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Labour to conduct its own review of UK's Prevent programme if elected

Diane Abbott tells MEE that current reviewer Lord Carlile is 'not credible', as Jeremy Corbyn condemns antisemitism at race and faith launch
Diane Abbott, speaking at Tuesday's Labour event, told MEE that Lord Carlile was not a credible figure to conduct an independent review into Prevent (AFP)
By Areeb Ullah in London

Britain's Labour Party has committed to conducting a proper review of the UK government's controversial Prevent programme if is elected into office in next month's elections, saying that a government-appointed lawyer leading a current review into the counter-extremism strategy was not suitable for the role.

Speaking at the launch of the party's Race and Faith manifesto in London on Tuesday, Diane Abbott, Labour's shadow home secretary, told Middle East Eye that Labour would support a review of Prevent, which has been widely criticised for years in Muslim communities amid complaints that it is discriminatory. 

"Prevent has a risk of alienating and vilifying the Muslim community. The government's review will look at that but I suspect we want to build on that," said Abbott.

Referring to Lord Carlile, who was appointed by the Home Office in August to appoint a supposedly independent review, Abbott said: "I don't think Lord Carlile is a credible figure to review Prevent because he has spoken in favour of it. We'll see how far he's got and have an expanded review." 

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. 

Abbott did not, however, comment on whether Labour's commitment to an expanded review would include looking at other elements of the current government's counter-extremism strategy, such as the Building a Stronger Britain Together programme of support for civil society organisations, which has also been criticised for "criminalising" Muslim communities.

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Labour's manifesto includes a pledge to consider alternatives to Prevent and to conduct a "wholesale review" of the strategy. The ruling Conservative Party has repeatedly backed the strategy, with ministers indicating that they believe the current review of Prevent will demonstrate its effectiveness.

Citizenship-stripping powers

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Abbott also criticised the government's use of citizenship-stripping powers against British nationals who travelled to territory in Syria controlled by the Islamic State (IS) group.

"We don't believe in using or taking away people's citizenship as some kind of punitive measure and we have to look at the legislation", Abbott told MEE at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham, London. 

She also questioned the government's decision to revoke the citizenship of Shamima Begum, a teenager from London who travelled to Syria aged 15 in 2016 and was subsequently deprived of her citizenship. 

"I'm not really sure that was well and truly legal - she's never been to Bangladesh," said Abbott.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn meanwhile used his speech at the launch of the race and faith manifesto to condemn antisemitism, after the UK's chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis criticised his handling of allegations of antisemitism inside the party. 

“Antisemitism in any form is vile and wrong. It is an evil within our society… there is no place for it and under a Labour government it will not be tolerated in any form whatsoever," said Corbyn. 

Corbyn went on to say that under a Labour government, children in the UK's schools would be taught about injustice and the role of the British Empire.

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Legal challenge against Carlile

Lord Carlile, a former counter-terrorism legislation watchdog who also reviewed Prevent in 2011, was appointed by the Home Office in August to conduct the review.

But his recent membership of the Prevent Oversight Board and past comments in support of the strategy have raised concerns about his ability to deliver a review that will be seen as genuinely independent by its critics.

Carlile's appointment is currently the subject of a legal challenge brought by Rights Watch UK, which described the proposed review as a "whitewash."

The UK holds parliamentary elections on 12 December.

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