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UK Home Office challenged over independence of Prevent review

Rights group says details of emails and meetings between Home Office officials and William Shawcross's team suggest significant 'interference' in review process
Priti Patel asked to see a draft copy of the Shawcross report last April, Home Office emails show (AFP)

The UK’s Home Office is facing fresh questions over the credibility and lawfulness of a long-delayed review of its contentious Prevent counter-terrorism strategy after being challenged by a human rights advocacy group over the independence of the process.

Rights and Security International (RSI) said on Monday it had written to the Home Office to raise its concerns that the department may have “interfered significantly” in a draft report by reviewer William Shawcross.

Caroline Ott, a solicitor at Leigh Day that is representing RSI, said: “Our client has raised serious concerns about the lawfulness of the ongoing independent review of Prevent and considers that the nature of the interactions between the Home Secretary and the independent reviewer may compromise the review’s ‘independence’.”

RSI published details of redacted emails obtained from the Home Office through a freedom of information request in which members of the review team discussed dealing with “comments and requests” from department officials.

The emails also reveal that then-Home Secretary Priti Patel asked to see a draft of the report in April last year because, according to an email from an official to the review team, she was coming under “significant pressure” from the Home Affairs Select Committee over delays to its completion.

Patel and other senior Home Office officials met with Shawcross or members of his team 13 times between February 2021 and August 2022, according to information disclosed by the Home Office.

'Deeply alarming'

The executive director of RSI Sarah St Vincent said: “Parliament, by law, required an independent review of Prevent. If the government has shaped the content, then the review is not independent, and the public and Parliament should not be told that it is.

“This is a fundamental issue of good governance, and the idea that the UK government might be willing to put the label of ‘independence’ on a report in which it has interfered behind closed doors is Orwellian and deeply alarming.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “These concerns are unwarranted and we will be responding directly to this letter in due course.”

The government commissioned the Prevent review in January 2019 after agreeing to a House of Lords amendment to a parliamentary bill that stipulated that the review should be independent.

What is the Prevent Strategy?

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Prevent is a strand of 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.

It was originally due to have been completed by August 2020, but the government was forced to drop its original choice of a reviewer, Lord Carlile, following a legal challenge from RSI (then known as Rights Watch (UK)) over Carlile’s past advocacy for Prevent.

Shawcross’s appointment in January 2021 was also contentious, with many human rights groups and Muslim organisations boycotting the review.

His report was due to be presented to parliament by the end of 2021, but no date for publication has been announced.

Leaks of the draft report have suggested Shawcross will call for a renewed focus within Prevent on Islamist extremism.

Last month, it was reported that the Home Office, currently headed by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, was seeking to redact the names of a number of individuals and groups named in the report.

RSI said it written to Braverman and Shawcross to request copies of all drafts of the report sent to the Home Office and all comments returned to the review team.

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