the upper house of the British parliament, called for the government to appoint a reviewer "to conduct an independent review of the operation and effectiveness of the Prevent strategy in relevant higher education institutions".

The reviewer would assess "the operation and effectiveness of the Prevent strategy" in higher education settings, as well as the interaction between Prevent and other legal duties such as promoting freedom of speech, and the quality of training provided to staff.

The reviewer would also have access to sensitive information on the same basis as the UK's independent reviewer of terrorism legislation.

The amendment was proposed by Lord Dubs, a Labour peer, and backed by Liberty and Rights Watch (UK), which are both civil liberties advocacy groups, which also urged peers to call for a review of the operation of the wider strategy, which also affects educational and childcare settings including schools and nurseries.

“This amendment mandates a much needed independent review of Prevent as applied in higher education institutions, though the concerns raised in today’s debate are equally relevant, if not magnified, when this heavy handed counter-terrorism strategy is applied in schools and childcare settings," Adriana Edmeades, Legal and Policy Director of Rights Watch (UK), told Middle East Eye.

"It is now beyond doubt that Prevent is a highly controversial policy, and by evading transparency and refusing to address well-founded criticism, the government loses the trust of the communities it seeks to protect. In the interests of an effective, evidence-based, and rights-driven counter-terrorism policy, it is imperative that Prevent is subject to an urgent independent review."

'The Government must launch an independent review of Prevent as a crucial first step towards rebuilding trust damaged by its heavy-handed and insensitive approach'

- Rachel Robinson, Liberty

Rachel Robinson, policy officer for Liberty, said: “Tackling the terror threat is crucially important – which is exactly why the government cannot keep turning a blind eye to the serious flaws in Prevent.

“The fact is this strategy is broadly seen as discriminatory, counter-productive and unjust – with concerns raised by everyone from government advisers, cross-party politicians, teaching unions and religious groups to families and young people affected by the trauma of misguided referrals.

“No strategy can protect and engage young people without trust. The Government must launch an independent review of Prevent as a crucial first step towards rebuilding trust damaged by its heavy-handed and insensitive approach.”

Speaking during Monday's debate, Lord Dubs said: "I am not arguing it [Prevent] should be scrapped, I am arguing we should know more about it and [the government's] had long enough now for a proper review to take place. The communities most affected are sensitive to this and the universities are worried about how to implement the strategy."

Also speaking in support of the amendment, Baroness Hamwee, a Liberal Democrat peer, recalled a meeting with Maina Kiai, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, who last year raised concerns about the implementation of Prevent.

"It’s quite a facer [a blow to the face] to be in a meeting with someone in that position and being told that your country is not behaving quite as it should be. We are so used to criticising other countries in human rights areas," said Baroness Hamwee.

"Universities seem to me to be precisely where views which are not illegal should not just be challenged but where there should be the opportunity for those that are confused, interested, to hear, to listen, to join in the debate."

But Lord Young, a government minister, said Prevent was working and making a "positive difference".

"We can’t ignore the increasing threat to the UK from terrorism. We simply cannot wait for attacks to happen. We can’t stand by while vulnerable individuals are targeted and drawn into terrorism so we must have a strong and robust strategy to prevent this," said Lord Young.

"Prevent is being implemented effectively and pragmatically in the tiger education sector and we want to maintain that momentum."

The amendment was withdrawn following the short debate but Lord Dubs said he believed parliament would return to the issue and said he believed the government would have to agree to an independent review sooner or later.

"There's too much at stake, it's too contentious and it's not as easy a situation as the minister suggested. The concerns are too widespread."

Calls for an independent review of Prevent follow the introduction in 2015 of the Prevent Duty, which requires public sector workers, including doctors, teachers and university staff, to "have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism".

The duty has proved contentious in universities, with the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU), which represent more than 100,000 university staff, leading a campaign of opposition to the duty on the grounds that it is incompatible with freedom of speech and discriminates against Muslim students.

Last month, MEE reported how universities were being advised to "risk-assess and manage" Palestinian activism and other "contentious topics" on campus in order to demonstrate their compliance with the Prevent Duty.

The training material also warned university staff that boycotting Prevent was illegal.

Concerns about Prevent have been repeatedly raised by parliamentary committees and international human rights watchdogs, while David Anderson, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation who stepped down last month, also called for an independent review of the strategy.

The strategy has also been mired in controversy surrounding the definition of extremism, with Home Secretary Amber Rudd earlier this month that the government had still not settled on a "clear legal definition" almost two years since pledging to deliver a new counter-extremism strategy.

However, the government is understood to be preparing to roll out a revamped and extended version of the strategy within days. According to a report in the Sunday Times newspaper, the number of people working on Prevent will double by 2020, with Prevent officers appointed to schools and colleges.

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